Monthly Archives: April 2009

The Cry of Jazz: Q & A with director Edward Bland

coj2by Damon Locks (original interview appeared in Stop Smiling)

cry_of_jazz4The Cry of Jazz, Edward Bland’s 1959 film, makes the argument that jazz is the embodiment of the spirit of African-American life. Filmed in Chicago with vintage footage of the Sun Ra Arkestra, as well as an astonishing glimpse of Chicago in the fifties, the film’s aesthetic value is almost as impressive as its content: Bland’s take on race and culture in America is still ahead of its time, almost 50 years later. 

 

For the late Fifties, there are a lot of complex and challenging ideas about race in your film. How was the film received when it was first released? 

It was considered the work of madmen. Black racists. At best it was considered a personal statement. Bad music, bad thinking, bad acting, bad writing and bad photography. Unfair to jazz, because we made jazz a political act. Kenneth Tynan, drama critc of the London Observer, called it historic, in that it was the first challenge to whites by blacks done in film. Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin and Nat Hentoff, hated it.

On the other hand, many younger American whites were surprised that we were so kind to them. Among filmakers moved by the film were Willard Van Dyke, Emile De Antonio, Lionel Rogosin, Jonas Mekas, Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie. It was a common observation among Chicago blacks in the 1930s and 40s that whites were soulless people. The historical and aesthetic evolution of the term soul and the incisiveness of that observation has been watched by me over the years with a bemused detachment. It struck me as a kind and gentle rebuke given Black history in the US. Years later it was realized that what we were talking about was American Black Culture and its impact nationally and internationally…a sort of “soft power.” The concept of Black culture was not around in the US until 10 or 15 years later as far as we knew.

What inspired you to tackle the subject matter of jazz and how it relates to race and culture?

Growing up as a jazz musician who later turned to musical composition – so called art music – jazz struck me as a perfect metaphorical construct thru which to formally examine Black American life in the present moment and historically.

The film has a lot of prophetic notions about jazz. Do you think that its ideas have played themselves to the conclusion predicted? Did jazz die?  

Currently jazz is yesterday’s news. It is now primarily an academic exercise. In fact it was on it’s way out when we started making The Cry. The first step away was the Delta blues, r&b and Little Richard who gave birth to Elvis and all of rock & roll. The second step away was hip hop.

As to the notion that jazz is dead, similar things have been said about contemporary hip-hop culture. Do you see any parallels with the two genres and how they reflect and respond to black culture?

Hip hop is poetry, not music. It needs music in order to strengthen its poetic message, like opera. It is revolutionary on a number of levels. The stars of hip hop own themselves, their music publishing, their recordings (if they choose to) and have allied businesses like clothing and jewelry lines. The “soft power” of American black culture, with its international impact, has come of age thru hip hop.

Why did you chose The Sun Ra Arkestra to perform for the film? 

We made The Cry on less than a shoestring budget. I knew of Sun Ra’s music and that he owned the recordings and his publishing rights. So we licensed it from his company, thus avoiding the costs of recording sessions. Most importantly the music was great for the spirit of the film.

There is an underlying sexual dynamic between one of the white women characters and the African-American lead character. I think that is an interesting element of the the film that creates tension. Is there something that you were addressing by including that dynamic?

There was a sexual dynamic between two of the actors. Yes, we were addressing American sexual racism.

The mixed race dynamic in the film creates a great setting for the discussion that takes place but African-American women are not represented in the film. Was this an artistic choice?

We got 65 people (black & white) to donate their services/labor to the film. They worked for free. We paid their expenses. We paid for film stock, rentals of cameras and sound equipment and motion picture labs. The actors were among the 65 people who were given contracts, in case substantial monies were made. We were unable to find any black actresses who would work for free. This was circa 1958.

Have you found that there is a consistent interest over the years in the film?

In the 60s and 70s there was quite a bit of interest in Black Studies departments in colleges and universities. Since the early 1990s there has been considerable interest including artcles, honors and a DVD release.

