Milly Quezada is considered the Queen of Merengue. She is a multi-Latin Grammy award winner. Her career spans three decades.
The group started in the streets of Washington Heights and then surged to performing abroad. As a merengue group, they broke the mold singing as women during the 70s and the 80s.
After they recorded their first album “Esta es Milly con los Vecinos,” they traveled to the Dominican Republic as a tradition every December. The visits coincided with public efforts among the community to make them known in the Dominican Republic, which eventually made her a star. Her new CD is titled “Aqui estoy yo,” or “Here I Am,” and in it she reminisces about her 30-year long career with pride. She has three sons.
VOXXI: Why do they call you the Queen of Merengue?
Quezada: I pioneered in many ways the modality of a woman singing merengue. Shortly, after we became well-known as a group many other female performers followed through along the same lines performing merengue.
My husband was one of the original founders of the group. He saw that there were hardly any merengue female singers in the industry at least at the time I became popular. It became sort of a standard to hear women singing merengue breaking the mold of male singers. That coincided with the female liberation movement. So our music became one of telling men we needed to be treated equally. We needed to be respected as women or else our marriage wouldn’t stand.
VOXXI: What got you started?
Quezada: We left the Dominican Republic as children to New York and so, in absence of language and in the nostalgia of not being in familiar places, we would get together with the kids on the block and just play music. It was sort of an outlet for missing our homeland and so it just took shape and form. We would play in block parties. We would play in the community church services. Anyone who had anything happening in the way of a social gathering, we would just provide the instruments.
The neighbors would say to us [that] we should take it more seriously. Then we recorded our first album, “Esta es Milly con los Vecinos.” The first five years were informal, until we recorded our first album. The momentum, it just began to take shape and form. Every year we recorded one album and we would travel to the Dominican Republic in December.
People who traveled back during the holidays would bring back the rum, the favorite foods and sweets and also they would bring back the song or whoever was popular at the time. This is how we became popular in the Dominican Republic.
VOXXI: Tell me about the influence you’ve had on other cultures?
Quezada: It was a spin off. Our music happened to be popular within the greater Latin American, Hispanic American community specifically, the Colombians, the Panamanians, Venezuelans and so forth.
They would hear our music and we would get hired to go to Venezuela or Colombia or Panama for Carnivals every year. The tradition is for people to go to Colombia, Barranquilla and go to Carnivals. It is coincidental that the music that we were recording would be from Colombian authors in the form of merengue, which was from my country, and the music would become a hit not just in the Dominican Republic.
VOXXI: How do you see popular Dominican music nowadays, particularly since it’s been influenced by the culture here in the United States?
Quezada: I see it as a very positive thing. I see bachata, which is also from the Dominican Republic, is taking off with great popularity in the voice of Prince Royce, Aventura and other bachata performers. I think that they have taken contrary to what we did, the “merengueros” at that time, and I say we have artists like Jose Hernando Villa, los Hermanos Rosario and Juan Luis Guerra, we have not been able to adapt other rhythms to the merengue music so that we can do a crossover. It’s because they’re young and even though they’re Dominican, they were born in this country and influenced by American music.
Romeo from Aventura has been able to engage other American artists into the rhythms of bachata and it’s originally from the Dominican Republic. I tend to think that what is happening with bachata can still happen with merengue. You have a new generation of merengueros that are playing urban music. That are mixing reggae, with reggaeton and merengue and that are mixing languages. They’re trying to assimilate rhythms that can take advantage of the American industry. The new generation of bachateros and probably merengeuros can take this music and make it a more worldwide accepted rhythm.
VOXXI: What song are you most proud of?
Quezada: I have songs that I am very proud of throughout the 30 years of my career, but probably the most is “Volvio Juanita” because I recorded it 28 years ago. I remember being pregnant with my second son. To this day, I have to perform this song everywhere I go, every venue that I visit. It doesn’t matter what current song that I may be promoting. I still have to sing this song because it’s become sort of a banner, a standard for all nationalities.
It’s almost a story similar to the prodigal son with this lady who thought she would never go back home, but returns and the whole community is expecting her to come in and give her a grand welcome. It became an international hit. As far away as Japan, I’ve traveled to perform and sing and watch Japanese audiences sing it phonetically.
VOXXI: You have a new CD coming out. Explain a little about these songs.
Quezada: Thirty years later I am still standing and I have a new CD called ‘Here I Am’ and in it, I celebrate 30 years of music. Not chronologically, but in the tropical definition of our culture. We are tropical, we are festive and we are romantic in nature. The CD stands as a testimony of what I have been able to do in three decades of music. I have three featured artists and I think that they are very representative of what our tropical music is about. One song is a merengue with Juan Luis Guerra. It’s called “Toma mi Vida,” and one is with Victor Manuel, the heart throb salsa singer of Puerto Rico. I sing a song that was written for me by a Dominican author, Victor Manuel, and I sing the love and respect we’ve had for our respective countries. I have a song written by Ricardo Montaner. He wrote a song for me in honor of the celebration of 30 years. I sing it with Tito Nieves. The name is “Donde estara.”
These songs are important for me because here I am. I’ve had my ups and downs — as a woman, as a mom, as a merenguera. I have received great accolades. I have been assigned as cultural ambassador to travel the world and stand up for who we are. It was just a grace to live in Washington Heights and to grow with the community of Dominicans who have become a very powerful community in New York City. I’ve coincided with that growth.
VOXXI: If you had to define what it means to be Dominican what would you say?
Quezada: Everything. It means it’s my identity, my homeland. To be Dominican, it means to be a happy, outgoing, valiant or courageous person. Dominicans are very hard workers. We don’t give up very easily. We take the ball and we run with it until we bring it home.