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La Cita

by Sylvia De Grasse

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La Cita 02:16
Mariabe 02:33
El Chicotazo 02:29
La Aparicion 02:32


Sylvia De Grasse (Casco Antiguo, Panama City, October 28, 1921 - San Juan, Puerto Rico, May 14, 1978) was a Panamanian singer with a wide vocal range who was considered “The Queen of the Tamborera” and “The Empress of Panamanian Song.” As a girl, De Grasse studied at a specialized music school where she received the support of a teacher named Prof. Graciani, who helped her improve her vocal abilities with an emphasis on classical technique, and soon she was heard throughout Panama on the radio. She recorded her first 78 RPM singles for RCA in Panama at the young age of 14, most of which were in the highly percussive tamborera style or other Panamanian genres like tamborito and mejorana.

With the help of legendary Panamanian pianist and composer Ricardo Fábrega (1905 - 1973), who had created the tamborera genre earlier in the 20th Century by fusing the Afro-Panamanian tamborito with the Cuban danzón and son, the young De Grasse gave true voice to Fábrega’s invention, making the tamborera a popular form. This helped instill nationalist sentiment and aided Panamanians in their quest to identify with their indigenous traditions. Her career as a singer soon catapulted her to the forefront of the Panamanian entertainment industry, leading her to appear on radio programs and in shows at various venues around the country. She eventually showed even greater interest in the tamborera, and in the 1940s recorded subsequent releases showcasing the genre, some with the famed Panamanian organist and pianist Avelino Muñoz, who became a mentor of sorts and encouraged De Grasse to compose and arrange her own tunes.

The Dominican singer José Ernesto “Negrito” Chapuseaux Guerra (1911-1986) had been on tour in Panama in 1940 with his artistic partner and compatriot, famed pianist Francisco Alberto Simó Damirón aka “Damirón” (1908-1992), when he first met the young De Grasse; the two subsequently fell in love and married in 1942. Three years later they formed a trio together with Damirón, calling it Los Alegres Tres. While the trio had a busy performance schedule, De Grasse and Chapuseaux also managed to raise two beautiful and talented daughters, Clarissa Chapuseaux and Quisqueya Edilia, known as “Gigi,” Chapuseaux. During the second half of the 1940s, De Grasse, Chapuseaux and Damirón returned to Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, where they remained for a couple of years. De Grasse soon made a name for herself on the island as an actress, becoming recognized as the first foreign born female talent to achieve stardom on the popular radio plays of the day.

During the 1950s and 1960s the trio traveled and performed in various Latin American countries, eventually settling in New York, where they would establish their base of operations for future tours in the United States, the Caribbean, Latin America and Europe. On their tours they shared the stage with popular artists of the time such as Sammy Davis, Jr., Louis Armstrong, Nat “King” Cole, Beny Moré, Pedro Vargas and Tito Puente. In the late 1950s they spent some time in Mexico and recorded an album’s worth of sides for RCA with El Conjunto de Luis González Pérez, including their famous pachanga “El Yo-Yo” (aka “Gulliver”). The trio also made long stopovers in Puerto Rico, where they often spotted and promoted young talent and were widely popular with local audiences. De Grasse, both with and without the trio, made recordings for US and Puerto Rican labels Ansonia, Marvela, Montilla, Remo and Tropical, as well as Panamanian companies Cajar, Grecha and Tamayo, not to mention Venevox in Caracas, Venezuela. During this time De Grasse recorded “Papelito Blanco” with Chapuseaux and Damirón, a wild tamborera that showcased her multi-octave operatic vocal range in a duet with a flute, a feat which led many listeners to compare her with the great Peruvian singer Ima Sumac. In 1953 she recorded “Mambo Indio,” a piece written by Damirón for Sylvia with Sumac’s vocal acrobatics as inspiration. In addition to giving voice to many original tunes, De Grasse popularized a number of classics composed by others but always associated with her inimitable interpretations, including “Pegadito de Los Hombres,” a tamborera which later was converted into a big hit by fellow Panamanians Bush Y Su Nuevo Sonido when they rearranged it as a salsa decades later. By the mid-1960s, De Grasse and her musical partners had moved again, this time to Puerto Rico, where Damirón had once lived, and where their recordings of merengues and mambos were already well known.

In 1965 De Grasse, as part of Los Alegres Tres, became a cast member of the popular entertainment program “El Show de las 12”, on the WKAQ TV channel in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where she presided over popular variety contests and discovered talents such as Iris Chacón and Conjunto Quisqueya. Recognized internationally for her role in continuing to promote Panamanian culture, particularly on television, De Grasse was invited to return to Panama City where the president, Marco Aurelio Robles, personally awarded her with the keys to the city and decorated her with the Vasco Núñez de Balboa Order in the Yellow Room of the presidential palace. She returned to San Juan where her ever popular presence on daytime television would continue with great success. One of the aspects of De Grasse that her fans loved most of all, aside from her vivacious presence, was the fact that she was “the queen of inclusion.” In her productions everyone had an equal opportunity to shine, regardless of skin color, age, weight, height, sexual orientation, looks or beliefs; talent was her only criteria. It was said that to be in a Sylvia de Grasse production, first you had to audition, and then you had to have that certain star quality that she would recognize at once, making you one of her “chosen ones.”

