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Erika Ender “Women are breaking barriers in the industry”

Panamanian singer-songwriter Erika Ender has cause for celebration: this year marks the 25th anniversary of the beginning of her artistic career, she has been inducted into the Hall of Fame of Latin Composers, and she achieved worldwide success with the song “Despacito,” co-composed with Puerto Ricans Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee. She shares the exclusive story behind what is, without a doubt, the song of the year.

By Roberto Quintero
Photos: Courtesy

Erika Ender isn’t about to forget this year. Aside from celebrating the 25th anniversary of the beginning of her career as a singer-songwriter, composer, producer, and television personality, the Panamanian artist was inducted into the Hall of Fame of Latin Composers, becoming the youngest ever to achieve this. And then there’s the “cherry on the top,” as she likes to call it: the enormous global success of “Despacito,” the song she co-composed with Puerto Ricans Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee, which in a matter of hours became an unprecedented musical phenomenon. It is, undoubtedly, the song of the year.

For these reasons, and many others, Erika is one of the most successful Latin American composers in the music industry this year. However, few people are aware of the long road she has traveled to achieve this recognition.

She began her formal career in 1992 at age 16 with her first hit, which brought her recognition as a soloist. She quickly affirms, however, that she has been an artist since birth: “I can’t remember a single moment of my life when I wasn’t doing what I do today. In fact, I asked for karaoke instead of dolls. “

Her rise to fame in Panama was relatively easy; her talent shone brightly in this small country. But her homeland lacked the infrastructure to help her develop as a singer and songwriter, so she took her savings, packed her bags, and at just 22 years of age, moved to Miami to go after her dream. “I arrived thinking that things were going to happen as fast as they had in Panama, but it was another world. My savings were gone just a month after arriving in the United States. I had to start from scratch.”

It took time to prove to the industry that her songs were solid enough for other artists to record. “And I was a woman hoping to make it as a composer in the music world, where women are practically non-existent. I faced a series of obstacles and, with a smile and humility, began demolishing them. But I was up against the wall several times.” Things were difficult until her compatriot Omar Alfano asked her to write lyrics for the English version of the hit, “A puro dolor,” to be interpreted by Son By Four. The song made it onto the English-language Billboard charts and after that came “Candela” and “Ay, Mamá,” the first hits she composed for Chayanne. The duo Azúcar Morena recorded one of her songs and it reached number one on the charts in Spain. The rest is history.

You mentioned that it was difficult to make it as a composer, being a woman. What obstacles did you have to face? 

I’d record myself singing and playing my songs, make my demos, and send them to artists and record labels. And on several occasions they answered me: “Your song is very nice, but it’s too feminine.” I’d go back and listen to the song again and I couldn’t understand what they were talking about. Finally, I asked a male friend to sing on a song I wrote and I recorded it again. I sent it somewhere else, signed as E. Ender instead of Erika Ender, and the song got on the album. At first, I didn’t want to see it as sexism, because I think the song was actually good, but the industry just wasn’t accustomed to working with women, much less women who were young. It doesn’t matter anymore; I have a name now.

Aside from the obstacles you mentioned that you had to overcome, do you think things have changed in the industry for women?

Things have changed because there are more and more women in the business and we’re getting great results. This makes it difficult to block our path, now that it’s been well-trod. I have nothing bad to say about my male colleagues: they respect me, they respect my work, and I respect theirs. But men dominate this industry, at least the Latin market. In Brazil and the United States, women run the show. There are still relatively few successful female composers, but little by little women are breaking those barriers. The same thing is happening in our societies.

What was your initial reaction to the phenomenon that became “Despacito”? 

The day the song was released it shot to number one in fourteen countries. I remember that first day, I went to YouTube and saw that we already had millions of reproductions and I thought, “Wow, this is moving very fast!” I’m used to a song taking two or three months to climb the charts; it never happens the day the song is released. I called Luis Fonsi to congratulate him and that was it. I’m not the kind of artist who obsesses about numbers. And then, as the days went by, I saw how it began to snowball.

Did you imagine it was going to be such a huge hit? 

No [laughs]. I did know we had a hit on our hands, because if you work in this business you know when a song is a hit. It’s not a question of intuition; you manufacture a hit. You have all the elements needed to manufacture it. And if you’re in touch with your inspiration and God gave you an extra spark, the song develops quicker.

How did the song come about? 

The song is the product of two friends who came together again, like they had many times before. I’ve been friends with Luis Fonsi for over ten years and we’ve written together for his previous albums. He asked me to come to his house; he wanted to start writing for his new album. We met and he mentioned an idea that had been running through his head all morning. He sang, “Despacito, vamos a hacerlo en una playa en Puerto Rico (Slowly, let’s do it on a beach in Puerto Rico).” And I responded: “Hasta que las olas griten ‘¡ay, bendito!’ (Until the waves scream, ‘bless me!’),” and I started to laugh because I loved the idea. I suggested we change a few notes, we finished the chorus, and completed the concept for the song, from start to finish. We were looking for a song that would take him out of the pop ballad genre and into newer trends, because that’s what he wanted.

We wrote it on the guitar, super-organic, looking for a modern sound, but classy and tasteful. And we were careful about the woman’s role in the song, because the urban genre is very aggressive with women and tends to objectify them. We loaded it with melody and lyrics that are full of poetry and metaphors but also grab people easily. And we took off with it, hoping to create something different, fun, and with a good message: that people should take things slower, have slower courtships. And this is the result, with just a guitar, and it devoured the world. Then he called Daddy Yankee, who did the rap and the “pasito a pasito” at the end of the song.

Many versions of the song have been recorded in almost every language. How did Justin Bieber end up recording “Despacito”?

One day Luis called me and said: “Erika, Bieber’s people just called to say that he heard ‘Despacito’ in Colombia and saw the impact it had on people.” We already had an English version that Fonsi was going to sing with another artist. We hadn’t recorded it yet, but it was ready to go. He asked me what I thought about Bieber recording it. It seemed like a blessing to me, but I said, “You’re the one who has to be happy with it, because you have to face him.” And that’s what happened. I think Bieber’s version is really refreshing and it helped the song continue to snowball. And thanks to this, praise God, I now hold the record as the female composer with the longest running global number one hit in the history of music. On the English-language Billboard charts we’re tied with Mariah Carey for longest running number one hit.

“Despacito” wasn’t just a hit, it was an unprecedented success that doesn’t happen to just anyone. How has this affected you?

It’s been beautiful. I won the kind of lottery that comes to a composer once every thirty years. I don’t mean to belittle my work or my talent, because I believe that I’ve fought every step of the way and I deserve it, but the truth is that many of my colleagues in the industry do a great job, and not everyone enjoys this kind of success. I really feel that God is just so good that he’s rewarding me on the 25th anniversary of the start of my career with this induction into the Hall of Fame. And he’s giving me this moment in the spotlight to serve as a positive example for young people. Not for them to be like me, or so people will think I’m this great thing, but so they’ll look at me and think: “If she could do it, and do it fair and square, I can too.” I’m grateful, because I’m carrying out my mission in life.