Like many, I grew up listening to my grandfather’s stories. My family and I would gather in the living room of his home in San Juan in the Rio Grande Valley, located along the Texas-Mexico border, and listen, rapt, as he wove his recollections together, the end of one tale somehow already the middle of the next. He was a kind man, communally minded. He also adored music. Just as he always seemed to be mid-story, so too was he perpetually mid-melody, harmonizing with invisible, celestial bands at almost every waking hour. His living room reflected these musical passions—in one corner, a piano and an organ; elsewhere, an alto sax; and still elsewhere, a turntable atop a heavy wooden chest, unopened for decades.

For many years, I wondered about that chest, though I never dared ask about it. Skittish as I was about familial prying, I had convinced myself that to inquire about its contents would be to invite a story I was neither prepared nor permitted to hear.

But one day, during a visit years after having left my family’s homeland for school and work, something changed—I mustered some nerve, or forgot my restraint, or succumbed to mystery, and suddenly I heard myself, speaking. “What’s in the box?”

My grandfather smiled, dispelling my fear. He opened the chest. Inside lay a trove of dusty LPs, each inscribed with the hurried swirl of my grandfather’s initials: Tortilla Factory’s self-titled release, Chelo Silva’s Más exitos con su estilo único, Esteban Jordan’s The Return of El Parche, Charlie Parker and Machito’s Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite, the Shockwave Blossoms’ debut. Too: El Cometa by Los Cometas de Villa Juárez, recorded in sun-soaked McAllen, Texas, just down the street from my grandfather’s home, some fifty years earlier, in 1969.1

Los Cometas de Villa Juárez, I later gathered, was a relatively short-lived norteño group that many audiences remember fondly. Keyboard player Antonio Reyes formed the group in Villa Juárez, San Luis Potosí, México, some 375 miles southeast of my family’s hometown in the U.S., and in the late 1960s, Reyes and his bandmates traveled northwest from San Luis Potosí to McAllen, crossing the border—or what another local listener, Gloria Anzaldúa, once famously called “una herida abierta,” an open wound—to try their hand at the U.S. music market.2 The band worked with Bego Enterprises’ El Pato Records, a subsidiary of the regionally famous Falcon Records, which supported South Texas artists, including Texas country superstar Freddy Fender. Los Cometas cut a record of regional cumbias, and a copy of their project ended up in my grandfather’s hands.

Listen: a distorted Farfisa organ, brash; an insistent percussion section knocking out cumbias that always lean forward, on the front side of the beat. The bass a whisper; the smoky vocals distant in the mix, yet somehow closer for it. Among the most prominent sounds is a deadened cowbell, metronomic in its insistence, human in its signaling. Rhythmically, the other instruments are loose by contrast; together, they create a sloshing feeling—a falling-over and over-falling feeling; an excited-to-pounce-on-the-next-chord feeling; an excited-to-feel feeling. The looseness compounds through a slight warp in the vinyl; the time rises and falls, subtly, like an unstable heartbeat, and as the songs end, they bleed into one another, blurred by use and wear.

Where the LP is in average shape—that gentle warp, a couple of scratches—the sleeve is pristine. A psychedelic, bubbly, flower-child logo; a cartoon duckling presiding over all. On the cover are six men, impeccably dressed, dark-skinned like my grandfather. They are anonymized by the packaging: there are no indications of who these men are, what their stories were, what compelled them into the studio to record the album that my grandfather would one day own, that we would one day rediscover together, and that I would, these days, be playing from my apartment here in Los Angeles, thousands of miles away. As a package, the album is simply El Cometa: “the comet,” that which comes around.

My grandfather encouraged me to take the LP with me back to California. Just over a year later, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, he died of brain cancer at his home—surrounded, as much as was safely manageable, by people who loved him dearly: family members who would regularly gather around him as he told stories, hoping, on that day, to hear at least one more. I could not be by his side, nor could I attend his funeral; the compounded apocalyptic circumstances of the moment, particularly acute both in Los Angeles and San Juan, were too forbidding. In that vacuum, I turned to what I could do, physically: I listened to his LPs, those albums once stored in a long-unopened chest.