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Cedric Bixler of The Mars Volta: Substance of Style

 

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Interview  by Damon Locks

Charisma, image & style, all of these things create the persona of a performer. Someone like David Bowie (in the 70’s) was a master at manipulating these things to create his ever changing stage identity. The Clash as a group changed their fashion often to reflect their musical evolutions (to this day Clash bassist Paul Simonon still reigns supreme – in my opinion – as the coolest looking guy in rock). Parliament/Funkadelic…need I say more? The illusions that help create an entire world for the listener are an essential part of the magic of being a performing musician. The Mars Volta is a group that brings avenues of intrigue to the audience. One element of the mystique comes from the group’s visual style. Are there any performers you would credit as building blocks for your own style? Even if they are not reflective of your own personal style can you name some artists/groups whose style has made an indelible impression on you as a listener? Could you also explain why their look is so vital and charged for you?

What informs your personal visual presentation Do you have rules about how clothes should fit you? Pant length?Hair concepts? Colors of clothes? Referencing different fashion eras? Shoes versus sneakers versus boots? Can you explain the reasoning behind these governing factors and how it has changed over the years?

Lets see as far as a look is concerned Omar and I have always had an eye for what we consider a uniform that can be worn everyday. In At The Drive In what we wore stayed on our backs for months at a time. This was due to being practical and on the go. We were sleeping in the same clothes we played in…with our shoes on. There were moments around 1995 when certain members of At The Drive In used to lock Omar in the bathroom and force him to shower and change his clothes. This never worked because Omar would just turn the water on and sit there. Apart from his fear of water…there was also a certain superstition of keeping your lucky socks, shoes and shirt on, so that everyday would be a good show. That superstition still remains.

We were highly influenced by the Trenchmouth and N.O.U aesthetic. We grew out of it and looked backed at what we were up to before At The Drive In(musically and clothes-wise as well). Mind you there was never a discussion  about what we should wear…. that would be a little too corny and you can’t get everyone in your band to dress the same(at least with Mars Volta that is true). I think one of the turning points was when Omar brought me the Fania All Stars movie Nuestra Cosa. The look was very 60’s and 70’s, which in all honesty was what we were into around 93. You would have laughed…but to us it seemed proper. Especially when the bass player of MDC rolls through town and he looks like an old Hawkwind burnout (same can be said for Cliff Burton of Metallica, the only hippy burnout amongst a bunch of heavy metal dudes). Even the singer of Government Issue used to roll through El Paso looking like fucking Greg Brady……it was almost this Andy Kaufman approach of never letting anyone in on the joke and being very serious about the joke. Very early Pink Floyd to us was punk regardless of what John Lydon or Duane Peters dictated as rules.

Over the years we have incorporated some Tom Baker from Doctor Who, Joan Crawford noir, Yakuza-style Japanese gangster suits and El Topo spaghetti western style dirtiness. Grant Morrison’s writing style and approach to life took shape in our “play every day like its your last.” Even Kiss and Slade provided a huge example of how not to take things so seriously and to remember to have fun. People like The Butthole Surfers, Throbbing Gristle and Flipper bring out the troublemaker in us. Performers like Sam and Dave (where I got my Nehru influence) and Gram Parsons nudie suites, that’s all in there too. It’s just not obvious sometimes. Above all we just wanted clothes that really fit us…which was probably a reaction to that 90’s baggy look.

Everything thing about our presentation….from backdrop art to dressing up, even the masquerade NYE show is vital to concept of escaping reality. When you have over stayed your welcome in the world of lsd cocaine etc…music and its presentation is the safest most fun way of turning your back on reality. I recently had surgery on my right foot, which has left me a little biased as to what type of shoe to wear. A lot of my problems just run in my family but I certainly aggravated my feet by wearing pointy Cuban heels for over 4 years for 2 hours a night. The metal rod and scar have left me with the option of tennis shoes lately. Some people in the band enjoy the simplicity of tennis shoes and winos which are a very cheap cholo looking shoe. I had heard through the grapevine that you had a magical pair of electric blue creepers that you retired after Trenchmouth. Is this true Damon? That is pretty cool if it is. It is true, except they were red patent leather – Damon

Can you create charisma or are you simply born with it?

