Chavela Vargas: La Voz de la Ternura (The Rough Voice of Tenderness)

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It’s no wonder that Chavela Vargas has long been Pedro Almodovar’s muse. According to sources, “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 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.

Chavela Vargas ch
Chavela Vargas (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

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. Being a gay woman in 1930s Mexico was not easy.

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.

Note: Chavela Vargas died  Sunday, August 5th in Cuernavaca, Mexico at the age of 93.

Tom Schnabel's Rhythm Planet