Paquita Singh, International Woman of Mystery

This week’s selection from the Marco Pacci archives features two tunes  recorded in Calcutta in 1941 by a mysterious duo who called themselves Paquita and Zarate. Both the melodies are swing standards, though as this postcard they signed for an Indian fan shows, the vocalist and her violin-playing partner are dressed up to perform Latin American numbers. In fact, an advertisement I found on the internet states that they perform Mexican song, music and dance.

I haven’t been able to find out much about the pair, except for stray references to them in Billboard magazine in the 1950s. Even their first names are unknown. One advertisement in 1958 boasts that Zarate and Paquita were “widely known as concert artists and nightclub entertainers [and] are also known as composers and recording artists”. They had evidently released a religious album “containing the hymns and prayers embracing the faith of all people”. The ad said that the record was “receiving favourable comment from all who have heard it and those who already have it in their homes say it should be in all homes”. Other Billboard articles suggest that they spent the 1950s as performers at variety shows in the US that featured jugglers and magicians, in addition to musicians.

Advertisements and articles in The Times of India place them in Bombay in the winter of 1941, performing at the Taj and Green’s Hotel. They made these recordings in Calcutta later that year.

But there’s an intriguing twist to the tale. According to a discography published in the jazz magazine Storyville, Paquita was actually the stage name of an African-American jazz singer named Myrtle Watkins, who had performed at the Taj in 1935. If this is true, it makes one wonder why Watkins – who had established a rather solid reputation in Europe in the 1930s – decided to take on a Mexican alibi and when she did so.

Myrtle Watkins first appears in my research material in 1928 as a member of the cast of a revue called Blackbirds, which was well reviewed in the US. By 1930, she was a dancer in Paris, one of the scores of African-American performers who had moved to Europe to escape the racism of the US and to trade on the French fascination for “negro” culture.

Through the 1930s, African-American newspapers such as the Defender and the Afro-American reported Myrtle Watkins’ movements through Europe – she was in France, Belgium and Romania, among other places. In 1934, for instance, the Chicago Defender reported from Paris that the colourful African-American hostess Ada “Bricktop” Smith had postponed the opening of her new cabaret on rue Pigalle pending the arrival from Spain of Watkins, who “is appropriately publicised on this continent…as the world’s most fascinating entertainer”.

The next year found Watkins at the Taj in Bombay, where newspapers reported that she was laid low by a terrible bout of malaria. There’s little else in the local newspapers about her time here, though the Times of India complicated matters for future researchers by frequently misspelling her name.

One report in the Afro-American described her as the Josephine Baker of Spain. “Miss Watkins, who is a very good dancer, with plenty of pep, is pretty and has a shapely figure,” it said. “She has been making conquests in high society and on her string is the marquis of one of Spain’s bluest blue bloods. She lives at the Florida, one of the best hotels in the city, has a fine roadster, records for Spanish gramophone and radio, and entertains at one of the leading cabarets.” That experience, perhaps, provided her with material to help her metamorphose from Myrtle into Paquita.

The only image I’ve been able to find of Watkins is rather indistinct, so it’s difficult to compare her features with Paquita’s (though those noses do seem remarkably similar, don’t you think?).  Keeping that in mind, the most compelling evidence I’ve found to suggest that Myrtle was indeed Paquita comes from the Chicago Defender in January, 1938. It said that since the Paris Exposition had shut for three months, Myrtle Watkins and her “Cuban-American orchestra that enjoyed a lovely success…at the exclusive George V restaurant” on the exposition grounds had moved on to another engagement. As it turns out, a promotional card I found on the internet for Zarate and Paquita states that this duo were also at an Exposition restaurant – but the copy says it’s the George 6th. I’d love to believe that there’s a typo here somewhere. I still can’t understand whether it would make commercial sense for an African-American jazz singer to pass as a Mexican musician in the 1930s, though perhaps a decision like this would have afforded Watkins greater personal freedom in the racially segregated US. I wonder how audiences reacted to this transformation and why no newspaper articles mention it.

Even if she had played at being Paquita in 1937, she was back to being Myrtle Watkins the next year. The New York Amsterdam News reported that she was the second emcee at the Big Apple club in Montmarte run by Bricktop. The article describes Watkins as “one of the cleverest singers and dancers” they had ever seen. Then it adds an even more curious detail: “She is now married to an East Indian, Lall Singh. She has accepted the Hindu faith and in the streets, she affects Eastern garb.”

