Buenas Noches, Chavela Vargas

The great Mexican singer Chavela Vargas died today at age 93.  She was a legend of Mexican music and one of the greatest voices in the world.  In addition to being just plain amazing, Vargas was a trailblazer.  She was a lesbian (she came out at age 81) and was famous for dressing like a man, smoking cigars, and drinking heavily.  All this in a country and in an era that had very definite expectations with regard to gender and sexuality.  Again, she died at age 93.

The following is a clip from the movie Frida about the life of the great Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (as played by Selma Hayek).  In it, Vargas appears and sings one of her most famous and haunting song “La Llorona” (The Weeping Woman) to Kahlo, who was rumored to be her lover.  It is an incredibly affecting scene, all the more so because of Vargas.  A warning: the clip is violent.

If you haven’t already go listen to her sing, and buy some of her songs.  You won’t regret it.

Songs To Make You Cry

I recently had the very good fortune to see the Israeli singer Yasmin Levy in concert.  Levy is a singer/songwriter of Ladino songs.  Ladino, for those who don’t know, is the Yiddish of Sephardic Jewry.  Like Yiddish, Ladino is heavily influenced by other languages, including Hebrew and Aramaic.  Yiddish, spoken by the descendants of German-Jewish exiles who settled in Eastern Europe, is a variation of High Middle German heavily influenced by Slavic languages.  Ladino, spoken by the descendants of the Spanish Jews who were expelled in 1492 and who settled to North Africa and the Ottoman Empire, is a variation of Old Spanish heavily influenced by various Mediterranean and Balkan languages.

Like Yiddish, the future of Ladino is precarious; the number of Ladino speakers may not even be 100,000, and they are old.  The loss of Ladino is heartbreaking and tragic.  There is a modern revival of sorts, although nothing on the scale of Yiddish.  I have no definitive insight on to why so few seem to care about the future of Ladino, but I do have some theories.  (1)  The descendants of Ladino-speakers are more likely to live in Israel where the ultimate mother-tongue, Hebrew, has won out over all other Jewish languages.  (2)  In contrast, many Yiddish-speakers went to the United States and their descendants (like me) see Yiddish as the mother-tongue rather than Hebrew.  Because there is not the same stigma associated with non-Hebrew Jewish languages in the United States (and in part because there was at one point such a vibrant Yiddish culture in the United States), younger Jews feel no stigma about studying Yiddish culture.  This is great for Yiddish because most American Jews are of Ashkenazic descent, but not so great for Ladino, as Sephardic Jews in the United States are much fewer in number.  (Sephardic Jews communities may be fewer, but they have also existed in the United States for far longer than Ashkenazic ones.)  (3)  Various ultra-Orthodox groups, both in and out of Israel, will only use Yiddish at home (even if they speak the local language when dealing with the outside world).  This even goes for Hebrew, which they consider too holy for daily use.  Sephardic Jews, even the fanatically religious Sephardim, have no qualms with speaking Hebrew as a daily language.  (4)  Although the Nazis did destroy Sephardic communities in the Balkans and Greece, the Holocaust predominantly affected Ashkenazic Jews and virtually annihilated an entire culture.  For that reason, perhaps there is more of a sense of urgency to protect Yiddish.  (5) The Yiddish world is much smaller than the Ladino world in terms of both physical and cultural distance.  Yiddish speakers from say Hungary and Lithuania could communicate with one another far more easily than Ladino speakers from (for example) Algeria and Turkey.  There is not one Ladino language to save per se but many different dialects that are near unintelligible.

The Ladino music tradition is quite beautiful.  The folk songs are absolutely stunning.  The language itself is also quite melodious, a far cry from the German-drenched guttural tonality of Yiddish (which, don’t get me wrong, I have deep affection for).  Ladino songs are heart-wrenching and full of pathos.  Or, at least they can be.  The songs that Yasmin Levy sings certainly are.

Yasmin Levy is making a name for herself not just by singing Ladino songs, but also for trying to modernize Ladino, mostly by fusing it with Flamenco.  Therefore, despite the sometimes overwhelming sadness of her music, there is also a Flamenco-like energy which also appears in her presentation.  At time she sings like a Flamenco singer and hold herself the way they do.  Nevertheless, that is not always the case.  There are times when she stands so still she seems more like a fadista, as though she were standing on a mountain top singing headlong into the winds of fate.  It’s a tremendous emotional effect.  I speak no Ladino, yet there were times when I felt moved almost to the point of tears.