Charisma is something that I don’t know if I really have. I am a true believer in the alter ego and split personality as a shamanic quality for the benefit of positive energy. Since I was a kid I had the performer in me. I was such a loud mouth that my mother and father use to threaten me with scotch tape over the mouth if I was too loud. Needless to say I spent a majority of my childhood with a clear piece of tape over my mouth. When the movie the Elephant Manhit cable tv in the 80’s, I fell in love with it. While some kids played tag in the front yard I was dressed as the Elephant Man screaming, “I am not an animal! I am a human being!” at the top of my lungs. So between being my bark collar and love of Kiss(mom made me a Kiss cake for my 5th birthday! I got a photo too!), I developed a split personality. Laid back Cedric by day and Baby Bix the court jester on stage. I ain’t gonna lie, it sounds corny but it is what it is.

The music that The Mars Volta makes is complex yet reaches a relatively large audience. Do you have any feelings about the necessity of showmanship to reach the audience and draw them in?

As far as showmanship goes I’ve learned that if the audience is asleep I will try everything and my power to wake them up. Breakdancing still runs in my blood and lately even “crip walking” seems to find a way into the presentation. I may not be a very good “crip walker” but fuck I’m trying. When Jon Theodore used to play with us, I had this very anti-audience view because of what we had gone through with At The Drive In. Everyone expected us to be little circus monkeys cuz we established ourselves as live act to watch. When we started this band I wanted to show motherfuckers that I could actually sing, cuz some of those asshole English critics were claiming we could not write songs and couldn’t sing. I wanted show that we could never be that easily categorized. Now with Jon Theodore I often compared him(w/ love and respect) as a grumpy pastor that had little faith in the sermon……very rigid and only having memorable sermons every once in a while. That factor greatly influenced me to kinda lose what I had…that ball of energy that everyone knew. Even my mom said, “Mijo you don’t jump around like you used too.” Then out of the storm of a dark two years Thomas Pridgeon came to our church and I swear to god I have been overcome by his spirit. When he plays on the same stage as me and can’t help but to fully embrace my alter ego (which is too much fun).  If that’s showmanship, then yes it is important . I’m glad I don’t think about being anti audience anymore.

Can you name an artist or group that has put on an unforgettably inspiring show to you and why?

One of the most memorable shows I have ever seen and had the honor of being part of was back in the At The Drive In days(once in Oklahoma and again at Gilman Street Collective in Berkley, California). The band was called FAT DAY ! What a band. Talk about presentation…..lets see how do i describe this band…

First off they all (except one guy) had cut their hair to look as if they were balding…you know the inverted mohawk. Hair everywhere, except on top.  They all looked like physical education coaches equipped with whistles that hung on their necklaces. They actually used to run laps around the audience. They wore matching purple coach shorts and purple basketball jerseys. If you looked closely you could tell that their hair grew normally, they just shaved it too look like they were bald coaches. Their music was very Los Crudos/Locust…blast beats…extremely short songs, heavy on the screaming. Their secret weapon were these 4 trampolines that were customized with 4 triggers underneath the trampoline. They each had some sort of foil trigger underneath their shoes, so within the circle of the trampoline there were triggers for these Close Encounters of the Third Kind synthesizer sounds. They would all jump in unison, doing jumping jacks and would start playing the trampolines with their feet. Kinda like that Japanese video game called Dance Dance Revolution. I have never seen anything like that ever. Between the jumping jacks, whistle blowing,coach like tantrums, blast beats, and the balding haircuts there was the most unique musical experience I have ever seen. Imagine if The Monks emerged from the space ship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and they were your high school PE coaches playing power violence?! That was FAT DAY and I will never forget them!

Recently I have been head over heels for this 80’s Philipino Kung Fu exploitation/007 James Bond spoof called For Your Height Only. It stars Weng Weng, a barely waist high dwarf that flies through the air in a jet pack, wears the illest clothes, gets the ladies, all while making a monkey out of the forces of evil. That’s an actual quote. Look for it on mondomacabrodvd.com. You will thank me later!

 

http://www.myspace.com/themarsvolta

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Bruce Miles Hellington of 9353: What’s This For?