After that, her name disappears from the newspaper and magazine archives I have access to – and Paquita and Zarate make their appearance. I’ve tried all sort of search combinations but there’s nothing to nail down this indentity switch conclusively. However, even as I’ve reached a dead end in real life, I can still use my imagination. Tonight, Myrtle Watkins of Baltimore will flounce through my dreams in her avatar as Paquita Singh, clad in Eastern garb, singing St Louis Blues.
St. Louis Blues by Paquita and Zarate by Taj Mahal Foxtrot

Lady Be Good by Paquita and Zarate by Taj Mahal Foxtrot

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13 Responses
  1. Murari Venkataraman says:

    The Lall Singh in question might have been the cricketer http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lall_Singh (see the Notes)
    He played in India’s inaugural Test in England.

  2. Angie Bourdos says:

    I have some wonderful photos and information that may help with the identification of Paquita & Zarate, I have posted and original signed photo from the 40’s in Reno Nevada along with a collection of other original autographs, referring to “Mother Airmet” and Elliot Airmet from this duo.

    I have posted a link and info from your Wonderful Web site on my ebay add. I hope this is ok, if not I will remove the text. You can contact me so I can share my info with you. The ebay item number is 300839542608 for one of the photos.

    Thank you so much.
    Angie

  3. Beatriz G Chagoyan says:

    Amazing!!!!! my father knew them, Zarate’s first name was Samuel, they were married…they went to live in the U.S.A. as far as I know in Portland…I don’t really know much about Paquita, Zarate became a good friend of my father, and I remember as a child that he used to visit us each year..nice I’ve found this information about him….

  4. kto says:

    Naresh:

    You’ve spelt the singer’s name in many places as Myrtle Watkins. But, in the Taj ad, the name is spelt Myrtle Watklngs. Any reason for the change? ….KTO

  5. Tunku says:

    The Lall Singh in question can’t have been the Indian Test cricketer. He lived in Malaysia for most of his life, and died in Kuala Lumpur in 1985.

  6. Stan williams says:

    I practically lived with. Zarate and Paquita in the 40s and 50s
    Wonderful couple and talented entertainers
    They worked with big names. Like Liberace in early days
    They lived in and around San Francisco at that time

    I worked with them in Reno as mentioned above

    If interested in more information let me know

    • Ramona Martin says:

      Perhaps you have seen my reply on this website, tajmahalfoxtrot.com. You said you spent time with Zarate and Paquita in the 40’s and 50’s. I spent time with Paquita (l960 until her death in 1968) and with Samuel B. Zarate from 1960 until his death in 1997. During that time they were living in Depoe Bay, Oregon near my home. I was his piano accompanist.

  7. Andre says:

    Have you learned anything new recently on Myrtle Watkins “Paquita” ? Any family members? Any of her recordings from Spain?

  8. Ann says:

    Myrtle Watkins born Jun.23 1908 in Boston, Massachusetts died Nov.10 1969 Washington as Paquita Zarate
    Married Edward Thompson (Feb.4 1929)/Lall Singh (?? 1938)/ Samuel Zarate (Jan.? 1944)
    Parents Jasper Watkins & Betty Lane
    Arrived in Paris with “Black Follies” (1927)/”Blackbirds” (1929)
    Recorded and appeared in a film in Spain (1932)
    Met Samuel B.Zarate (1937)
    Returned to US (1943)
    Toured West Coast & Mexico
    Recorded Music, Appeared in Films, Radio, & Television until 1969

    • . says:

      Myrtle Dillard-Watkins 06/23/1908 – Boston, Mass. 11/10/1968
      Husbands: Edward Thompson (02/4/1929-01/4/1936)
      Lall Singh (?/?/1938-?/?/1939)
      Samuel Zarate (01/6/1944-11/10/1968)
      Lived in Europe (1929-1940?)/India (1941-1943)
      *Nearly stranded in Poland during German invasion (1939)
      Appeared in probably lost Spanish film featuring actress Perlita Greco (1932)

  9. Ramona G. Martin says:

    Samuel Bonifacio Zarate, b. 5/14/1909 in El Oro, Mexico; d. 5/21/1997 in Depoe Bay, Oregon, USA; was married to Myrtle Dillard Watkins, b. 6/28/1915; d. 1/10/1968 in the hospital in Corvallis, Oregon. They purchased a home in Lincoln County, Oregon in 1959. They created a cultural center providing musical instruction in violin, piano, flute, accordian, etc. etc. I was piano accompanist for Mr. Zarate’s concerts since 1961 until his death in 1997. I have in my possession much information which I am trying to piece together. It was our understanding that Paquita was East Indian; however, I have a wedding certificate showing the marriage of Samuel B. Zarate to Myrtle D. Watkins so I am now assuming that “Paquita” was her stage name. I have a lot of documentation.

  10. . says:

    My new blog on Afro-American artists in Europe, includes Zarate and Paquita

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