The closest I came to crying during her concert was when she sang the song “Una Pastora” (A Shepherdess).  Here is a video of her singing the song the way she does on her album Sentir:

The translation to the song’s lyrics (found here on another version of the song) are as follows:

A shepherdess I loved
A beautiful child.
Still so young I adored her,
More than her I loved no other.
One day when we were
Sitting in the garden
I said to her: “For you, my flower
I will die of love”
In her arms she hugged me
Lovingly she kissed me
She answered me sweetly:
“You are too young for love”
I grew up and looked for her
She took another and I lost her
She has forgotten me,
But I shall always love.

Sad, right?  But on this night, the lyrics and the melody were only a part of the sadness, and not the main part.

The male voice you heard in the video is a recording of Levy’s father Yitzhak Levy, a cantor and composer.  Yitzhak Levy was also something of the Alan Lomax of the Ladino world.  He recorded and wrote down as many Ladino folk songs as he could in an attempt to preserve the heritage.  He died when his daughter Yasmin was only a year old, and she has no memory of him.  Yasmin Levy had always wanted to do a duet with her father (a la Natalie Cole and Nat King Cole), and “Una Pastora” is the song she chose.

Although it seems odd to talk about stagecraft in a concert such as this, the way that she staged the song was designed to wring the maximum amount of pathos.  The center of the stage was lit by the spotlight and she stepped back so that the illuminated area was empty.  Alone on stage (her band, which had been with her all night, left), the recording of her father singing began and she remained motionless with her head down.  Whenever she sang, she stepped into the spotlight, and when she finished, she stepped back out until the end when they sang together.  There were tears in my eyes, and the man next broke down and cried.

Yasmin Levy is a true talent.  She reminds me a bit of the late Ofra Haza, although her voice does not have the same timbre.  Just as Ofra Haza brought Yemenite Jewish music into a spotlight that it didn’t have but so richly deserved.  I hope that Yasmin Levy can do the same for Ladino music.  Ladino is so beautiful; it would be devastating for it to just fade away.

Whitney Houston 1963-2012

Whitney Houston died two days ago.  I feel very sad about this although I was not the biggest of Whitney Houston fans.  I didn’t dislike her music, but I was too young to truly appreciate her work during her 1980’s peak.  In the 1990’s when I was old enough, she was already something of a joke because (1) she was tabloid fodder due to the troubled marriage to Bobby Brown and the rumors of drug use; (2) most of her best work was so quintessentially 80’s that by the mid-1990’s it was passe and retrograde; and (3) a new crop of the Whitney-inspired pop princesses–foremost among them Mariah Carey–ruining singing.  The ensuing competition between Whitney and Mariah for chart dominance spawned a generation of singers (the apex being Christina Aguilera) whose idea of “interpretation” is to over sing everything by letting no syllable pass without melisma whether the song needs it or not.  We are still witnessing the fallout.

But that was not Whitney.  Whitney was the scion of pop music royalty.   She was daughter of Cissy Houston of the Drinkard Singers, who was also possibly the world’s most famous backup singer, the originator of Midnight Train to Georgia, and the aunt of Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick.  If you’ve ever heard Cissy Houston sing, it’s uncanny how alike mother and daughter sound.  Despite the heritage though, Whitney’ style was completely different from her mother, as well as from Dionne’s sophisticated pop and Dee Dee’s grittier R&B sound.  Whitney was instead a fusion of the big voice of her godmother Aretha Franklin and the pop sensibilities of Diana Ross.  Whitney, like Ross, sang songs that appealed to widest possible audience, but like Aretha blew away her listeners away with her sound.  Add in the fact the fact that Whitney was ravishingly gorgeous and completely fit into the zeitgeist of the 80’s and it is no surprise that was she was one of the decades biggest stars–easily the equal of Michael Jackson and Madonna.  Unlike her two peers, Whitney was uncontroversial, and that only added to her appeal.  Who didn’t like Whitney Houston at least a little?

