The rumba radio, the DJ… and 110,000 albums in search of a loud new home | Music

On a hill an hour from Madrid, not far from the sepulchral splendor of the Escorial monastery, with its royal tombs, imperial maps and sacred relics, is another treasure, a little less austere.

The Gladys Palmera Collection, housed in a sprawling tropical-hued complex filled with posters of 1950s Mexican films and prowled by eerie decorative monkeys and jaguars, is the largest private archive of Latin American music in the world.

In its many niches and cabinets and on its many shelves are 60,000 records, 50,000 CDs and countless cassettes and digital audio tapes, offering everything from bolero to garage rock, and salsa to reggaetón.

After a decade near the Spanish capital, however, the collection could cross the Atlantic as the woman who has spent the last 30 years amassing it plans to donate her wealth to a dignified – and preferably loud – new home. .

Archive highlights include a rare green vinyl by Cuban musician Arsenio Rodríguez, a pink and silver sequined dress worn by Afro-Cuban superstar Celia Cruz and a 1957 recording by James Dean performing like a good beatnik of coffee and playing congas.

The complex is also home to an online radio network that plays classic, contemporary and rare tracks, an extensive online catalog and a brand new record label.

Although the collection now encompasses photos, posters, leaflets, songbooks, magazines, books and personal memorabilia, it is still based on a woman’s love for the songs she heard in his childhood.

One of over 60,000 records in the Gladys Palmera collection. Photography: Denis Doyle/The Observer

Alejandra Fierro Eleta, Spanish-Panamanian radio host, grew up in Madrid listening to the records of Toña la Negra, Elvira Ríos, Cuco Valoy, Cuco Sánchez, Lucho Gatica and Amalia Mendoza that her father brought back from his business trips in Latin America. “I was listening to all this music from the crib,” says Fierro. “I started using his records when I was little.”

By age 12, she had also developed a passion for ham radio and talking to people over the airwaves.

“There came a day when I didn’t know what to do with my life and I thought, ‘Well, what do you like?’, and I thought of Cuban music and radio amateur. So I thought I would like a radio show.

But her dad had a stipulation: “When I told my dad I was going to be on the radio, he said, ‘Not with my name, you’re not.'”

Seeking a suitable alter ego, Fierro decided to use the name Gladys – a family joke with one of his brothers – and felt that Palmera (palm tree) would serve as a suitably tropical surname.

“It came to me in a second and since then I’ve been Gladys Palmera.”

After starting his radio career on a small station near Madrid, Fierro worked for a national channel before creating Radio Gladys Palmera in 1999 to broadcast Latin music in Barcelona and later in Madrid and Valencia. A decade later, she had swapped FM for the Internet and was learning more about collecting and curating rare vinyl.

Fierro and his small team scoured the Internet and record fairs to build an archive of purchases from over 40 countries, including several pre-existing collections.

A portrait of graphic designer Izzy Sanabria from the archives, along with some of the many salsa and mambo album covers he has designed.
A portrait of graphic designer Izzy Sanabria from the archives, along with some of the many salsa and mambo album covers he has designed. Photography: Denis Doyle / The Observer

His colleague José Arteaga once tried to calculate how long it would take to listen to the entire archive.

“I calculated that it would take 62 years to listen to everything,” he says. “But that was a while ago. It would be maybe 80 years now.

But, despite the archive’s size, Fierro says it’s “not about quantity — it’s about very, very high quality.”

Late last year, the collection launched its label with the release, on 10-inch vinyl, of two songs from the late 1960s by the Guantanamo Boys. It will be followed over the next few months by a contemporary release, a compilation of 60s and 70s music from New York and the Caribbean, and some remixes.

Fierro also has an eye for the long term. In 2009, she staged La Escuelita del Ritmo (The Little School of Rhythm) in Portobelo, a Panamanian city that reminded her of the fictional Macondo by Gabriel García Márquez.

The free academy helps local children develop their musical, artistic and performance skills while learning to play instruments and build and decorate cajones, or drum boxes. Residency projects for DJs and production experts are also in preparation.

Three decades and countless acquisitions later, Fierro has its own future to consider. She created the Gladys Palmera Foundation to ensure the survival of the collection and its ancillary enterprises, and the search for a permanent home for the archive – possibly in the United States – began.

“I’m trying to find space for all of this because I’m 63 and my health is not good,” she says. “It’s a temple of music and I want to give it my all.”

There will inevitably be conditions. Fierro wants the collection to stay outside the cold, anonymous confines of a traditional museum. Wherever it ends up, it should be “a lively place with a multi-purpose space for concerts and exhibitions”.

She ignores the idea that the collection is only the culmination of decades of a very personal passion.

“It’s not an obsession – although it may seem so,” she says. “What I aim for here is excellence; build the best collection ever and do it right. It’s not about me and my life – I don’t care – it’s about showing all that work here. You have to share it. »