a history of
dominican music
in the united states

Educational Resource: The Malagon Sisters

Dominican singing group Malagon Sisters perform at the Democratic Campaign to help capture Puerto Rican vote, October 1, 1949

Dominican singing group Malagon Sisters perform at the Democratic Campaign to help capture Puerto Rican vote, October 1, 1949 (Credit: Photo by Jerry Cooke/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images)

Educational Profile

The Malagon Sisters were a successful Dominican all-female trio that emerged publically in 1949. The Sisters, known for their exuberant song and dance performances, captured the attention of an American public entranced by the magic of television. 

The legacy of the Malagon Sisters spans across many diverse communities. They were one of the first Dominican musical acts to successfully cross over into the wider American music scene, contributing to the exposure of merengue, cha-cha-chá, and other Latin American genres to a wide spectrum of audiences.

The Malagon sisters, along with their parents, arrived in the United States in 1940. Their father, Agustin Malagon Jr., was a former Dominican diplomat and had served as ambassador to Haiti and Venezuela. Their mother, Carmen Pierre-Louise Malagon, was the daughter of a Haitian diplomat to Venezuela.

Agustin and Carmen had four daughters born in the Dominican Republic and Haiti: Carmen Amelia Malagon (1922-1991), Haydeé Malagon (1926-1963), Gladys Elisa Malagon (1929- ), and Virginia Malagon (1939- ). All four daughters spoke French, Spanish, and English fluently. 

It was Carmen Amelia who created the original Malagon Sisters trio with Haydeé as the leader. Haydeé, a trained guitarist, also played the conga and the drums. Carmen Amelia sang soprano and maneuvered among the guiro, tambourine, and maracas. Gladys Elisa sang mezzo-soprano. The youngest sister, Virginia, who is still living, became part of the trio years later.

By 1945, the trio had opened at La Rumba on 854 Amsterdam Avenue in Manhattan. This well-known restaurant, which served as a performance space for the Latin American artistic community, gave the Sisters their first big break in the music business. Their talents and musical creativity were noted by other musicians and performers who often invited the Sisters to join them in their presentations at La Rumba.

November of 1949 proved to be a pivotal year for the Malagon Sisters whose musical talents reached what was considered crossover status at the time. On November 2, 1949, William O’ Dwyer, New York City mayor invited the Malagon Sisters to join him in his bid for reelection. With the Sisters on board, O’ Dwyer’s political strategists sought to secure the support of the Latin American voters, particularly of the growing Puerto Rican population, to win the mayor’s reelection.

In April of 1950, the Sisters participated in the grand festival El Diario de Nueva York, performing alongside highly celebrated Latin American artists of the caliber of Diosa Costello from Puerto Rico, Alberto Socarrás from Cuba, and the Dominican Rafael Petitón Guzmán.[1]

In the same year, the Malagon Sisters reached mass media audiences in mainstream society with their first television appearance on the Bonnie Maid Versatile Varieties show. Their fame continued to skyrocket and by 1955, the Sisters signed with Decca Records recording the songs “Oyeme Mamá” and “Negra Merengue” with an orchestra led by Cuban pianist Facundo Rivero. Decca Records released the songs on a single, double-sided 45-rpm record in August of 1955. 

In New York City, the Malagon Sisters performed at Chateau Madrid, a well-known venue in Manhattan that boasted celebrities from throughout the Latin American and Caribbean regions. On March 2nd, 1956, the trio performed at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, alongside Mae Barnes, who had an established trajectory in Broadway as a singer and comedian.  By this time, the Malagon Sisters had also solidified their fame beyond the U.S. and had broadened their scope. The Sisters performed “Oyeme Mamá” in El vividor, a Mexican film released in Mexico on July 11, 1956. 

The following year, on June 9, the Sisters debuted on the Ed Sullivan Show, a highly popular and reputable American television program, boasting guests such as The Beatles, Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones, and The Supremes. The show aired from 1948 until 1971, and introduced U.S. audiences to a spectrum of music genres.[2] 

Songs performed by the Malagon Sisters represented the growing popularity of Afro-Cuban music during this decade in U.S. history. On the Ed Sullivan Show, they performed “El Cumbanchero,” written by the Puerto Rican Rafael Hernández Marín, and “Babalu” by Cuban composer Margarita Lecuona. Lecuona’s song in particular became a popular cultural reference for the United States, further exposing U.S. audiences to the music of Latin American. “Babalu” was popularized by Cuban bandleader and actor Desi Arnaz on the hit show I Love Lucy.  I Love Lucy featured actress Lucille Ball, Arnaz’s real life wife.[3] 

By 1958, the trio changed their lineup. Gladys Malagon moved to Puerto Rico and the remaining members hired an artist named Nilda to step in. That same year, the Malagon Sisters recorded and released two songs that landed on Billboard Magazine’s popular music charts: “Lessons in Cha Cha Cha” and “In a Little Spanish Town.”

