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August 12 2012

Chavela Vargas obituary

Hard-drinking, pistol-packing, taboo-breaking singer of Mexican rancheras, revolutionary ballads and tangos

Gut-wrenching renditions of Mexican popular classics combined with a taboo-breaking personality and an iron liver ensured that Chavela Vargas, who has died aged 93, lived her own legend to the full. Vargas's raw, rasping voice and intimate arrangements stripped down well-known rancheras, boleros, revolutionary ballads and tangos to leave them as haunting laments, punctuated by waves of tenderness and bitter irony.

In the 1990s, the Spanish film-maker Pedro Almodóvar, whom Vargas described as her "soulmate", included her music in his films and championed her work, thus ensuring that she will be remembered not only as a tequila-soaked cantina singer from Latin America, but also an international artist who could sell out the most formal venues. "Chavela Vargas turned abandon and desolation into a cathedral within which we all fit," Almodóvar wrote after her death. "She emerged reconciled with the errors she had made and ready to make them again."

Vargas was born in Costa Rica. By her own account, she hardly knew her parents and was brought up by relatives in the countryside, dreaming of the day she would escape to bigger things. Vargas left for Mexico as a teenager and, after a while singing on the streets, became a fixture of the effervescent artistic scene of the post-revolution years. Even in that context, she stood out. She not only slept with women, but also sang love songs about them, wore trousers, smoked cigars, drank heavily, carried a loaded pistol and credited her recovery from polio to shamans.

"Chavela carries with her an aura of grace, charm and a legend," the writer and journalist Paco Ignacio Taibo said in a 2009 television documentary about his friend's life, "but she is also an emotionally possessed earthquake."

Vargas was particularly close to the painter Frida Kahlo. "I admired her deeply," the singer said, "but my love was much bigger than my admiration." She lived for a couple of years with Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera, whom she described as "a bit amphibian in his ways".

Vargas was also inextricably associated with José Alfredo Jiménez, the singer and composer of many of the best known ranchera songs. The title of her 2002 autobiography Y Si Quieres Saber de Mi Pasado (And If You Want to Know About My Past) comes from a line from a Jiménez song that continues "... it will be necessary to tell a lie".

Vargas and Jiménez would go on drinking binges together that lasted for days at a time and included helping each other serenade the different women they desired. But while Jiménez died young, Vargas continued to drink bars dry until she was in her 60s. She then stopped, abruptly. "Life offered me the most beautiful things that a human being can have," she said, "and I preferred to sink into alcohol."

Vargas suffered deeply from the homophobic atmosphere that enveloped Mexico and helped ensure she was not fully embraced by her adopted homeland until after Spain had elevated her to stardom. "I opened my arms and I said to the world: 'Come here, let's talk.' And the world and I talked every night and sometimes it rejected me," she said in an interview with the Spanish newspaper El País in 2009. "It required tears of blood for me to get ahead."

In her final years, for all the talk of pain, she was also notably satisfied with her achievements. She continued to travel and perform, making the last of her 80 albums, La Luna Grande, in 2011 – a homage to the poetry of Federico García Lorca, with whose spirit she said she chatted regularly.

"I am proud that I do not owe anybody anything, and it is wonderful to feel free," she said in 2009. "Now I have the desire to lie down in death's lap, and I am sure that will be quite beautiful."

• Isabel "Chavela" Vargas Lizano, singer, born 17 April 1919; died 5 August 2012


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April 26 2012

Wildbirds & Peacedrums's A Room for London performance – watch online

Singer Mariam Wallentin and drummer Andreas Werliin met at Gothenburg's Academy Of Music and Drama in 2004, and married the following year. Frustrated by the institute's rigid format, the pair say that Wildbirds & Peacedrums was born of a desire to break free and play music that captures pure, ecstatic feeling.

Watch Laura Barton ask the pair more about their plans here.

An apology: tonight's live stream has been cancelled because of technical difficulties. The duo's performance is still taking place, and you'll be able to watch it on-demand on this site later in the week.

A Room for London – the one-bedroom hotel installation perched on the roof of the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London – is now sold-out to the public but is hosting a season of writing, performance and music that has been programmed by Artangel



January 24 2012

Picturing Nick Drake back on tour

A lost recording by the late singer has been turned into a UK-wide photography project. Laura Barton takes part

One summer evening in the late 1970s, Michael Burdett was scavenging through a skip behind Island Records HQ in London. He was a teenager, employed as a postboy at the label, and had been given permission to hunt through all the discarded demos for tapes he could record over in the studio he was setting up at home.

