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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Singer Chavela Vargas has the kind of voice that doesn't merely interpret songs. She's 91, and you can tell she's lived every moment of heartache and hard drinking that she's singing about.

For our series 50 Great Voices, NPR's Felix Contreras tells us about her life, her loves and her ageless voice.

FELIX CONTRERAS: She was born in Costa Rica, but Chavela Vargas has the kind of voice that was tailor-made for singing Mexican rancheras, boleros and corridos.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. CHAVELA VARGAS (Singer): (Singing in Spanish)

CONTRERAS: These lyrics say: I hope that when you leave me, your life turns out well. I hope you meet others who are better than I am. These songs are like mini operas, with over-the-top expressions of tragedy, heartbreak and redemption. And for many Mexicans, Chavela Vargas' versions of these songs are definitive.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. VARGAS: (Singing in Spanish)

CONTRERAS: Vargas says she didn't start singing until the early 1950s, when she was well into her 30s.

Ms. VARGAS: (Through translator) I have dedicated myself to singing boleros, rancheras, corridos - all kinds of styles.

CONTRERAS: At that time, Mexico was in the midst of an artistic explosion, particularly in film and music. Mexico City nightlife was overflowing with nightclubs, dancing and drinking. Life was un gran festejon, a big nonstop party. And Chavela Vargas joined the party on stage and off with corridos like "El Ultimo Trago" - "The Last Drink." The lyrics say: Drink this bottle with me. Let's not stop until the last drink.

(Soundbite of song, "El Ultimo Trago)

Ms. VARGAS: (Singing in Spanish)

CONTRERAS: The lyrics go on to say: Let's hope no one sees us together, in case you're embarrassed - reflecting another part of her life that played out in song.

She challenged mainstream Mexican morals by dressing as a man, smoking cigars, carrying and shooting pistols. She caused sensations with her very public liaisons with women, including a brief affair with painter Frida Kahlo, and she purposely did not change the gender in songs written by Mexico's most famous male songwriters.

(Soundbite of song, "Macorina")

Ms. VARGAS: (Singing in Spanish)

Ms. MARVETTE PEREZ (Curator of Latin American Culture and Music, Smithsonian Museum of American History): What made her famous was "Macorina." And I don't think there could be a more queer song for a woman to sing.

CONTRERAS: Marvette Perez is the curator of Latin American Culture and Music for the Smithsonian Museum of American History.

Ms. PEREZ: And it says: Ponme la mano aqui, Macorina.

So it's very suggestive.

CONTRERAS: Which means?

Ms. PEREZ: Put your hand right here, Macorina. And whenever she sang this song, she put such sexuality, desire and kind of sensuality into it that you knew why she was singing it, how she was singing it and to whom she was singing it. Definitely, she was singing it to a woman.

(Soundbite of song, "Macorina")

Ms. VARGAS: (Singing in Spanish)

CONTRERAS: Eventually, the drinking, the smoking and the womanizing took its toll.

Ms. VARGAS: (Through translator) Back then, when I was drinking, the drinking affected my throat. The drinking affected my life, everything. The alcohol is one of the most evil things in the world, so is the cigarette, and I let all of that go from my life for my art.

CONTRERAS: In 1979, she retired from the stage and public life. She tells the story of being on the streets in an alcoholic stupor when she was taken in by a poor family who didn't know who she was. They nursed her back to health and clarity. The 1990s saw a healthier and more determined Chavela Vargas return to the stage.

(Soundbite of music)

CONTRERAS: She was back in cabarets and giving concerts. Spanish film director Pedro Almodovar used her and her music in his films. And in a fantasy sequence in the 2002 Frida Kahlo biopic starring Salma Hayek, Vargas shared a drink and a song with her former lover.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. VARGAS: (Singing in Spanish)

CONTRERAS: Looking back, Vargas says it wasn't easy to be lesbian in Mexico in the 1950s and '60s. But as she describes how she got through it all, her words sound very much like the intensely emotional lyrics of the corridos, rancheras and boleros that she loves to sing.

Ms. VARGAS: (Through translator) I had to fight against so many things - fight against the current, as they say. I had to fight all of them to make something of myself, to triumph.

CONTRERAS: At age 91, Chavela Vargas is still looking to the future. She says her next project is to put her voice to another dramatic song form - an album of Argentine tangos.

Felix Contreras, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. VARGAS: (Singing in Spanish)

BLOCK: And for our series 50 Great Voices, NPR is also hosting an online contest each week to guess which great voice we're going to feature next. Now, we have a hint about next week's voice. She grew up in Baltimore. Here's a reading from her autobiography about her early life.

Unidentified Woman: Alice Dean used to keep a whorehouse on the corner nearest our place, and I used to run errands for her and the girls. I was very commercial in those days. I'd never go to the store for anybody for less than a nickel or a dime. But I'd run all over for Alice and the girls, and I'd wash basins, put out the Lifebuoy soap and towels.

When it came time to pay me, I used to tell her she could keep the money if she'd let me come up in her front parlor and listen to Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith on her Victrola. A Victrola was a big deal in those days, and there weren't any parlors around that had one except Alice's. I spent many a wonderful hour there listening to Pops and Bessie. I remember Pops' recording of "West End Blues" and how it used to gas me. It was the first time I ever heard anybody sing without using any words.

(Soundbite of song, "West End Blues")

LOUIS ARMSTRONG (Singer): (Singing) Ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba...

BLOCK: That's an excerpt from the autobiography of the next singer in our 50 Great Voices series. To guess who it is, you can go to our website, nprmusic.org.

(Soundbite of song, "West End Blues")

Mr. ARMSTRONG: (Singing) Ba-bi-ba-ba-da-da-di-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba...

SIEGEL: This is NPR News.

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