Meet Fefita La Grande, the Dominican Merengue Icon

Fefita La Grande BELatina Latinx
Photo courtesy of latintrends.com

It is no secret to anyone that the interpretation of Latin American folk music was originally a man’s affair. From the Argentine bandoneon to the Venezuelan bandola llanera, women have had to fight twice as hard to carve out a space for themselves in instrumental performance.

That is why the character of icons like Fefita La Grande seems to us the most natural thing in the world.

Also known as “La Vieja Fefa” or “La Mayimba,” Fefita La Grande is the most important Dominican accordionist and merengue singer of the last decades. Considered one of the best female accordionists of all time, Fefa, as her loved ones call her, seems to have been on the Dominican music scene forever.

A natural talent

Fefita La Grande was born in San José Santiago Rodríguez, in the northwestern Cibao region of the Dominican Republic. As she told Remezcla magazine, her father, Don Seito Cabrera, was a peanut farmer, cock breeder, musician, and accordion repairman. At the same time, her mother, Doña María Ana Cabrera, raised the children, kept the house, and helped manage the land.

When she was only seven years old, Fefita heard a song by the great merenguero Guandulito on a neighbor’s radio. The melody stuck in her head, so Fefita snuck into her father’s workshop, picked up an accordion, and, as she says, “I just started playing. I don’t know how, but I did. It felt natural since I was born with those instruments.”

“Real merengue típico is ear-based,” she told Remezcla, underscoring key differences between merengue born and perfected in El Cibao’s countryside versus the horn-heavy, big band hybrids of city merengue from the likes of Los Hermanos Rosario or the late Johnny Ventura, who she calls a brother. “You don’t study that. These days there are schools, and I accept that. But true típico of accordion, güira, and tambora, you can only learn by ear.”

A year later, Petán Trujillo, brother of Dominican dictator Rafael Leónidas Trujillo, heard Fefita during a visit to the family home as she performed a merengue she had written for him.

“He was at a loss for words,” she recalls. “He asked, ‘Who wrote the merengue?’ and I said ‘me.’ Then he asked, ‘And who’s going to play it?’ and I said ‘Me.’ So I grabbed my accordion and sang, ‘Quiero un revolvito y me lo de Petán / Para defenderme si acaso me dan’ (I want a revolver from Petán / to defend myself if I ever get hit). He was stunned and gave me 100 pesos, which was like a million bucks back in the day. He asked what I was going to do with all that money, and I told him I’d give it to my dad so he could buy me a cow and I could make more money.”

The rest is history

Fefita La Grande became known in the circles of merengue típico icons such as El Ciego de Nagua and Tatico Henríquez. They became mentors and collaborators during the beginning of her career. In fact, it would be Henríquez who would nickname her La Vieja Fefa in the early 1920s.

During the following decades, Fefita developed the particular style that would earn her a place on the shelves of Latin American musical history and take her to international stages.

“I can’t deny [the novelty of] being a woman at this time, playing accordion, and, modesty aside, singing really lovely,” she reminisces. “But with great privilege, I enjoy the respect and affection of my male peers. Any artist can be on the stage -not even from the Dominican Republic, from anywhere-, and when Fefita La Grande arrives, Fefita La Grande ARRIVES. I have no rivals. There are no copies. I am unique!”

Fefita was then witness and protagonist of the transformation of merengue típico, originally composed of an accordion player (who used a two-row diatonic accordion), a drummer, and a guirero, into the “new” merengue, which added congas, saxophones, and electric bass.

The icon and her image

Fefita’s success is also due to her ability to reinvent herself and maintain herself over time, establishing herself as a constant across all generational gaps and combining her public identity and private life as an insatiable intrigue.

“Fame and fortune are not for everyone, so whatever they say I am, I am,” she muses. “You know people like to embellish stories. If I say I broke a nail, people say I broke a finger. They ask my makeup artist about all the work I’ve done on my face, and she tells them the truth: nothing. I am a cancer survivor, so I’ve had a few reconstructive surgeries, and I gave birth to six children, so I’ve had some liposuction. But I am a woman just like any other. I am a woman that’s full of life and gives life. And with any partner I have, I am a woman from the bed to the kitchen.”