Intricate Melodies, Impassioned Words, Beautiful Voices
The work of Liliana Felipe, Jesusa Rodriguez & Eugenia Leon
For most all my life I have listened almost exclusively to one musical artist at a time. The first one of these was Raphael, then came Charles Aznavour, then Luisa Maria Guell, and finally, and until now, the music of Kurt Weill and his interpreters.
Published on LatinoLA: July 16, 2002
I have had tango periods and bolero periods; whole periods of Beny More, Jacques Brel, Bola de Nieve and Edith Piaf. And even though it embarrasses me to admit
it, I had an Imelda Miller period, and a Barbra Streisand one, a Liza Minnelli period and, most embarrassing of all, a Shirley Bassey period.
Ah, but I have also spent many hours listening to Shani Wallis and Igor Stravinsky, to Maria Callas and Bussoni, and to Ella Fitzgerald and Beethoven.
My ears, of late, are almost exclusively occupied by the music of Liliana Felipe, the poetry of Jesusa Rodriguez (with whom Felipe writes lyrics) and the voice of Eugenia Leon, who interprets several of the songs they perform.
I don?t know a lot about them. I know that Liliana Felipe is from Argentina. Jesusa and Eugenia I?m almost sure are Mexicans. They record there. Liliana Felipe identifies herself as a lesbian. In what little I have read about them, one could surmise that Liliana and Jesusa are a couple. Jesusa is a theater director and an actress. Liliana is not welcome in her country. They put on a show in Central Park that was a great success.They have a cabaret in Mexico City called El Habito.
What I do know about them, and I can know this without doing any research, is that they are great contemporary artists. It is not often that one finds such distinctive talents. Liliana Felipe has a great voice, but if she didn?t, it wouldn?t matter because she has an interpreter who is a great singer: Eugenia Leon.
Liliana Felipe writes music magnificently well. It is evident that she is classically trained. One hears strains of Bussoni and Satie and Stravinsky in her music. There is something of Bach and of Beethoven in the restlessness and the studied abandon I find in her superb compositions. Her artistic expression ranges from the basely comic to the sublime, from politically satirical songs to the most beautiful love ballads.
Here is a commentary about the songs that have occupied almost all my free
time in the last four or five months. Some of these songs are true Mexican danzones; many of these songs can be danced to. The lyrics enter the far corners of the brain and install themselves there and go round and round repeating themselves until they drive you slightly mad: ?Todo pasa, todo pasa, hasta la, hasta la ciruela pasa.? ?Everything ends, everything ends, even what, even what comes to an end ends.?
Liliana Felipe and Jesusa Rodriguez rhyme with surprising ease, that is, without fear of precise meaning. The music of their songs, great in and of itself, is enhanced by the power of words unfettered by having to always make absolute sense. To me this, when done well, is the essence of poetry. The freedom of their poetical self-expression makes their songs vibrate with vital energy; the vital energy of art.
To their melodies, which seldom stray from popular Latin-American rhythms, like the danzon, the ranchera, the cumbia, the tango and the bolero, they attach subversively revolutionary lyrics. They know the power of a well-placed obscenity; so they make use of profanity often enough. But it is with the rhymes without methodological frontiers that they create their art.
The music instantly makes the songs accessible; the lyrics make the songs revolutionary artistic manifestoes. They are passionate women, these. They are cultural guerrilla fighters. I think they should be feared. Well, at least politicians should fear them!
"?si son personas finas
(...if the Salinas
are an upright family?)
I think that their song "Echenle Sal" (I?ve translated it as Salt It) is their masterwork. It is the only song of theirs in which the musical essence of Kurt Weill is manifest. (The Kurt Weill of Berlin and Bertoldt Brecht.) This song does not use the rhythms of popular Latin-American song.
The music of Echenle Sal has something of the gypsy in it, something of the far east, something of the art song and something inexplicably Germanic too. The lyric expresses things universal. This song is a prayer to the Great Whore of Babylon. Felipe and Rodriguez had the great fortune to use a rhyme scheme using words ending in ?al.? And what richness they mined rhyming this way. ??chenle sal al animal, virginal, profesional, me da igual, anormal, coito anal, total, total, convencional.? (?Animal, virginal, professional, abnormal, anal, conventional, you get the idea in English, right?)
It is infrequent that a song has such a high level of philosophical sophistry in it. There is a point of view, one that I hold from time to time, that puts us all on the same plane. Here Liliana Felipe and Jesusa Rodriguez describe a prostitute that is judged by others as the worst kind of person in society. At first the prostitute begrudgingly accepts the judgments made against her by society. Later she accuses society of being hypocritical and even more, of being worse than she is.
The woman who expresses herself in this song knows she is the same as all others, as contemptible as we all are, as cheap a wanton whore as all her fellow
citizens. This song judges us and sentences us, much as the whore is judged
and sentenced and, as she, in turn, judges and sentences us. It is an accusation made against all humans. Most of us cannot accept this point of view. It?s like saying that all homosexuals are?or all straight men are?
