OBITUARY : LOLA BERTRAN

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The Independent Online
Lola "la Grande" departed as befits the queen of ranchera, lying in state at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, an august institution where 20 years earlier she had been the first popular singer to perform.

Her coffin was borne there amid mariachi bands, a melee of photographers, politicians, and the cream of Mexican show business, crying and signing autographs as they went. Aproned women tortilla sellers wailed "Viva Lola! She's gone!" and sang lines from her songs: Lola Beltran had plied their trade as a girl and it was generally believed that the great care she took of her famously slender expressive hands, which were insured for an extravagant sum, was a result of her awareness of the physical work they had been spared.

Ranchera song, a sort of Mexican equivalent to country-and-western, grew from a regional folk style at the beginning of this century, to become a national symbol by the 1950s. It is the music of the mariachi bands, with their sombreros and ornate charro costumes, of melodramatic songs of love, betrayal and tequila, and of the characteristic drawn-out "ay ay ay!" of despair at life and the opposite sex. Like Spanish flamenco, it later became stereotyped to the point of kitsch and has captured a new audience in the last few years through new semi-satirical interpreters, as well as its great old practitioners. The most prominent of the former, Astrid Hadad, whose act simulta-neously pays homage to the ranchera tradition and parodies it, saluted Beltran, among the pages of press testimonials, for her magnificent voice, her powerful personality and her huge presence.

Beltran's predecessor as queen of ranchera, the Billie Holliday-esque Lucha Reyes, who died of a barbiturate overdose in 1944, made a great impression upon Beltran's singing style, and also on her life style. Beltran's life however was stable and untragic, partly, it was said, because she had been so shocked by a biopic of the Reyes story that she had resolved always to keep her own private life uneventful. She was married to a bullfighter, Alfredo Leal, and had one daughter, Marielena, who also became a singer.

Beltran was born Maria Lucia Beltran Alcayaga in a small town on the Gulf of California in northern Mexico, probably in 1931, though in later life she was evasive about her age. She began singing as a child and moved with her mother to the capital, Mexico City, in her teens, where she worked as a secretary in the radio station XEW, before being "discovered" in one of the station's weekly broadcast talent competitions. She was immediately successful, and embarked on a 40-year career which resulted in at least 60 films and 70 records.

Although she revelled to the full in the melodrama of ranchera, and raised it to hitherto unseen heights of glitz in her big mariachi-crammed stage shows, her work was not simply formulaic. Her theme song, "Cucurrucucu Paloma", written by the great ranchera composer Tomas Mendez, was a notable departure from the norms of ranchera machismo, whereby women are traditionally the ones to bewail the men who leave them, in that the subject of the song, whose sobbing for his faithless lover resounds even after death, is a man.

Shortly before her death, Lola Beltran completed work on an album of songs by the top pop ranchera composer Juan Gabriel, with two other star singers, which was tipped to be the "disc of the century". As the writer Carlos Monsivais said of her, "Ranchera song is one of the last bastions of [Mexican] nationalism, and the culminating figure of ranchera song is Lola Beltran."

Philip Sweeney

Maria Lucia Beltran Alcayaga (Lola Beltran), singer: born c 1931; married Alfredo Leal (one daughter); died Mexico City 24 March 1996.

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