But for the sleek flat-screen computer in his study, Joseph Franko's apartment in East Oakland has the look and feel of a mausoleum. It's neat and orderly, and filled with enough antiquated objects to make the average hoarder salivate. The living-room bookshelves are full of old, mulchy, canonical texts by writers like Herman Hesse and Kurt Vonnegut; the refrigerator is a gleaming canvas upon which Franko hangs photographs of all his friends (actually, everyone who comes by, he admitted). The shelves and cardboard boxes in the hallway are filled with Latin records — 23,000, Franko said with a wan smile. A real estate agent by day, he has amassed a monstrously large collection of obscure Latin music. It's made him an ambassador — albeit a somewhat reluctant one.
The records in Franko's collection represent a panoply of musical history spanning three decades; most of them were released in the Sixties, Seventies, or Eighties, he said. They include Dominican merengue, bachata, Colombian-style salsa, old-school bolero, polyrhythmic Latin jazz, Brazilian samba, garage rock, boogaloo, descarga, and reggae en Español. But the biggest draw might be cumbia, a form of Afro-Colombian and Panamanian music that Franko has studied assiduously for more than a decade. Initially, he was bedeviled by its "lowbrow" distinction. His Nicaraguan grandmother disparaged cumbia and other Afro-Latin forms for being too vulgar, but Franko was easily seduced by the ambling 2/4 rhythms and slinky melodies. He began immersing himself in the genre while traveling through Latin American in the Nineties, then accumulated a cache of records at the behest of his friend Eamon Ore-Giron (aka DJ Lengua). In 2003, Franko boosted his collection by purchasing 20,000 7-inch records from a moribund Mexican radio station in Colorado — enough to fill his apartment, his parents' house, and even a storage unit that he rented to accommodate the overflow.
That's when he helped launch a DJ night, Club Unicornio, with fellow vinyl enthusiasts Julio Cesar Morales (Finger Lust), Luis Illades, Juan Luna-Avin (Policia Kameney), and Ore-Giron. With the somewhat lofty mission of "bringing Spanish-language music back to the Mission District," they took over the Casanova Lounge one night a month, rechristening it after a defunct Tijuana strip club. Franko went by the handle "Sonido Franko."
It was a lofty goal, but the laws of supply and demand worked in their favor, Franko said. "At that time, nobody else was doing that — especially at a hipster club," he explained. It turned out Latinos in the Bay Area were nostalgic for the Spanish-language pop they'd grown up with, as well as the more traditional music from their parents' collections. Illades and Morales both played a lot of pop en Español from the Eighties, and people sang along on the dance floor. A whole consortium of table-bussers and dishwashers would show up after work. Some people drove in from the South or East Bay because they couldn't find a similar party anywhere else. Although the founders jumped ship after a few years, their legacy remained, and Franko found himself unable to shake it.
In fact, he preserved the "Unicornio" brand by starting a Latin indie record label, Discos Unicornio, which specialized in obscure, underground music. It folded about a year ago, but Franko keeps a lot of the releases on his shelves, still wrapped in their plastic-coated jackets. He pulled a few out last Saturday night to illustrate: a broken-beat cumbia mix by DJ Lengua, a seven-inch by DJ Roger Mas, and a 2010 release by the Los Angeles-based psychedelic-rock group Chicano Batman. Though Franko, now 41, ultimately became disenchanted with the indie music business — mostly because of the paltry paper returns — he made a lasting imprint during his tenure.
Five years ago Franko started the blog Super Sonido, meant as a vessel through which to distribute all the music he'd archived over the years. It gained traction pretty quickly — there are, indeed, few sites that compile rare Latin music in such a comprehensive way. Yet Franko seemed ambivalent about his role as an aggregator. "I think I have to come clean to offer the various explanations of why I went ahead and started an audio blog," he wrote on the site's "about" page, which featured a cartoon avatar of the author — well-dressed and pleasantly corpulent, the buttons all but popping out of his white work shirt. (The real Franko is more of an overgrown teenager with a Fifties pompadour.) "For the last 12 years or so I have had this chronic disease/sickness called 'record collecting...Common symptoms included breaking hearts, getting my heart broken, damaging my liver ... letting my day job go down in the toilet, buying shit piles of Latin records and 45s to the point where I was completely overwhelmed." He described the audio blog as both an anodyne and a logical next step.
As it turns out, Franko's addiction to record collecting stems from two competing threads in his biography: That of the footloose world traveler, and that of the insular hoarder. The son of an Italian race-horse trainer and a Nicaraguan real estate agent, he grew up speaking Spanish and English, got heavy into punk as a student at De La Salle High School in Concord, and decided, in his early twenties, to become an expat. In 1994, he took a 54-hour bus ride down to Guanajuato, Mexico, to enroll in art school. He lived there for three years, then spent the rest of the decade traveling through Latin America, staying with family members in El Salvador and Nicaragua, and absorbing their musical tastes — he says that at that time most of his cousins were listening to reggae en Español and a cloying form of popular salsa. Franko began collecting records as a way to document that period. Eventually, his music catalog took on a life of its own, forcing him into a custodial role. Franko became a DJ in 2001, partly owing to a sense of personal responsibility. "People were telling me to do it," he confessed.
At this point, the Super Sonido library has mushroomed into a vast public archive. Each post is a first-person diary entry structured around the moment of discovering some cool recorded gem — usually he'll include a brief historical exegesis and several free audio files, most of them digitized from his own collection (he keeps a record player plugged into his computer). Music junkies began writing in from Mexico, South America, and the UK. Some begged Franko for rare reissues (which he'll gladly produce at no cost). Others wanted to interview him for their own blogs or 'zines. Though the web site began losing steam as Franko redirected more energy to his day job — having never recouped a dime from music, he views it strictly as a hobby — it still garners several hundred hits a day.
Franko spent the last few years presenting cumbia DJ nights at various clubs in downtown Oakland, usually to very small crowds — he says that other DJs would show up to scour his record crates, but few people came to dance. Two years ago he hooked up with local DJ Troy Bayless to start a new dance party, Carne Trémula, every third Thursday at The Layover. Named for Pedro Almodóvar's 1997 pulp drama, it features vintage Latin 45s mixed with the occasional house or dubstep record. Franko says that Oakland clubgoers have finally cottoned to the idea, and they've even stopped accosting him at the DJ table, asking for hip-hop. He still waffles a little about whether to persist his stewardship of old Latin music; it's a labor of love that is, indeed, a labor, he said. Having a successful club night helps, though. Not to mention there's still significant demand: To this day, fans of the old Club Unicornio drive in from far away just to hear the songs of their childhood.