Through this song Liliana Felipe and Jesusa Rodriguez say, yes, we are all the same, we humans, and it?s not a pretty assessment of who we are. This song is devastatingly angry, lucid, vengeful, dramatic, poetic, ironic, and righteous. It is a perfect artistic creation. All aspects of it are in accord: music, lyric, performance and meaning.
Here?s an example of the kind of poetry that this songs contains:
"La ternura se me atora
en la impresora"
(Tenderness gets stuck in the press between my legs.)
What an expression, that! It?s a prostitute speaking, see. She says that tenderness gests stuck, where? In her press. I don?t think I?ve come across a more apt description of the ?equipment? of a prostitute that to call it a press. A prostitute?s vagina has something of a press about it, of the printing press, or of machines that spew out thousands of items each hour. It?s an incredible image.
There are other lines that I really like:
?No tengo ni un
amigo y tampoco tengo ombligo
soy mi enemigo ?
(I don?t have a single friend and my navel?s been erased, I am my own enemy.)
Here again the prostitute says that from overuse her navel?s been erased. Incredible! This type of aggressive poetry is not often found in popular Latin-American songs. In English, I can only think of Marianne Faithful?s famous song from Broken English: "Why?d You Do It".
Here?s how I?ve translated the entire song:
"Brujas, rameras, esfinges y quimeras,
traidoras ratas negras, callejeras,
que emponzo?an las buenas maneras.
Tambi?n pueden decirme: pinchi culera,
hist?rica, jodida, retorcida,
que fabrica, puras mentiras.
Cuina, lechona, cerda, cabrona,
tortilla, vieja, puta, desgraciada,
vete mucho a la chingada!
Callen culebras, callen,
no soy como imaginan, callen,
soy peor de lo que opinan, hablen...
Y me da igual, si soy banal,
si tal por cual, como animal,
y si hago mal, total, total, total,
as? soy yo...profesional
Muerdo por hambre, lamo por vicio
y duermo a ver si sueno que me caigo al precipicio,
Peor que el infierno, peor que el gobierno,
yo soy la peor de todas, la ternura se me atora
en la impresora.
Por pecadora, violenta y vengadora,
no tengo ni un amigo y tampoco tengo ombligo,
soy mi enemigo.
Callen culebras, callen...
Y me da igual el coito anal,
ser virginal, ser anormal,
?chenle sal, al animal,
total, total, total,
as? soy yo...convencional."
(Witches, prostitutes, dubious soothsayers, harpies,
traitorous black rats, street trash,
you poison decent society.
They can also call me: ass-licker,
hysterical madwoman, fucked up asshole, screwed up whore,
you who say nothing but poisonous lies.
Slag, pig, sow, bitch,
muff-diver, hag, whore, unlucky cunt,
go to hell and stay there!
Be quiet, vipers, silence,
I?m not what you imagine me to be, silence,
I?m worse than what you think, go ahead, talk?
And it?s all the same, if I am plain,
if I fuck that one or this one, like an animal,
if I do harm, what of it, what of it, what of it,
that?s how I am?a professional.
I bite out of hunger, I suck out of habit
and I go to sleep hoping to dream that I fall into the abyss,
out of ennui
Worse than a devil, worse than the government,
I am the worst of all, tenderness gets stuck
in the press between my legs.
For being a transgressor, violent and vengeful,
I don?t have a single friend and my navel?s been erased,
I am my own enemy.
Be quiet, vipers, silence?
And to me it?s all the same, to take it up the ass,
pretend it?s my first time, to know that I?m not normal,
throw salt in my cunt,
what of it, what of it , what of it,
that?s how I am?conventional.)
Other songs by Liliana Felipe and Jesusa Rodriguez have many great moments in them. The song that comes closest to Echenle Sal in its artistic excellence is Que Devuelvan (Let Them Return What They?ve Stolen). When I listen to this song I weep. The music has within itself an incredible amount of desperation. It is the desperation that one feels against all the corrupt governments of the world, and specifically the incredibly corrupt Mexican governments of the past. This song expresses the anger one feels toward governments for not being honest, for being corrupt, for not taking care of the needs of the people.
?Que devuelva lo que se robaron
Quiero que devuelvan los pecados
y los pesos y centavos...
(Let them return what they have stolen
I want them to return the very sins (they?ve committed)
and the paper bills and pennies even
Here is a list, not complete, of the obscenities that can be found in these songs:
cabron, pinchi culera, cabrona, chingada, ramera, cara e culo, mamo por
vicio, mierda, jodida, joto, coger, kotex, puta...(motherfucker, bitch, ass licker, fucker, ass face, cocksucker, shit, turd, faggot? You get the idea in English, right?)
"Ropa Interior" (Intimate Apparel) is a marvelous love song. It has some exquisite images. It is mellifluously lyrical. It is serious and comical, sweet and painfully nostalgic:
"Amor pasado por agua, amor a la vainilla amor a plazos, amor chorreado de merengue Amor que incendia el coraz?n de los orangutanes..."
(Par boiled Love, love flavored with vanilla love on the installment plan, love with meringue on top. Love that sets the hearts of the orangutans on fire?)
Mala (Bad Girl) is a song about a baaaad woman. Oh, and what malice!