An object caught his eye. "A scruffy little tape," he recalls. "On the front, in felt tip, it said 'Nick Drake' and on the back 'Cello Song'. And at the bottom were the words 'With Love' and two kisses. I knew Nick's material; he'd been dead five years. I couldn't let it go to the dump. So I took it and kept it."

Burdett didn't listen to the tape for 20 years. By then, he was a composer, writing music for adverts and TV acts such as Mr Blobby, but had taken himself off to Wales to record his own album. One day, struggling with a piano piece, he decided to distract himself by playing some of the many unlistened-to tapes he had acquired over the years. The first was that recording of Cello Song, a work that had appeared on Nick Drake's debut album, 1969's Five Leaves Left. But it did not sound like the version Burdett was familiar with. "I remember it distinctly: windows open, sound of the river coming in. As the guitar started I thought, 'That sounds different.' Then the percussion began and sounded busier. And then two cellos came in, and they played a flourish I didn't recognise. Nick started humming, and I realised I was listening to something different, something I suspected nobody had heard for a good 30 years."

The album version, produced by Joe Boyd, features Clare Lowther on cello, Danny Thompson on bass and Rocky Dzidzornu on congas, as well as Drake's distinctive guitar-playing and exquisite voice. It is at once melancholy and sublime, in its essence everything that would bring Drake acclaim and adoration in the years following his death in 1974, aged just 26.

Burdett tracked down Cally Callomon, manager of Nick Drake's estate. He played him and Robert Kirby (Drake's friend and regular strings player) the lost recording. "They thought it was a beautiful version," says Burdett, "but we were none the wiser as to where it might've come from. Though it turned out not to be Nick's handwriting."

Burdett was unsure what to do. "Copyright laws mean it's not my place to broadcast or release it," he explains. Another decade passed and, reading of Kirby's death, Burdett thought again of Cello Song. He also happened to watch Werner Herzog's 2005 film Grizzly Man, and was struck by a scene in which Herzog sits with headphones on, listening to the sound of a man being eaten by a bear. His thoughts led to the unheard Drake recording and suddenly he knew what he wanted to do: photograph people listening to it.

"For the next year and a half," he says, "I kept the camera and the recording with me wherever I went. I approached people at random and ended up photographing tattooists, homeless people, florists, mountaineers, City workers, people aged two to 96." Of the 200 people he asked, 167 agreed. "I think that is the beautiful thing about all this," he smiles. "It's not just about Nick Drake – half the people had never heard of him."

He calls his collection of photographs the Strange Face Project, a nod to the song's opening line: "Strange face/ With your eyes/ So pale and sincere." It was also a reference to the peculiar intensity that played across subjects' faces as they listened. "With four minutes 22 seconds to photograph someone," says Burdett, "I invariably found that the images were telling."

We sit in Burdett's car and look through the photographs, about to go on show at the Idea Generation gallery in London. There are famous subjects: Tom Stoppard, Noel Fielding, Billy Bragg; as well as a car park attendant at Southampton airport, a climber on a mountaintop in the north-west highlands of Scotland, and a man fishing for grayling on the River Itchen in Hampshire. At the end of the recording, Burdett would ask each person what they thought. The comic Robin Ince told him: "Listening to Nick Drake always makes me nostalgic for things that didn't actually happen to me, like standing in a wheat field in Cambridge, which I've never done."

Others were less articulate, but just as moved. "I remember driving through Shropshire on a Saturday night," says Burdett. "There was a lone youth standing on Wem station platform. I approached the guy. He had a hood and a black eye. And I said, 'Hi there, sorry to trouble you. My name's Michael and I've been going around the country photographing people from all walks of life listening to a recording that hasn't been heard for 40 years. It's by a chap called Nick Drake. Would you be interested in hearing it?' And, bizarrely, yes was the answer. I remember putting the headphones on him, and it's dark, no shelter, and he's standing listening – and suddenly I see a train coming. It's coming from behind him, and it comes so fast and zooms past him so that he gets thrown onto the platform. But he gets up and continues listening. He got to the end of the recording, took off the headphones, looked at me and just said, 'Well tranquil.'"

