It’s an amazing day today – bright sunshine, tolerable temperature, a soft breeze. I have to go get an apartment! LOL!
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"El dia en que te deje, fui yo quien salio ganando."
(The day I left you, it was I who came out winning)
-- La Lupe, La Tirana
The other day, one of my friends left a comment asking what a bolero was and I wasn’t able to respond because it was one of those hectic work days. However, the question left me thinking about boleros, which led me to think of one of its greatest interpreters, La Lupe.
I first saw La Lupe barely into my 20s and before then, I wasn’t a big fan. I viewed boleros as a musical genre that parents enjoyed and sang to one another. I think it’s a common enough occurrence among Puerto Ricans, but my parents would sometimes have arguments via songs. You know: my father would sing some lyrics of a certain song, and then my moms would reply with lyrics from a song of her own, that type of thing.
Anyway, one of the songs my mother would sing to my father was her favorite bolero, La Gran Tirana, by the inimitable La Lupe. Its opening line was like a rallying cry for women all over El Barrio and sung by La Lupe, they ooze with irony. The opening line goes something like this:
"Segun tu punto de vista
yo soy la mala
vampiressa en tu novela
la gran tirana... "
(According to your point of view
I am the bad one
The vampiress in your soap opera
The great tyrant... )
I still get chills whenever I hear those opening lines. The great Spanish director, Pedro Almodovar, uses the song in one of his films; I believe it’s Women on the Verge.
In the hands of a lesser artist, La Tirana could easily sound melodramatic and trite, but as sung by the La Lupe, it’s a powerful claim to liberation, of doing away with oppression.
I saw La Lupe perform only once, many years ago in NYC’s cavernous Madison Square Garden. There were thousands of screaming fans, the noise level distracting, and the sound acoustics horrible. There were many acts that night in the early 70s, the main one being The Fania All Stars, a group of NYC Latino/a musicians that would storm the international circuit and bring the phenomenon known as salsa to the world. But that night, salsa was ours and ours alone. No one knew what the hell salsa was, and even less of La Lupe.
When La Lupe came on stage, the audience, composed mostly of young Latino/as, went into frenzy, screaming her name and screaming for dedications. To this day, I can’t say I have witnessed a more powerful performance and I have seen many, many performers. I believe it was Frank Sinatra who said that it was dangerous for a performer to give everything, that a performer must, for their own survival, save something for themselves.
Well, La Lupe, bless her soul, gave everything that night. She left nothing, not one thing, for herself. Halfway through her performance she was sitting on the edge of the stage and all of sudden, it didn’t feel like Madison Square Garden anymore, it was as if we were all transported to La Lupe’s intimate world. She sang as if it were the last time she would sing, throwing everything into every song, every note, every syllable. Each movement was imbued with meaning and energy and she laughed and cried. Her ability to create that connection was remarkable. You could feel her life force reaching out to you, taking you in, seducing you. She would claw at her clothes, scratch herself – she gave so much, and I sat there totally transfixed. She called herself an empress and I'd be a damned if she really wasn’t.
Finally, she came to that point in her performance – she sat on the edge of the stage her clothes by now gone – torn apart by her own hands – scratched and bleeding, she sat there in her bra and lingerie, and she managed to look like some reincarnated Taina Queen.
You could hear a pin drop...
And that’s when she sang the opening lines to La Tirana:
Segun tu punto de vista,
yo soy la mala…
And it was too much; she had us – all of us -- eating out her hand. At that very moment, I fell in love with that woman’s soul, because she possessed so much spiritual power and she was so willing, even in the face of annihilation, to share it. You actually feared for her, screamed for her, felt her pain.
Unfortunately, I never got to see her again and due to poor management and bad career choices, she would fall into relative obscurity. La Lupe would eventually die living destitute in the Bronx. When news of her death became known, tens of thousands of the people that loved her grieved. Money was collected for her funeral. An Off-Broadway play was written and in that way her music was revived for a new generation.
She was one of those that flared brightly if too briefly and gave all she could, throwing caution to the wind. To me, she was woman incarnate that night on that stage. I would never forget her.
A bolero is a ballad, Amy, and with that, I give you, ladies and gentlemen, La Lupe. Que Dios te tenga en la luz: