Chavela Vargas and Sound

The Depression had left us all in apnea. New York sidewalks were populated by people with corrugated foreheads and attitudes like milk gone sour. The heaviness of it all had dulled my senses and I desperately needed some art to give me a high. Diego Rivera was in town working on a mural for the Rockefeller Center and the idea of watching him paint gave me a buzz.  So I snuck into the center to spy on the famed artist as he worked.

A young woman was taking tons of photos of the work in progress. Click click click. Soon I became more interested in her rapport with the camera than I was with Rivera and his wall. The woman made an abrupt turn and saw me. But, instead of trying to get me thrown out, she came over and asked if I was interested in meeting the artist. Rivera, whose ego always enjoyed meeting fans, was big bellied, had eyes like a bullfrog, and lips so big they looked like they could float. His wife Frida, instead, was petite and glaring. She was dressed like one of those souvenir dolls your aunt brings you after spending a tequila weekend in Mexico.

Having common curiosities is a good basis for a friendship. That’s how Lucienne Bloch, the photographer, and I became friends. Often we’d lunch together, or visit an exhibition, or have a few cocktails as we gossiped about the art world. She’d been invited by the Riveras to visit them in Mexico and, once there, sent me postcards that teased my fantasies so much that I decided to go to Mexico, too. One evening Rivera and Frida were hosting a big parranda and, thanks to Lucienne, I was invited to go.

The couple lived in a big blue house in Coyoacán. More than a home, it seemed like a museum as they had collections of Pre-Colombian and Mexican folk art everywhere not to mention Frida’s paintings. I particularly enjoyed the retablos and got the impression that Frida had somewhat appropriated the style for her own paintings. The kitchen table was set with mole, enchiladas, chile rellenos, refried beans and tons of tortillas. And bottles of tequila were everywhere.

All the people and the noise had made me feel somewhat claustrophobic so I went out in the garden for some fresh air. I was wondering how the same moon could shine the same way all over the world when the singing started. It was Cielito Lindo, Frida’s favorite song. The voice was so unique I went back in to see who was singing and saw a beautiful woman dressed in a man’s suit. She was Chavela Vargas and the songs she sang had inspired many of Frida’s paintings.

“Cielito Lindo”, for example, was the inspiration behind “Arbol de la Esperanza Mantente Firme”–a statement to the Tree of Hope to stay strong. The painting shows two Fridas. One, post operation, with scars exposed.  The other Frida, elegant and strong, holding a corset for her back, a corset that gives her hope.

The popular Mexican song, “El Venadito Herido” (The Wounded Little Deer) inspired another self-portrait showing Frida half woman, half deer painted before an operation that left her bed-ridden for a year. Frida the Deer, has arrows sticking out of her like St. Sebastian, the martyr.

After discovering that Diego had been sleeping with her sister, Frida divorced him then cut her hair and dressed like a man before painting “Autorretrato con Pelo Corto” (Self-Portrait with Short Hair). On top on the painting is a phrase from a popular folk song: “Mira que si te quise, fué por el pelo, Ahora que estás pelona, ya no te quiero” (“See, if I loved you, it was for your hair, Now you’re bald, I don’t love you anymore.”)

Like Frida, Chavela also loved Mexican folk songs especially rancheras, songs populated by the broken hearted who go to cantinas to drink away their sorrows. This music was traditionally dominated by men until Chavela elbowed her way in to make space for las borracheras, women who could drown in alcohol as easily as men could. This Cantina Solution was a reply to conformity and fake respectability. Drinking like men suggested a form of emancipation.

Chavela was born in Costa Rica to indifferent parents. As a child she suffered from polio and risked going blind. A shaman living in a nearby indigenous village spit chewed herbs in her eyes and gave her a magical tea that made her fall into a deep sleep. When she awoke, her vision was perfect. For the rest of her life she would honour shamans especially the Huichols in Mexico who gave her the name Cupaima, the last female shaman.

Abandoned by her parents, Chavela moved to Mexico at the age of 14 where she sang in the streets until she got gigs in cantinas. Here she made no secret of her homosexuality and was known as a cigar smoking, heavy drinking womanizer. Chavela sang in cantinas for years until she was discovered by singer and songwriter extraordinaire José Alfredo Jiménez.


Jiménez did not play a musical instrument and knew little about musical technicalities but he wrote over 1,000 songs many of which are still well-know today. Together, Jiménez and Chavela turned pathos into poetry. Take, for example, En El Último Trago where the singer asks an ex-lover to drink together until oblivion. Because time hasn’t taught him anything so he continues to drink again and again with strangers to mourn the same sorrows.

Once her career took off, Chavela came in contact with a new milieu. She became friends with Frida and Rivera and was often their house guest. It’s rumored that Chavela and Frida had an affair together. Chavela sang at Elizabeth Taylor’s wedding in Alcapulco and was said to have seduced Ava Gardner.

But the Cantina Solution caught up with Chavela. She became an alcoholic and, during the 1970s, gave up singing. But almost 20 years later, at the age of 81, Chavela returned to the stage. She debuted at a sold-out Carnegie Hall at the age of 83. After each song, she was rewarded with a standing ovation. The audience couldn’t have enough of her. In the words of Pedro Almodóvar, Chavela made of abandonment and desolation a cathedral in which we all found a place.

