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World Music CD Reviews Greater Latin America

Chavela Vargas

By Doug Merlino
Published March 16, 2007

Live at Carnegie Hall
Tommy Boy 81652

COSTA RICA

Chavela Vargas’ legend nearly matches her musicianship. Born in Costa Rica in 1919, Chavela dressed in men’s clothing, smoked cigars and carried a gun when she began her professional singing career in 1950s Mexico. A friend to Diego Rivera and a lover of Frida Kahlo, Chavela’s fame originally sprang from her versions of the rancheras, Mexican songs of love and longing traditionally sung by men. As an interpreter of the style, she had no peer, finding new emotional depths and nuance in the songs. This capstone to her career records her first appearance at Carnegie Hall, in 2003 at age 84. Accompanied only by two acoustic guitars, Chavela inhabits each of the 17 songs. Although her voice has lost some pliability, her delivery – with pauses, sighs and growls – is arresting. When she sings “Pónme la mano aquí,” she simultaneously orders her lover to touch her and laments her own need.