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

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This article is part of Overlooked, a series of obituaries about notable people not reported in The Times, beginning in 1851.

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

At moderate volume, a woman, Sylvia Lezak, begins singing with a smoky voice and non-virtuoso authority. She describes a fantasy loop in which her ex-lover briefly visits her in her dreams and leaves her “the awakening of her love” (“estela de amor”) . Her dreams come back again when she wants. She may not want more than fantasy (she may want less: freedom from repetitive desires). There is no reciprocity in this relationship, and she not only accepts the situation, but appears to be adept and a strong expert in it.

This description refers to the luminous seance-like record “Sylvia Rexach Canta a Sylvia Rexach,” produced in July 1958 in a San Juan studio by the then 36-year-old Puerto Rican singer-songwriter and her friend. It can apply to almost any track. Guitarist Tutti Unpierre. The tempo remains the same, as do images and themes such as moon, night, and oblivion. celestial flashes; nasty desires; waves and what they left behind.

Released by the Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña in the mid-1960s, the album had little distribution outside of Puerto Rico and only recently appeared on streaming services. This was the only commercially issued recording of Rexach performing his own songs, and was not intended as such. It was a reference to prove to posterity what her songs should sound like, created at the request of the studio owner. It includes “Olas y Arenas” (“Waves and Sands”), “Alma Adentro” (“Inner Soul”), “Y Entonces” (“And So”) and has been featured by many other performers over the years. I came. style.

Rexach (pronounced reck-SAHTCH) was a talented composer of boleros. The bolero originated in Cuba at the end of his 19th century and became popular in Latin America in the late 1920s. But in the 1940s and into his 50s, he could reflect a more modern sensibility, in tune with his wild subconscious. It can almost accommodate an artist at heart, ‘una bohemia’, like Lezak.It’s a committed identity, not a casual description.

“It meant she loved the nightlife, singing in groups with friends and watching the sun rise,” her daughter, actor and singer Sharon Riley, said in an interview. .

Rexach was preceded by important female bolero composers, the most famous being Maria Greber of Mexico. But Puerto Rico’s sexist and militaristic society in the mid-20th century created a particularly difficult situation forcing female artists such as Lezak and poet Julia de Burgos to create their own traditions.

Renowned musicologist Cristóbal Diaz Ayala has described Lezak as virtually unclassifiable among Latin American music of her time. Her lyrics reflected an outspoken sexuality and indifference to shame. They can look like passionate resignation, or they can look like mild defiance. “I am the sand that the waves never touch,” she laments in her “Olas y Arenas.”

She was able to destabilize and propagate what scholar Elaine Enid Vazquez Gonzalez called the “Boleristic ‘I'”. In her song, the narrator’s desire does not move entirely outward toward its goal, as was common in Bolero’s lyrics. It moves more inward towards one’s own memories and sensations. Listeners follow suit.

Silvia Regina Lexac Gonzalez was born on January 22, 1922, one of seven children of Julio Lexac. Julio Lexac, of Catalan descent, ran Pharmacia Lexac, a drugstore next door to her family’s home. annual carnival activities. Her wealthy family lived in the Santurus neighborhood east of San Juan’s old town, known for its dense concentration of musicians and artists.

At Central High School in Santurus, Sylvia proved to be an indifferent student, but was an integral part of the school’s performing arts program. One afternoon in the mid-1930s, during her school excursion, she played her own song “Di Corazon” (“Tell me, heart”) on the piano in her beach club in Escambron. Bandleader Rafael Muñoz, who was absent from rehearsals for the night’s performance, heard it and asked who wrote it. Her father signed a deal with publisher Peer International on her behalf, and Muñoz recorded her songs before Lezak finished her junior year.

In 1943, she enlisted in the Women’s Army Corps and worked for three months as a clerk. Around this time, while promoting a brand of rum outside a grocery store, she met Bill Riley, an Army cook from Connecticut. They fell in love, married soon after, had three children, and legally she lived together for thirteen years, mostly unhappy. According to Sharon Riley, her father often beat her mother.

During the 1940s and 50s, Lezak worked in clubs as the leader of the vocal group El Combo Las Damicilas (later known as El Combo de Silvia Lezak) and performed in musical theater revues both on the island and in New York City. She helped found a publishing organization that championed the rights of composers. She wrote scripts for comedy shows for radio and television, as well as advertising jingles for aspirin and detergents. She writes a cultural criticism column for El Diario de Puerto Rico, Celebrate the unsung heroes and locals while reacting to exploitative business practices.

She raised her children as a single mother and wrote songs. About 50 books were published, but friend and singer José Luis Treglosa said, “There were more on the table in the café where we were drinking.” Many booklets were left behind.” Some were recognized during her lifetime through versions by famous singers. Lucho Her Gatica’s ‘Y Entonces’, released in 1959, was particularly famous, but it was later performed by Tito Herr Rodriguez, Lalupe, Cheo Feliciano, and many more. . With her song “Alma Adentro” alone, she went through many sensibilities. Linda Ronstadt covered the song on her Grammy Award-winning 1992 album Frenesí, and New York-based jazz saxophonist Miguel Zenón covered it on her 2011 release. song. Bolero with Puerto Rican roots Her revival Her band, Miramar, took a close look at her life before creating their own nuanced version included on their 2016-released album Sylvia Her Dedication to Lethac. I investigated. This attracted the attention of US composers. Also Spanish singer Angela Cervantes and Cuban jazz pianist Pepe Her Libero recently released her own version, spreading her work to audiences who knew little of her music.

Rexach died of stomach cancer on October 20, 1961. she was 39 years old.

Her place in history remains unfixed — somewhere between institutional and cult, often rediscovered and sometimes not at all. Telemundo’s mini-series of Lezak’s life told Lezak’s story in dramatic tones. There are two theaters named after her in San Juan. The current one is located within the Centro de Bellas Artes, Puerto Rico’s major arts center, and is built loosely on the site of her family’s old home. Sylvia Rexach: Pasión Adentro” was published in Puerto Rico in 2008, but has not been translated into other languages ​​and is out of print.

Lezak was a conscientious woman who resisted easy definitions and enshrinements. She is melancholic and different aspects of her life create an aura of tragedy around her. her long illness. her son Billy’s opium addiction and jail time in New York City; Her early death at Santurus Women’s Hospital.

However, as detailed in Santalis’ biography, those who knew her well emphasized a variety of qualities, including cheerfulness, bravery, generosity, loyalty, and perfectionism. Marta Romero, one of El Combo Sylvia Lezak’s bandmates, once called her “an ever-erupting volcano of mercy.”Her great songwriter Tait Curée Alonso also likened her to nature, calling her “a true cultural bloomer”The word ‘bruma’ she used in ‘Olas y Arenas’ means mist, meaning that she has become part of the atmosphere.

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