NPR’s series “50 Greatest Voices” today profiled an extraordinary 91-year-old Latin-singing icon, Chavela Vargas. Chavela didn’t start singing until her 30’s, and despite temporarily retiring from public life in 1979 and struggling for years with alcoholism, she is still singing and at 91 looking towards her next recording project — an album of Argentine tangos.
She was born in Costa Rica, but Vargas has a voice tailor-made for singing Mexican rancheras, boleros and corridos. These songs are like miniature operas, with over-the-top expressions of tragedy, heartbreak and redemption. For many Mexicans, her versions of these songs are definitive. Vargas says she didn’t start singing until the early 1950s, when she was well into her 30s.
Vargas challenged mainstream Mexican morals by dressing as a man, smoking cigars and carrying — and shooting — pistols. She caused sensations with her public liaisons with women, including a brief affair with painter Frida Kahlo, and she purposely did not change the gender in songs written by Mexico’s most famous male songwriters.
I highly recommend listening to the full NPR report here. Below is Chavela’s signature song, Macorina: