Chavela Vargas: Singer adored in the Hispanic world

 

It could not have been easy being a cigar-smoking, tequila-swigging, gun-toting lesbian who sang cowboy songs in macho Mexico through much of the 20th century. But in a career that lasted for most of her 93 years, Chavela Vargas gradually made inroads into male chauvinist, homophobic and Catholic church prejudices.

She became a monument of Mexican culture, indeed of the Spanish-speaking world, a singer whose "rough voice of tenderness" – the words of the Spanish film-maker Pedro Almodovar – could tear the heart out of anyone who spoke her native tongue. Indeed, like Brel, Piaf, Dylan or the great bluesmen, her 80 albums transcended her own language, transposing Spanish lyrics into the universal language of love, loss, pain and ultimately hope. In her own words, she was "una rareza," a rarity, a one-off.

When she appeared on stage in the 1950s with a bullwhip and a pistol, the audience was never sure whether the gun was loaded. But they knew she was, the bottle of tequila by her side replaced as swiftly as it was drained. With her male hairstyle and wearing trousers beneath her jorongo (poncho), no one knew who she really was. While a similar image has since become common among gay female performers, Vargas was an outlaw. Being gay was against the laws of the land, and of the church, and she formally "came out" only in an autobiography when she was 80. "What hurt was not being homosexual, but what they threw in my face, as if I had the plague," she wrote.

When she sang ranchera, or cowboy, songs, traditionally sung by men, she never did what most women singers tend to do – change the pronouns from "she" to "he." Male artists assumed she was being faithful to the original lyrics. Gay people got the message.

Vargas might never have sung her way into the Mexican and Latin psyche had she not been taken under the wings of many of the great artists of the mid-20th century, including the Mexican writer Juan Rulfo, the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca and the great bolero songwriter Agustin Lara whose works she later performed. After the painters Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo took her into their home in Coyoacan, the artistic hub of Mexico City, the bisexual Kahlo and Vargas became close. Kahlo's diaries suggest love unrequited by Vargas but the singer refused throughout her life to speak of those days.

A Vargas-Kahlo relationship, however, was brilliantly fictionalised in the Oscar-winning movie Frida (2002), in which the real Vargas, then aged 81, appears as a figure of Death to the young Frida, played by Salma Hayek, Vargas hauntingly singing one of her most famous songs, "La Llorona" (the Woman who Weeps). The film's soundtrack also features a younger Vargas singing her classic "Paloma Negra" (Black Dove) in the stunning sequence in which Frida chops off her hair while demolishing a bottle of tequila in Vargas style.

Almodovar, one of Vargas's greatest champions, had already used her in his own movies, bringing her work to a new generation and inspiring gay men and women throughout the Spanish-speaking world, not least in communist Cuba, after she had gone through what she called "15 years of alcoholic hell." The director featured her, or her songs, in several of his films, including La Flor de mi Secreto (The Flower of my Secret, 1995) and it was he who brought her to the Carnegie Hall in New York in 2003, at the age of 83, for a memorable concert which produced one of her finest live albums. On it, spicing up her classic song "Hacia la Vida", she sang: "Today, I'm going towards life. Before, I was going towards la pinche muerte [goddam death]."

She was 86 when she gave a rousing open-air concert in Madrid's Plaza de España in 2006 and she was back in Spain only a few months ago to perform, from a wheelchair, a new album of Lorca's poems. After her death, Almodovar said: "I don't think there is a stage big enough in this world for Chavela."

Isabel Vargas Lozano was born in the Central American nation of Costa Rica in 1919 and suffered from polio from an early age. She would later attribute her recovery to the shamans, or spiritual guides, she consulted, something she would continue for the rest of her life. After her parents divorced, she was brought up by several uncles whose treatment of her one can imagine from her later words: "May they burn in Hell!" At the age of 14 she hit the Pan-American Highway, hitchhiking north towards the promised land that was the United States. Passing through Mexico City, she busked with mariachis on the zocalo, the grand main square, where she was spotted by Rivera and Kahlo. "They invited me to a party at their house, then to stay with them," she recalled. "I learned every secret of Frida and Diego, secrets I shall never reveal. We were happy, we lived day to day, without a cent, sometimes with nothing to eat, but dying of laughter." She found herself performing in the swanky hotels of Acapulco, at the time vying with Rio and Havana as the magnet for Hollywood celebrities. She sang at the Acapulco wedding of Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Todd in 1957.

A few months ago, Vargas said: "I do not fear death. I don't owe life anything and vice-versa. We're quits." She spent her latter years in the picturesque nahuatl Indian town of Tepoztlan, 45 miles south of Mexico City, where she continued to consult her shamans. She died in hospital in nearby Cuernavaca.

Phil Davison

Isabel "Chavela" Vargas Lizano, singer: born San Joaquin de Flores, Costa Rica 17 April 1919; died Cuernavaca, Mexico 5 August 2012.

Arts & Entertainment
Madonna in her music video for 'Like A Virgin'
music... and other misheard song lyrics
News
Waitrose will be bringing in more manned tills
newsOverheard in Waitrose: documenting the chatter in 'Britain's poshest supermarket'
News
Russia's President Vladimir Putin gives his annual televised question-and-answer session
peopleBizarre TV claim
News
The energy drink MosKa was banned for containing a heavy dose of the popular erectile dysfunction Levitra
news
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Sport
Australia's Dylan Tombides competes for the ball with Adal Matar of Kuwait during the AFC U-22 Championship Group C match in January
sportDylan Tombides was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2011
Arts & Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'
tv
News
Posted at the end of March, this tweeted photo was a week off the end of their Broadway shows
people
Arts & Entertainment
tvIt might all be getting a bit much, but this is still the some of the finest TV ever made, says Grace Dent
News
peopleStar to remain in hospital for up to 27 days to get over allergic reaction
Arts & Entertainment
Comedian Lenny Henry is calling for more regulation to support ethnic actors on TV
tvActor and comedian leads campaign against 'lack of diversity' in British television
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Apprentice IT Technician

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

£153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

Sales Associate Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit