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Women on Top 

In Latin bands, it used to be that women were singers or nothing at all. Not anymore.

Wednesday, May 23 2001
On a rainy night in late January three mostly female bands held a "Women in Salsa" summit at a packed La Peña Cultural Center in Berkeley. Headlined by Texas transplant Marina Garza and her Orquesta D'Soul, the event was an attempt to raise much-needed recording funds for the group's debut album. The presence of a large crowd willing to battle inclement weather for a middle-of-the-week show was an indication of how strong the "Latina Alternative" scene has grown -- with the ability to draw both lesbian and straight listeners. Through diligent efforts, Orquesta D'Soul, Dulce Mambo, Once 11, and other groups are breaking down the stereotypical views of women musicians in Latin music. And whereas womyn's-music purveyors of the past were content to stay within their communities, these Latinas want mainstream success.

"Right now we're finishing up the CD, and it should be out by the end of May," says Garza during a recent interview at her home in San Francisco. "It took more money than we raised that night [in January], so I hit up my family [by] sending them tease demos to get them all to pitch in."

Based in San Francisco since the late '90s, Garza is a talented trumpeter and singer with a band that fuses salsa, Latin rock, ska, and hip hop. With Gloria Amaral and Juliana Muñoz -- the Mission District's answer to the Spice Girls -- on backup vocals, the combo offers sensual vocal harmonies with a bilingual mix of urban love themes. Tunes like "Insomnia, "Trailer Boy," and "Victim of Bad Love" feature super-charged piano vamps and traditional Afro-Cuban beats, but the sound isn't straight-ahead salsa: Hip hop and mambo riffs appear as often as Garza's trumpet solos.

Amaral, who also leads her own combo, Dulce Mambo, is one of the keys to the growing movement. A computer-savvy salesperson who realized her lifelong wish of singing in a salsa band four years ago, Amaral recently designed a Web site,, that features pages for her band, as well as Orquesta D'Soul and Once 11.

"We promote women, Latinas, and unity," explains Amaral via phone from her office in Emeryville. "We're very supportive of each other and we donate time to recording demos, as well as advising and teaching each other how to put our best foot forward." But even with all the support, the scene isn't very lucrative. Although Amaral sings in four different bands, she still has to work full time -- while also tending to her family.

Amaral is a classically trained singer who got her break in the early '90s with Orquesta Radiante. Since her teens she has been both musically and politically active, working previously with United Farm Workers Union co-founder Dolores Huerta, among others. Now 38, she is seen as the guiding figure in the female salsa scene, having given players like Garza and Once 11 leader Tami Ellis their starts.

"We're all very incestuous," says Amaral, an East Bay native born in Oakland and raised in Albany. "Tami started playing with Dulce Mambo as a sub and joined the band later. Marina came in about two years ago. They spawned their own groups, and I started subbing with them."

Amaral's jazzy delivery has a spine-chilling effect, especially when she improvises passionate call-and-response verses in concert. Her clear, soulful voice also incites sweat-drenched mambo dancing on covers of Eddie Palmieri's "Adoración" and Albita's "Qué Manera de Quererte." With a sound that Amaral describes as "salsa femenina," Dulce Mambo has developed a large following of men and women in the San Jose area. Unfortunately, the group has had a harder time breaking into the immediate Bay Area salsa circuit.

"I refuse to buy that it's sexism or whatever," says Amaral. "I want to take the high road and give the benefit of the doubt to my fellow salseros. I realize that the salsa scene is saturated in the Bay Area and that there's less venues to play that will pay good money. The salsa sound is a big sound and [you need a] minimum of an 11-piece band. I lose money at the end of the year but I feed my musicians and I try to guarantee them no less than $75 a gig."

Throughout history there have been all-female bands, many of which swung just as hard as their male counterparts. The first women-led ensembles in Afro-Caribbean music date back to Havana's all-girl big band Orquesta Anacaona, which formed in 1932 and featured the sweet-voiced Graciela Pérez, sister of Machito orchestra leader Frank Grillo.

During the mambo era of the '40s and '50s, the singing and dancing guarachera girl became the stereotype. Popularized in Mexican films, the scantily clad floor-show performers were seen as a novelty act. In the '70s, pianist/bandleader Larry Harlow razed the stereotype by producing Latin Fever, an all-female New York band on pioneering label Fania Records. Though short-lived, Latin Fever opened the door to women musicians, who, in turn, formed female salsa bands across the country.

In the Bay Area groups such as Chévere, Tierra Nueva, Orquesta Sazón, and Azúcar y Crema created an all-woman salsa presence up until the mid-'90s. Thanks to gifted musicians such as Patricia Tumas, Annette Aguilar, and Carolyn Brandy, these female bands rocked shows at El Rio, La Peña, the Mission Cultural Center, and the Women's Building.

Probably the longest-running all-woman salsa band was Azúcar y Crema, led by pianist Remy Arroyo in the late '80s and early '90s. Part of what made the group so special was the lead vocals of poet Maria Cora and the potent swing of percussionists Cathy Ramos and Suki. Since then, Arroyo and Cora have retired, but Suki and Ramos still perform as part of Once 11.

"There's a lot of great women musicians out here thanks to Ellen Seeling and Jean Fineberg who teach at the Jazz School and lead the Montclair Women's Big Band," says Marina Garza. "It serves as a network of support that helps all of us hook up gigs."

But even with a thriving community of bands, it can be hard to get shows. "We've paid our dues," Amaral says. "There's a lot of people out there bad-mouthing us and giving us attitude, [saying] that we're no good. We have a strong following, and people dance to our stuff, so I don't understand why we can't get booked."

Several club owners refused to go on the record about negative comments they had made. Granted, some of their opinions are based on the early Dulce Mambo shows, where the band's inexperience turned off some listeners. Four years later the group now has a solid presence. One booker I spoke with even asked for Dulce Mambo's contact information.

As the opportunities for Latin musicians grow, competition for gigs remains fierce. But Amaral and her comrades are determined not to be left behind. Through the Internet and growing word-of-mouth, the musicians are creating a movement undeterred by prejudices or stereotypes.

"People are now looking for women bands as a theme," says Garza. "I think there's a lot of opportunities right now for this music, and the more bands [there are] the more there will be a scene."

About The Author

Jesse "Chuy" Varela


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