I am listener 167 in the project. I have always regarded Drake's music as an otherworldly thing, swallow-tailed and windhovered. This version of Cello Song is a more earthly creature: richer, busier, warmer than the one I am familiar with, and in many ways more engaged with its era. It appears more psychedelic, with shades of the Beatles' Within You Without You. As I listened to the track, I stared at the ground, oblivious to the traffic, the cold wind, the snap of Burdett's camera. It is an entrancing work and, like all of Drake's material, engulfs the listener. Once it is over, I am startled. I stand in the street, suddenly aware of the roar of the day.


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January 17 2011

George Pickow and all that jazz

We take a trip through the late photographer and film-maker's eclectic work, recording folk culture in Europe, the US and beyond



January 13 2011

George Pickow obituary

US photographer and film-maker who chronicled the heyday of folk and jazz

George Pickow, who has died aged 88, was a photographer and film-maker whose images were used on many album covers in the US – jazz, folk and pop – and who made a significant contribution to the film Festival (1967), which chronicled the Newport folk festival in its heyday. As the husband of the Kentucky-born folk singer Jean Ritchie, he was able to gain access to informal music-making, both in the Ritchie family home, and in Britain and Ireland during a visit made by Ritchie in the early 1950s.

Pickow was born in Los Angeles, but grew up in New York, where he studied art. During the second world war he made training films for the US navy. Although never a musician himself, he loved jazz and blues, and his first exposure to folk music was in the early 1940s, when he heard Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston at the leftwing Camp Unity in upstate New York.

At a square dance in 1948 he met Ritchie, who came from a large Kentucky family whose members had sung for the English folk collector Cecil Sharp in 1917, and again for the American folklorist Alan Lomax. With her large repertoire of Anglo-American balladry, Ritchie was lauded by the emerging American folk scene in Greenwich Village, New York.

Eager to discover the origins of her songs, Ritchie, accompanied by Pickow – they married in 1950 – spent more than a year in Britain and Ireland in 1952-53, funded by a Fulbright scholarship. Pickow worked with Lomax (based in Britain for much of the 50s) and the English folk collector Peter Kennedy to film a Cornish folk custom, the Padstow Obby Oss (hobby horse). The result, Oss Oss Wee Oss (1953), remains an important ethnographic record, excerpts from which were shown recently on the BBC television documentary Still Folk Dancing After All These Years. Pickow also filmed the Dartmoor folk singer Bill Westaway, whose family's version of Widecombe Fair helped to popularise the song, and provided inspiration for Kennedy and others to film English folk singers and customs.

In Ireland, Pickow photographed singers and musicians visited by Ritchie, such as the uillean piper Séamus Ennis and the singer Sarah Makem, mother of Tommy, as well as Irish rural scenes. Pickow's Irish photographs are deposited in the library of the National University of Ireland, Galway.

Back in the US, Pickow took photographs of jazz, pop and rock singers including Louis Armstrong, Tony Bennett, Nina Simone, Little Richard, Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Jordan and Lena Horne, as well as the folk singers Pete Seeger, Josh White and Judy Collins, and many of his photographs graced their album covers. He also photographed visual artists such as Edward Hopper and Thomas Hart Benton.

Pickow travelled to Mexico, Peru, the new state of Israel in 1948 and Turkey, as well as Europe, taking photographs. Whenever the opportunity arose, he photographed musicians, local celebrations and ordinary people at work. His photographs were published in Life magazine, National Geographic and Cosmopolitan, and he was the principal photographer, and later partner, of the Three Lions picture agency.

Pickow was associate producer and one of the cameramen for Murray Lerner's film Festival, about the Newport folk festival between 1963 and 1966, when the commercial, political and ethnic aspects of the American folk revival came together at a single event. The film captures performers including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Johnny Cash and Peter, Paul and Mary. Pickow's camera work was also used in the 2007 film The Other Side of the Mirror: Bob Dylan Live at the Newport Folk Festival. Pickow also filmed Ballads, Blues and Bluegrass (1961), directed by Lomax, featuring singers including Doc Watson and Jack Elliott.

Ritchie popularised the Appalachian dulcimer for folk song accompaniment, but as there were no manufacturers of the instrument, Pickow made a copy of Ritchie's dulcimer and supervised a small-scale business that supplied the burgeoning folk market. He supplied the photographs for Ritchie's songbooks, including The Swapping Song Book (1952) and Folk Songs of the Southern Appalachians (1965), as well as for The Dulcimer Book (1963).

Pickow is survived by Ritchie and their sons, Jon and Peter.

• George Pickow, photographer and film-maker, born 11 February 1922; died 10 December 2010


guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


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