In the photograph the merengueros are decked out in Afros and bell-bottoms, Seventies-style. In the middle of the salsa boom taking place in New York, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela, Milly y los Vecinos (Milly and the Neighbors) was the first group to bring merengue to the growing Dominican community in Washington Heights. Looking at the photo album 25 years later, Quezada's son said, "Mommy, the shine in yours and Daddy's eyes looks like it could have lasted forever."
"That was because when you are young, you feel that life lasts forever," replied Quezada, who has just released a collection of greatest hits from the songs she has recorded since the death of her husband, Rafael Vasquez. Quezada, the first woman to make it big singing merengue, recovered from the loss of her husband/manager to take her place in the genre she helped create.
Quezada and Vasquez had been together for more than twenty years when he passed away in January 1996. "Our dream was to play music for the few Latinos that were in New York at that moment," says Quezada as she reviews her career during a recent visit to Miami, "but we did not think seriously about playing music for the rest of our lives." Instead as a teenager, she studied communications. Merengue was for fun.
Quezada's family arrived with the big wave of Dominican immigrants to New York City in the late Sixties, joining a growing community of merengue fans in the Big Apple. In 1975, the year Quezada's group recorded its first album, Milly and her neighbors felt the force of salsa when they saw the Fania All-Stars in a packed house at Madison Square Garden. Three years later Milly y los Vecinos joined Fania at the Garden in 1978. Merengue had found a place in New York's Latin landscape. As merengue grew, so did Milly y los Vecinos: The band began recording an album every year, playing both in the city and in the Dominican Republic.
In those early years, Quezada's was a lone female voice over the hard-hitting merengue rhythm, leading her to adopt a very masculine delivery. "The way I sing developed the moment I realized that men were the only ones who were singing merengue at that time," she says. "So I had to struggle and do better than them." Her style is aggressive, defiant, and manly. Ironically Quezada imitates her husband's tone as she conveys the advice he gave her early in her career: "Be original. Create your own style. Forget about hearing another artist, and concentrate on yourself." Convinced that she was overly influenced by other singers, her husband threw out all her albums by Cuban pop singer Lissette Alvarez. Quezada considers that act monumental in allowing her to establish herself as the feminine voice in merengue since the Seventies. Echoes of Quezada's style can be heard in the voices of leading merengueras today including Olga Tañon and Gisselle.
Quezada's aggressive edge grew even sharper after the death of her husband. "For almost two years," she recounts, "I was in a pitch-black tunnel where my life was reduced to eat and to sleep. I was really depressed and had no hope of being onstage again, because my husband was all I ever had: my friend, my support, my entire life."
In 1997 Quezada released Hasta Siempre (Goodbye Forever) with Los Vecinos as an homage to her husband. This farewell was followed by her first solo production Vive (Live) in 1998 and the bachata album Tesoros de Mi Tierra (Treasures of My Land) in 2000. In an effort to beat CD-burning pirates to the punch, Milly Quezada: Exitos y Mas (Milly Quezada: Hits and More) compiles the singer's hits since she restarted her career with two merengue versions of songs recorded by fellow Sony artists Rocio Durcal and Ednita Nazario. Arranger Henry Jimenez compressed the gentle vocal approach of Nazario and the feminine force of Durcal to create a more vigorous and passionate Quezada.
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Quezada acquiesced to re-recording songs made famous by other artists at the label's bidding. "It was not easy to perform these lyrics," she admits, "because these singers have done excellent work, and to do better than them was trying." While working in the recording studio, Quezada found herself facing the difficult challenge of impregnating the new version with jocosity and happiness, both hallmarks of merengue. She is looking forward to her upcoming disc, which she hopes to record in August, featuring a song produced by merengue master Juan Luis Guerra.
For this release Quezada will likely follow the increasingly popular strategy of recording versions of the same song in different genres. This experience will not be completely new for her, because her 26 albums have not all been merengue. "I have recorded many music styles since 1975," she reports. "Four years later I did sing a salsa album trying to reach the Puerto Ricans. Then in 1980, I recorded ballads and in 1982, boleros."
Still Quezada has reservations about disappointing her fans. With a firm stare, she discusses how the public adheres to labels: salsero, balladeer, pop singer, merenguero. For her, an artist who raids new genres is almost doomed to failure. "I believe people must do what they consider important for their careers," she says, "but the consumers do not believe, so they do not buy your CDs when you are not singing what they expect from you."
The Latin power shown in the recent census gives Quezada hope. Just as the Dominican population grew into a community hungry for merengue in New York a quarter century ago, the growing population of Latinos in the United States guarantees a bigger public for Latin music. "For the next years, the Latin talent would be doing what Jennifer Lopez had done," she predicts, "and you will see a lot of different races gathered in a music store asking for Latin singers. Everyone will know who Olga Tañon is, and Juan Luis Guerra -- and Milly Quezada."