An Unknown Force of Nature: Eugenia León on Chavela Vargas
On November 27, three of today’s most exciting female singers—Ely Guerra, Eugenia León, and Eugenia León—join forces for the first time to pay tribute to the late, legendary Chavela Vargas in an evening of traditional and contemporary Mexican song.
We spoke to the performers to discover what Chavela Vargas has meant to them in life and career. Here, Eugenia León relates how she reintroduced her heroine to a forgotten film from the 1960s.
Was which your reaction when you heard for the first time to Chavela?
Eugenia León: It was like an electric shock because the voice of Chavela moved so from away from the norm. It was not the flowery voice of the singers that sing at the festivals with their colorful and feminine dresses. Chavela's voice projected the deep, dry, sore Mexico. Dressed as a Mexican Indians, unshaved, and without easy smiles. Chavela's voice was an unknown force of nature that left a deep mark in me.
For someone who has never listened to Chavela singing before, how would you describe her voice and her singing style?
Eugenia León: Each word of each song expresses a mystery of genetic intelligence. Each word, by itself, finds a place so that the it leaves the soul to cry, rage, and hope. Her art, like all art, serves the mysterious domain of those ghosts that possess us, those forces that hijack our voices at the very moment of the song, that rob us of the instrument, that appropriate it, and do what they want with it.
Which of Chavela's songs is your favorite?
Eugenia León: La Llorna!
Eugenia León performs "La Llorona"—made famous by Chavela Vargas—for the great lady earlier this year.
What does Chavela represent?
Eugenia León: As others have said, Chavela Vargas is one of the most dramatic voices of the 20th century and the greatest interpreter of Mexico. We owe her every note, every tear, every interpretation. Mexican song is different after Chavela Vargas.
Did you know Chavela personally? Could you share some anecdote of your experiences with her?
Eugenia León: We knew each other personally, I've been to her home. I celebrated with her birthday with Chavela and her other friends. I have participated in several of tributes to her, with Chavela present. In all that time I have been full of intimate and intense human feelings, but completely alien to the culture of easy sentimentality that corrupts us. On one such visits I took a movie from the 1960s in which she acts—La Soldadera. It was a very special moment as contemplated herself, with a smile of tenderness toward the young Chavela that was projected on the screen. She did not remember that movie and that allowed her to make several comments about her acting experience. Her eyes and her smile were like the best gift. We had been so concerned about her health, but a few days out of the hospital, and she was very happy with her film, La Soldadera, under her arm!