It’s no wonder that Chavela Vargas has long been Pedro Almodovar’s muse. According to Wikipedia, “in her youth she dressed as a man, smoked cigars, drank heavily, and carried a gun”. She could have been one of the characters in his films. Actually she was. She’s starred in his film The Flower of My Secret as well as other films.
She is most famous for her rancheras, a famous Mexican song form that goes all the way back to the Mexican Revolution. For Chavela, rancheras were a means to express her being a woman and a gay woman in Mexico for decades. She recorded her first album in 1961. Since then, she’s recorded 80+ more. Her Carnegie Hall debut was in 2003, when she was 83.
Vargas will celebrate her 92nd birthday on April 17th. She came out of the closet, announcing her lesbianism, when she was 80. Recently her music was covered brilliantly by Spanish singer Concha Buika, with Cuban pianist Chucho Valdes. Buika is publicly bisexual, and was introduced to Chavela by her mother in her teens. Her recorded tribute to Chavela on her most recent album El Ultimo Trago, reflects her connectioin with Chavela: As an existentialist, an outsider: Buika is bisexual, an African woman in Spain: her parents emigrated from Equatorial Guinea, which was a Spanish colony before independence. Being a gay woman in 1930s Mexico was not easy. Nor was it easy to be one of the very few black women in Spain.
Chavela Vargas is iconic, larger than life, as much an expression of Mexican culture as Frida Kahlo. And yet recognition outside of Mexico has eluded her. I hope she becomes even better known, especially outside of Mexico and the Mexican-American community here. She certainly has earned it.
P.S.: Chavela Vargas died Sunday, August 5, in Cuernavaca, Mexico, at the age of 93.
P.S.P.S. Buika celebrated Chavela with some of the late singers classics on her just finished U.S. Tour. And there will be a big celebration of Chavela Vargas at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Wednesday, December 5th: here is more info:
LA LLORONA: THE REBEL SPIRIT OF CHAVELA VARGAS CELEBRATES THE LEGENDARY MUSICAL REBEL WITH SPECIAL GUESTS ELY GUERRA, EUGENIA LEON AND
World Music series at Walt Disney Concert Hall
Media sponsor: 89.9 KCRW
Wednesday, December 5, 2012 at 8:00 PM
WHAT: Three passionate and powerful Latina vocalists – Ely Guerra, Eugenia Leon and Tania Libertad – join forces for La Llorona: The Rebel Spirit of Chavela Vargas, a one-of-a-kind acoustic tribute to Chavela Vargas, the celebrated social and musical rebel, and passionate interpreter of rancheras, boleros, and corridos.
Over the past half century, Costa Rican–born Mexican singer Chavela Vargas was an influential ambassador of traditional Mexican song in the Americas and Europe. Hailed for her haunting performances, Vargas was known as “la voz áspera de la ternura,” the rough voice of tenderness. This performance will include renditions of Vargas’ most beloved songs including “Un Mundo Raro” and “La Llorona.”