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Camina Como Chencha

by Myrta Silva

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Nada 02:23
Cuchiflitos 02:16


One of the many important personal and professional relationships Myrta Silva cultivated during her multifaceted career was with Ansonia Records’ Ralph Pérez. In 1949, her previous employers La Sonora Matancera recorded twenty-two songs for Ansonia Records, and there is no doubt that “La Gorda de Oro” was on Perez’s radar from that formative and successful time in Silva’s singing career, if not before, since she initially worked with Peréz’s friend Rafael Hernández. In 1960 the opportunity presented itself for Silva and Pérez to finally work together, and the label released the LP “Camina Como Chencha” with an album cover that was calculated to shock and provoke as much as the artist’s own signature double-entendre guarachas. In the liner notes label vice-president Herman Glass reveals it was “Chencha” herself who, while on a trip to Mexico, commissioned the “very original” cover art, created by noted photographer Carlos Isunza Nieto and inspired by the song that made her so infamous, “Camina Como Chencha.” The sessions were recorded December 9, 1960 in Mexico City at the “very modern” RCA Victor studios, where so many famous Latin musicians from Beny Moré to Pérez Prado had recorded hot tropical numbers in previous decades. Perhaps in order to avoid any contractual conflicts Glass does not specifically give out any credits for the backing band, only hinting that “the best available musicians were used and the entire production was” executed under the supervision of “a famous Mexican director” in order to bring Myrta’s fans interpretations of “twelve of her most famous songs.” This mysterious musical director could have been Guillermo “Memo” Salamanca, who Silva worked with for producer Pancho Cristal of Tico Records, or Salomón Jiménez and Víctor Ruiz Pazos, a duo who backed her with La Sonora Salomón in the late 1960s for Musart. It could also have been Nacho Rosales or Bobby Ortega, who also worked with Silva’s talent management client, singer Frankie Figueroa, as Frankie had cut some boleros in Mexico with some of these orchestra leaders for Ansonia a decade later. However, not even Ansonia’s internal archives reveal the identity of this session director and his backing musicians, so the mystery remains.

Whatever the case, the material on the album is top notch and the anonymous musical backing is mostly of the full brass section “big band” variety made ubiquitous during the New York Palladium mambo era and popularized by the “Big Three,” namely Machito, Tito Puente, and Tito Rodríguez. The studio sheet seems to differentiate in the size of the musical backing, splitting the recording between “conjunto” (group) for the uptempo numbers and “orquesta” (orchestra) for the boleros, but the album hangs together nicely as a whole, with Myrta’s strong and confident voice at the center of everything and RCA Victor studios giving everything a grand concert hall sonority that makes everything feel huge and lustrous. Glass seems quite excited by the prospect of Ansonia releasing Silva’s “spicy interpretations and double entendre lyrics set to Latin rhythms” because “Myrta has an adept talent for injecting feverish excitement” into everything she does and he wants to share the “good news” that “Chencha has arrived.” In terms of rhythms and genres, the album is quite diverse. In addition to reprisals of her famous 1940s guarachas “Camina Como Chencha,” “Tu Siempre Detrás De Mi” (by her early mentor Rafael Hernández), “Mis Dos Motores” from Ñico Saquito, and Hernández’s “Mis Tres Novios,” there is a plena from the great Puerto Rican plenero Manuel “Canario” Jiménez (“Tanta Vanidad”) which serves to remind the listener of Silva’s love and commitment to the Afro-Boricua traditions of her beloved home. Recalling her halcyon days in Havana, Myrta composed a traditional Cuban son guajira called “Yo No Lloro Más” (‘I Cry No More’) that would fit in with any classic by Los Guaracheros De Oriente or Trío Matamoros. Meanwhile, not to leave out the current craze taking America’s youth by storm, there is a nod to rock ’n’ roll with “Mañana Te Olvidaré,” also by Silva, which Ansonia terms a “rock beguine” and could be interpreted as a precursor to similar experiments combining Latin and African-American musical styles happening in New York in pop music factories like like The Brill Building. Silva reprises the cheeky and well-known Cuarteto Victoria rumba “Nada” and two important self-composed boleros, “Fácil De Recordar” and “Deuda A Plazos.” Two more humorous guarachas, “Ay, Que Sorpresa Tengo” from the pen of Cuban guitarist and composer Eduardo Saborit, and the food-as-double entendre “Cuchiflitos,” again by the prolific Rafael Hernández, add to the overall irreverent spirit and sexy playfulness of the album, in spite of the gravity expressed through her interpretation of the down-tempo numbers. On February 21, 1961, Ansonia put in an order for 1000 copies to the pressing plant, and it seems the release went through several editions over the years.

