The Arhoolie Foundation, notes executive director Adam Machado, has been pretty much “flying under the radar” since its inception in 1995 as an independent adjunct to Arhoolie Records—the El Cerrito, Calif.-based label founded by Grammy Trustees Award winner and the National Endowment for the Arts’ National Heritage Fellowship recipient Chris Strachwitz.
An immigrant from Silesia, Strachwitz founded Arhoolie Records in 1960 (an “arhoolie” is a form of African-American laborers’ “field holler” work song) in order to record and produce artists in the blues, folk, Tejano, regional Mexican, Cajun, zydeco, bluegrass and other North American roots music genres. It was acquired by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings in 2016, and is part of the Smithsonian’s Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, Smithsonian Folkways and continues to distribute Arhoolie’s estimable catalog.
The Arhoolie Foundation’s stated mission, then, is much like Strachwitz’s with the label: to document, preserve and disseminate authentic and traditional vernacular music in hopes of educating the public.
“Before Smithsonian Folkways acquired Arhoolie, Chris and I and a small crew worked on the Foundation in the spare time in between label work,” says Machado. “Now it’s time for us to focus on the Foundation—expanding the awareness of it and its outreach.”
To this end, the Arhoolie Foundation has instituted the Arhoolie Awards—no-strings cash grants of $10,000 that recognize exceptional musicians, teachers, community organizations, documentarians, and individuals working creatively to help keep tradition-based styles of music alive and moving forward.
The inaugural awards, to be bestowed at a Bridging the Blues: An Arhoolie Foundation Benefit Concert fundraiser headlined by Taj Mahal and Fantastic Negrito Oc. 13 at The UC Theatre in Berkeley, are honoring San Francisco community radio station KPOO-FM, the Oakland Public Conservatory of Music, Mexican-American singers and teachers Fabiola Trujillo and Lucina Rodriguez, and journalist Lee Hildebrand.
The Arhoolie Awards program’s aim, per the Foundation’s website, is “to encourage, support, and shine a light on extraordinary individuals and organizations, and to help them continue their good work.”
“This being our first year, we decided to focus on our own community--the Bay Area, where we live,” says Machado.
“The Oakland Conservatory of Music is a school for low income residents and provides kids a place to get conservatory training in their own neighborhood—and it’s in the historic California Hotel, where most touring African-American musicians stayed. Fabiola Trujillo and Lucina Rodriguez, have performed with the likes of Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt and teach traditional Mexican music and dance at a similar sanctuary for kids, Los Cenzontles Cultural Arts Academy in San Pablo. ‘Poor People’s Radio’ station KPOO is listener-sponsored, non-commercial and community-run in the culturally diverse Fillmore District and champions the music we love 24/7. And Lee Hildebrand is a stalwart in Bay Area music journalism, especially in regards to blues, gospel, R&B and non-mainstream music. A lot of people are very grateful for what he’s done.”
In addition to performing at the awards concert, Taj Mahal will receive a special Arhoolie Award.
“Taj is being recognized for having continued to educate and entertain audiences with very authentic blues,” says Strachwitz. “He’s a giant, and so very tradition-oriented--and is still handing it down.”
The initial Arhoolie Foundation honorees are from the Bay Area and were chosen independently by the Foundation’s board of directors.
“We decided to start by looking around our own neighborhood for people and organizations who met our criteria for excellence and who might really benefit from the financial portion of the prize--as well as whatever recognition, encouragement and attention it might bring,” says Machado. Future nominations, he adds, will be sought also from advisory board members (including the likes of ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, Bob Dylan, T Bone Burnett, Charlie Musselwhite, Bonnie Raitt, Steve Miller, Queen Ida, Linda Ronstadt and Ann Savoy) along with musicians, folklorists and other experts around the country who are knowledgeable about music in places where roots music originated and still resonates.
While the new Arhoolie Awards are The Arhoolie Foundation’s current focus, it remains active in its efforts pertaining to its main goal of digitizing and making available Strachwitz’s vast accumulation of music and related materials.
Foremost among its many projects is The Strachwitz Frontera Collection of Mexican and Mexican American Recordings (la frontera refers to the 2,000-mile long U.S.-Mexico border).
The Frontera Collection has some 160,000 recordings on 78s, 45s, LPs and cassettes, and over 2,000 photographs, posters, catalogs and other images.
“It’s the biggest collection of this music,” says Machado, noting that via a joint project of the Arhoolie Foundation, the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center and the UCLA Digital Library, the UCLA Frontera Collection Site has a website database where 90 seconds of the songs can be accessed (time limited due to copyright restrictions on commercial recordings).
“You can search by key words, artist name, record label, and other attributes,” says Machado, noting that “the music of Mexican-Americans, unlike a lot of regional and ethnic music that is limited in scope of subject material, is particularly rich in history and in covering all aspects of life.”
But the Frontera Collection also has its own YouTube channel, where full songs are being amassed. According to Machado, 12,214 videos—showing photos of the recording’s labels and furnishing information on the releases—have been uploaded since April at a clip of 99 a day; to date, the channel has garnered 823,798 views (44 percent from the U.S., 40 percent from Mexico, 8.8 percent from Columbia and the rest from elsewhere), signed up 1,067 subscribers, and generated 17,000 shares and 1,260 comments.
“Over the next few months all 34,000 recordings from 78 rpm records will have been uploaded,” says Machado. “All along we’ve wanted to get the collection out there more broadly, and it’s a real breakthrough for us in globally reaching people.”