The Ladies of Panama -The Promise of Life in Your Heart

“Israel Torres had a vision of putting a female ensemble together to realize his dream of a Brazilian Band along the lines of Sergio Mendes”

by Gail Dee

I have been eagerly awaiting the reunion of the Ladies of Panama since the 20l4 Blues Fest when their soulful voices and spirited camaraderie lifted me out of pain and carried me up and over the steep overpass from Columbus Drive to Michigan Ave on a full moon summer night.

I had recently met the modest, uber talented vocalist Mae Koen at a World Music show at Old Town School of Folk Music. She invited me to see her sing at  as part of a backup group for a major blues act at the Petrillo Bandshell.  After graciously arranging me a seat in the VIP section; she motioned for me to join her friend Shay Jones in the audience.  First I was stunned to hear Mae’s powerful vocals for the first time with her sister vocalists  Nanette Frank and Diane Washington on stage and  then startled when I noticed Shay was singing along very softly in bits and pieces.  Soon I was completely entertained by her skillful sweet harmonies in my left ear; Her gentle voice adding another layer to the songs on stage and when she would pause, I was a bit disappointed. After all it was like I was getting a private concert with these four ladies.  Clearly Shay was part of the ensemble. Later I learned they are all part of the Ladies of Panama (plus Shawn Christopher and Reginah Walton).

The Ladies of Panama from L to R Shawn Christopher; Diane Madison; Mae Koen, Reginah Walton, Nanette Frank and Shay Jones.

The Ladies of Panama from L to R Shawn Christopher; Diane Madison; Mae Koen, Reginah Walton, Nanette Frank and Shay Jones.

When the concert was over; I met with all of them to walk home.  With a bad hip it was a tough trek. Each step I took with my crutch felt like an  endurance course–the uphill concrete overpass seemed like the side of a mountain. Then almost as if on cue-the ladies joyfully burst out singing -I think to distract me.  And as they vocally played with each other gleefully laying pieces of one song on top of another shouting “No, let’s try this one!”  my steps got lighter.    I even started singing too!  Like Jobim’s song “The Waters of March” the Ladies of Panama bring the “promise of life to our hearts with their warmhearted spirits, honey rich voices and harmonies.

Joanie Pallatto, singer/songwriter/ co owner of Southport Jazz Records who occasionally sang with Panama said, “Panama would pack places like Cross Currents and the Bulls when they played. Bandleader pianist Israel Torres had everyone under the spell of Latin grooves with the voice of the angels from the Ladies of Panama.”

Ladies of Panama/ Nicholas Tremulis (opening) Reggie’s 2109 S State St  $25  Doors open 7 pm Show at 8 p.m.

This Panama reunion will also include four former male members of the band too. ;  Keith Henderson musical director; Tony Carpenter on percussion; Dede Sampaio on drums; Chuckaluk on bass.  Theodis Rogers on keyboards takes the place of beloved bandleader and keyboard player Israel Torres.
Here’s a biography from the Ladies of Panama.  “Panama was indeed the cream of the crop and has been the vehicle for some of the baddest musicians and vocalist the City of Chicago has had to offer, many of them having their humble beginnings with the Panama group. After several years of honing skills and being in demand on every arena imaginable local and worldwide, the core ladies of this great group Panama, have decided to come together once again to do a tribute to a legacy that they helped to build. Shay Jones is the wearer of many hats and she wears them well. As well as an accomplished vocalist she is also an artist and an author. Mae Koen has been in demand for her supreme vocal harmony skills for artists as diverse as Willie Dixon and Aretha Franklin. Regina Walton, shall we say Professor Walton, is a teacher and a scholar and has also had a profound career in theatre. Shawn Christopher has also been in high demand, having several solo releases and fronting the band Sonia Dada, bringing the band to the level of success unprecedented. Diane Madison, also a scholar, has lent her beautiful angelic colorful voice to many a major artist, including Gene Chandler, Otis Clay, and Aretha Franklin. Nanette Frank, the powerhouse vocalist who has become in demand all over the world having toured extensively in Asia and the USSR and enjoying great success with her CD, Room for One More.”
GAIL DEE is a freelance writer. Her  “GLOBAL SOUNDS” column appears in Newcity Music Chicago’s 29 year old free cultural bimonthly print and online magazine. and she created the  Facebook Group We Want Music Without Borders with almost 2500 members for daily updates about music in Chicago and sometime NYC here:

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