By the 1960s, the trio changed again. Performer Myrna Martinez replaced Haydeé Malagon, who became terminally ill and passed away in 1963. A year before, in December of 1962, the group performed on television for the last time on a musical variety show in London called Broadway Goes Latin. Famous Puerto Rican musician, Tito Puente, was the show’s principal musical act during the episode. 

Eventually, the fourth Malagon Sister, Virgina, was recruited and became part of the trio. By the mid-1960s, the Malagon Sisters continued to perform in venues around the world, such as the Palladium in London, the Olympia in Paris, Monte Carlo Casino in Monaco, and the Latin Quarter in New York City. The Sisters continued to perform alongside renowned artists such as Harry Belafonte and Xavier Cugat. 

The Malagon Sisters’ successful career spanned nearly two decades with a variety of collaborations and recognition to audiences both nationally and internationally.


[1] The festival was named after El Diario de Nueva York.

[2] “Featured Artists.” edsullivan.com, 2019, http://www.edsullivan.com/all-artists/. Accessed 15 November 2019.

[3] Contreras, Felix. “Ricky Ricardo: The 'Mr. Babalu' Next Door.” NPR, 18 May. 2008, https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=90535612. Accessed 15 November 2019.

Discussion Questions
  1. Listen to “Lessons in Cha Cha Cha” on Spotify, youtube.com, or any music streaming site. What feelings do the songs evoke? What imagery? Why might this have caught the ears of audiences outside of Latin American communities in the 1950s - 1960s.
  2. What parts of the Malagon Sisters’s story surprised you and/or connected with you?
  3. The Malagon Sisters collaborated with artists, specifically male artists, across the Latin music industry. What might this tell you about women in Dominican society at the time?
  4. What does it mean to be a successful crossover music group? What do you think enabled the Malagon Sisters to do this in the 1950s-1960s? What can this tell you about the changes and challenges in music culture during this time in United States history? 
Activities

• Compare the careers of the Malagon Sisters to an all-female trio that is popular today. How are they similar and different in popularity? What might be accessible and challenging for a trio of female artists across gender, race, and class in the music industry? Create a chart of both groups to share with your class.

• Consider the tradition of artists sampling different genres of music in their own songs. For example, trap music rappers Cardi B (Dominican/Trinidadian) and Bad Bunny (Puerto Rican), along with Reggatone artist J Balvin (Colombian) sampled “I like it like that,” which is salsa music, first popularized by Latin Boogaloo band leader Pete Rodriquez. Their collaboration combined the song with trap and reggaeton styles. Choose an instrumental portion of a song performed by The Malagon Sisters and write a lyrical verse to it. What topic would you sing/rap about? How would you change this song to gain popularity with your friends, family, school, communities? Where would it be performed?

• Imagine your class is creating a music fair about diverse musicians across different genres and time periods, including the present. Alongside the Malagon Sisters, who else should be included in this celebration of music and diverse communities? What themes would connect these artists, especially if they were popular in different decades?

Vocabulary

Exuberant - Joyously unrestrained and enthusiastic.

Crossover Status - When an artist reaches a wider popular appeal of an artist/musician, often the result of a change in their artist’s style and sound.

Caliber - The quality of someone’s character or abilities, typically regarded with admiration and respect

Bonnie Maid Versatile Varieties - a television series from 1949 to 1951. The show aired on  NBC, CBS and ABC.

Merengue - Merengue is a Dominican dance music form in binary rhythm, usually quite fast in tempo and employing relatively simple harmonies but often in complex arrangements.

Cha Cha - Cha-cha, as it is referred to in the U.S, is a triple-step reimagining of Cuban danzón and mambo, adapted for the North American ballroom.

Diplomat - One employed or skilled in the art and practice of conducting negotiations between nations.

Ambassador - An authorized representative or messenger.

Guiro - A musical instrument with a jagged-edged surface that gives a rasping sound when scraped with a stick, originally made from a gourd: a hard-shelled ornamental fruit.

El Diario de Nueva York - The oldest and largest Spanish- language publication printed daily in the United States. It was founded in 1913.

Double-sided-45-rpm - A thin plastic disc carrying recorded sound in grooves on each surface, for reproduction by a record player. The name comes from the speed of the record. In this case, there is music on both sides of the 7-inch record and the disc will spin 45 times completely within a minute.

Trajectory- A path or progression your career takes.