From the earliest of times, the women of the world have been making music. Their voices have been lifted in song during dances, ceremonies, rituals, births, and deaths. They have played their instruments in Neolithic caves, on rural front porches, and on the exquisite world stages of today.
A list of legendary international women singers and musicians from the 20th century would certainly include Amalia Rodrigues (Portugal), Carmen Miranda (Brazil), Memphis Minnie (USA), Maria Papagika (Greece), Maybelle Carter (USA), Ofra Haza (Israel), Lydia Mendoza (Tejano), Cheikha Rimitti (Algeria), Edith Piaf (France), Graciela (Venezula), and hundreds more.
When we look at the biographies of these women, we notice a common theme of struggle and hardship, but also frequent reports of early gifts and stunning brilliance. The vicissitudes of a life of performance seemed to plague many of these great women, and it is clear that an often unpredictable life was hard for many of them. But we also find in these stories much triumph and radiance in the later lives of many remarkable women.
Amalia Rodrigues (1920-1999) was born in Lisbon. She was a legendary singer and actress known as the queen of fado, the most popular style of Portuguese folk music. The most important characteristic of fado music is a deep soulful feeling or saudade, a Portuguese word that translates as a longing for that which is beyond reach. The emotional power of authentic fado (which means “fate”) must be felt and experienced. If Portuguese audiences do not feel a fadista is soulful and authentic, they will stop a performance—but they never stopped Amalia.
Carmen Miranda (1886-1971) was born in Portugal, but immigrated to Brazil with her family when she was twenty-four. Her reputation has been somewhat trivialized by Hollywood, but she was much more than just the “Brazilian Bombshell,” as they liked to present her. She was, in fact, venerated as one of the first samba superstars in Brazil. In the 1940s when American went Latin crazy, she landed her first film Down Argentina Way, which launched her career. In 1945, she was the highest paid woman in the United States, earning over $200,000 a year. She sold over 10 million records worldwide. Carmen suffered a heart attack while taping a segment for the Jimmy Durante Show. She somehow pulled herself together to finish the show, danced backwards out of the door, turned to the audience, blew a big kiss, and was gone for the last time.
Memphis Minnie (1897-1973) was born in Algiers, Louisiana. She was one of the most influential and innovative women blues musicians and guitarists of all time. She had an unprecedented recording career of almost forty years. From the early 1930s through the late 1940s, she was the most popular woman blues singer in the United States, and one of the first blues artists to use an electric guitar. Historically, she will also be remembered for paving the way for legends like Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Little Walter, and Jimmy Rogers to migrate from the small towns of the south to Chicago, New York, and other big cities.
M. S. Subbulakshmi (1916-2004) was born into a musical family in the state of Tamil Nadu in South India. She was the most successful evangelist of her generation for Carnatic music in the Hindustani realm. Classically trained, she was giving concerts of her own by age 17, including performances at the prestigious Madras Music Academy. She was the first musician ever to be awarded the Bharat Ratna (“The Jewel of India” award), India’s highest civilian honor, which is given for artistic, literary, and scientific achievements. Beloved by generations, her recordings are listened to all over the world and she lives on in her many films.
Cheikha Rimitti (1923-2006) was a popular Algerian rai singer born in Tessala, Algeria. She was orphaned as a child and had a very hard life growing up. At 15, she joined a troupe of traditional Algerian musicians and learned to sing and dance, and soon began to write her own songs. She told the stories of poverty, daily struggle, love, friendship, and the harshness of war. Rimitti was one of the first to sing songs of lust in public, using street slang and patois. Composing more than 200 songs, she has been recognized as la mamie du Rai, the grandmother of rai.
Cleoma Breaux Falcon (1906-1941) was born in Crowley, Louisiana. Her father and her brother, Amedee, were accordion players and she played rhythm guitar. She married Joe Falcon, who played triangle, and together they formed a powerful band. In 1928, they recorded the first Cajun French song, “Lafayette” (Alons a Lafayette). People loved to hear a woman playing a guitar, and the record was an enormous success. Cleoma also translated Country and Western songs into French, including “La Valse de Crowley” (The Crowley Waltz). Cleoma Breaux Falcon was the very first Cajun woman to be inducted into the Cajun Music Hall of Fame.
Josephine Baker (1906-1975) was an American-born French expatriate who became famous around the world for her pioneering sensuous dancing and singing, and her appearance in many films. She was the first woman of African descent to star in a major motion picture and to integrate an American concert hall. She made important contributions to the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, and perhaps most importantly, has been a powerful inspiration to generations of African-American female entertainers and other women around the world.
Lydia Mendoza (1916-2007) was born into a musical family in Houston, Texas. Her mother and grandmother taught her how to play many stringed instruments. She made her first recording for the pioneering OKeh record label in San Antonio in 1928 as a part of her family group known as Cuarteto Carta Blanca. Her popular live performances prepared her for her Bluebird record label recordings in 1934. Her most famous song, “Mal Hombre”, came out of these sessions, and was an overnight success. In 1982, she became the first Texan to receive a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship. In 1999, she was awarded the National Medal of Arts. These are among the highest honors a musician can receive in the United States.
The sometimes hidden story of women in world music holds many secrets well worth unearthing. In articles to come, we’ll feature more Women in World Music: Living Legends, Pop & Folk Divas, and Soul Healers.