Overlooked No More: Sylvia Rexach, Puerto Rican Singer and Composer

This article is part of Overlooked, a series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times.

A woman positioned close to a microphone announces a title into the silence, as if preparing to read a poem: “En Mis Sueños” (“In My Dreams”). A guitarist plays a precise and dramatic introduction to a bolero.

At modest volume, the woman, Sylvia Rexach, begins to sing, with a smoky voice and non-virtuosic authority. She describes a fantasy loop in which an ex-lover briefly visits her in her dreams, leaving behind a “wake of love” (“estela de amor”). The dream will return again when she wants it to, which she will. She may not want more than the fantasy. (She may even want less: to be free of repetitive desire.) There is no sense of possession nor, really, of loss. There will be no reciprocity in this relationship, and she seems not only to accept the situation but to be an adept within it, a powerful expert.

This description could pertain to more or less every track on “Sylvia Rexach Canta a Sylvia Rexach,” a luminous, séance-like record made in a San Juan studio in July 1958 by the Puerto Rican singer-songwriter, then 36, and her friend the guitarist Tutti Umpierre. The tempos remain similar, as do the images and themes: moons, night and oblivion; celestial flashes; troublesome desire; waves and what they leave behind.

The album, after it was released in the mid-1960s by the Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña — a government-funded operation and the island’s equivalent to the Smithsonian Institution — was barely distributed outside Puerto Rico and has only recently appeared on streaming services. It is the only commercially issued recording of Rexach performing her own songs, and it was not even intended as such: It was a reference document for posterity attesting to how her songs should sound, made at the behest of the studio’s owner. It includes “Olas y Arenas” (“Waves and Sands”), “Alma Adentro” (“Inner Soul”) and “Y Entonces” (“And So”), which over the years have been taken up by other performers in many styles.

Rexach (pronounced reck-SAHTCH) was a gifted composer of boleros — songs of stringent, abiding love in slow 2/4 time. The bolero began in Cuba at the end of the 19th century and gained popularity across Latin America in the late 1920s. But by the ’40s and ’50s it could reflect a more modern sensibility, one in tune with the wild subconscious. It could just about accommodate someone like Rexach, an artist to the core, “una bohemia”not a casual description but a committed identity.

“It meant that she liked the nightlife, and sang with her friends in groups, and saw the sun come up,” her daughter, the actor and singer Sharon Riley, said in an interview.

There had been important female bolero composers before Rexach, most famously María Grever of Mexico. But Puerto Rico’s sexist and militaristic society in the mid-20th century created particularly difficult circumstances that forced women artists like Rexach and the poet Julia de Burgos to invent their own tradition.

The eminent musicologist Cristóbal Díaz Ayala described Rexach as virtually unclassifiable within the Latin American music of her time. Her lyrics projected a frank sexuality and a near-indifference to shame. They could look like passionate resignation, or calm defiance. “I am the sand that the wave never touches,” she laments in “Olas y Arenas.”

She could destabilize and diffuse what the scholar Elaine Enid Vázquez González has called “the boleristic ‘I’”: In her songs, the narrator’s desire doesn’t entirely travel outward toward its object, as had been common in bolero lyrics. It travels inward, more toward her own memory and the senses. The listener follows it there.

Sylvia Regina Rexach González was born on Jan. 22, 1922, one of seven children of Julio Rexach, who was of Catalan descent and ran Farmacia Rexach, a drugstore next door to the family’s home, and María Teresa González, a society woman and organizer of annual carnival activities. Her well-to-do family lived in Santurce, the district east of San Juan’s Old City known for its density of musicians and artists.

At Central High School in Santurce, Sylvia proved an indifferent student but one who was indispensable to the school’s performing-arts programs. One afternoon in the mid-1930s, while on a school outing, she played her song “Di Corazon” (“Tell Me, Heart”) on a piano at the Escambrón Beach Club. The bandleader Rafael Muñoz, who was on a break from rehearsing for an evening performance, heard it and asked her who wrote it. Her father signed a contract on her behalf with the publishing company Peer International, and Muñoz recorded the song before Rexach finished her junior year.

In 1943 she enlisted in the Women’s Army Corps for three months, working as a desk clerk. Around this time, while publicizing a brand of rum outside a grocery store, she met Bill Riley, an Army cook from Connecticut. They fell in love, quickly married, had three children and were legally joined for 13 years, mostly unhappily, with a long separation toward the end. According to Sharon Riley, her father was often violent with her mother, especially when both had been drinking.

In the 1940s and ’50s, Rexach worked in clubs as the leader of the vocal group el Combo Las Damiselas (later known as el Combo de Sylvia Rexach) and with musical-theater revues, both on the island and occasionally in New York City. She helped form a publishing organization through which she advocated for composers’ rights; wrote scripts for radio and television comedy shows, as well as advertising jingles for aspirin and detergent; and wrote a cultural criticism column for El Diario de Puerto Rico, praising the unsung and the local while reacting against exploitative business practices.

She also raised her children as a single mother, and she wrote songs. About 50 have been published, though a friend, the singer José Luis Torregrosa, believed that many more “were left on the tabletops of the cafes where we were drinking.” Several were recognized during her life through versions by well-known singers — particularly Lucho Gatica’s “Y Entonces,” released in 1959 — but many more came later, as performed by Tito Rodríguez, La Lupe, Cheo Feliciano and others. The song “Alma Adentro” alone has passed through many sensibilities: Linda Ronstadt covered it on her Grammy Award-winning 1992 album, “Frenesí,” as did the New York-based jazz saxophonist Miguel Zenón in 2011. on a record named after the song. Miramar, the bolero revivalist band with roots in Puerto Rico, researched her life before creating their own subtle version, included on their album “Dedication to Sylvia Rexach,” released in 2016, which drew some attention to the composer in the United States. And the Spanish singer Angela Cervantes and the Cuban jazz pianist Pepe Rivero recently released their own version, spreading her work to audiences that barely knew her music.

Rexach died on Oct. 20, 1961, of stomach cancer. She was 39.

Her position in history remains unfixed — somewhere between institution and cult, often rediscovered and sometimes not discovered at all. A Telemundo mini-series about Rexach’s life, broadcast in Puerto Rico in the early 1990s and starring Sharon Riley, told her story in dramatic tones. There have been two theaters named for her in San Juan; the current one, inside the Centro de Bellas Artes, Puerto Rico’s major arts center, is built roughly on the site of her family’s old house. A well-researched Spanish-language biography, “Sylvia Rexach: Pasión Adentro,” by Virianai Rodríguez Santaliz, was published in Puerto Rico in 2008, but it has not been translated into other languages and has gone out of print.

Rexach was a woman of integrity who continues to resist easy definition and enshrinement. She was melancholic, and aspects of her life have created around her an aura of tragedy: her troubled marriage and divorce; her long illness; her son Billy’s opiate addiction and prison time in New York City; her early death at the Women’s Hospital of Santurce.

Yet those who knew her well, as detailed in Santaliz’s biography, have stressed a different set of qualities: hilarity, bravery, generosity, loyalty, perfectionism. Marta Romero, one of her bandmates in el Combo Sylvia Rexach, once called her “a volcano of mercy in constant eruption.” The great songwriter Tite Curet Alonso also compared her to nature, calling her “a true cultural bruma.” The word “bruma,” which she used in “Olas y Arenas,” means mist, and implies that she has become part of the atmosphere.

Source link