Chavela spent the last year of her life recording Luna Grande, a mixture of music and poetry by Federico Garcia Lorca, the poet who, at the age of 38, was assassinated during the Spanish Civil War.  In 1993, Chavela went to Spain and stayed in a room that once García Lorca’s. Every day, she said, a yellow bird would come peck on the room’s window and she was sure the bird was the spirit of Lorca himself. Chavela died a few weeks later.

The power of sound.

Singing is about sound and sound is a power. In Genesis, the sound of a word created the universe. In ancient Egypt, vowel chanting was used for healing. Pythagoras, believing that harmony obliterated chaos, used music for “soul-adjustments”. Vibrating strings can help the body raise its vibration frequency thus King David used harp music for healing himself and his soldiers. In Australia, the Aborigines use a musical instrument, the Didgeridoo, to speed up the healing process. Shamans worldwide use sound to heal often incorporating musical instruments such as gongs, tuning forks, and Tibetan singing bowls.

Alfred Tomatis (1920 – 2001) also believed in the therapeutic qualities of sound. While in the womb, Alfred’s mother’s resentment of her pregnancy could be felt by him. Probably because of this rejection, Alfred was born prematurely. Thought to be dead, he was tossed into a basket. But his grandmother pulled him out and saved his life. Nevertheless, the negative energy he experienced inside his mom made him a sickly child.

Alfred grew up and became an Ear, Nose, and Throat specialist.  His father was an opera singer and sent his colleagues having problems “staying in tune” to his son for a cure. Opera singers, singing at their full vocal power, can emit between 110 and 140 decibels. And, since the sound comes from within, said Alfred, even though the “energy of a singer is not comparable to that of a jet engine, the intensity of the sound is the same”. Because “the amount of time a singer had practiced was directly proportional to the amount of damage to the ear”, Alfred deducted that it was the singer’s own voice that caused a loss of certain frequencies from their voice. Based on his theory that “the voice contains only those sounds that the ear can hear”, Alfred developed a method for affronting frequency hearing loss.

In 1967 monks at a Benedictine monastery had become lethargic and depressed. They’d been used to chanting several hours a day but then a new abbot arrived and decided that this time could be used in a better way and stopped the chanting. Initially no one could understand the monks’ change. Consulted, Tomatis suggested that the monks start chanting again as it was a way for them to keep themselves charged. Chanting and listening to certain kinds of music, said Tomatis, energizes the brain and body.

Sound is a vibration and vibration has a frequency. Nikola Tesla said that “If you want to find the secrets of the universe, think in terms of energy, frequency and vibration.” Frequencies can heal but they can also be harmful. For example, cell phone tower exposure can cause memory loss, headaches, sleep deprivation, and cardiovascular stress. Even electrical appliances in the home can make a very low humming noise that can throw us out of whack.

ELF (Extremely Low Frequency) waves have been used for mind control manipulation.  For example, during the 80s Margaret Thatcher used ELF waves to affront inner city riots to the point of turning people into zombies. As human behaviour can be controlled by frequencies, ELF Waves & Co. are being used in various parts of the world by those in power.

Music frequencies can be used to manipulate as well. Once tuning forks vibrated at 432 Hz but, in 1885, the Italian Music Commission decided that orchestras should use tuning forks that vibrated at 440 Hz instead.  This new vibration became a worldwide standard in 1953 leading to many conspiracy theories as 432 Hz resonates with the 8 Hz Schumann resonance, the heartbeat of the Earth. Some theorists claim that the Nazi Joseph Goebbels wanted the change in standards as 440 Hz makes it easier to use music for mind control. And other theorists believe that the modern music industry is using pop music to transform individuals into one of the herd so their behaviour can be controlled.

But frequencies can also be beneficial.

The throat chakra participates in the exchange of energy between the body and the head. If your throat chakra is blocked, you will have problems expressing yourself. Because through the throat we emit sound and its vibration. A blocked throat chakra can make us feel insecure. Singing as well as humming can help unblock this chakra.

Humming can also make your mood better and relax you. And it can even soothe your sinuses because it improves airflow between the sinuses and the nasal cavity. Humming also stimulates the vagus nerve, the longest nerve in the body that wanders around the body like a vagabond participating in many bodily activities. The vagus nerve helps prevent inflammation such as that that animates rheumatoid arthritis. But the vagus nerve can draw out anti-inflammatory neurotransmitters to mellow out the pain.

As we grow older, many of us experience hearing loss. The tiny hair cells within the inner ears begin to break down creating difficulty picking up sound vibrations. To protect against hearing loss, avoid exposure to persistent loud noises, never listen to high volume music with earphones, and use cotton swabs with care as they can push ear wax deeper into the ear canal and/or damage the eardrum. Hearing should be routinely checked. Loss of hearing isolates and the frustration can lead to depression and increase the risk of dementia. Because hearing helps to interrelate with the world around us.

OM is a mantra, a vibration and, when chanted, vibrates at the frequency of 432 Hz. Om or AUM, is believed to be the basic sound of the universe, the Cosmic Hum.  If practiced properly and with continuity, OM chanting can improve the efficiency of the spinal cord, improve blood circulation, and detox body cells. Chanting OM also exercises the organs by making them vibrate.

Try chanting in your bathtub. Expand your diaphragm then contract it as you chant OM.

Change your voice and you’ll change your thoughts.

-30-

(from Cool Breeze, aka The Age of Reconfiguration ©)

About Art for Housewives

The Storyteller....
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