by Zac Salem
Note: Zac Salem came across a post on this blog from the beginning of this year highlighting very rare late 1920s posters advertising Mexican entertainment at theaters in the Plaza area of downtown Los Angeles. He contacted the Homestead to tell us of his long-standing interest in Mexican music during that period and before and was asked if he wanted to contribute a post based on his research. We are excited to be able to present Zac’s work as, his words, “a forgotten page of Los Angeles’ musical history.”
The group Los Cancioneros Acosta (The Acosta Singers) was an organization of Mexican-American singers, musicians, and songwriters living in the Los Angeles area directed and represented by Dionisio Acosta. They are among the first Mexican groups resident in the United States to make large numbers of phonograph recordings, encompassing all of the major labels of the day. Each recording featured from two to five singers, usually backed by a small instrumental ensemble.
Some recordings were made in Los Angeles in the 1923-1926 period under the name Dúo Acosta, but by the later 1920s the name Cancioneros Acosta was often used to identify the group. The musical directors of the group, according to their business letterhead, were Edgardo A. Acosta and pianist Francisco Camacho Vega. At its height the group consisted of more than twenty singers and instrumentalists, who, in varying combinations, made many popular phonograph records that sold well in Mexican communities on the West Coast as well as in México.
In the late 1920s, Dionisio Acosta was impresario of the Teatro Principal, located at 423 North Main Street in Los Angeles. In the course of providing entertainment by and for the Mexican community, Acosta assembled a troupe of talented actors, comedians, singers, and musicians, largely recruited from the surrounding Mexican immigrant population, which had grown significantly in the years following the Mexican Revolution.
As an adjunct to his theatrical activities, Acosta contracted with several major American record labels, including Victor, Columbia, Okeh, Brunswick, and Vocalion to make Spanish language vocal recordings featuring his group of singers and musicians. That he was successful in this enterprise is testified to by the large numbers of these records that hit the market in the 1927-1932 period.
Their repertory focused on the immensely popular body of Mexican vernacular vocal music current in the 1920s, as well as original compositions including some topical ballads (corridos) and humorous songs. Absent from their recordings are foreign-influenced songs that would soon gain popularity in México, such as the Cuban bolero, and American slow fox-trot. Themes of nostalgia, humor, romance, and patriotic nationalism pervade these recordings, and undoubtedly contributed to their popularity amongst the sometimes marginalized expatriate population.
A strong outlet for these records was the music store owned by Mauricio Calderón, “Repertorio Musical Méxicano” at 408 North Main Street in Los Angeles. Calderon’s store label, stamped on many of the records sold by it, read Patrocine Ud. El Comercio De Sus Paisanos (“Patronize The Businesses Of Your Countrymen”) and the store catalog proudly proclaimed it to be La Unica Casa Mexicana De Música Mexicana Para Los Mexicanos (“The Only Mexican Music Store, Purveyor of Mexican Music To The Mexican People”).
It appears that prior to the availability of these locally produced recordings by the “Cancioneros Acosta” in the mid 1920s, music houses such as Calderon’s relied heavily on importations from the major record labels which had been recording widely in Mexico and Latin America since the early 1900s.
A few Mexican duets were recorded in Los Angeles as early as 1923, including “Moré-Rubí” by performers with the stage names of Tempranita Beltri and Alfonso Mateos. Some of the earliest recordings bearing the name Dúo Acosta were actually made by studio singers in New York City such as José Moriche, a native of Spain, and Victor J. Rosales, who hailed from Colombia. The two recorded a series of Mexican corridos under the Dúo Acosta moniker in January 1924.
These were, in all probability, recordings “made to order” for a Mexican clientele in the absence of locally produced recordings by Los Angeles artists. The formation of the west coast Acosta group around 1925 was to change that by providing recordings made by popular local entertainers from the city’s Mexican colony.
The duo Gómez y Fierro, comprised of Rafael Goméz and Emeterio Fierro, appear to be among the earliest and most long-standing members of the Acosta group. They recorded as early as 1925 for the Sunset label in Los Angeles and as late as 1933 for the major label, Brunswick / Vocalion.
The order of their names varies from session to session, with the pair sometimes billed as Fierro y Gómez and, on other occasions, the reverse. Rafael Goméz played the guitar on many of the recordings and his distinctive style can be heard on many of the Cancioneros Acosta records, though he is only billed on a few of the labels as a guitarist.
The pair’s vocal style recalls the recordings of earlier Mexican male duos from the dawn of the recording age, including Rosales y Robinson (Maximiliano Rosales and Rafael H. Robinson) and Abrego y Picaso, though Emeterio Fierro made duet recordings in the 1930s with Adela Zambrano and Margarita Padilla, embracing a more modern style that included boleros and slow fox-trots. Early female members of the group were Aurora Patiño, Lucrecia Domínguez, Josefina Rivas, and Elena Ramírez.
The group traveled to San Francisco in March 1928 and made several phonograph recordings there for the Okeh label, which specialized in so-called “race records”, before returning to Los Angeles. The recordings from this period such as “A la Aurora” (“At Daybreak”) and “Las Avecillas” (“The Little Birds”) are beautifully arranged medleys of songs that modulate keys and alternate rhythms, unusual for Mexican vocal records of that era. The small orchestra on these records evokes a very traditional 19th-century Mexican sensibility, often including salterio, flute, and violin.
Another hallmark of the Cancioneros Acosta style is the alternation of female and male voices during a duet performance, evident on “Mañana Me Voy” (Columbia 3190-X) and “Indita Mía” (Columbia 3054-X) and many other recordings, making use of a back-and-forth answering pattern between the men and the women.