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by Damon Locks (original interview appeared in Stop Smiling magazine)

9353 was a crucial piece of WDC musical history that remains virtually unsung. During the early 80’s, the music scene was dominated by the now famous D.C. hardcore scene and the nationally under appreciated go-go scene. 9353 operated during the heyday of this musical environ yet remained outsiders. 9353 provided a point of view, that while local, was very foreign. 9353 seemed to take an abused and kaleidoscopic view of suburban life: instead of the repeated collaged segments adding up to a beautiful tapestry, these images became disturbing visions made of recognizable elements that were fractured, set askew and distorted. Any quaintness that might have existed was overturned to reveal the unseemly qualities normally left uncommented on. The themes of 9353’s music revolved around: babies, the teen age, decrepitude and the way society fails us all. The music was otherworldly. The stories in song performed like a demented radio play with different voices to match the different characters. In 9353’s music there is a specific feeling of alienation captured that is simultaneously connected and disconnected to the experience of growing up just outside our nation’s capital.

By the end of the decade the original band (Bruce Hellington, Vance Bockis, Jason Carmer and Dan Joseph) had broken up. Singer Bruce Hellington has attempted to sustain the 9353 vision over the years, but it has proven a challenge to say the least.

For me personally, the band 9353 opened up a door to another place. I was quickly digesting the influx of sounds flooding in from every direction. Something about 9353’s take on the world infected my system and I was left forever changed. The importance of exposure to the musical energy of early 80’s in D.C. is immeasurable. The first 9353 show was February 21st 1983 – just 2 days before I saw my first concert. I saw their second show at 9:30 Club and was instantly a fan. The WDC scene has been well documented on record and in books but the work of 9353 hasn’t really been given the attention deserved.

I was happy to be able to talk to 9353’s singer Bruce Hellington to gather some insight into the band.

Kids are supposed to wanna grow up to be things like firemen and astronauts – 10 Witches, 9353

Opportunity is when you get the chance to get screwed over by somebody. That’s how it was for us and it still is that way today. 9353 was a functional, serious art-invented machine, but nothing will ever go right with 9353, it never will. We’ve never been paid for anything. We got nothing. It’s different when you are trying to make a real thing that doesn’t have any signposts from the world telling you what to do or how to be.

For guys that were fucked up on drugs, 9353cover2hating their jobs, breaking up with their girlfriends and getting kicked out of their places to live constantly, doing those two records in three years was kinda the smartest thing we could have poured our gig money into at the time. Looking back on that, I appreciate Jason’s determination. Vance and Dan were amused by it. They were not a driving force to get us into the studio and to get those things recorded.

It dawned on me about 10 years ago how fortunate we were to have failed and to not have to have gone out and suffered endless tours and successful things. We went out for two weeks once. We got ripped off at the only two shows that didn’t get cancelled. We waited for the third show. Then the headlining band, which was The Bangles, saw our record and kicked us off the bill. That was it! That was our big tour.

I heard a rumor you once borrowed the Minor Threat van?  

That was that tour. We didn’t borrow it, we bought it. We had only paid them a fourth of what we owed and that van didn’t make it the full two weeks we were gone. I could tell you that would be the beginning of an extreme lifelong sore spot between Minor Threat and 9353 but the truth is there was already a sore spot for years before the van incident. Lyle Preslar took 9353 to court. He sued us, was countersued and he lost. He booked the ill-fated tour…and Jeff sold us the van. Every time we got in bed with Minor Threat it headed south.

What it is you wanted and what you actually get will be two different things – Egnopssponge, 9353

We had been arrogant assholes the whole time but we were never censoring our brains. We would speak openly about anything to anybody and it would get us in so much trouble. I think what it was, those guys embraced us to a point, the tensions started to rise regarding where music itself was going. There is a musical thing that was always denied in the WDC punk rock thing. 9353 was all about embracing challenging arrangements that took 90-degree corners then back again, sometimes maybe not. But the point is, that wasn’t appreciated like we thought it would be or could be or should be. As the years unfolded, we thought, “What you guys are still playing three chord punk rock? Don’t you feel a little weird about that? Aren’t there any bells going off in the back of your psyche?” In my experience when you pull back the curtain what you have is a bunch of weird chicken shits trying to control everything behind the scenes and keep it down and keep it simple…like a police force or something. I gotta hand it to the whole Dischord crew, they were in the midst of instigating a huge international youth bully culture. We felt like we were the Beatles in the midst of all of this Rockers shit. This was really bad. We were focused on the kind of music that would just make a bully or a skinhead not want to sit and watch or hear us. The design of 9353 was to be purposely brash and antagonistic but in a manner that did not make skinheads feel good at all.