There is no question about Whitney’s talent, but there is about her artistry.  The same songs that allowed her to develop a massive following also caged her in.  Whitney sang bubblegum pop.  It was good bubblegum pop, but her song selection was far inferior to her talent.  In this way, the song never outshone the singer.  Even her one truly interesting song, her mega-hit cover of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You,” was typical Whitney.  Dolly’s original is a breakup song written to her former business partner and mentor Porter Wagoner, the man who introduced her to the world.  It’s not romantic at all; it’s a platonic love letter to a dear friend whom she knows she is going to hurt but doesn’t want to.  The vocal and the instrumentation are soft, subtle, and plaintive.

Now compare that to Whitney’s version, the centerpiece of her movie The Bodyguard.  This is no melancholy breakup song.  I’m not even sure that this is a breakup song.  The defining part of the song, is about the final 90 seconds or so when the song pauses and Whitney changes keys to belt out: “And IIIIIIIIIIIII-EEEE-IIIIIIIIIIII will always love YOOOOOOOOOU!  IIIIIIII will AAAAAAlways love YOOOOOUUUU!  (Rinse, wash, repeat a few times.)  The notes are more or less the same ones Dolly sang (albeit lower and softer), and no one can belt it like Whitney.  It’s straight out of gospel.  Those 90 second sweep aside everything that came before them.  It’s what everyone remembers.

As a performance Whitney’s cover clearly tops Dolly’s original, but as a song it falls way short.  In the cover it is all about the performance instead of about the words.  More to the point, it is all about Whitney’s performance.  As with her 80’s bubblegum, Whitney outshone the song rather than working in tandem with it.  Nevertheless, it worked for her.  Because Whitney’s cover is so striking, most of the younger generation doesn’t know that this was and is Dolly Parton’s song.  “I Will Always Love You” has become the new “Over the Rainbow”; no other version will supersede Whitney’s and only the most foolish of singers will take her on.

Other writers have written about how Whitney was a symbol of empowerment, especially to other black women.  This is true.  She was the trailblazer for black women that Michael Jackson was for black singers in breaking down the MTV color barrier.  There is something to that.  Because her audience was so large, MTV couldn’t keep her out if they had wanted to.  Maintaining that popularity was probably a part of the reason why Whitney stuck to what she was comfortable doing rather than trying to branch out as an artist.  It also allowed her to keep the focus on herself (how many of them about “I” or “Me”?).

Yet she was so much the full package: talent, personality, and beauty, that it was impossible not to be impressed by her.  One of my saddest musical moments was watching her sing one of the songs from her comeback album in 2010.  It was painful, and I turned to my boyfriend and said, “There’s no voice anymore; it’s just technique.”  If you ever listened to Billie Holiday’s penultimate album “Lady in Satin” then you know what her voice was like.  The difference was that because Holiday spent her career interpreting songs rather than merely singing them (even at her best she did not have anything close to Whitney’s instrument), she could use her shredded voice to great emotional effect.  Whitney did not have that ability.

I realize that the reason I was so deeply affected a couple of years ago and why I am now is because somewhere between the 1990’s and 2010, I understood her appeal.  I get why she was Whitney Houston and what made her so special.  It was all about the voice: the rich, perfect, pure, refined voice.  It didn’t matter what she sang, only that she was singing.  It really was all about Whitney but only because Whitney was so enormously gifted.  In an age when most of the top names in pop music rely on melisma, Auto-Tune, audial illusions, or performance art, it is important to remember why Whitney was different and better.  She relied solely on the power and tone of her voice and nothing else.  There will never be another Whitney.


Cesaria Evora died a couple of days ago.  I just found this out, and I feel an incredible sense of sadness.  Vaclav Havel also died a few days ago.  With his death, a titan of the 20th century now belongs to the ages.  I feel less than worthy to talk about Havel.

To two giants (in their own ways) I bid a fond farewell.   The world has lost so much light in so little time.

Waters of March

After bashing Brazilian football culture, fans, and media yesterday, I feel like I need to apologize and affirm that I don’t actually hate Brazil.  Today’s post is dedicated to my absolute favorite part of Brazil, it’s music.  I cannot write with any authority about the music of the country, but it is varied and wonderful.  Here are Elis Regina and Antonio Carlos (“Tom”) Jobim, two of the brightest stars in the musical firmament in any country, singing Águas de Março.