A League of Her Own

The late afternoon shadows are peeking through the balcony doors of a plush penthouse on Miami Beach, but Olga Tañón shows no signs of fading. Unfazed by a string of lengthy interviews and impromptu requests from visitors, she cheerfully cracks a joke to the delight of those in the room.

Tañón comfortably props herself up on the corner of a three-piece sofa and sips from a glass of cranberry juice, as if to indicate she's not going anywhere for a while.

The Puerto Rican merenguera/pop balladeer is in no rush, despite being scheduled to perform at a television taping across town in less than an hour. But that can wait, because Tañón is in the midst of satisfying her inner soul instead of worrying about others. "The old Olga Tañón would have been stressing and trying to make sure she pleased everybody around her," she says. "But I'm just too content at this stage of my life to feel pressured by anybody. Life's lessons have taught me all too well."

The last standing female merengue performer of this generation, outlasting Nineties mainstays Giselle, Melina León, and Millie Quezada, among others, Tañón sounds reinvigorated on Una Mujer Nueva (A New Woman), her first release in more than two years. "It's really new in every sense of the word," she says, "just getting involved in production and songwriting again. Most of the lyrics in the album are all personal experiences where there's been plenty of unhappiness and heartbreak."

Though 38-year-old Tañón has sold more than six million records in the past thirteen years, she had humble beginnings singing in a church choir and performing at local pageants by the time she was eight years old. Still, Tañón flew under the radar until the mid-Eighties, when she accepted an offer to join Las Nenas de Ringo y Jossie (Ringo and Jossie's Girls), an all-female merengue group. She quickly demonstrated a clear mezzo-soprano voice, an overwhelming stage presence, and perfect diction, making her an instant success all over the island.

After a short stint in Chantelle, another all-female group, Tañón's released her debut album, Sola (Alone), which netted instant hits such as "Me Cambio por Ella" ("He Left Me for Her"), "Quiero Estar Contigo" ("I Want to Be with You"), and "Mujer Rota" ("Broken Woman"). Her followup, Mujer de Fuego (Woman of Fire), was in many ways most influential. It reached double-platinum status aided by classic merengues "Vendras Llorando" ("You'll Come Back Crying"), "Muchacho Malo" ("Bad Boy"), and "Contigo o Sin Ti" ("With or Without You").

Tañón continued to turn out hits in the Nineties before winning a Grammy Award in 2002 for Yo por Ti (Me for You). And through the years, she has elevated merengue music to an emotionally expressive art form. "That's the only way I know how to do things," she says.

But it hasn't always been smooth sailing. Even after gaining popularity and garnering eye-opening record sales in a male-dominated genre (two of her first three albums went double platinum), she found herself engulfed in controversy after a Puerto Rican newspaper published a photograph of her kissing baseball player Juan Gonzalez backstage after a concert.

The scandal that followed led Gonzalez to leave his wife and marry Tañón. But Tañón ended the rocky relationship with Gonzalez when she filed for divorce in 1998. "We all make mistakes as we go through our lives," she admits.

Married to music producer Billy Denizard since 2002, Tañón claims to have finally found emotional peace in her life after years of instability. "I made it clear -- without even giving him a kiss -- that I wanted a serious relationship and wasn't interested in playing games," she states. "But people learn, change their ways, and grow up with time. And I think Billy has really brought out all those things in me."

Tañón knows that her level of peace is challenged by the battle she faces daily in caring for ten-year-old daughter Gabriela, who has Sebastian's disease, a rare condition that slows the brain's developmental process. Stymied by the disease and its lengthy recoveries, Gabriela has reached only a third-grade learning ability. "She's making positive strides, but I'm ready to fight this battle for as long as I have to," avers Tañón. "She's the strongest girl I know. We'll get through this."

Unlike early in her career, Tañón willingly admits that the personal obstacles she has encountered have helped keep her priorities in order and have developed in her a heartfelt passion for the music she performs. That's clearly audible in Una Nueva Mujer, where Tañón's seductively smoky voice and boundless energy are as prominent as ever, despite a two-year hiatus from the recording studio.

While offering emotional lyrics in "Abre Tu Corazón" ("Open Your Heart") and staying on course with criticizing men for being unfaithful in "Maldito Seductor" ("Damned Seducer"), Tañón keeps the tone upbeat on the brassy horn and fast percussion "Dime si Tu Me Puedes Querer" ("Tell Me if You Can Love Me"), which she wrote for her husband.

Tañón pays tribute to her daughter while singing about the joy and renewed faith she has found in "Desde Que Llegaste a Mi" ("Since You Arrived"), a quick-paced, percussion-filled track ideal for the dance floor. "I've reached a balance in my life -- although it's never going to be a perfect balance -- that many people wish they had," she says. "I don't aspire to be the happiest woman in the world anymore, but I'm experiencing the kind of inner peace and self-confidence now that I never had before. If anything were to happen to me now, I have the strength to pick myself off the floor."

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Fernando Ruano Jr.