"Mala como pel?cula checa
como foto de licencia
como rata pelona en la basura"
(Bad, like a Czechoslovakian movie
like the photo in your driver?s license
like a hairless rat in the trash)
She who sings it is a bad sort, she admits it: ?Pero que bonita, chingaos!?
(But very pretty, you fuckers!).
In the song Ana Luisa, there are playful rhymes and funny rhymes and simply delicious rhymes:
Liliana Felipe?s songs are protest songs without being the kind of protest songs made famous in the 1960?s. Here is something of the beauty of expression and the political commentary that she concocts in her songs. These phrases are from "Que Devuelvan":
se las cambio por la libre Empresa
la deuda por gula
por ganas de ahorrar
La lujuria, en lugar
de las transnacionales.
La ira por hambre,
la avaricia y la soberbia
por la modernidad."
I?ll exchange for Free Enterprise
doubt I will trade for gluttony
for the desire to save money
Lust, in place of multinational companies
Anger for hunger
avarice and pride
I will exchange for all modernity.)
Among their best songs we find a tender love poem dedicated to the beautiful and daring Mexican film actress Isela Vega:
tu coraz?n navega
es la vela que pasa
en la noche que queda"
your heart has set sail
it is the ship that passes by us
in what?s left of this night)
"Elotitos Tiernos" is another of their great songs. It starts out being no more than a little ditty in praise of elotitos (tender corn) and goes on to be a bitter and hate-filled song:
"Se te agradece todo
hasta lo fingido
se te agradece todo
como si fuera de veras"
(I am grateful for everything
even what you faked
I am grateful for everything
as if it was for real)
Another one of their songs, "A nadie" (To No One) begins thus:
"Que cosa es el amor
medio pariente del dolor"
(What is this thing called love
some half-assed relative of suffering)
"La cumbia del pescado" starts like "Elotitos tiernos", being no more than a ditty, this time about fish. It?s dance music, after all! This song has a great list of different kinds of fish: congrio, carpa, gata, lobo, lisa, lengua, locha, lucio, mero, perca, raya, rape, rubia, trilla, trucha, cherna?conger eel, carp, catfish, mullet, tongue fish, grouper, perch, angler, goosefish, wolf fish, trout, sea bass..., you get the idea.
But then this little song turns into a political treatise about the uselessness of elections and the ephemeral quality that democracy, or the appearance of democracy, has. In the end the song turns into an uproarious hymn in celebration of women. It ends with another great list, this time about different types of women:
ricas, brujas, griegas, pobres, indias, popis, santas, putas, guerrilleras,
haraganas, recatadas, locas, vivas, violentadas, femeninas...rich ones, witches, Greek women, poor ones, Indians, saints, whores, guerilla fighters, lazy ones, chaste ones, crazy bitches, live wire ones, violence victims, feminine ones...
"A su merced" (To his honor, the market) is a beautiful song that celebrates fruit! No, I am not joking. Isn?t that delicious?
"Uy que finas mis vecinas
se burlo el prieto zapote
luego critico al membrillo
que es como
un gringo amarillo"
(Uy how refined my neighbors!
the dark plum said making fun of them
later it criticized the cassava melon
for being like a gringo, yellow)
"Las moscas" (The flies) is a warning manifesto to those who try to clean up the political corruption found in Mexico. And it is, at the same time, a polemic about who is at fault for evil in the world:
"Quien ser? el cabron
que avienta la basura
a ver, a ver, a ver, a ver...
...quien le saca jugo
...quien se ha empecinado
en rodearnos de inmundicia
deben ser los hijos
de Alicia la Codicia...
...quien nos menosprecia
con el precio que tiene su desprecio...
...quien se ha enriquecido
sin que nada le
debe ser el hijo
de Lupe la que escupe...
...quien se benefecia de la usura
y quien de la tortura...
...quien ser? el idiota
que se meta todo esto en la boca
quien ser? el tarado...
...ese ser? el hijo de
(Who here has the balls
to throw out all this trash,
let?s see, let?s see, let?s see, let?s see?
?who extracts the juices
out of the refuse?
?who has gotten it into his head
to surround us with lewdness
must be the sons
of Alice Avarice?
?who undervalues us
with the values that have their lack of value?
?who has made himself filthy rich
without any worries
it must be the son
of Fritz the one who spits?
?who benefits from usury
and who from torturing?
?who is the big buffoon
who will put all this down his gullet
who will be the stupid son of a bitch?
?that?ll be the son
the present one).
Don?t believe it if they tell you art has died. It fell asleep for a while in the 1980?s. This century?s art has first class representatives in these superior artists. It seems that art was waiting for them to come around to start the party.
While I live, ah, I am going to find art that fulfills me and enriches me. These songs are of the sort that enrich me and transport me. You think you?re at the wake for art and all of a sudden you find yourself, like in a dream, in the middle of an artistic carnival, a carnival where what is most beautiful and complex in human creativity reigns supreme.
These artists are an artistic carnival in full swing. Listen to them before success spoils them.
Dennis Miles is an L.A. based playwright.