Myrta Blanca Silva Oliveras was known simply as Myrta Silva and was more affectionately called “La Gordita De Oro” (‘The Little Chubby Golden One’) when she was young, for both her full figure and her success in all entertainment ventures from an early age. She was known throughout Latin America, while still only in her 20s, as “Reina De La Guaracha” (‘Queen Of The Guaracha’) because of her royal domination of the spicy Cuban guaracha genre. She was born in Arecibo, Puerto Rico on September 11, 1923, and was the only girl in a large, tightly knit family of eight brothers. Her parents, Áureo Silva and María Aurelia Oliveras (known as “Mamá Yeya”), were of lower middle class status initially. María Aurelia Oliveras was only fifteen when she had conceived Myrta; it is said that Áureo Silva was María Aurelia’s uncle. Myrta’s father died quite suddenly and unexpectedly when she was only 6 years old. Due to the dire economic circumstances that ensued for the family, Myrta decided to leave home to help support her mother and brothers. Always interested in singing and playing maracas, and already aware of her own talent (she practiced secretly with an itinerant street musician), she made her first public appearance at the Oliver Theater, in Arecibo, when she was only ten. In spite of her later success, it was this early period of economic distress that always made her feel close to the dispossessed. Through it all, her formidable mother struggled to keep the family together and pay the rent; it was her mother’s strength and indomitable spirit that remained an inspiration to Myrta throughout her life.

In August 1938, Silva traveled with two of her nephews to New York aboard the steamship “Coamo” on a ticket her mother had purchased using up her meager savings (having to skip two month’s rent), in order to seek more opportunities for her talent in the world of show-business. Once established in New York and living with her mother’s sister, Silva began to take determined steps to further her career and learn the ropes of her profession. After stints working in a candy store, as a dishwasher, cleaner and waitress, her first break was having a show on a Spanish-language radio station in Brooklyn, though she had to sell all her own ads in order to sponsor it. Her real ambition was to get a recording contract. Even as a sprightly teenager, Myrta was a dynamic and motivated “self-starter” who wouldn’t let anything get in the way of her dreams. She often struggled to help make the rent and New York was recovering from the Great Depression, not to mention the fact that prejudice against Puerto Ricans in Gotham City made everything more difficult for her still. After hitting the pavement trying to attract interest, in 1939 Silva ended up convincing RCA Victor’s local Latin music talent scout, an Italian by the name of Shivelli, to give her a 10-year contract, based solely on a poor-quality recording that was a parody of Rafael Hernández’s bolero, “Ahora Seremos Felices,” that she had voiced with the Puerto Rican violinist and dentist, Don Julio Roqué and his Orquesta Tropical, in a dollar-a-song recording booth. Though she was underage, which certainly gave the RCA A&R man pause, Myrta assured him that her aunt and mother gave permission and would co-sign the contract. Due to her sheer audacity and raw talent Shivelli signed the diminutive brunette on the spot, more than anything as a challenge to see if she could prove herself up to the task.

Always successful with making friends and attracting patrons despite all the odds, Silva was soon introduced to Puerto Rican composer Rafael Hernández by her current musical chaperone, Dr. Julio Roqué, at a dinner the dentist gave one night with the express aim of introducing the two. Don Julio had made the introduction at his friend Hernández’s request because Don Rafael was mildly offended by the parody of his beautiful song that Silva had destroyed with her addition of humorous lyrics, and was curious to meet Roqué’s daring young protégé who had trampled so on his work. After half-jokingly telling her she had ruined “Ahora Seremos Felices” with her childish antics, Myrta shot back that he should be grateful that she injected some entertaining lines into his otherwise stupid and maudlin bolero. Despite this bit of sassing, Silva must have won over Don Rafael with her vivacious charm, stunning looks and prodigious raw talent because he ended up inviting her to sing in his Cuarteto Victoria (also signed to RCA Victor) and became her mentor, exposing her to other genres like the bolero, which she fell in love with and continued to maintain as a central part of her repertoire throughout her career. By 1940 she had made a half-a-dozen sides with Hernández and traveled through several Latin American countries with his quartet. While in Puerto Rico with Cuarteto Victoria she managed to move her mother into decent lodgings in Viejo San Juan and reacquainted herself with the music scene in the capitol. It was during this time that she first heard yet-to-be famous singer-songwriter Bobby Capó on the radio, meeting him soon after and then referring Capó to maestro Hernández to join his quartet, which was to help launch Capó’s illustrious career as a singer-songwriter in the coming years.