Listening to my grandfather’s LPs in the wake of his death—including, again, El Cometa—I heard in them the hint of his voice, his harmonizing with the band’s lead vocalist in the quiet of my mind’s ear. La segunda parte, the second voice; the sound of el más allá, the great beyond.3 Each revolution of the vinyl, each orbit of the printed “El Cometa” label around the center spindle, affirmed this LP as no longer a forgotten commodity, but a personal memento—an object charged with the memory of a loved one’s touch, use, and care.

Today, the critic in me wants to ask what it means to listen to such LPs that have been transformed into heirlooms; to think of LPs as an invitation to remembrance beyond even the electrical reproduction of a familiar voice or melody; to theorize the repetition of direct ancestors’ and fellow listeners’ gestures—the holding in the hand, the removing from the sleeve, the placing on the deck, the guiding needle to groove, the letting vinyl spin. The scholar in me wants to understand listening to such sonic keepsakes as a kind of intimate communion—a familial commemoration at the border of grief and joy, life and dream, then and now, gone and here.4 The grandson in me, though, just wants to know when my grandfather would like his albums back.

Listening to El Cometa today, still thousands of miles from home and family—though, now, quietly optimistic about a reunion—I am struck by the idea of the LP as a sonic memento, as an aural heirloom, as a multigenerational, migratory totem. I am struck by Los Cometas’ lead singer, Faustino Maldonado, animating boleros of love and loss, warmth and sorrow, presence and absence. I am struck, ultimately, by the hint of my grandfather’s voice, by our private harmony, by a comet come around once again.

1.

Los Cometas de Villa Juarez, El Cometa. El Pato Records, Bego Enterprises, EPLP-1017, 1969, 33⅓ rpm.

2.

Marco Serna, “Toño Reyes, pionero de la música norteña,” Plurinominal, August 2013, https://www.plurinominal.com.mx/?p=6853. See also Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands / La Frontera: The New Mestiza (San Francisco, CA: Aunt Lute, 2012): 25. Additionally, concerning Anzaldúa as a borderlands listener: see her reflections on the conjunto music of the Rio Grande Valley in Borderlands, 82–83.

3.

As Josh Kun once put it: “Allá is over there. It is beyond what’s right here. But it’s also el más allá, the beyond, the afterlife. The allá of migrant Mexican music is also connected to this other space, to what exists after living ends.” See Kun, “Allá in the Mix: Mexican Sonideros and the Musical Politics of Migrancy,” Public Culture 27:3 (2015): 533–55, esp. 546.

4.

I’m reminded here of three passages I revisited recently. First, a line from poet and essayist Wayne Koestenbaum’s The Queen’s Throat: “a record, a memento, a trace of an absence” (Koestenbaum 47). Second, a moment from Kayla O’Daniel’s “Heirlooms as Memory”: “Categorized as inalienable objects, as opposed to alienable objects that can disassociate from their possessors, heirlooms absorb the essence of the previous owner…While heirlooms are passed down through generations, they retain the memory and marks of the giver” (O’Daniel 17). And third, a snippet from a short essay by Johannesburg DJ Nombuso Mathibela, in which she reflects on how her record collecting practices differ from her grandfather’s: “My grandfather started collecting records simply because that was the way music was sold at the time. The joy wasn’t necessarily in the discovery of a rare album but in the intimacy of hearing the shape of sound unfurl. He developed a friendship with sound—a space where music gathered the parts that apartheid tried to render unconscious through its humiliating effects.” Across these examples and more, I hear the act of theorizing the LP as an heirloom as something that always returns, inevitably, to the granular, the specific—to the details of people, the physicality of memories, the textures of our longing.

See Wayne Koestenbaum, The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire (New York: Da Capo, 1993), 47, 50–51; Kayla O’Daniel, “Heirlooms as Memory,” Plot(s), vol. 4.01: 12–20; and Nombuso Mathibela, “Shifting Vinyl with my Grandfather’s Records,” New Frame, 1 April, 2021, https://www.newframe.com/shifting-vinyl-with-my-grandfathers-records/.