CONCHA BUIKA / “El Ultimo Trago Mixtape”
Source: Breath of Life – (BoL Mixtape – November 2, 2009)
I’ve explained before (here and here) that Concha Buika is one of my favorite singers. I’ve also looked at the problem of fame for a musician. How do you follow a hit? Do you make your next album like the last album or can you come up with something equally enchanting for the general public? In the process of producing new music what do you go for? Is there room to experiment?
Concha Buika you are a beast—and I mean that with total admiration.
El Ultimo Trago is a tribute album that is also a collaboration.
El Ultimo Trago is an ultimate triumph: as a tribute, as a collaboration and as a new release from a serious singer.
“Buika is my black daughter. She has the most amazing and personal voice I have heard in many years.”
The honored artist is Chavela Vargas. Here is a bio taken from the the glbtq website (an encyclopedia of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, & queer culture).
Acclaimed Costa Rican-Mexican performer and singer Chavela Vargas became notorious for the eroticism of her performances and for her open expression of lesbian desire.
Vargas was born Isabel ("Chavela") Vargas Lizano to Herminia Lizano and Francisco Vargas on April 19, 1919 in the province of Santa Bárbara de Heredia, Costa Rica, which is nestled between Nicaragua and Panama.
She grew up in Mexico, in exile, where she associated with leading intellectuals such as Frida Kahlo, with whom she had an affair, Diego Rivera, Agustín Lara, and Juan Rulfo, and even befriended political leaders such as Luis Echeverría, who served as President of Mexico from 1970 to 1976.
Vargas’s career as a singer commenced in the mid 1950s, under the direction of José Alfredo Jiménez, her producer. Her first recording came a decade later in 1961.
Vargas became famous in the mid-1960s for her hallmark interpretations, frequently melodramatic and heart-wrenching, of sentimental Mexican songs. The originality of her style and the deep pain she was able to communicate marked her as a singular talent.
At the same time, however, she became infamous for her outlandish behavior, which violated a number of Mexican taboos. Not only did she wear trousers and dress as a man, but she also smoked cigars, carried a gun in her pocket, and sported a red poncho in her celebration and vindication of folklore.
A crucial element of her radical performance art was her seduction of women in the audience and her singing rancheras written to be sung by a man to a woman.
Vargas has come to be known as "the woman with the red poncho," as the Spanish singer Joaquín Sabina dubbed her, as well as "the queen of Mexican song." She shares this latter accolade with Mexico’s greatest popular singers: Lola Beltrán, Angélica María, Juan Gabriel, Lucha Reyes, and Rocío Durcal.
For those intimately acquainted with her performances Vargas is known simply as "La Doña" or "La Chabela." These epithets are signs of respect and reverence, which are extended to her despite her "black legend," which included a devastating bout with alcoholism as well as overt lesbianism.
Vargas’ life has been dedicated to ritual performance that transgresses social, gender, and cultural borders through song. Perhaps because she was afflicted with illness in childhood–including polio and blindness that she declares were cured by shamans–she claims that she shares the stage with her own gods.
Through her long life, she has expressed a bold faith in spirituality and artistic expression–a faith that she has relied upon time and time again, especially when she has been labeled "other," "queer," and "strange."
After gaining fame in the 1960s, Vargas fell into alcoholism in the 1970s. She retreated from the public sphere for about twelve years. She attempted comebacks with only modest success, though she did sing in local cabarets, especially those frequented by gay men, who continue to constitute a large fraction of her admirers.
In 1981, however, she made a major comeback with stellar performances in the Olympia Theatre of Paris, Carnegie Hall in New York, the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico, and the Palau de la Música in Barcelona.
In the early 1990s she experienced another revival. Gay filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar helped bring her a new audience by incorporating her bold, expressive, and seductive music into his films.
Vargas has recorded over eighty albums. Among her most notable and cherished titles and interpretations are "Macorina," "La China," "La Llorona," "Luz De Luna," "Toda Una Vida," "Corazón Corazón," "Quisiera Amarte Menos," and "Volver Volver."
In November of 2000, the President of the Spanish government presented Vargas with "la Cruz de la Orden Isabel Católica," one of the most prestigious awards for artistic production.
This award, the singer declares, is a testament to her vexed legacy, one that includes her unapologetic persona and creative lesbian aesthetic.
Given Concha Buika’s bold bisexuality as well as Concha’s musical adventurousness, Concha’s embracing of the legacy and artistry of Chavela Vargas is not only unsurprising, but also from a psychological perspective, the respect and admiration Concha accords to Chavela Vargas seems inevitable. How could Concha not be influenced and enthralled by Chavela?
Especially, if we listen to Chavela’s approach to singing, we clearly hear a seminal precursor to Concha. In the jukebox I’ve included two tracks from Chavela’s triumphant 2003 Carnegie Hall debut concert when Chavela was 83. Both “Se Me Hizo Facil” and “Un Mundo Raro” are covered by Concha Buika.