At the beginning of the new decade, Silva left Hernández and his outfit to record with the larger orchestras of “Moncho” Usera, René Touzet and Armando Castro, also for RCA. During this time Silva composed a number of songs that were hits for other vocalists, in addition to recording her own material and compositions by others. The first version of what would become her signature interpretation was the feisty guaracha, “Camina Como Chencha La Gambá,” composed by Antonio “Ñico Saquito” Fernández in 1947 and written from the perspective of someone empathizing with a woman who has a deformed leg and has to deal with the taunts of lascivious men as her handicap makes her swivel her hips profusely. By the end of the 1940s, she was making a name for herself as the best seller of RCA Victor Records in its “Serie Internacional” imprint, which was aimed at the South American/Hispanic market. She had also made an ambitious tour of several countries including Venezuela and Mexico and had entertained US troops in Africa during World War II. Also while in her 20s, Myrta sang for another important Puerto Rican composer, Pedro Flores, in his Sexteto Flores, where she was joined by two compatriots, the young bohemian crooner Daniel Santos and the dynamic “Davilita” (Pedro Ortiz Davila), both of whom would become her perpetual friends. She also began to hone her percussion skills, becoming the first female timbales player (“timbalera”) accredited by a musicians’ union in the United States. Like Sheila E. who followed in her footsteps decades later, Silva was not only a singing timbalera but she also played congas, bongos, maracas and güiro, becoming an acknowledged inspiration for Puerto Rican percussionist and band leader Sonia López in the 1970s.

On her third visit to Havana in 1949, Myrta was invited by guitarist and singer Rogelio Martínez to join the already renowned musicians’ collective La Sonora Matancera, becoming the first female singer with the group. She was soon performing live on Radio Progreso and CMQ, touring the island and playing a full schedule in nightclubs and dance halls. From the mid-1940s until the end of the 1950s, the collective had a program as exclusive artists on Radio CMQ called “Cascabeles Candado” and Myrta became an instant hit with them, acting as a perfect foil to the band’s main male vocalist, Bienvenido Granda, as well as for her countryman, Daniel Santos, who sang off and on with La Sonora between 1948 and 1953. All this activity in Cuba rapidly catapulted her to fame, making her the most popular female singer in Spanish language music by the end of the decade, from Argentina to Curaçao. One can hear the Radio Progreso live studio audience going crazy for Myrta on spicy tracks like “Mi Guaguancó”, proving how she had caught on with Havana’s notoriously demanding music fans. However, though they were a winning combination, Myrta and La Sonora Matancera only stayed together for little over a year all told, and made a mere four official studio recordings in 1949 for the band’s label, Seeco Records, just two of which were released on a 78 single in 1952. Though she left Cuba and La Sonora seemingly for good in 1950, Myrta returned briefly in 1952 and made a number of spirited live recordings, which thankfully have been preserved for posterity’s sake. Having achieved fame and the admiration of the Cuban public with La Sonora Matancera, Silva saw her brief stints on the island as a crucial stepping stone to taking control of her own destiny as a solo artist and composer in her native Puerto Rico, which she longed to return to permanently, no matter how much fun or success she was having in Havana. This fateful decision was to have historic consequences because when Myrta left for good at the height of her fame, bandleader Rogelio Martínez realized La Sonora desperately needed a female replacement, such was the pressure from the group’s followers. By 1953 Celia Cruz had joined La Sonora Matancera permanently, at the recommendation of the nightclub choreographer Roderico Neira aka “Rodney” and empresario Rafael Sotolongo, both of whom had worked with Cruz in the cabaret review Las Mulatas de Fuego. Despite initial resistance from Cuban fans who missed their beloved guarachera Myrta, Celia Cruz managed to achieve worldwide success with La Sonora and Seeco by the end of the decade, becoming “La Guarachera De Cuba” in the process. Far from being rivals, Cruz and Silva were to become lifelong friends, sharing a bond stemming from their fateful exchange with La Sonora Matancera.

Myrta then returned to Puerto Rico at the beginning of the 1950s and settled in San Juan where she continued to care for her mother and performed in top night spots like The Escambron Beach Club until 1956, when she went back to New York. Not content to be merely a singer, musician and composer, Silva, who always had a dramatic flair and interpreted her vocal material with an actor’s intensity, decided she wanted to get into television. She developed, produced and hosted a trail-blazing Spanish language variety program called “Una Hora Contigo” (‘An Hour With You’) which was syndicated in Puerto Rico as well and featured the dancing talents of a young Roberto Roena. Her often risqué, gossipy and provocative performances as show host Madame Chencha, who was a quirky and outspoken character based on her hit song from the previous decade, were wildly popular at first and gained her the updated sobriquet, now that she was a grown woman and no longer little, “La Gorda De Oro” (‘The Fat Golden One’), again for her success, only this time on the glowing screen that was making inroads even in “El Barrio” (Latin neighborhoods). Wanting to return to her native country again Silva decided to continue with television in Puerto Rico, this time developing a program called “Tira y Tápate” (‘Throw and Take Cover’), where she mixed celebrity gossip, crude remarks and entertainment news with live music and sketch performances. This racy combination made her a household name but also got her into trouble on many occasions, especially when she carelessly took aim, through the unfiltered character of Madame Chencha, at Puerto Rico’s elite. After criticism for her outré routines and some controversies of a legal nature between Silva, television programmers, and various litigants over her sharing of gossip and flagrant speculation (often of a sexual nature), Myrta returned once again to New York to get away from the backlash in an escalating situation caused by her antics on the show.

