How I met Chavela Vargas
Since some months ago, I didn’t know who Chavela Vargas was. I didn’t know nothing until I listened her songs through an italian version done by two italians songwriters, Dimartino and Cammarata, whose decided to write a book and record an album (“Un mondo raro”- “A rare world”) after a journey in Mexico.
Freedom and sorrow of a shaman
Trace the life of Chavela Vargas is quite difficult. Many periods of her life are hidden between truth and lie, and she loved telling story about herself just to satisfy the public curiosity. “If you want to know about my past” – she stated – “I will lie to you one more time. I will tell you that I’ve never met the sorrow, and that I’ve never cried.” Anyway, what we know is that Isabel Vargas Lizano was born in Costa Rica in 1919. After her parents’ divorce, at age 14, she was abandoned and went to live with an uncle. Afterwards, she moved in Mexico and starting to sing on the streets with her guitar, performing “ranchera” song, a genre of traditional Mexican music sung usually by men to woo women and accompanied by a small orchestra of “mariachi”.
That was the first revolution which Chavela did: she was a women and she sangranchera songs alone with her voice and her guitar. Somebody called her “Las Vargas”, in plural, because when she sang was like listening to three singers at the same time. In the early 50s Chavela started to be famous in the artistic and bohemian Mexican environment. Never trying to hide her homosexuality, she dressed like a man, smoked cigar and drank tequila, challenging the Mexican mainstream moral. In the same period she lived in a house with Diego Rivera and the painter Frida Kahlo, with whom Chavela had a troubled and passionate relationship. In the following years she lived in Cuba, in Acapulco and then Mexico again. In 1961 she released her first album “Noche de Bohemia” (Bohemian Night), and became hugely successful, touring in Mexico, United States, Spain and France during the 60s and the first half of 70s.
She was called “The shaman”, for her histrionic and theatrical style of singing. Then for almost 20 years, until 1991, Chavela disappeared from the public scene. She wanted to face and win her alcoholism, and until she didn’t succeded, she didn’t come back to her public.
Back to the stage
Restarting in 1991 from Mexico City, Chavela became soon, again, a successful and recognized singer at international level. Performing concerts all over the world, she acted in several movies directed by Pedro Almodovar, her admirer and friend. She wrote soundtracks for his movies and participated as actress in “Frida”, singing one of her most famous songs “La llorona” (The weeping woman). Her rough and intense voice, her dramatic style and gestures in singing, were her own well-known brand. In 2000 an autobiography is published “Y si quieres saber de mi pasado” – “And if you want to know about my past”, where she publicy came out for the first time. But it was not something new: keeping on with her own revolutionary style, Chavela had always refuse to change the gender of the pronouns in her songs. In 2003, at age 83, she debuted at Carnagie Hall. In 2012 she died in Cuernavaca, Mexico. “Miss Vargas is a shaman, she cannot die. She just went somewhere else.” Said the doctor who announce her died.
Chavela Vargas was one of the most revolutionary and controversial singer of the 20th century. She challenged the traditional moral and lived free in the expression of her homosexuality. Her not-easy life, with obstacles and difficulties is incomparably described in her songs, which she interpretated with a profound, internal and spritual charge. Salma Hayek, main character in the movie “Frida”, stated: “Chavela is not a Mexican singer, Chavela is Mexico.”
Author: Valleria Ferrante