Chavela Vargas, one of the most powerful and unique voices in Mexican music, has died at 93. Born in Costa Rica, she began her professional career in the 1950s, releasing the first of over 80 albums, Noche de Bohemia, in 1961, and her last, Por Mi Culpa!, in 2010.
Vargas achieved great success from the 1950s to the 1970s, touring Mexico, the US, and Europe, but she retired in the mid ’70s due to alcoholism, which she battled for 15 years and discussed extensively in her 2002 autobiography, Y Si Quieres Saber de Mi Pasado. (“I’d get a new car on Friday and by Monday I had nothing left; I’d get drunk and go sing on the streets and be late for the show. I used to drink tequila. I drank everything I ever owned,” she told the Spanish newspaper El País in 2000.) Though she was a cigar-smoking, gun-toting woman who dressed as a man in her earlier years, it wasn’t until age 81 that she publicly came out as a lesbian. In the same El País interview, she said, “I’ve had to fight to be myself and to be respected. I’m proud to carry this stigma and call myself a lesbian. I don’t boast about it or broadcast it, but I don’t deny it. I’ve had to confront society and the Church, which says that homosexuals are damned. That’s absurd. How can someone who’s born like this be judged? I didn’t attend lesbian classes. No one taught me to be this way. I was born this way, from the moment I opened my eyes in this world.”
Vargas was a boundary-breaking performer throughout her career. Ranchera music typically requires its female performers to wear elaborately embroidered costumes; Vargas wore a red poncho, and sang songs explicitly directed at other women without changing the genders in the lyrics, as might be expected. Her voice, while sweet, had an edge of bitterness even in her earliest years that became more harsh and pronounced over the decades. By the end of her life, she had air of an Old Testament prophetess about her, like Marianne Faithfull. If you want to start listening to Vargas, her relatively recent breakthrough album, At Carnegie Hall, is well worth checking out; there’s also a great anthology, Sus 40 Grandes Canciones, available digitally from Amazon; it includes this song, which is absolutely killer and a good example of her early work.
Vargas’s songs have appeared on the soundtracks to several films by Pedro Almodovar—Kika, La Flor de mi Secreto, and Carne Trémula—and she appeared on-screen in Julie Taymor‘s Frida, singing “La Llorona.” (Vargas was alleged to have had an affair with Frida Kahlo in the 1930s.)
There won’t be another like her.