Not to be outdone, Silva still managed to make records for several labels in New York at this time, including two for Ansonia, one with Daniel Santos and Jaime Jaramillo for Spanoramic, and a pair for Tico, as well as a date for Musart in Mexico in 1969. However, it was for her album “Puerto Rico Canta Y Baila,” recorded for the Musicor label in 1966 and backed by her childhood friend Tito Rodríguez’s orchestra, that she was given an award by Puerto Rico’s National Assembly in recognition of her contribution to the culture of the Island. Though she kept busy in the recording studio during the 1960s, it was the TV screen that beckoned again with a program Silva called “Radio TV Mirror,” broadcast on Channel 47 out of Newark, N.J. Myrta and her show were recognized in 1967 with an award for the best television variety program in the New York area. In the following decade Silva started her own record label, De Oro, and released several bolero and comedy albums, as well as LPs of vocalists she had discovered or was managing at the time, and all of this tied in with live performances on her program.

While in New York during this stint in the 60s she composed a few songs that were filled with despair, frustration, emotional suffering and the pain of longing for her homeland (and missing her beloved mother “Yeya”), such as “Puerto Rico Del Alma,” “Que Sabes Tú,” “Tengo que Acostumbrarme,” “Fin de un Amor,” “Aunque Se Oponga El Mundo,” and “Yo Quiero Volverme a Enamorar.” It’s quite possible that some of these feelings of hurt expressed so eloquently in these works, in addition to being caused by her rejection of sectors of the Puerto Rican public over her controversial television content, was also due to her having to lead a mostly closeted life as a lesbian in a world that was not ready to accept her for who she was. In the 1940s, Myrta had married the Mexican actor David Silva “El Galán Azteca,” but it was a short lived marriage with no children before their amicable separation. By the 1960s it was an open secret amongst her friends and fellow showbiz compatriots that she was gay, but even today it is not something that has featured in her official biography.

Always busy writing songs, in 1970, Myrta composed “No Te Ires De Mi Vida” and “Sabes Una Cosa, Amor,” which was popularized by the vedette Evelyn Souffront. The following year, Myrta returned to Puerto Rican television, hired by Telecadena Pérez Perry, presenting again “Una Hora Contigo” on Channel 11. Silva was a friend of charitable causes for her entire career, a theme that often featured on her show, and after the Cuban revolution she advocated for the Cuban exile community both publicly and behind the scenes. Her song “Cuba Está Triste” expressed her deep feelings about this and she did what she could to help Cuban musicians when they came to New York or San Juan. She also put herself front and center as an activist involved in numerous controversies in favor of sovereignty for Puerto Rico, as well as respect for Hispanics in general, not only later in her career but also as far back as the early 1950s when, during the “Mambo USA” tour, she directly confronted racist whites over their mistreatment of African Americans and Latinos at the theater where they were to perform. When Playboy magazine published offensive comments against Puerto Rican women in the 1960s, Myrta Silva was one of the first to picket the magazine’s offices in New York. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, she worked at San Juan’s WIPR-TV, the first educational, non-commercial public television station in Latin America, hosting cultural programs devoted to the promotion of Puerto Rican music and its composers.

While a young singer in the 1940s, Myrta Silva exuded overflowing joy and natural sexiness when she performed her fun-loving and coquettish guarachas. But as a more mature adult who had experienced a lot of ups and downs in life, when she began to fine-tune her songwriting and concentrated on boleros, Silva’s unabashed emotionalism flowed from her pen, and carried through her voice, with a raw anguish that was palpable. Her renditions of these songs were so intense and full of unsatisfied love, failed relationships and romantic disappointment that to some, she ruined her own compositions by being overly dramatic, over-singing them. In the years after her beloved “Mamá Yeya” passed away in 1971, Myrta began to become argumentative and difficult with her colleagues, failing to hide her bitterness at this huge loss. By this time she was seen by some as no longer merely provocative but actually obnoxious, and it is at this stage when the early signs of dementia seemed to blend with her overall depressed and combative state, leading her to withdraw gradually from the limelight by the mid-1980s. Her final years in San Juan were marred by a heated family controversy related to her inheritance at a time when she was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and was not able to name heirs due to her mental incapacity. On December 2, 1987, she tragically died of third-degree burns caused by an accident in her home involving scalding hot water, again related to her Alzheimer’s. Her remains rest in the family vault in Cementerio Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis (San Juan), close to those of her lifelong friends Rafael Hernández, Pedro Flores, Daniel Santos and Yayo El Indio.

-Pablo Yglesias


released February 21, 1961

Mastering Engineer: Ruben Castro


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