They Called Her La Lupe

Hola mi Gente,

I don’t know how I missed it, but apparently Brooklyn-born actress Lauren Vélez (of Dexter and NY Undercover fame) has spearheaded a kickstarter campaign to bring to the screen the story of Latina songstress, Lupe Yoli, also known as La Lupe. Here’s the trailer and Ms Vélez, who resurrected La Lupe in a one-woman show a couple of years ago, called They Call Me La Lupe (the title of the film as well) at Teatro LATEA here in NYC, seems to capture her essence:

I was fortunate enough to be able to see La Lupe at the height of her career in the 1970s. A few years ago, I wrote about the impression this singular artist left on me.

* * *

 La Lupe

La Yi Yi Yi/ La Lupe/ La Reina

El dia en que te deje/ fui yo quien salio ganando

(The day I left you/ it was I who came out winning.)
— La Lupe, La Gran Tirana

 

One day a question from one of my readers/ friends left me thinking about boleros, this in turn, led me to reflect on who in my opinion, was one of its greatest interpreters, La Lupe.

I first saw La Lupe, aka La YiYiYi, barely into my 20s and before then, I wasn’t a big fan. I viewed boleros (love ballads) as a musical genre that older Puerto Rican people enjoyed and sang to one another. I think it was a common enough occurrence among Puerto Ricans: my parents would sometimes have arguments via songs. My father would sing some lyrics of a certain song, and then my mother would reply with lyrics from a song of her own choosing, that type of thing. Like an argument, but with song lyrics… LOL

Anyway, one of the songs my mother would sing to my father was one of her favorite boleros, La Gran Tirana, by the inimitable La Lupe. Its lyrics was something like a feminist rallying cry for women from El Barrio and sung by La Lupe, they oozed irony. The opening lines go something like so:

Segun tu punto de vista
yo soy la mala.
Vampiressa de tu novela,
La Gran Tiriana.

(According to you,
I am the bad one.
Vampiress of your soap opera,
The great tyrant.)

I still get chills whenever I hear those opening lines.

In the hands of a lesser artist, La Gran Tirana could have easily devolved into something melodramatic and trite, but as sung by the La Lupe, it’s a powerful claim to liberation, of doing away with oppression — Yeah, you want to paint me as the bad one? Go ahead!

I saw La Lupe perform only once, many years ago in NYC’s old cavernous Madison Square Garden. There were thousands of screaming fans, the noise level distracting, and the sound acoustics horrible. There were many acts that night in the early 70s, the main one being The Fania All Stars, a group of NYC Latino/a musicians that would eventually storm the international music world and bring that uniquely Nuyorican cultural phenomenon/ urban folklore known as salsa to the world. But that night, salsa was ours and ours alone. No one knew what the hell salsa was, and even less of La Lupe.

When La Lupe came on stage, the audience, composed mostly of young Latino/as, went into a frenzy, screaming her name and demanding dedications. To this day, I can’t say I have witnessed a more powerful performance and I have seen many, many performers. I believe it was Frank Sinatra who said that it was dangerous for a performer to give everything, that a performer must, for their own survival, save something for themselves.

Well, La Lupe, bless her soul, gave everything that night. She left nothing, not one thing, for herself. Halfway through her performance she was sitting on the edge of the stage and all of sudden, it didn’t feel like Madison Square Garden anymore, it was as if we were all transported to an intimate world created wholly by La Lupe. It seemed as if she sang as if it were the last time she would sing, throwing everything into every song, every note, every syllable. Each movement was imbued with meaning and energy as she sang, laughed, and cried. Her ability to create that level intimacy was remarkable. You could feel her life force reaching out to you, taking you in, seducing you. She would claw at her clothes, scratch herself, yell out in pain — she gave so much. And I sat there transfixed. She called herself an empress and I’d be a damned if she really wasn’t.

Finally, she came to that point in her performance — she sat on the edge of the stage her clothes by now gone — torn apart by her own hands — scratched and bleeding, she sat there in her bra and lingerie, and she managed to look like some reincarnated Afro-Taina queen.

You could hear a pin drop…

And that’s when she sang the opening lines to La Tirana:

Segun tu punto de vista/ yo soy la mala…

And it was too much; the crowd went wild, taken over the edge by a rare and masterful artist. At that moment, I fell in love with that woman’s soul. She possessed so much spiritual power and she was so willing, even in the face of what seemed like certain annihilation, to share it. I actually feared for her, screamed for her, I — everyone that night — felt her pain, her joy, her bliss, and we all heard that cry for freedom. I saw people cry and cheer. Her performance was so powerful that I sit here, more than 40 years later writing about what was a powerful epiphany.

Unfortunately, I never got to see her again and, due in part to poor management and bad career choices, she would fall into relative obscurity. The great Spanish director’s, Pedro Almodóvar, use of La Lupe’s song Puro Teatro, in his 1988 film, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, rekindled interest in her music. And Ms Velez’ efforts produced an Off-Broadway play and in that way, her music was revived for a new generation.

Sadly, La Lupe would become destitute after her recording contract was not renewed. She would pick up the pieces, would become a Christian minister, and living as an unknown in a South Bronx tenement she passed on. When news of her death became known, tens of thousands grieved. Money was collected for her funeral and musicians and other artists came together to pay tribute to the true Queen of Salsa.

She was one of those souls that flared brightly if too briefly and gave all she could, throwing caution to the wind. To me, she was woman incarnate that night on that stage. I would never forget her.

A bolero is a ballad, my friends, and with that, I give you, ladies and gentlemen, La Lupe:

* * *

My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…

Resources

Kickstarter campaign here

Facebook Page here

Lauren Vélez’ Facebook page here

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