U.S.A. / Mexico
Director / Cinematography / Editor: Les Blank
Production Co.: Brazos Films
Producer / Sound: Chris Strachwitz
Assistant editor: Maureen Gosling
Consultant: Guillermo Hernandez
Interpreter: Pacho Lane
'Corrido de Texas', Ramos & Ramirez
'Cofula', Santiago Jimenez
'Prenda del Alma, Volver Volver', Les Alegres de Teran (written by F. Maldonado)
'Cancion Mixteca', Ramiro Cavazos with Conjunto Tamaulipas
'Mi Texana, Corrido de Cesar Chavez', 'Mexico Americano', Los Pinguinos Del Norte (written by Rumuel Fuentes)
'Chicano', Los Pinguinos Del Norte (written by Doug Sahm)
'Muchachos Alegres, Luzita', Narciso Martinez
'Mal Hombre', 'Pero Ay Que Triste', Lydia Mendoza
'Rinches de Texas', Dueto Reynosa (written by Willie Lopez)
'Nueva Zenaida, Un Mojado sin Licensia', Flaco Jimenez (written by S. Jiminez)
English & Spanish, with English subtitles
Blank shows an extraordinary talent for catching beauty in what most people would consider mundane places.
- San Antonio Express, 3/3/77
Chulas Fronteras is his most emotionally complete film.
- The Village Voice 25/6/79
Chulas Fronteras is absolutely the best Chicano documentary film that I have seen to this date.... It is our history, rescued without excess and without romanticism, but with vitality.
- Prof. Juan Rodriguez, University of California at La Jolla
Any new work by filmmaker-folklorist Les Blank is cause for celebration, but Chulas Fronteras, his new hour-long documentary on the music of 'The Valley' calls for dancing in the streets with a bottle of Lone Star Beer in one hand and a chilli relleno in the other.
When Texans talk about 'The Valley', they mean the Rio Grande valley, running along the border between Mexico and the United States. The people who live on the Mexican side of the Valley are Mexicans - which shouldn't come as much of a surprise. What might come as a surprise, though, is that the people who live on the American side are Mexicans too - although they hold American citizenship. Their culture, language, food, folkways and music - especially their music - are Mexican. These Texas-Americans call themselves Tejanos, - substituting a 'J' for the Texan 'X'.
The 'J' is important, because it serves to remind the Tejanos that Texas used to be the Mexican state of Tejas - until the Anglos stole it. The gringo conquerors, unable to pronounce the Castellano 'J' put an 'X' in instead. It was the beginning of a cultural takeover designed to reinforce the military takeover - and it continues today. In 1976, the Spanish speaking inhabitants of the Valley still live in lousy neighbourhoods, earn low wages, and face the usual North American attitude towards victimized majorities - a vicious mixture of paternalism and terror. It's a rough deal.
But the rough deal holds a payoff - music. Historically, the most oppressive living conditions have seemed to produce the greatest music - Delta blues in Mississippi, reggae in Jamaica, and in the Valley... well, the music of The Valley doesn't have a name. Some people call it conjunto music - conjunto being Spanish for 'group'. But theoretically, conjunto can mean any kind of music played by a group - and the music of the Valley is special. Some people call it Tex-Mex music which is certainly specific enough, except Tejanos find the term insulting. Chris Strachwitz, the man who runs Arhoolie Records, and the producer of Chulas Fronteras calls it musica nortena - music from the north - and for the moment that seems as good a name as any.
Nortena can be easily distinguished from the sweet Mariachi horns of Guadalajara, or the commercialised pop hybrids of Mexico City. It's tough, high energy music, heavy on accordion and the driving bass of the bajo sexto, an oversized 12-string guitar. Nortena includes many corridos, or ballads - frequently with topical and political overtones - and a number of dances, some of them familiar, and some fairly exotic. Among the latter category one of the most interesting is the Huapango, in which partners walk in a great circle around the dance floor, something like taking a stroll around the central square of a Mexican town.
During the last few years Strachwitz has issued a number of records of musica nortena, but most North Americans are still strangers to this last great Mexican regional style. So Strachwitz hired Les Blank to shoot a documentary in the Valley - the first one ever - and ended up going along himself to do the sound.
In picking Blank, Strachwitz couldn't have made a better choice. Aside from John Cohen (whose work is very good, but sadly infrequent), Blank is without doubt the most important musical documentarist working today. His films on Lightnin' Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb and Clifton Chenier are extraordinary works - deeply personal records of vanishing ways of life as well as studies of important folk musicians. Blank sees music as an integral part of life, as important as eating. His films are full fledged sociological documents, in which the music is placed precisely in its context - allowing us to understand its purpose in the lives of both musicians and audiences.
Chulas Fronteras (which is Valley slang for 'beautiful borders') is one of Blank's most exciting and important films. By interviewing agricultural workers and Tejano disc jockeys, Blank explores the strong political underpinnings of the music. By taking us through backroom recording studios and home-made record pressing plants, he traces the route through which the music reaches its audience. And by filming the musicians in a variety of settings, including dance halls, clubs and private parties, he shows us how the music fits into their daily lives.
Still, all this would be pointless if the music wasn't there - and Chulas Fronteras provides a magnificent introduction to the most exciting nortena musicians working today - musicians like Flaco Jimenez, Narciso Martinez, Lydia Mendoza, Los Alegres de Teran and Rumuel Fuentes. The music is beautifully recorded - an impressive testimonial to Strachwitz's skill with a taperecorder, considering the conditions under which the recordings were made - and runs the gamut from traditional rancheras to topical songs, including a terrific version of Doug Sahm's 'Chicano', partly translated into Spanish for the occasion. Naturally, most of the songs are in Spanish to begin with, but English subtitles provide translations for those whose Spanish - or familiarity with the Tejano dialect - isn't up to the job.
It's typical of Blank's work that one can't quite decide whether the main impact of his work is musical or political - but I certainly don't see that as a criticism. Chulas Fronteras is a joyous, angry, complicated film - a multi-levelled document, fully worthy of the people and the music that give it life.
- Michael Goodwin, Take One, 1/77