La Lupe

1 05 2011

Whilst I was in Cuba I became acquainted with the music of La Lupe. My friend had first heard her late one night on a Santiago radio station and had been stunned by what she heard. When she saw a disc of hers on a stall in Havana, she bought it as a present for me.

La Lupe was born in Santiago de Cuba in 1939. As a teenager she moved to Havana with her family, where she began singing at a club in Vedado called La Red, which is still there today. According to her obituary in the New York Times from when she died at the age of 53  in 1992: She bought her own club, but after difficulties with the Fidel Castro Government — “Castro take my club, my money, my car,” she told Look magazine in 1971 — she emigrated to the United States, and settled in New York in 1962.”

In New York she began recording, first with Mongo Santamaria and then Tito Puentes. At the end of the decade Puentes dropped her for Celia Cruz and La Lupe then began a solo career. Her style was extraordinary, described by Newsweek in 1969 as: ”Like Eartha Kitt and Janis Joplin with plaintive echoes of Edith Piaf.”  Watch the video above, from a 1971 US TV show, of La Lupe doing her own inimitable version of “My Way”.

However, by the second half of the decade her career was on the wane. According to a 2008 article in the Guardian: “…after a series of tragedies she became a devout Christian, vowed never to perform again and died in poverty and obscurity in her early 50s. “

Some readers may already be familiar with La Lupe. Apparently she is a gay icon in the Spanish speaking world. A gay bar in Madrid is named after her. In 1998 the Spanish film director Pedro Almodovar used her song “Puro Teatro” on the soundtrack of his film “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown”. For anybody not familiar with her, I urge them to search online for her music and to read more about her.

The fact that it is now possible to hear her music and buy her records in Cuba is evidence of how things have slowly changed there over the last two decades or so. At one time anybody who left Cuba for the USA was referred to as a gusano (worm) and listening to their music was considered counter-revolutionary. Now it’s easy to hear artists like Celia Cruz or Issac Delgado, who turned their backs on Cuba and forged successful careers in the US.

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