The sensual bolero of Estelita del Llano

The sensual bolero of Estelita del Llano


By 1963, great Latin American artists such as Lucho Gatica, Felipe Pirela, Bienvenido Granda, Leo Marini, Benny Moré, Tito Rodríguez, Toña La Negra, Blanca Rosa Gil and the so-called queen of boleros, Olga Guillot, had enriched the musical landscape, giving personality to the bolero. That year, in the midst of a new panorama, a bolero star was born from the depths of Venezuelan radio: Estelita Del Llano. “Sensual”, her debut album, is one of the greatest gems of the genre, with arrangements and orchestration by Porfi Jiménez.

In 1937, Venezuela had just emerged from the long dictatorship of Juan Vicente Gómez, during which the first oil boom took place. After his death, a process of modernization of the state began. On September 28 of that year, Berenice Mercedes Perrone Huggins, of Corsican descent, was born in Tumeremo, a small town in the state of Bolivar, near the border with Guyana Esequiba, also known as "The Door to the Savannah" due to its proximity to the largest savannahs in Venezuela. Only a vague childhood memory remained of her stay in Tumeremo. In 1943, when she was only 6 years old, little Berenice arrived in Caracas with her family. Her parents had gotten a divorce.

It is likely that her ability to sing, which she demonstrated at a very young age in Tumeremo, where calipso is the traditional music genre, came from her mother, who never saw with good eyes that her daughter wanted to devote herself to singing. Berenice began to take singing seriously in the 1950s when Venezuela was still politically unstable, with coups and assassinations, and another new dictatorship, albeit a shorter one, that of Marcos Pérez Jimenez, settled in. It was the golden decade of the bolero. Hiding from her mother, to whom she assured that she went to mass, she began to sing on the emblematic Radio Cultura, thanks to the announcer Totina Guevara, a friend of the family.

In the days when radio was the most popular means of communication, many radio stations had music shows that featured up-and-coming talent in addition to the more established artists. They competed for the highest ratings and many of them had large studios where orchestras could be placed without space problems.

Radio Cultura was founded in 1944 by one of the pioneers of radio broadcasting in Venezuela, Gonzalo Veloz Mancera, and became one of the most important epicenters of entertainment. It was an Amplitude Modulation (AM) station that had wide coverage not only in Venezuela, but also in the Caribbean and beyond.

Radio Cultura was on the 550 KHz dial, in the lowest part of the AM spectrum, which was easy to locate.

The station played a key role in the emergence of Berenice Perrone as a singer. Barely 20 years old at the time, she was transformed into Estelita del Llano after a contest in which the audience voted for her stage name, which she would keep forever. The reason for the audience's choice was that at that time she was singing traditional Venezuelan songs, including llaneras, with Chelique Sarabia, already known for his immortal song "Ansiedad".

As Venezuela entered its longest period of democracy, and already under the name of Estelita del Llano, in 1961 she joined the band Los Zeppys, whose members included José Luis Rodríguez, later known as El Puma. Estelita and Jose Luis began an affective relationship that lasted for two years, as long as the successful band would last. With Los Zeppys, one of the first pop groups with certain elements of rock ‘n’ roll, Estelita had great exposure on radio, television and in the most important venues. In the midst of a great musical explosion in Venezuela and throughout Latin America, with television and radio programs, record labels, record stores, movies and large concert halls, a solid generation of singers emerged, including several female voices led by Mirla Castellanos, who left an important mark.

After Los Zeppys disbanded in 1963, Estelita del Llano started her solo career in the best possible way, thanks to the song "Tú Sabes" and the debut album entitled “Sensual”. With "Tú Sabes", which was included in Arturo Plasencia's hit movie "Twist y Crimen", Estelita got off to a great start. The song —a bolero adaptation by Costa Rican musician and composer Johnny Quirós of the Brazilian song "Tú Sabes Que Te Quiero, Tú Sabes Que Te Amo"— remained her most famous and emblematic song through the decades. The economic boom that began in Venezuela had a direct impact on the great moment of the music and entertainment industry in the 1960s, which led Estelita del Llano to sign with Velvet, one of the most important record labels in the Caribbean, founded in Cuba by the brothers José and Roberto Pagés.

After leaving the headquarters in Havana and settling in Venezuela, the label began to grow considerably, featuring acclaimed artists such as Héctor Cabrera, Blanca Rosa Gil, Mario Suárez, Lila Morillo, Mirla Castellanos, Trío Venezuela, to name a few. The trumpeter, arranger, composer and bandleader Porfi Jimenez —a Dominican who, like Billo Frometa before him, decided to stay in Venezuela, attracted by the generous contracts and the warmth of the audience— was a key figure for several of these artists and, of course, for Estelita del Llano. Jiménez had previously been a member of several orchestras, including those of Rafael Minaya, Pedro J. Belisario, Billo Frometa, and those of Radio Caracas Televisión and Venevisión. In 1963, together with musicians from the disbanded Venevisión orchestra, he formed his own orchestra, consisting of five saxophones, four trumpets, piano, conga, drums, vibraphone and bass.

The backing of the Porfi Jiménez Orchestra and his arrangements made “Sensual” one of the most successful albums of its time. The selection of the twelve songs on the album was also a success. Although the years of the bolero's greatest splendor seemed to have passed, the bolero continued to spread throughout Latin America. The great success of “Sensual” lay in the arrangements and the choice of boleros with elements of the cha-cha-cha, another genre that was enjoying great popularity. Without Porfi Jiménez, the album would not have had the appeal it did then and continues to have six decades later. Estelita masterfully performs compositions such as "Qué sabes tú" by the versatile Puerto Rican singer, composer, percussionist, entertainer and television producer Myrta Silva, also known as "La Gorda de Oro"; or "Sombras nada más" with music by Francisco Lomuto and lyrics by José María "Katunga" Contursi —both Argentines—; and "Angustia", the emblematic bolero by Puerto Rican singer Betty Cabán.

The selection includes "Mi Enamorado Corazón" by Peruvian composer Gustavo Seclen Menchola; "El Chiclayano," in which the vibraphone and the crystalline voice join forces in a great bolero cha-cha-cha; "Las fibras del alma" and "No quisiera despertar," by Cubans Joseíto González and René Barrera, respectively; and "Tantos Años" by Enrique Fabregat from Spain. Estelita also sings "La mano de Dios" by the prolific Mexican composer José Alfredo Jiménez and "Por Qué Lo Quise Tanto" by Mariano Alberto Martínez, better known as Mariano Mores.

Rediscovering "Sensual" almost 60 years after its release, and listening to it on the same magnificent vinyl format that Estelita Del Llano used to launch her solo career - which continues to this day - is a pleasure for the original audience and a revelation for new ones all over the world.


  Juan Carlos Ballesta