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Source Material: Chavela Vargas, Live at Carnegie Hall

by Rachel Devitt

Source Material: Chavela Vargas, Live at Carnegie Hall


When Chavela Vargas passed away on August 5, the world lost one of its most prolific artists -- in all senses of the word. At the time of her death, Vargas had been in the business for around eight decades, give or take, ever since she left her native Costa Rica at the age of 14 to pursue music in Mexico, her adopted home. And at the ripe old age of 93, she was still very much in the game: A year before her death she talked to NPR about plans to record an album of Argentinean tango. And, of course, just ten years before, she had released a career-defining recording of her Carnegie Hall debut, a glorious showcase of the artistic power, the vibrant personality and the vocal passion with which Vargas still entranced her adoring audience, even after so many years.

Featuring beloved songs from across those decades, Live at Carnegie Hall is also an important archive of just how diverse Vargas' career was. Musically speaking, she sang boleros, rancheras, mariachi, cabaret songs -- anything, basically, that smacked of the kind of thick pathos and passion that her salty, sobbing voice wrapped itself around so well, from the sweeping "La Llorona" to her classic "Paloma Negra." That versatility served her well throughout a career that had at least nine lives.

Vargas got her start singing on the streets before recording a collection of ranchera music (1961's Una Noche Bohemia) with the support of the great master José Alfredo Jiménez. She spent the next several years as a belle of bohemia, partying and making art with the likes of Agustín Lara, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo (whom she was rumored to have romanced). Life-threatening alcoholism led to a period of retirement and near-obscurity (including a stint living on the streets). But Vargas came roaring back in the early '90s, releasing a series of definitive recordings (including "Macorina"), becoming a muse to a new generation of bohemians (like Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar) and generally showing off how moving that big voice -- and that big personality -- could still be.

That combination of talent and attitude helped expand Vargas' mark on music far beyond even her own important recordings. Chavela Vargas was a groundbreaker: She took on the male-dominated world of ranchera and schooled the boys on how to swagger and seduce. She became known for her flamboyant persona, carrying a gun, often dressing in masculine clothes and refusing to re-gender the pronouns in songs traditionally sung by men. At age 81, she came out as a lesbian. In general, Vargas lived a life and shaped a career that not only established her as a proud, fierce iconoclast, but also paved the way for other artists -- especially female artists -- to challenge creative and cultural boundaries.

This deep dive into Chavela Vargas' 2006 release of her 2003 Carnegie Hall performance, then, is meant to be a tribute to her life and her legacy, an exploration of her influences, her resistances and her followers. "Sources" here include ranchera forefathers like Jiménez; contemporaries like Vicente Fernandez whose mainstream-friendly, smooth, polished style highlights just how bruised and beautifully rough-hewn Vargas' was in contrast; and some of Vargas' fellow female rancheras. But it also includes a long line of artists across genres who have been influenced or had doors opened for them by the passionate, challenging, prolific artistry and life of Chavela Vargas.

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