Although society is more open in the 21st century than in the mid-20th century, we should not ignore the struggle that queer artists have within industries and professions dominated by patriarchy, Christian and Islamic orthodoxies, and highly resistant strains of homophobia.
With regard to accepting themselves and facing the world, both Chavela and Concha are proud warriors.
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. I’ve never been to bed with a man. Never. That’s how pure I am; I have nothing to be ashamed of. My gods made me the way I am.
While she was married to the father of her 8-year-old son, Buika fell in love with a woman and arranged for the three of them to marry. She shrugs off the idea that there is anything strange in this, or in talking about it openly.
“I do what I do, and I’m not doing anything that other human beings haven’t done. All human beings are more or less the same. A lot of people don’t dare do things, but they think about them. People hide something bad. I haven’t done anything bad, so I don’t have any reason to hide it. What rule is there that two people can’t love a third person?”
—from Unconventional, and unashamed: Spain’s Concha Buika uses music to focus her capricious mind
The fabled Cuban band leader, pianist and composer Chucho Valdes is note perfect in his role as the principal musician. He deftly guides the music in both its dramatic arrangements and its extraordinarily righteous rhythms.
Listen closely to Chucho’s touch. When he is accompanying, he expertly frames Concha’s voice both supporting her flights as well as anticipating the expressive turns of her phrasing and dynamics. When he solos he swings with a subtle aggressiveness—sometimes he commands the whole keyboard with intricate chordal passages, other times he carves out ultra-attractive melodic lines. There are years and years of tasteful playing evident as his fingers massage the ivories.
Chucho clearly understands the music and plays the compositions as though he composed them or at least played them since birth. But, for me, what really distinguishes what Chucho does is his prowess as a jazz pianist. His improvisations are both inventive and sophisticated.
On top of all of Chucho’s masterful work is the intangible element of love that evidences itself throughout these recordings and elevates the music to the realm of the sublime. From the photos of them together and from the resulting music they make in collaboration, there is obviously great admiration and affection between pianist Chucho and vocalist Concha.
A SONIC DEVELOPMENT
I feared for this new album. What would Concha do next? Would she take a risk or play it safe? Has she composed new music or perhaps found a creative youthful producer to come up with something innovative? What she has done is what all great musicians must do: Concha has dug up one of her musical roots and paid homage to significant elements of her aural origins.
Concha is music: everything there is to know about her is presented in performance. All of her: the facts and the fantasies, the scars and the beauty marks, the ecstasies and the depressions, the idiosyncrasies and the worldview. All is in the music, every song is an emotional autobiography, if not an aural diary.
Plus, Concha is both fearless in facing herself and her audience. She is utterly frank, sometimes even discomforting in how her nakedness makes us feel that much of what we wear is not mainly, or even solely, for protection but rather for concealment, for camouflage, or worse of all, for masquerade. Like all great artists, when we regard Concha, her expressions, her existence ultimately force us to consider (and reconsider) ourselves.
This album of old, sentimental romance songs is the exact opposite of nostalgia—rather than revel in the past, we are encouraged to consider the present, to think about what we can do with whatever are the elements of our own histories. The music is wonderful but Chucho and Concha’s modern interpretations make everything mo’ betta than it would be if they simply tried to recapture a bygone era.
Trago is based on more than simply Concha Buika’s ideological and experiential affinity for Chevela Vargas’ life and music. This is also a sterling jazz album—the arrangements are gems and, the musical execution is superb. There is nothing flashy even though there is an undeniable flair of the dramatic in Concha’s interpretations.
Near stereotypical Latin fire permeates each song, but, though they could easily have veered off into hackneyed melodrama, Concha reins in her penchant for power singing, no doubt guided by Chucho’s tendency for understatement. Like drinking two glasses of a chilled Sherry, the potency of the music sneaks up on you. Instead of being awed by fireworks, we are seduced by caresses. This is quietly awesome music.
I’m the totally impressed dinner guest, so impressed that before I have finished this meal, I am already craving more, already trying to decide what I want to request for the next meal—my complements to both chefs.
Concha, allow me a small conceit, please. If it’s not asking too much, would it be possible to have a live album next that covers the range of your musical tastes?
—Kalamu ya Salaam
Concha Buika Trago Playlist
All tracks are from Concha’s new album, El Ultimo Trago featuring Chucho Valdes. The succinct album has twelve tracks of songs associated with Chavela Vargas. A few selections are duets with Concha and Chucho, other tracks are trio and voice arrangements, and some have an added ingredient such as trumpet or guitar soloist, or a backing chorus. It is both well conceived and expertly achieved as both a tribute album and a contemporary expression.
02 “Las Ciudades”
03 “El Andariego”
04 “Se Me Hizo Facil”
05 “Un Mundo Raro”
The two closing selections by Chavela Vargas are from Chavela at Carnegie Hall.
07 “Se Me Hizo Facil”
08 “Un Mundo Raro”
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