There are many who would say that Latin music is primarily a man’s game and in many respects they would be right. If music were only a numbers game there would be no contest. Many factors tilted the musical scales toward men in Latin musical tradition but there’s no doubt that when a woman wanted to sing in public, she had to break through old-world thinking, commercial preconceptions and cultural taboos.
Here are 10 women who did just that. Defying the mold, these women not only cemented their place in Latin music they also changed the shape of the music itself.
When Gloria Estefan started out in the entertainment industry, she was unique in her ability to attract a large following among both Spanish and English speakers. But at the beginning of her career, people told her she'd never make it big: she was too American for Latins, too Latin for Americans. And yet it was just this chameleon-like ability to appeal to both audiences that helped sell over 70 million albums and earn her the name of "Queen of Latin Pop".
If you want to talk about breaking the mold, no one smashed the gender barrier with as much TNT as Celia Cruz. Early in her career she was told there was no interest in a woman singing salsa, but she proved that those movers and shakers were wrong. One of the first women signed to the emerging Fania label, her fame outlived both the label itself and that of many male idols of her time.
Think about this: if you took a global survey, especially in non-Hispanic regions, of the first name that came to mind when the word salsa was mentioned, want to bet that name would be Celia Cruz?
Tejano music was virtually unknown outside of Texas, the Southwest and Mexico before Selena. She brought the hybrid music a broader audience with her style, infectious personality and generous voice. It didn’t hurt that she could also sing in English; in fact, Selena had to learn Spanish in order to broaden her appeal outside the U.S. to Mexico.
Selena was on the brink of becoming a ‘crossover’ sensation when she was tragically shot in 1995. While the tragedy itself caused Selena’s fame to skyrocket, it also killed the opportunity for tejano music to reach a larger base of music lovers.
4. Reggaeton /Hip Hop - Ivy Queen
If there’s any genre more unlikely to feature a diva, it’s the urban music that started in Panama and grew to adulthood and raging popularity in Puerto Rico. Reggaeton was shaped in the barrios of the island and the rough lyrics and angry style often verbally demean women while featuring them visually as prurient eye candy.
Undaunted, Ivy Queen jumped into the fray with rap that was just as rough, just as angry as the male version but from a woman’s point of view. Bold and willing to mix-it- up, those sexy stilettos have walked all over male dominated territory as well as the charts
5. Brazilian MPB - Elis Regina
Elis Regina was a force of nature. Her powerful and relentless personality inspired the nicknames “Hurricane” and “Little Pepper,” her generous, powerful voice moved a country to regard her not only as their most popular diva but as a defining voice of MPB. Regina collaborated with the Tropicalia artists of her day including the great Antonio Carlos Jobim; she eventually evolved to become the highest paid singer in Brazil.
Regina died of an overdose of alcohol and cocaine when she was only 36. The degree to which her music still maintains its intense popularity simply highlights the extraordinary influence she had on Brazilian popular music during her short time on the scene.
6. Ranchera - Lola Beltran
Singers of the romantic music called ranchera are usually high-powered male tenors but few of them can equal the feats and popularity of Lola Beltran. From 1947 to 1982 Beltran made close to 40 movies, most of them musicals; in the meantime, she recorded over 100 albums. With a voice both lovely and powerful, Beltran earned the names “Lola La Grande’ and the ‘Queen of Ranchera.’
Beltran started out as a secretary but she was 16 when her first film was entered into the Cannes Film Festival. She died suddenly in 1996 and was mourned by the millions that had spent most of their lifetimes surrounded by Beltran’s romantic songs. .
7. Traditional Afro-Cuban - Omara Portuondo
Omara Portuondo is most famous for her participation on the Buena Vista Social Club and subsequent franchise albums. But really, the Cuban songstress has been singing (and dancing in the early days) for 6 decades and it must have been surprising to gain an international following so late in life.
From her debut in 1945 as a singer/dancer at Havana’s Tropicana, her 15 years with the popular Quarteto Las d’Aida, her first solo album Magia Negra in 1959 and her ultimate success on Buena Vista, Omara Portuondo has put an authentic ‘feeling’ (once a nickname) into Cuba’s traditional music.
8. Merengue - Olga Tanon
Merengue started out and is still the music of the Dominican Republic, but it quickly moved to Puerto Rico where Olga Tanon has run with it to become the internationally recognized ‘Queen of Merengue.’ While there are even fewer female bands than solo artists, Tanon started her career singing with two all-girl bands: Las Nenas de Ringo y Jossie and Chantelle.
Tanon’s deep, contralto voice, the added flamenco flourishes and full-throated sexy renditions of the material were made to capture the spotlight. When Tanon finally went solo, her debut album Sola immediately went platinum.
9. Rock - Andrea Echeverri
Colombia’s Andrea Echeverri may be only half of popular Aterciopelados’ founding duo, but she stands on her own as not only an international alternative/rock star but as a passionate advocate for feminism and political reform. Echeverri’s music is not just about observing and commenting on society; when she recorded her solo album Andrea Echeverri she focused inward, writing and singing about her experiences as a mother and lover. But whether she is focused outward or inward, her music and her lyrics are always universal.
10. Samba - Carmen Miranda
It’s easy to poke fun at Carmen Miranda with her fruit-topped hats and outrageous accent and mannerisms. But originally, Miranda was a huge star in Brazil singing sambas composed by greats like Caymmi, Carlos Braga and Jourbert de Carvallho.
The music she brought to the States, the music that made her the highest paid woman in Hollywood was written by Tin Pan Alley songwriters and was a fusion of what these men thought was Brazilian music. When she finally returned to Brazil, her audience thought her too Americanized to take seriously. It broke her heart, but still, who ever thought about samba before Carmen Miranda?