Wednesday, May 17, 2006

album review: Chavela Vargas "Live at Carnegie Hall"

"Chavela belongs to an ancestry of singers on the way to extinction. I'm talking about Edith Piaf, Judy Garland, Billie Holiday... geniuses whose brilliant and explosive talent caused their early demise. For me, to know Chavela has been like knowing them all. A miracle."
- Pedro Almodóvar

If you are a fan of Almodovar's movies, chances are you are a fan of Chavela Vargas's music as well, possibly without even knowing it...Most recently, she is heard singing the moving "En el Ultimo Trago" in The Flower Of My Secret.

This album (and it's remarkable packaging complete with slipcase and beautiful booklet) are a document of her debut (at age 84!) performance at Carnegie Hall in 2003. Though my Spanish is pretty weak, the sheer emotion of Chavela's voice and delivery is extremely moving, enough so that any listener can't help but be moved by her stirring performance.

As much as I usually hate press-releases for their general over-statement and bombast, I think this excerpt tells Chavela's story appropriately:

"On September 15, 2003 an adoring and sold-out Carnegie Hall audience gathered to pay tribute to a true legend and revolutionary, Chavela Vargas. The New York Times wrote, "The audience did not want to let her go, bringing her back for encore after encore." Everyone in attendance was aware of all the magic and history on that stage, in awe of the fearlessness and heartache this 84-year-old woman yielded as she made her Carnegie Hall debut.

It was fearlessness that brought Chavela to the public's attention in Mexico in the late 1950s and early 1960s., Singer Chavela Vargas dressed in men's clothes, drank and smoked cigars like any man, carried a gun with her, and was notorious for her love of women. Some even say that she once kidnapped a woman at gunpoint, but Vargas denies that rumor. However, she doesn't deny that she gained her slight limp from jumping out of a window because a woman disappointed her in love. If that's true, Vargas in her youth was every bit as romantic as the music she sang. In her performances, Vargas dressed in traditionally masculine clothing and openly seduced women in the audience with Mexican folksongs-originally intended to be sung by men. Since then she has never stopped seducing, and has been an inspiration and muse to countless artists.

In 1990, the great German movie director Werner Herzog discovered Chavela for himself and coaxed her to play an Indian woman in his movie "A Cry of Stone". One year later, the Spanish movie director Pedro Almodóvar stumbled upon her work as well, and invited her to sing "Piensa en Mí" for the soundtrack of his movie "Tacones Lejanos". Chavela also appeared alongside Salma Hayek in the film Frida, appearing as "La Llorona" (the cryer), a legendary character in Mexican myths - particularly fitting since not only was Frida Kahlo and Chavela's affair well-documented, but because she is internationally renowned for moving her audience to tears.

Though her band at this performance is stellar, the brightest instrument on the album is Chavela's voice. Not even remotely traditional sounding, her weathered and crackled delivery suits the emotions of the songs in a way that reminds me of "Broken English" period Marianne Faithful. You can't help but not be drawn in by her vocalized passions.

Chavela Vargas - "Macorina" mp3 buy

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