Washington has this really annoying style. It took me years to examine it all. There’s a lot of fear and weird ideas here. The majority of people we’ve rubbed elbows with the music scene people they are offspring of either government, media or military. So you have the punk rock scene functioning as some horribly gone wrong political student event, where there is all of this hierarchy and all of this snobbery, all of this unnecessary rudeness and just mean spirited private school competition crap. I loved the Bad Brains. They were the only band on the D.C. scene that we looked up to and learned anything from.

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How did you develop your approach to the music of 9353?  

On the rooftop, they won’t know if you jumped or you fell off – Rooftop, 9353 

Jason and I had a band called Color Anxiety, which was the predecessor to 9353. It was a kinda new wave Roxy Music thing. We had a musical genius that was writing the songs for us. He was the Shah’s economic advisor’s son. He came over here in 1980 as many Iranian’s did. He ended up in our high school hanging out with us. We had a little band thing called Spinal Icebags in 1979. Then a couple name changes, Citizens For Decency and a few other stupid moves. Then finally we went with Color Anxiety. Color Anxiety blossomed. It was Spring of 81. That was where I honed my little bag of tricks or even learned to do them at all. I was pushed into being a singer in my friend’s bands because they said I looked like a singer and they didn’t have a singer. But I had a steady dedication to being a childhood alcoholic and a criminal. I had no musical anything other than being a consumer.

Alice Cooper and Nina Hagen are probably the two singers that showed me (by example) more of what to do or what could be done. I wasn’t really doing anything other than being completely willing to make a fool of myself. It was one night in March/April 81 that I was knighted with a magical wand. I woke up one day and I had a voice that could meet my imagination. This was a major factor, I didn’t own any of this stuff (gestures to his effects pedals), every effect that I had heard other people doing, I had to learn to try to do without (the help of effects), I  just had to mimic it.

I have seen a lot of normal things get braided in with a lot of very abnormal things in the communities and in the lives of people I have known. There is a shared experience that everyone has and then there are things that people think that only they say to themselves. One of the things I have been able to do is reach into a lot of psyches and say, “I am on the exact same page as you.” Sometimes this backfires because a lot of insane people think they know me. I am basically really dedicated to attacking the inner psyche of the lonely alienated youth because that is what I was. I spent most of my time from 1973-1980 hitchhiking around the country. I didn’t go to school for the most part. I learned everything I know about people way before I ever got involved in punk rock. I know that everything I think is not that original. In the end you become impressed with a lot of people no one notices and unimpressed with a lot of people everyone notices.

There were band influences that were hitting us really hard. I would say, if I was to be completely honest, the 3 greatest contributors to what 9353 was to become musically came from…one was local, Jim Altman’s band Scandals. They were a glam-rock art-rock in the late 70’s in high school that we were just in awe of. They were everything that we could ever hope to grow up to be like. That was the band that first showed us that kids on your street can be as great as any rock stars you’ve grow up listening to. The two bands that really hit home for us harder than any American band were The Stranglers and Punishment Of Luxury. Those two bands brought something to the table. No American bands that we knew of received that information and knew what the next link in the chain should be. We felt burdened by that responsibility.

Your visual aesthetic helped differentiate 9353 from most every band in WDC at the time. How did you develop this aesthetic? Your wheat pasted show posters were omnipresent, disturbing and eye-catchingly amazing.9353_fsml

Feeling fear is never fun cause fear is just not fair – Spooky Room, 9353

DC was a very oblivious place back then and it scared me. The thing is, I had nothing going on in my life. I was a homeless, drunk, troublemaker who had a penchant for defacing property. Then all of a sudden it wasn’t painting…it was pasting! It didn’t qualify as the same kind of crime. It was very accepted. Visually, I was influenced by the second Killing Joke record cover, What’s This For? It was so simple and very effective. That had a big influence on me. There was a singer in DC that I had admired for a long time because he had done a painting for every show they did. The Razz was the name of the band. But he never had them printed or put up in public anywhere. I was inspired by that idea. The opportunity arose by way of a girlfriend I had. She had her own band. They were pretty lame. I made a poster for her band that I thought was really fucking cool. Simple, black and white cut out pictures white paint involved. The band hated it. I was so offended as an artist at the reaction they had that I ripped their name right off of it. It never became a 9353 flyer but I put the numbers with this style of artwork and decided, “I’m right, you’re wrong. I’m not giving it up.” That was my whole thing. That is the entire story.