Of course Damirón and Chapuseaux were an important part of El Show de las 12, as were other hosts and cast members, but the biggest star was always Sylvia. When she passed away of a brief illness while at the pinnacle of her career at the relatively young age of 56, the Spanish-speaking world was in shock. The local press noted that Puerto Rico mourned her as if she were the most illustrious of their daughters. She was buried in her husband Negrito Chapuseaux’s home country of the Dominican Republic. With Sylvia’s death, the trio was effectively dissolved and Damirón was left alone recording instrumental albums, since Chapuseaux publicly declared he did not want to sing again. It is undisputed that all three left an indelible mark on Puerto Rican entertainment history. In order to fulfill their contract with El Show de las 12, Sylvia and Negrito’s daughter Clarissa, who looked, sang and danced a lot like her mother and had had a brief career as a pop singer, took De Grasse’s place for a short time on the show before her father retired and she went on to become an actress.

Undoubtedly, Sylvia De Grasse was the first Panamanian singer who made the humble folkloric music of her people known far beyond her national borders, and she is still a figure of great pride for Panamanians to this day. Her impressive vocal range, as well as keen dramatic abilities and sharp eye for talent, helped her gain international recognition in the Spanish-speaking world of the mid-20th century. Though she may not be as well known now in places like New York, San Juan and Santo Domingo where she was once a household name, her recorded output, as well as clips of her on El Show de las 12, are a pioneer’s legacy just waiting to be rediscovered by today’s current audience.

One of those fantastic classic recordings of Sylvia’s that has now been remastered is “La Cita,” released on Ansonia Records in 1960. The album cover features a glamorously stunning portrait of De Grasse playfully looking over her shoulder, predicting an entertaining and sexy musical “date” (the “cita” alluded to in the title) in the mode of an evening with a Caribbean Eartha Kitt. Recorded while Sylvia De Grasse, Chapuseaux and Damirón were based in New York, the LP’s song genres consist almost entirely of Sylvia’s beloved tamborera and tamborito, though the repertoire is complemented by five porros, a musical form similar to the cumbia that is known not only in Colombia but Panama as well (which is no surprise, as Panama used to be a part of Colombia).

Throughout the album De Grasse’s expressive voice and coquettish vitality shine bright, making it one of the best recordings in her large and varied catalog. As previously mentioned, the tamborero that De Grasse excelled at had a hybrid mix of Cuban forms and Panamanian rhythms, which gave it universal commercial appeal. Her lyrical themes range from romance and double-entendre to depictions of peasant life. The overall sound, in particular the constant galloping drum beat and sprightly mix of piano, clarinet and flute, is consistently upbeat and danceable. At times, the lead and backing vocals are infused with a certain indescribably mournful quality that cuts right to the heart of the listener. Additionally, De Grasse is expert at giving the little yodeling cries (“gritos” or “llantos”) that one hears in much campesino music from Latin America, but especially in the cumbia and porro. These vocal asides, along with the acoustic guitar, add that certain crucial feel of authenticity, making this record a special addition to Ansonia’s folkloric “traditional Latin music” cannon. In particular, “Mariabe,” “Matando Los Chivos” and “Llorelé Llorelá” ring true with this type of authenticity, though it’s questionable whether the tunes are indeed based on older “traditional” Panamanian and Colombian songs or not. Listening to the astounding “Mi Gallo Pinto,” with its típico peasant lyrics about cock fighting, it’s fascinating to experience the way De Grasse subverts the ostensibly folkloric subject matter with her classically-trained operatic singing, what Ansonia producer Herman Glass calls a “register of unusual range” with “flutelike voice qualities” in the original liner notes. Authentic or not, what matters most with “La Cita” is the emotional feeling and high quality of the sessions that Ansonia was able to capture in this uniquely original, pan-Latin musical project.

For it was indeed an international effort that could have only taken place in New York City, combining, as it did, the music and musicians of Panama, Colombia, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador and Puerto Rico. De Grasse was accompanied on the recording date by her fellow members in Los Alegres Tres, her husband Chapuseaux on chorus and güiro and the masterful Damirón on piano. Additional backing came from “El Trío Ecuatorial,” led by Ecuadorian guitarist and singer Jorge Renán Salazar with two other vocalists. Salazar began his career by teaching himself the saxophone and the clarinet, later continuing his studies at the National Conservatory in Quito, where, for the next eight years, he practiced flamenco guitar at least six hours a day. In the 1950s Salazar formed a guitar and vocal trio in the style of Trio Los Panchos, cutting several albums under that name for a number of labels, as well as backing Puerto Rican singer Blanca Iris Villafañe for Ansonia Records. According to Ansonia’s archives, the rest of the session band consisted of Puerto Rican saxophone player, arranger, and bandleader Miguel Ángel Rivera, aka “Don Rivero,” on clarinet (and possibly flute), as well as Fermín de Thomas, another virtuosic Puerto Rican clarinetist, who was a well known composer and first found fame in the 1930s with Los Jardineros. The bassist on the recordings was Puerto Rican double bass and cuatro player Sarrail Archilla de León (1917 - 1995), an accomplished and popular sideman who played with Ladisalo “Maestro Ladí” Martínez, Tito Puente, Machito, Noro Morales and Miguelito Valdés (whose son Juan Miguel “Chengue” Valdés would marry Gigi Chapuseaux). One of Ansonia’s most popular Dominican artists, bandleader and percussionist Luis Quintero, played tambora (large double-headed merengue bass drum) and tumbadora (conga). Other musicians or backing vocalists in the Ansonia studio ledger are listed as José Cintrón, “Chemín,” and José González. The sessions were recorded May 31 and June 1, 1960 at Beltone Recording Corporation, while the final masters were prepared for manufacture the following month, with one 45 (“La Cita” / “El Gallo Pinto”) being released for radio and jukebox play. As Herman Glass proudly put it, Ansonia was “very pleased to present an album of gay, catchy, danceable music typical of the sister republics Panamá and Colombia” and now, much to our education and benefit, the label has lovingly remastered the record for today’s global digital audience.

-Pablo Yglesias


released July 22, 1960


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