Past the late Celia Cruz, there aren’t many well-known women in the musical genre of salsa. But tonight at Artisphere, salsa dance teacher and educator Eileen Torres is offering, as part of Women’s History Month, a multi-media program called “Fifteen Women in Salsa.” The evening will highlight Cruz, of course, as well as lesser-knowns like Myrta Silva, lead singer for Sonora Matancera; La Lupe, Yolanda Rivera, Choco Orta, and Anacaona, a 1930s-era Cuban band made up of 10 sisters that has reformed in recent years with new members. This is the second of three programs from Torres on Latin music history. In February she had presented a program called “Africa: The Roots of Salsa,” and on April 21 she’ll offer “The Influence of Latin Rhythms on American Popular Music.”
I asked Torres some questions via e-mail on tonight’s event.
Washington City Paper: Are there any women instrumentalists that you are highlighting? If so who, and what instrument do they play?
Eileen Torres: All the women in Anacaona were musicians except the lead vocalist. Graciela was a bassist when she was with Anacaona. She is however primarily known as a singer. Choco Orta is a well regarded percussionist as well as a vocalist. The other women [in the program] have broken into salsa based on their abilities as vocalists.
WCP: Are cultural and societal beliefs changing in your mind regarding what women can do in salsa?
ET: We live in a new age when women are seen in a different light. When Anacaona began touring they met much resistance for traveling without their men. Some could not be part of that group because of the lifestyles musicians were known to lead. There are more opportunities now; however women are still in the minority in the male dominated salsa industry. I am still surprised when I see a female musician among the ranks of the boy musicians. The guys are always quick to point out how skilled the female is-if she wasn’t she would have never been given a chance.
WCP: Who are some of your favorite pioneering women in salsa?
ET: Anacaona, the Chinese Cuban sisters, became a sensation in Latin America, and Europe in the ’30s and ’40s. They set an example that led to the formation of many more all female orchestras in Cuba. Graciela was the first woman to front a Latin orchestra. She led the way for all other females who came after. Celia Cruz because she was able to break the gender barrier in the Fania All Stars.
“Fifteen Women in Salsa” with host Eileen Torres is presented tonight Thursday, March 10 from 7 – 9 pm at the Dome Theatre @ Artisphere, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. $5. 703-875-1100.
Photo of Yolanda Rivera and Choco Orta from justsalsa.com