Is there truth to the rumor that the catalog number for an exhibit of a fetal baby in a jar at the Walter Reed Medical building was the origin for the name of the band?

These babies are teething on rings of misfortune – Babies, 9353

Yes and no. I’d been on the art scene for a little while. I had been observing how the art world worked at the time. I knew you just can’t show up one day and say, “Hey guys lets call the band 9353. Let’s go out and tell people that the band is called 9353.” I knew you had to give them something. If you hang a painting on the wall people will come after you with torches and pitchforks if you don’t have an explanation for that painting. You hang the same painting on the wall and you give them some stupid story and they will say, “That man is a genius.” So I came up with a story. The story was true. The thing did exist. The number I did scrape off. That was not the number but I told the whole world it was because I am giving them an art story.

Will the original line up of 9353 ever reunite?

One thing for sure it won’t take long before somebody flakes up and their gone – Ghost, 9353

Neither Jason nor Dan has performed with 9353 since 1986. Dan has denounced his piano work on the 3rd CD and disclaims it as official 9353. He hasn’t drummed in 9353 or any band I know of in 20 years. Jason’s return to 9353 almost happened in both 1992 and 1993, but ended badly instead. Vance has since returned and played the most recent 9353 show and is “in” if we ever find the super touch guitarist everyone still expects us to have. 9353 is in a very stupid situation of career purgatory. There will most likely never be an original reunion. There probably shouldn’t be. Vance and I have next to nothing that wasn’t charitably given to us. We are on the bottom of the game several stories under the sewer level. The gift we bring to the live 9353 is as uncomfortable to witness as it is to deliver. Why? One can only wonder. I could tell you it was this reason or that reason. Truthfully the answer comes from within: my inability to properly seize the whole thing versus knowing what the chemistry was and trying to make it real again. I will sit in my near indigent life stew until I can foresee a way to release the old and new again properly. Then, like last time I will also ponder – Is this vanity, or responsibility, or a total waste of time and money? I don’t know yet. I have a new band. I’ll probably release something from that before picking up the 9353 tab solo.

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Bonus question from Peter Cortner:

From the song Ghost, is Tommy a real person?

He is. Tommy is Washington’s most fantastic and most bizarre bass player: the bass player for Specimen Fred and Spinal Icebags. Ghost was a true story. We drove around in his opal Cadet, drinking beer all day. He had a huge spray thing that he stole from the car wash that day. And every bit of beer he pissed into this thing and at every stoplight he would spray people in the car next to us. We were horrible teenagers. One day in Arlington County, in the summer of 1980 we spent the day doing that. The police had already come to his house twice, because of the license plates, to ask his parents and to ask him questions about why he might be doing this. He was the one who talked me into being a singer.

 

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La Lupe: Life in the Margins

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by Jamie Hayes (originally appeared online for Stop Smiling magazine)

The price of celebrity is always dear, as the price is often the sacrifice of one’s true, complex and ever-changing identity. In place of that, the celebrity often becomes the embodiment of certain ideals and desires that are either unattainable or forbidden the average citizen — or often both. What is so compelling about Lupe Yoli (aka La Lupe, aka La Yiyiyi) is the way in which she used her body, consciously or not, to call attention to the art and artifice of the construction of Identity, the foundation (consciously or not) of all performative art.

We can all relate to the stress of being thrust into a role based on our age, nationality, gender, race or sexuality. Even when the role being played is given top billing — young, American, white, male, straight — the boundaries of the role are still too narrow to define anyone who has truly explored their interior self. How much more constricting were the roles La Lupe played throughout her life: Cuban; mulatta; female; controversial and vulgar performer; political exile; “Queen of Latin Soul”; practitioner of Santería; battered wife; drug addict; single mother; homeless woman; wheel-chair bound born-again Christian.

