¡Ay, mu­jeres!

Nacha Men­dez chan­nels Chavela Var­gas

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS - Casey Sanchez I For The New Mex­i­can

IT is Mexico City in the late 1950s. On a night­club stage, a woman named Chavela Var­gas, who dresses as a man and sings like a lovesick macho, pours her heart into a raw ren­der­ing of “Ma­co­rina,” a ranchera love bal­lad about a Cuban pros­ti­tute. “Put your hand right here, Ma­co­rina. Put your hand on me,” the singer coos, de­clin­ing to change the lyrics’ pro­nouns from she to he.

Off­stage, Var­gas guz­zles te­quila, smokes cigars, shoots pis­tols, and chases stat­uesque di­vas — Frida Kahlo, with whom she lived for a year, was among the fe­male artists and ac­tresses en­tranced by the singer. Around the cap­i­tal, Var­gas drives a white Alfa Romeo, gifted to her by Mex­i­can pres­i­dent Adolfo López Ma­teos. For an Amer­i­can to com­pre­hend the au­dac­ity of her achieve­ments, imag­ine Ja­nis Jo­plin find­ing fame as a soul­ful coun­try singer, per­form­ing for a rapt Richard Nixon at the Grand Ole Opry.

“There is no one like her in the world,” said Nacha Men­dez, a long­time Santa Fe chanteuse whose Var­gas cov­ers have been a main­stay of her reper­toire for decades. “Her mu­sic spoke to those peo­ple liv­ing on the mar­gins. If you were one liv­ing on those mar­gins, then it didn’t take much for you to be en­veloped in the per­sonal space she cre­ated in a song.”

In 2012, Var­gas died in Cuer­navaca at the age of ninety-three. Like any other true diva, Var­gas had a rise, a fall, and a re­birth. Trav­el­ing alone as a four­teen-year-old, she left her fam­ily in Costa Rica to pur­sue a mu­si­cian’s life in Mexico City, busk­ing on street corners and mak­ing her way into the ros­ter of bo­hemian night­clubs. She be­friended the leg­endary ranchera singer José Al­fredo Jiménez, who be­came her con­fi­dant, men­tor, and fre­quent song­writer. One of the few per­form­ers who could ri­val her stage pres­ence, he was also the rare drink­ing buddy who could match her al­co­hol tol­er­ance. At the height of her fame in the mid-’70s, Var­gas plunged into an al­co­holic abyss, dis­ap­pear­ing so com­pletely, for more than a decade, that even close friends as­sumed she had died. In­stead, she was res­cued from a drunken stu­por by an in­dige­nous Mex­i­can fam­ily who nursed her to health and so­bri­ety with­out ever know­ing who she was.

In her sev­en­ties she re­turned to the stage, where her emo­tive per­for­mances would so­lid­ify her rep­u­ta­tion as “the rough voice of ten­der­ness,” a phrase be­stowed upon her by Pe­dro Almod­ó­var. A close friend and cham­pion of Var­gas, the Span­ish film­maker rein­tro­duced her in the ’90s to au­di­ences in Europe, the United States, and Latin Amer­ica. Her songs lit up key scenes in Almod­ó­var’s La flor de mi se­creto, Kika, and Carne tré­mula. In her sec­ond act, the oc­to­ge­nar­ian would per­form at Carnegie Hall, win a Life­time Achieve­ment Grammy, and of­fi­cially come out in her 2000 au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, If You Want to Know About My Past.

Men­dez first en­coun­tered the singer 30 years ago. “I dis­cov­ered Chavela in 1985 through a gay cou­ple liv­ing in New York City. One of the gen­tle­men asked me if I had ever heard of her. I hadn’t. He worked in a ra­dio sta­tion and had ac­cess to Latin mu­sic from all over the world. He made me a cas­sette mix­tape of Chavela. The first song I heard was ‘Ma­co­rina.’ I was hooked right away.”

For Men­dez, Var­gas is a kin­dred soul whose artis­tic iden­tity and per­sonal strug­gles par­al­lel Men­dez’s life. Both are Latina les­bian mu­si­cians who re­vere tra­di­tional Latin Amer­i­can folk mu­sic while ex­per­i­ment­ing with its ar­range­ments and push­ing genre bound­aries. Both faced down al­co­holism that threat­ened to de­stroy their ca­reers and lives.

Those par­al­lels are at the heart of Amor Puro y Duro (Love Pure and Hard), a forth­com­ing doc­u­men­tary by di­rec­tor Cather­ine Gund, known for her movies about artists and ac­tivists who chal­lenge con­ven­tional no­tions of gen­der and sex­u­al­ity. For years now, the film­maker had been sit­ting on un­screened in­ter­view footage of Var­gas. Last year, Men­dez and Gund con­ceived the idea of mak­ing a film that would jointly ex­plore both per­form­ers’ lives. Cur­rently in pro­duc­tion, the movie mixes archival tapes of Var­gas in Mexico City with record­ings of Men­dez’s per­for­mances and con­ver­sa­tions in Santa Fe. “Chavela’s story will be re­vealed through Nacha’s eyes and her jour­ney to whole­ness,” said Gund in a press re­lease.

Dur­ing this month, sev­eral of Men­dez’s lo­cal per­for­mances will be filmed for the movie, in­clud­ing a Satur­day, July 25, con­cert at the Scot­tish Rite Cen­ter, Homage to Chela: Nacha Men­dez Sings Chavela Var­gas. The di­rec­tor said the film will fol­low Men­dez as she ex­plores Var­gas’ legacy, writ­ing and record­ing a new al­bum inspired by the love letters Var­gas re­ceived from Kahlo. Men­dez has com­mis­sioned 15 writ­ers to pen letters to Kahlo, as if they were artists and as­so­ci­ates from the pain­ter’s close cir­cle, in­clud­ing Diego Rivera, Tina Modotti, and Var­gas her­self. Each let­ter will be trans­formed into a song by Men­dez.

As a mu­si­cian, Var­gas’ bold ap­proach to ranchera — no horns, no vi­o­lins — has al­ways ap­pealed to Men­dez. “I think that be­cause she of­ten ac­com­pa­nied her­self on guitar, it made her de­liv­ery and phras­ing per­sonal and in­ti­mate. I also think that many trained mu­si­cians could not ac­com­pany her for her emo­tive pitch, her rhythm and in­ter­pre­ta­tion of a song that was unique. I think that in her later years, she fi­nally found the right mu­si­cians who could hang on her ev­ery breath.” As the late Mex­i­can es­say­ist Car­los Mon­siváis put it, Var­gas in­stinc­tively knew “how to ex­press the des­o­la­tion of the rancheras with the rad­i­cal naked­ness of the blues.”

“Chavela sang it like she lived it. In al­most all of her record­ings, there is that raw au­then­tic­ity rarely heard in other record­ings of her time. In other words, no one was us­ing auto-tune or ask­ing her to tone it down. Nor did she have a big mari­achi band to back her up,” Men­dez said. “When she sings, you lis­ten!”

Men­dez Nacha

Chavela Var­gas

Frida Kahlo and Chavela Var­gas, pho­tographed by Tina Modotti in 1950

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.