Monday, August 06, 2012

The Immortal Chavela Vargas

Mexico will honor the passing of the great singer Chavela Vargas with an open casket viewing in the Palace of Fine Arts today. If I could go pay my respects, I would. Gone is one of the greatest singers in the Spanish speaking world.
I first met Chavela Vargas when I was a child. She was a neighbor of my uncle, who had a house near Cuernavaca in Ahuatepec, a place she wrote a beautiful song about.
At the time, by ten in the morning she already had several tequilas on her. She liked to come over to sing and eat and drink some more. She was always warm and funny. She used to call my cousin Carlos, who was a big boy, her "sietemesino de oro": her golden seven-months preemie. Sometimes she brought her guitar and she sang for us, with that torrential voice of hers, which at the time was still unbroken. My uncle eventually sold the house and I never heard from Chavela again. In fact, many people thought she had died, given her penchant for hard drinking.  It wasn't until the 1990s, when she was in her seventies, that she resurfaced in Mexico, after going through a scare with tongue cancer (she also smoked cigars). She was brought out from semi-obscurity by the owners of a bohemian nightclub in Mexico City, where she used to hold court to packed, adoring audiences. I saw her sing in that intimate space many times. Not once did I ever manage to make it through one of her performances without dissolving in hot tears of pain, joy and gratitude. She was one of the most powerful performers I have ever seen. She seemed to tower onstage, wearing her very elegant ponchos, accompanied only by a guitar player. I remember meeting her backstage after one of her shows and being shocked at how tiny and almost frail she seemed offstage. But when that raspy voice of hers boomed out, she made your heart quake. She used to have more or less the same repertoire of great Mexican ranchera songs every night, but each time she sang one of those torch songs (we call them slash-your-wrists songs) it was as if it was coming out of her guts for the first time. She gave her soul in every song. And the feeling was not maudlin, self-pitying, or forced. It was brutal. It was tough. It was raw. As real and as strong as an earthquake. But then after each song she would make funny jokes about her now sadly abstemious life or engage the audience in puckish repartee.
I remember a very funny story she told one night about going to the Royal Palace in Madrid to sing for the Spanish royal family. King Juan Carlos was her friend. They invited her over for dinner, she had a great time. When it was time to leave, she put on her raincoat and left. It felt a little big on her. When she got to the hotel, she realized that she had taken the King's raincoat, and she found the King's wallet, with the King's credit cards in it. She then imagined King Juan Carlos trying to fit into her raincoat. Whether this is made up or not, it was such a lovely way to conveying to us her own royalty and humility. For those of us who were transformed (mostly into helpless pools of tears) by her power, she was regal. She was a goddess, which is what fans in the audience screamed at her at the end of each song. I am extremely sad to see her go, but I'm glad to know she lasted with power, grace and humor until the end. She had one of the greatest second acts in life. We have been bestowed with the extraordinary luck to have heard her sing her heart out.

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