On the ancestral Mexican corrido “Elena” (Columbia 2616-X), the male singers, Fierro and Cruz, recount the story, alternating with Aurora Patiño, whose singing embodies the voice of Elena, the ill-fated protagonist. This skilled level of arrangement give the Cancioneros Acosta recordings from the 1928-1929 period a theatrical flavor that is also evident in their interpretations of popular songs.
These include many well known Mexican folk songs from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, often re-worked and re-titled, such as “Bonitos Estados Unidos” (Columbia 3144-X) (traditionally “Mi Julia”) and “Bañado En Lagrimas” (Columbia 3051-X) (traditionally “Rayando El Sol”).
In addition to these, a group of talented local songwriters contributed to the growing body of recorded songs. These include topical corridos such as “La Inundación De California” (“The California Flood”) (written by E. V. Escalante and released as Okeh 16285) and romantic songs in the danza rhythm, such as “Que Importa” (Rafael Gómez) (Columbia 3661-X).
The group also produced a few spoken records, such as “Casorio Chicano” (“Chicano Wedding Party”: Columbia 4202-x) containing comic dialogue and singing. I once played this recording for Ismael Hernandez, Victor Sánchez, and Josefina “La Prieta” Caldera, all former members of the group, who identified one of the performers on this record as Dionisio Acosta himself, who speaks the line “Quiere darle su probadita?” (“Do you want to give it a taste?”) offering a Prohibition-era drink of moonshine to the assembled guests in the party scene.
By the onset of the Great Depression, the Cancioneros Acosta seem to have reduced their recorded output significantly. Some of the singers from the original group went on to have further careers in the Los Angeles music scene, most notably Pedro J. González who by the early 1930s was a popular singer and radio personality, and hosting his own group of singers and guitarists known as Los Madrugadores.
Other radio shows such as “El Rancho De Don Julio” and “Tony Saenz, El Despertador” were popular local Los Angeles platforms for performers. The Posada sisters, Lupe and Virginia, also went on to record outside of the Acosta umbrella. David Valles (David Valles Gonzáles) later returned to Mexico and worked as an actor in the nascent Mexican film industry. Finally, the Elicciiri brothers, Carlos and José, can be heard playing Hawaiian steel guitar on many Los Angeles area recordings in the 1930s, often backing Los Madrugadores.
Singers on the Cancioneros Acosta recordings made in Los Angeles from 1925-1933 include the following. These singers are often only listed by last name under the general heading of Cancioneros Acosta on the Columbia, Okeh/Odeon, Victor, Brunswick, and Vocallion labels, and occasionally as Dúo Acosta when the arrangement includes only a vocal duet. This list is not complete.
Any additional information about these artists, or others involved with the Cancioneros Acosta group, including Dionisio Acosta, would be most welcome and would help to make this research and remembrance as complete as possible.
Rafael Gómez (also a guitarist)
David Valles Gonzáles (also as “David Valles”)
Margarita Josefina Rivas (also as “Josefina Rivas”)
Adela Zambrano (also as “Sambrano”)
Guadalupe Posada (also as “Lupe Posada”)
Guadalupe and Virginia Posada (listed as “Hermanas Posada” or “Posada Sisters”)
Vicente and Rafael Molina (listed “Hermanos Molina” or “Molina Brothers”)
Gilberto Soria Alonso (also as “Gilberto Soria”)
Ismael Hernández (also a guitarist)
Pedro J. Gonzáles (also as “P. J. Gonzáles”)
Josefina Caldera (“La Prieta” Caldera; also as “J. Caldera”)
Victor and Jesús Sánchez (listed as “Hermanos Sanchez” or “Sanchez Brothers”)
Francisco Gil Amador (also as “F. Gil Amador” )
Miguel Cuevas (also as “M. Cuevas”)
Manuel Camacho (also as “M. Camacho” and a guitarist)
Miguel and Calixto Cuevas (listed as “Hermanos Cuevas” or “Cuevas Brothers”)
Carlos Elicciri (also as “C. Elicciri and a guitarist)
Timoteo Fernández (recordings unknown but listed on company letterhead)
María De La Paz Torres (recordings unknown but listed on company letterhead)
Acosta (this may be Dionisio or another member of his family)
Carlos Elicciri (often played Hawaiian steel guitar on recordings and occasionally sang)
Gómez (possibly the singer Rafael Gómez)
Lorenzo Beltrán (as “L. Beltrán”)
Antonio Loya (as “A. Loya”)
Jesus P. Peralta (as “J. Peralta”)
Antonio Rubalcaba (as “O. Rubalcaba)
Pioquinto Gonzáles (as “P. Gonzales”)
Raimundo S. Gonzáles
Alfredo Reza (as “A. Reza”)
L. Varela (as “N. Varela”)
Lucrecia Domínguez (as “L. Domínguez”)
Manuel De Camacho
Guadalupe (Lupe) Posada (as “L. Posada”)
Zenón H. Flores
Many Los Angeles recordings on the Columbia and Okeh labels list “Ed. Tavo” as composer. I have not found any further reference to an actual composer by that name. It is possible that “Ed.” may be an abbreviation for “Ediciónes” making it “Ediciónes Tavo”, a possible publishing firm. More research is needed to determine this.
This post is based on research I conducted in 1988-1989 and on interviews I conducted with original members of the Cancioneros Acosta group. Presented in memory of Josefina “La Prieta” Caldera, Ismael “Smiley” Hernández, and Victor Sánchez, who were all original members of the Cancioneros Acosta group, and who all generously shared with me their memories, friendship, and musical advice many years ago.
Thanks also to Rogelio Agrasánches Jr., historian and author of many great books on the history of Mexican film and early Mexican movie theaters in the United States, and to Richard K. Spottswood, author of the discography Ethnic Music On Records 1893-1942, published by the University Of Illinois Press in 1990.
©2019 by Zac Salem.