A chill is creeping into the air, as summer breathes its last sighs...
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-=[ La YiYiYi/ La Lupe/ La Reina ]=-
-- La Lupe, La Tirana
One day a question from one of my readers/ friends left me thinking about boleros, this in turn, led me to reflect on one of its greatest interpreters, La Lupe.
I first saw La Lupe, aka La YiYiYi, barely into my 20s and before then, I wasn’t a big fan. I viewed boleros (love ballads) as a musical genre that older people and parents enjoyed and sang to one another. I think it was a common enough occurrence among Puerto Ricans: my parents would sometimes have arguments via songs. 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. Like an argument, but with song lyrics... LOL
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 lyrics was something like a feminist rallying cry for women from El Barrio and sung by La Lupe, they oozed irony. The opening line goes something like this:
yo soy la mala.
Vampiressa de tu novela,
La Gran Tiriana.
(According to you,
I am the bad one.
Vampiress of 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 -- Yeah, you want to paint me as the bad one? Go ahead!
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 that uniquely Nuyorican cultural 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 a frenzy, screaming her name and demanding 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 as she sang, laughed, and cried. Her ability to create that intimate 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 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; the crowd went wild, taken over the edge by a rare and masterful artist. At that moment, I fell in love with that woman’s soul, 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, you felt her pain. I saw people cry and cheer. A powerful epiphany for me.
Unfortunately, I never got to see her again and, due in part to poor management and bad career choices, she would fall into relative obscurity. La Lupe would eventually die destitute living in a run-down tenement in the South Bronx. When news of her death became known, tens of thousands 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 souls 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, my friends, and with that, I give you, ladies and gentlemen, La Lupe. Que Dios te tenga en la luz: