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Doña Manuela: The Early L.A. Singer Who Preserved Her Voice for Posterity

Manuela C. García, taken by Charles Lummis in the patio of El Alisal, Los Angeles circa 1904-1905 | Courtesy of the Southwest Museum
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The music of Manuela García is featured on the never-before-seen "lost" episode of California's Gold with Huell Howser, where Huell visits the home of Los Angeles icon Charles Fletcher Lummis in Highland Park. Watch the episode online. Plus, be sure to watch the Artbound season premiere, "Charles Lummis: Reimagining the American West,"  online now.

As the years ticked by after the dawn of the 20th century, archivist, writer, and Southern California booster Charles Lummis was convinced an extinction was imminent. During this period marked by the myth of the vanishing Western frontier, the self-proclaimed authority on Southwestern culture turned his attention to what he believed to be the imperiled traditions of California's Mexican past. Specifically, the tradition of folk music -- the secular romances and canciones -- that thrived from pre-statehood to the early 1900s.

charles lummis portrait
Charles Lummis 

Utilizing the burgeoning technology of Thomas Edison's phonograph, Lummis set out to record the voices of local Mexican musicians onto wax cylinders. It was an act of preservation, but also a tool to help Lummis promote the merits of the Southwest against what he viewed as the vapidity of modernization. In a 1905 article in Outwest Magazine, Lummis concluded:

The majority of our music today is made to sell; the old songs were made to sing.

He recruited mostly female musicians, tapping into talents like Rosa and Luisa Villa, L.A. sisters with roots in Baja California. The Villas recorded about 20 arrangements, singing and playing guitar and mandolin for Lummis' ambitious project. Another pair of sisters, Nena and Susie del Valle from Rancho Camulos, contributed 22 songs. Then there was elderly Adalaida Kamp from Ventura, who over the summer of 1904 performed a generous 65 songs. 

But no contribution to what Lummis called the science of "catch[ing] our Archaeology alive" matched the seemingly boundless talent of Doña Manuela C. García, a prolific and successful Los Angeles songstress. Lummis referred to her work as "the most extraordinary achievement," as she had a mind-boggling index of Spanish-language songs that she could recall from memory. García sang more than 140 songs for the project, injecting her own charm and liveliness into each delicate recording. "Few can do that in any language, from sheer memory," Lummis boasted.

Born in 1869, Manuela García was raised in a musical family in a home on South Olive Avenue in Los Angeles. Driven to pursue her talent, she studied vocal music at the California State Normal School, shaping her range as a mezzo soprano before working as a music teacher for many years in the city. Her father, Ygnacio García, was a respected commercial agent who ran in the same social circles as Lummis. Manuela, her sisters, Elisa and Mercedes, and her brother Ygnacio "Nacho" eventually became frequent performers at Lummis' infamous "noises," raucous dinner parties held at his Arroyo Seco home, known as El Alisal.  

García's formal training, combined with her astonishing repertory of Mexican popular, folk, and salon songs, made her a golden choice for Lummis. He even insisted on compensating García for her passionate recordings, despite not doing the same for the other musicians involved in the project. One of the songs she recorded was the wafting serenade"La Noche Está Serena:"

La noche está serena, tranquilo el aquilón (So still and calm the night is, the very wind's asleep;)

Tu dulce centinela te guarda el corazón. (Thy heart's so tender sentinel, His watch and ward doth keep.)

Y en alas de los cérfiros, que vagan por doquier, (And on the winds of sephyrs soft, that wander how they will,)

Volando van mis súplicas, á ti, bella mujer, (To thee, oh woman fair, to thee, My prayers go fluttering still,)

Valando van mis súplicas, á ti, bella mujer. (To thee, oh woman fair, to thee, My prayers go fluttering still.)

Others included "La Cara Negra," "Laura," "La Primavera" (watch a re-enactment of this song recording) and the satirical "Las Pulgas de Morelia," about the fleas of Morelia, a city in Mexico. In addition, García compiled a songbook of 149 songs from her secular repertory for Lummis to utilize for his preservation project. In his 1993 article in Revista de Musicología, musicologist Jon Koegel believes that García's recordings and songbook "together make up the most important collection of folk music from Mexican California and Mexico," representing the latter half of the 1800s and early 1900s. Her recordings, often accompanied by her brother Nacho on guitar, make up more than one third of the Spanish-language songs in Lummis' collection.

Lummis was able to record about 300 Mexican folk songs between 1904 and 1905, many of which he went on to publish in his 1923 book, "Spanish Songs of Old California." Although contemporary research suggests that some songs in his collection were not at risk of vanishing from the Southwest, his urgency in capturing these works was ultimately meaningful. Koegel writes that after his efforts in the early 1900s, "field recordings of Hispanic music of the Southwest were apprently not made until the 1930s."

As it was, Doña Manuela died in 1930 at the age of 61. Had she not partnered with Lummis, the talent that she nurtured all her life would have gone silent with her death. 

Today, her voice still surges through the crackled playblack of Lummis' recordings. It's her eternal reminder that passion never fades.

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