Born in Cuba in 1936 to a strict, conservative father and raised by a stepmother who despised her because of her darker skin, La Lupe was forced by her father to pursue a career as a school teacher rather than pursue her dream of becoming a singer because he believed that women from good families did not belong in night clubs. In her teens, La Lupe defied her father’s wishes. She skipped school and walked all the way from Santiago to Havana to enter a radio contest. She won the contest and a few years later relocated to Havana to begin her career.

From the start, La Lupe was extremely controversial. Here is a description of a typical La Lupe show in Havana, from writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante: “The woman would hit and scratch herself, and later bite herself, her hands, and her arms. Unhappy with this musical exorcism, she would throw herself against the background wall, hitting it with her fists and with one or two movements of her head, she would let loose, literally and metaphorically, her black hair. After hitting the props, she would attack the piano and the pianist with a new fury. All of this, miraculously, without stopping her singing and without losing the rhythms of that warm calypso that she transformed into a torrid, musical zone.”

Her act was extremely risqué, sexual and like nothing the Cuban public had ever seen. (Neither had the audiences in New York, where she performed after her exile by Castro in 1962.) Even now videos of her best performances still shock in their rawness, their excessive aggressive and transgressive sexuality. And while her performances are extremely sexual, full of orgasmic moans and groans while lifting her skirts and kneading her breasts, they are not exactly sexy — at least to my taste — perhaps because they are too raw, too violent and too honest to fully seduce. It’s painful and at times uncomfortable to watch her use and abuse her body — to prostitute herself, so to speak. And yet there is something extremely compelling and powerful in her raw, violent actions, her uncontrolled rage and sensuality. Her magic, then, is her ability to work both ends of the axis of attraction and repulsion. Perhaps that is why the word “magnetic” was so often used to describe her performances.la-lupe-a-mi-me-llaman-la-lupe

She achieved this magnetism exactly by calling attention to the semiotics of sexuality and gender construction. A key element to her show was a type of strip act: She began by taking off her shoes, then her copious amounts of jewelry — Santeria amulets and necklaces, earrings, belts, brooches — then her headscarf. If she had continued in this vein, she would have just been referencing a conventional strip act. But there was nothing conventional about La Lupe. Instead, she would next take off her wig and her false eyelashes, hike up her pants, and enter a state of trance, or better yet, possession. She gave her body up to sensation, yelling, screaming, completely losing it. She would rub herself, hit herself, wipe her mouth convulsively, rub her hands together. It was indeed a strip act, but what she is stripping away is not her clothing really but rather the trappings of identity itself — the wigs, the makeup, the jewelry — the signifiers that we use in order to signify our status, our place in the world. She strips down not to reveal a coy, feminine sensuality but rather a raw, unbridled life force that is as disturbing as it is compelling.

In the early Sixties, she had ample audience for work. Upon her arrival to New York, she joined Mongo Santamaría’s band, then after two albums, defected to Tito Puente’s band. She is credited with updating his sound from démodé Big Band and traditional Cuban rhythms to the brasher street sound popular with of the barrio Latino, eventually known as Salsa. Again, La Lupe’s magic was her ability to embody a paradox, this time the paradox of the exiled and disenfranchised immigrant. She was able to stay true to the traditional rhythms of Cuba while adding a new, distinctive, irreverent and transgressive element of the barrio, creating a distinct Nuyorican identity — an identity that could really only exist in the margins, and was, in fact, an active reappropriation of the marginal.

She was both loved and hated for this brash, vulgar and streetwise persona. Those who loved her found her to be the embodiment the desire to bust out, let loose, scream, curse and shout. She gave voice in a distinctive Nuyorican way to the trials of being Latino in New York in the Sixties, making her part of the larger movement of bad boy salseros, notably Willie Colon and Hector LaVoe, who also played with and reappropriated their marginalized identities with album titles like El Malo (“the Bad Guy”) and Cosa Nuestra (“Our Thing”, literally, but with the noun and adjective switched in order to reference “Cosa Nostra,” a term for the Italian Mafia.)

