Memorial service held for legendary Cuban singer Olga Guillot

 In shirts with the Cuban flag, some in wheelchairs, many with heavy, glossy eyes, the admirers of Olga Guillot, the legendary bolero singer, filed into a Miami church and took turns praying before her casket. “We’re dying one by one,” Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado heard a woman say as he entered the church. “We’re a dying breed.”

“This is a very sad moment because the people identified with her,” Regalado said. “And people feel they’re also dying, as an exile, and that’s the worst part.” Thousands—most of them Cuban exiles of Guillot’s generation—filled the St. Michael’s Archangel Catholic Church on Thursday to pay their final respects for the woman known worldwide as the “Queen of the Bolero.” Black and white photographs of Guillot, recording songs, on stage and smiling with family, were projected onto a white wall. A Cuban flag was folded and tucked into her casket.

Outside, Guillot’s alluring voice emanated from loud speakers, filling the parking lot. Two woman sitting on a bench quietly sang along. “Olga’s death has affected me very much,” said Maria Elena López, the daughter of Israel “Cachao” López, the esteemed Cuban musician and composer, whose funeral was held at the same church two years ago. “Of my father’s generation, few are left.”

Guillot was known for her compelling performances of now classic songs, such as “Tú me acostumbraste” and “Sabor a mí.”

“There’s no doubt she was most likely the all time greatest interpreter of boleros and helped popularize it to newer and wider audiences,” said Arturo Gómez, the music director of KUVO radio in Denver.

In Miami, the Cuban community also remembered her as someone who had consistently spoken against the communist regime. Earlier this year, she participated in a march led by Gloria Estefan to support the Ladies in White, a group of wives and relatives of political prisoners in Cuba. Vicky Roig, a fellow singer and friend, recalled walking alongside Guillot during the march. Fans, carrying gladiolas, called out Guillot’s name. “How the people of Miami love me” Roig recalled Guillot saying. “She was happy to see how they responded to her.”

Her voice was strong and guttural, her performance simple yet emotional.

“She was very particular about the songs she sang,” Gómez said. “She had to sing songs that she could identify with. And always the quality of the lyrics was impeccable.”  

With Guillot’s death, few Cuban musicians of her generation remain, including percussionist Cándido Camero, who is 89, and pianist Bebo Valdés, who is 91. Other greats of a golden age of Cuban music – including Celia Cruz and many of the Buena Vista Social Club – have died in recent years.”With Olga, we lose almost, you could say, the symbol of the exile community,” Gómez said, noting that she had a national and international stature comparable to few others.

Annia Linares, a Cuban singer, collapsed into tears after seeing Guillot, dressed all in white, in her casket on Wednesday.”Our queen of the bolero, our diva of the bolero, has left a long trail behind her,” she said, sitting on a bench where she was consoled by friends. “What’s left is to continue singing, continue making people happy.”

In an interview with the AP in 2007, Guillot said she has had only one disappointment in her career. “It’s a shame that in your own country, where you were born … there is a whole generation that doesn’t know us,” she said. “They don’t know anything about those of us who have represented Cuba in exile, in the world.”

On Monday, the day Guillot died after having a heart attack, Fidel Castro appeared on television in Cuba, his first such appearance since falling ill and transferring power to his brother in 2006.

Fans said it didn’t distract them from focusing on Guillot.

“She’s a dignified example of the Cuban woman,” said Lourdes Iturriaga, who came to pay tribute to Guillot at the wake on Wednesday. “He didn’t rob the show, ever, from Olga.”

Tributes have been pouring in from far and wide, including the following obituary from London’s Telegraph newspaper:

Her unique and widely-imitated vocal style was husky, sultry and at times melodramatic, with a tight vibrato and finely nuanced phrasing. Such was her ability that the great Cuban bassist, Cachao, said of her: “There is Olga Guillot and then, all the others.”

She became the first female bolero singer to achieve fame, in the mid-1940s, and proceeded to confound prevailing industry dogma that female artists could not be commercially successful by becoming the biggest-selling artist in Cuba during the second half of the 1950s. Refusing to sing in English, she even coached Nat “King” Cole on how get his tongue around Spanish when he came to record in Cuba.

Olga Guillot always vocally opposed Fidel Castro’s regime, and left Cuba for good in 1961, dividing her subsequent career largely between Mexico and America. She also toured the world, performing alongside the likes of Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, Edith Piaf and her lifelong friend and fellow Cuban exile, Celia Cruz.

A highly theatrical performer, who also became a star of Mexican cinema – usually playing herself – she was best known for her version of the bolero Miénteme (“Lie to me”) by the Mexican composer Chamaco Dominguez. She would sometimes halt the song halfway through to banter with audience members and, during one live recording in Buenos Aires, quipped to fans: “You like this song, don’t you? You should, you are a consequence of my songs. Your mother courted your father with my songs.”

Olga Guillot was born on October 9 1922 in Santiago, Cuba, but at the end of that decade moved with her family to Havana. She showed early promise as a child by singing harmony along with the popular songs of the time. In the mid-1930s, she formed the duo Las Hermanitas Guillots with her sibling Ana Luisa. She fell in love with performing after winning second prize in a singing contest, and she and her sister began to feature on Havana’s live radio programme for amateur singers, La corte suprema del arte. In 1940, however, the duo’s career was brought to an abrupt end when Ana Luisa got married.

In 1944 Olga successfully auditioned for a part in the vocal group Cuarteto Siboney, directed by Isolina Carrillo – the composer of Dos Gardenias, recently re-popularised by the Buena Vista Social Club. The following year, when the group was recording a version of Stormy Weather (in Spanish, as “Lluvia Gris”), the soloist fell ill and Olga Guillot was chosen as the replacement. The song was a success and by 1946 she had made 12 further recordings, backed by Humberto Suárez’s Orquesta Cosmopolitana.

In 1947 the singer Miguelito Valdes invited Olga Guillot to New York, where she made the earliest recording of La Gloria Eres Tu, still regarded as the classic song’s definitive take. The following year she visited Mexico, where she appeared in La Venus del Fuego, the first of her 16 films.

Over the next few years Guillot toured extensively through the Caribbean and Latin America, and became a huge draw at Havana’s Sans Souci cabaret. It was after her second visit to Mexico in 1953 that Miénteme became part of her repertoire, leading to a further string of recordings. In 1954 the song became the first gold-selling record by any Cuban artist, beginning a run of hits that lasted till Olga Guillot’s final departure from Cuba in 1961.

She briefly settled in Venezuela before moving on to Mexico City, where she began an association with the Musart label, with whom she recorded 15 LPs over the next decade.

In 1964 she became the first Spanish-speaking singer to perform as a solo artist at Carnegie Hall. She continued to tour internationally during the 1960s and 1970s, when she also developed a huge gay following in Latin America as a result of her song Soy Lo Prohibido (I am the forbidden one), which had an obvious resonance well beyond its intended audience of Cuban exiles. She accumulated numerous awards before announcing her “semi-retirement” in 1982, which she marked with the album Para mi publico. However, she did make one more album, Faltaba Yo and, in 2007, was handed a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Latin Grammys.

Olga Guillot died on July 12 in Miami Beach, Florida. She married the pianist and composer René Touzet and is survived by their daughter.

For more on the memorial service go to

For the Telegraph’s obituary go to

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