Photos: Courtesy of Alejandra Fierro
At age 60, Alejandra Fierro Eleta continues to transform into Gladys Palmera, day after day. With an intense and challenging sort of musical metamorphosis, over time both Alejandra and Gladys are becoming music.
“My brother Guillermo, who accompanied my father a lot to Venezuela, always used to joke that all the secretaries there were called Gladys.” And the day Alejandra decided to begin working seriously in radio, she had to promise her father that her surnames would not appear. She saw herself as ‘Gladys,’ and she says that she had a vision of the word ‘Palmera’ in her mind, representing the world of the Americas, which had produced the music that would inspire her on the other side of the Atlantic.
That’s how Alejandra, of Spanish and Panamanian descent, became a radiowoman under the pseudonym of Gladys Palmera. At age 26, she founded her Sabrosura program on a radio station in Pozuelo de Alarcón, west of Madrid, at a time when ballads and pop music were what was primarily listened to in Spain.
Then she went to Barcelona and, in 1999, managed to get 14 hours on the air through the 96.6 FM radio station. Using albums acquired here and there, she played both “historic” and current music, whether folkloric or more urban songs from Mexico, Havana, or New York.
On that radio station, where Alejandra/Gladys played “everything,” she came to have 30 programs specializing in Latin music, with many collaborators. “I didn’t want to make a radio show where I’d take calls from listeners. I was interested in going deeper into that music, spreading it.” At that point Barcelona was the epicenter of that diffusion, as new batches of Latin American migrants had arrived —many of them to work on construction for the 1992 Olympics— encouraging Barcelona and its surroundings to dance.
Internet came onto the scene just when Alejandra was feeling the need to put forth her best effort to continue collecting the music that interested her and to spread it all over the world. She had already become a full-blown collector, one of the few women collectors in the world.
“Radio Gladys Palmera” originated as an online-only oasis for music lovers — a project that was already well-known among musicians and connoisseurs of Latin rhythms and melodies.
In her life, Alejandra has managed to enjoy two freedoms that very few are able to. The first was to convert a hobby —in her case, radio and music— into a lifestyle. The second was to dedicate her financial resources, derived from a family inheritance, to creating a new patrimony comprised of musical notes, tumbao, and the memories and feelings of many peoples: the largest existing collection of Latin music, and Cuban music in particular.
Her collection includes some 60,000 vinyl records, approximately 35,000 CDs, and about 3,500 photos, as well as posters, songbooks, specialized magazines, objects related to musicians and record labels, sheet music, letters, and other documents.
The Gladys Palmera Collection contains treasures as diverse as the discography of the New York label Fania, an unabated catalogue of Latin divas, and a very important collection of African and non-Spanish-speaking Caribbean music.
As for Cuban music, she doesn’t distinguish between music created by Cubans on or off the island, or before or after 1959. And that makes her collection unique.
All this wealth is physically located within the greenery of San Lorenzo del Escorial, north of Madrid, in a house with light flooding the interior, decorated in white and with accents of joy and celebration represented in pieces of Caribbean craftsmanship or art naïf, where colorful and kitsch posters from films, musical shows, and tours from those prodigious decades of Latin music, the ‘40s and ‘50s.
The collection has been organized with modern digitization and cataloging techniques so that it appears on the web. Those who need to research or are curious about this collection can review technical data, lists of topics included in the albums, and photos of the covers and vinyl plates. Many musicians, producers, and scholars have benefitted from these sources for years, to compose their repertoires, devise remixes, or plan albums.
What Alejandra Fierro Eleta has pursued above all, as truly transcendent collectors do, is to serve. Few Cubans still know that we have in her an exquisite safe-guarder of part of our culture—keeping it from being forgotten through carelessness or ignorance.
“I’ve always been interested in Cuban music, for its romantic side and for its rhythm. The tear-jerking boleros have seemed to me to be the most authentic,” she comments, explaining her vocation. But when Alejandra is asked why among all Latin music she prefers Cuban music, she surprises with an unexpected adjective: because it’s “elegant.”
RARITIES IN THE GLADYS PALMERA COLLECTION
- The green vinyl album by Arsenio Rodríguez, a curious example of the materials used after World War II.
- The uncut live recording from the Manhattan Town Hall with Cuban musician Alberto Socarrás, pioneer of Latin music in the United States.
- The first productions of the Cuban label Panart, recorded around 1942.
- The first Chano Pozo albums, the only ones recorded in Cuba and with limited circulation.
- The demo tape of the Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite by Chico O’Farrill with Charlie Parker, a key piece in Latin jazz.
- Eddie Palmieri’s first recording, at age 14.
- The 78 rpm albums recorded by Bola de Nieve in New York, Mexico, Argentina, and Spain.
- Original advertising recordings by Celia Cruz and Benny Moré for beverage brands.
- The lost recording of Cheo Feliciano and Cuban pianist Lino Frías.
- Héctor Lavoe’s first recording of with La Newyorker.
- Tito Puente’s non-commercial recordings for the North American Social Security.
- The first album by La Lupe, when she was part of Los Tropicuba.