The difference with La Lupe, however, is gender. Being a bad girl carries a much higher price than being a bad boy, and was a much more radical act. However, La Lupe did nothing to shy away from that label. In fact, she embraced it fully, creating a highly sexualized identity by employing heavy makeup, dramatic wigs and headdresses, orgasmic screams and moans, hot dance moves emphasizing her hips, sequined outfits, furs, jewelry, etc. While many of her performances were highly subversive and aggressive, she had a sense of humor, too. Check out her performance in the late Seventies on the Dick Cavett show. Past her prime, well into her forties, she shows up in gold dress, turban, cape and a basket of cookies she baked covered in matching gold fabric. At the end of her over-the-top performance, she strips down to a skin-tight white stretch jumpsuit, turns around to reveal a healthy dose of ass cleavage, bows and joins Dick Cavett back on the couch to munch on some homemade cookies. It’s this kind of behavior that led to her inclusion in Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay Notes on “Camp” as well as her immortalization in various drag performances throughout the years, most notably in the 1996 film version of The Birdcage and, most interestingly, in 1969 when she was replaced by one Hiram Velazquez (aka El Lupo, aka El Yiyiyo) in Tito Puente’s band, memorialized in the album Lupo El Fantástico on the Cotique label.

Not everyone was in on the joke, though. She was feared, hated and often censored, and was called a puta for her lack of respect for tradition, her sexual abandon and her outrageous costumes and comportment. Not only was she rejected in more traditional elements of society, but eventually she was blackballed by the world of Salsa as well.

After her champion and protector, Morris Levy, sold Tico records to Fania, La Lupe’s career was effectively over. Some say it was because her aggressive and unconventional behavior off stage became untenable to Fania’s owner, Jerry Masucci. Around this time she became more and more involved with the cult of Santería, canceling shows and recording dates if the caracoles (a method of divining the future in the religious tradition of Santería) deemed the commitments unwise. Many in the industry, among them her chief collaborator of the Sixties, Tito Puente, worried that her quite public embrace and expression of her Santería beliefs would jeopardize her career as well as anyone associated with her. Additionally her marriage fell apart as her husband became more and more addicted to drugs, became abusive towards her, and was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia. Between paying her husband’s hospital bills and her excessive contributions to the Santeros, La Lupe went broke. Finally, the audience for Latin music stopped going to cabarets to see solo performers singing the types of boleros in which she excelled and instead frequented Salsa clubs in order to dance. And apparently there was room for only one female voice at Fania, and that spot was given to the venerable and equally talented, Celia Cruz.

After this, the story gets more and more tragic and bizarre, something out of a telenovela: La Lupe has a nervous breakdown, ends up on the street with her young daughter, relocates to the projects, falls and breaks her back, becoming wheelchair bound, renounces Santería, finds God in the evangelical Christian church, miraculously regains the ability to walk after having hands laid on her, and spends the last few years of her life traveling the world preaching the gospel and recording spirituals.

While it’s true that La Lupe was clearly less reliable and more difficult to work with than the incredibly professional Celia Cruz, it’s hard not to wonder if La Lupe was shown less tolerance for these typical diva traits because they were coupled with a revolutionary and intimidating eroticized sexuality in what was entirely man’s world, Fania. Certainly songs like 1968’s Oriente, in which La Lupe screams, “Ay, ay, ay, Tito Puente me botó!” (“Tito Puente fired me!”), Como Acostumbro, a Spanglish reworking of Frank Sinatra’s My Way and La Dueña de La Salsa (“Owner of Salsa”) express her frustration against her treatment in both the music business as well as her opinion of repressive societal norms.

The songs are certainly read that way in the gay and feminist Latino/a communities, where the work of La Lupe has been revived in recent years, most notably in the Almodóvar film Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, which ends with one of her best boleros, Puro Teatro. The song perfectly encapsulates the story of the film, which is the story of a woman who finally understands that her lover was just playing a role throughout their affair, and that in fact he doesn’t love her at all — he only loves himself and the role he plays. The final line is a brilliant coup de grace: “Y acuédate/ que ségun tu punto de vista/ yo soy la mala!” (“And remember / according to your point of view/ I’m the wicked one!”)

In the end, the true magic of La Lupe is that in a world that offered women one of two roles — Madonna or Whore — La Lupe gave her body and soul up to the role that gave her the most freedom, then dissected that role part by part, false eyelash by false eyelash, to reveal it for what it truly was: Puro Teatro.

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