When Chavela Vargas died this year, I glanced at her obituary with scant interest; I did not recognize the name. I later learned that she had contributed some of my favorite songs to the wonderful soundtrack of Frida, the 2002 Frida Kahlo biopic. However, full credit for this blog post – and for my newfound interest in the life and music of Chavela Vargas – must go to Sandra Cisneros’ beautiful retrospective on Vargas’s life in last week’s New York Times Magazine.
Of Vargas, Cisneros writes:
With just a guitar and her voice, Vargas performed in a red poncho and pants at a time when Mexican women didn’t wear pants. She sang with arms open wide like a priest celebrating Mass, modeling her singing on the women of the Mexican revolution. “A mexicana is a very strong woman,” Vargas said, “Starting with la Adelita, la Valentina — mujeres muy mujeres.” Chavela Vargas belonged to this category of women-very-much women.
Even when Vargas was young and her voice still as transparent as mezcal, she danced with her lyrics tacuachito-style, cheek to cheek, pounded them on the bar, made them jump like dice, spat and hissed and purred like the woman jaguar she claimed to be and finished with a volley that entered the heart like a round of bullets from the pistol she stashed in her belt.
“She was chile verde,” remembers Elena Poniatowska, the grande dame of Mexican letters.
Vargas’ career can be divided into two periods. The first spans from her days singing on the streets, to her first album in 1961, through her heyday of popularity in the 1960s and 1970s, until she retired in the late 1970s because of alcoholism. With the help of friends and devoted fans, she revived her career in 1991, and worked not only with Julie Taymer in Frida, but also with Pedro Almodovar and Alejandro González Iñárritu.
Fans of the film Frida will doubtless remember Vargas for her deep, gravelly, powerful voice, and for her tremendous performance of La Llorona, in which her voice sobs and weeps and rages. La Llorona, in Mexican folklore, is a woman cursed to wander the world as a shade forever, having drowned her little children out of love for a man who then spurned her.
It is harder to track down video recordings of Vargas performing in the 1960s and 1970s, so I downloaded an album from iTunes, Chavela Vargas con el Cuartateo Lara Foster. Originally released in 1961, here Vargas’ voice is sweet, supplicating, and above all sexy. Life has yet to put the gravel in her voice, though the smoke is certainly there. It is a nightclub voice. The songs “Manzanita” and “No Volvere” are probably my favorites from the album.
In many ways, Vargas reminds me of Edith Piaf. Both were nightclub singers, both sang songs written by men for them and then turned those songs into their own. Both were iconic of a particular time and place. But where Edith Piaf was famous for her fragility – the name Piaf means “little sparrow” – Vargas, as Cisneros says above, was “mujeres muy mujeres.” And yet while being powerfully female, she also performed dressed as a man, and sang men’s songs, songs of desire for beautiful women.
In an article for the website LolaPress, Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano writes,
There is a way in which just the public knowledge of Vargas’s lesbianism suffices for this femme listener/viewer to appropriate the entire repertory of songs Chabela sings for lesbian desire. Certainly, many songs are susceptible to lesbian readings because of the lack of gendered pronouns. It is precisely in the play of the pronouns that the most radical appropriations are made; they are key to the ways certain listeners are included and others excluded. Chabela Vargas’s most transgressive interventions are those in which the voice of the song is either unmarked or identified as male, and the object of desire is marked as female in the text. Because traditionally such songs have been sung by male singers, in these texts, Chabela Vargas dons a kind of musical drag, writing / speaking / singing lesbian desire through the butch appropriation of the active heterosexual male subject position. Such texts, in which the object of desire is marked as “she”, are open to lesbian and male heterosexual readings but limit female heterosexual or gay male identifications.
I remember, in high school, when I still could not quite put a name on the yearning I felt to be loved by the most beautiful girl I knew, writing love poetry – sonnets, if you can believe it – in a male voice. I described my object of desire in men’s language, because I knew no other way to speak of desire for a girl or woman except in a man’s language. In the same vein, I remember watching the music video for Bruce Springsteen’s song “I’m on Fire,” and thinking, all at the same time and quite indistinctly, that Bruce Springsteen was very attractive and that I would like to sing that song to a beautiful woman one day.
I will leave you with one last video, which shows Vargas performing perhaps her most famous, and sexiest, song: Macorina.