LA LUPE: THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO YIYIYI
“This is the irresponsible sport of a shy sort of man
who could not bring himself to write short stories,
and so amused himself by changing and distorting
(sometimes without aesthetic justification) the stories
of other men. From these ambiguous exercises,
he went on to the arduous composition of
a straightforward short story.”
Jorge Luis Borges
Perhaps I only allowed myself to meddle with them
as a gimmick; putting a nonexistent fact in their stories,
dreaming up the only thing that seems to be real in their profiles.
Ogres: A troupe of artists who are prisoners of themselves,
the detained wanderers, those consigned to oblivion,
the proprietors of madness…
She was like a cloud. That’s the best possible comparison: a cloud. But not one of those little, soft, white clouds that look like cotton candy. No. In life and on stage she was the other kind. The kind that provokes awe by just looking upon them. Dark, with the impulse to squirt ink at the slightest misstep, and with a belly full of thunder and lightning. Her rain was unforeseen and torrential. And not only does this have to do with the tears, but also with the expletives, the shrieks that sounded like rusty hinges, the high-heeled shoes, bras, wigs, fake nails, earrings, the plastic (or not plastic) eyelashes, the short skirts, the turbans, capes, tiaras, cheap pearl necklaces, and the punches that were like propeller-blades.
The victims? Well, they were the musicians and the immediate crowd.
Because that’s exactly what Lupe Victoria Yoli Raymond (AKA La Lupe, AKA Yiyiyi) did. When she had worked herself into a frenzy with those white eyes that exuded a trance of heartbreak, she believed her songs, and, as a victim of the spite and hate in every verse, she replied with thunderous footwork against the closest pianist or bongo player, and her delirium represented all the transgressions of the male gender.
Can you imagine finishing a song behind your instrument while some hysterical woman is messing with you? You needed to be very handsome or a lover of art for the sake of art to put up with that kind of extra-musical test.
La Lupe was defined in a thousand different ways. For some, she was a nervous breakdown dressed up as a lady. Guillermo Cabrera del Infante came to categorize her as a phenomenological phenomenon. Perhaps in her birthplace, San Pedrito, a town that was very close to Santiago de Cuba, she was merely the crazy girl in the street.
That’s why nobody should be surprised to find out her old-man pushed her to get a career before she went off to cabaret. And La Lupe, despite her rebelliousness, ended up with a master’s degree. There is nothing strange about that: you learn just as much if you follow an academic curriculum as you would following the night-life curriculum. With the former, it’s merely tricks with books; with the latter, there’s tricks with life and moods. La Lupe knew that the stage full of night and shamelessness would be her very own peak where she would preach her own version of the Sermon on the Mount.
That’s where her ministry began.
There are life accounts that ask for disarray. This seems to be one of those. It’s not easy to sacrifice portions of La Lupe’s biography. There was the time when her first husband kicked her out of their trio, Tropicuba, with a pistol in hand and with her nearly naked in the street after he walked in on her with a bartender mid-coitus. There was also that time in that place called La Red where she attracted the likes of Marlon Brando, Ernest Hemingway, Simone de Beauvoir, Tennessee Williams, Picasso, or Jean-Paul Sartre, all of whom sought the pleasure of witnessing one of her raptures. Or, better yet, there was the moment of her exile from Cuba in 1962 because her brand of slutiness (her artistic liberty) seemed too counterrevolutionary for Fidel.
In 1972, she howled, “he said that I was stealing the spotlight from his revolution, and that I had to go. When there’s revolution you can’t go around with the likes of Benny Moré or me. We took all the attention away from him. I exist for everyone, revolutions don’t limit me. I am for everyone who’s got soul!” at Rolling Stone magazine.
It must be said that her arrival was not very easy. There’s a big difference between being the Queen of Cuban Heartache and not belonging in Mexico or Miami. And how could she do it? It’s already been said that Yiyiyi beat her musicians and their instruments, something which already has its drawbacks, but another big detail has not yet been mentioned: she would strip on stage when she became possessed by the rhythm. There are videos that show La Lupe beating her breast with a microphone, others that capture her revealing her panties and bra, and there are even some that present her bare-ass pressed up against a wall.
With all this, why more revolution?!
That’s what they said when she went to New York and managed to be conscripted by Mongo Santamaría, whose performances at The Apollo made James Brown, and any other on-stage legend, look like a babe in soiled diapers. The woman would run and slide on her knees as the band continued playing. Then she would scream, bite her hands until she bled, slap herself with glee, pinch herself everywhere, and tear the curtains down from the stage. The stagehands, who had surely already seen everything there was to be seen, would hide from the oncoming hurricane while shouting: “Watch out! Here comes the crazy woman! Move off to the side, she might hit you!”
To see the videos from that time is a total experience. The musicians ingeniously maintain the rhythm while she screams, kicks maracas, punches various targets, crows like a possessed rooster, and runs like a lunatic. The modus operandi seemed to be that everyone was just doing their thing at those shows. But for some strange reason, everything fit together perfectly. The pieces sound solid and the chaos fits like a glove. There’s probably some law of physics within this, one that should be christened with this woman’s name. It would be interesting to explain this life’s roller coaster ride scientifically.
Because La Lupe was a madwoman on and off the stage. When Tito Puente recruited her into his ranks, she became queen. The timpanist left his prejudice aside before the singer’s chaotic vocal style, and decided to dethrone Mongo Santamaría to see what would come. And gold was struck. In the mid-sixties they made albums such as Tito Puente swings/The Exciting Lupe Sings, Tú y yo, and El rey y yo. This was the time of the true breaking point. Tickets to their shows sold-out, the albums flew off the shelves at record stores, the bolero, “Qué te pedí,” becomes an instant classic, the recognition accrued, the interviews in American media were frequent, and, last but not least, money came in torrents. La Lupe was proclaimed to be The Queen of Latin Soul. She had no rival. Celia Cruz was the B-side to that album. And Yiyiyi unscrupulously enjoyed her fame. She spent fortunes of pure sin. You don’t think so? Well, if you don’t, the ipso facto purchase of Rodolfo Valentino’s mansion and thousands fur coats with the payment from one night on stage proves it. Besides, in those years the lady contracted nuptials again, this time with the singer Willie García, with one strict condition: she told him to “not even work because your woman has tons of money to spare to maintain you. Understand?”
And, as is the routine of these stories of fortune and fame, her divisiveness was becoming unbearable for Puente’s band. They say that she showed up unexpectedly, with her blood saturated with drugs, she recorded however she pleased, and everyone had to comply with her whines. On top of it all, she made more money than the very leader of the band. The outcome was what was expected: the expulsion of the troublesome woman. It is not known if what happened next was so expected: La Lupe recorded the song “Oriente” which fired direct shots at Puente and Celia Cruz:
Y yo que le daba todo a mi jefe Tito Puente I gave everything to my boss, Tito Puente
Se me fue con la del frente, He left me for the girl on stage,
y solita me dejó and left me all alone
Ay Ay Ay, Woe is me,
Tito Puente me botó, Tito Puente threw me away,
me botó. he threw me away.
After so much excess it’s normal for disgrace to rear its ugly head. But what is certain is that even though La Lupe was falling, it would take some time to hit rock-bottom. That’s why that descending parabola had hundreds of memorable moments. Her work as a solo artist doesn’t disappoint. Tite Curet protected her when he gave her songs like “La Tirana,” “Fijense,” “Avanza y vete de aquí,” “Carnaval,” or “Puro Teatro.” And that doesn’t count her successful versions of songs by The Beatles, The Doors, Sam Cooke, or Janis Joplin, many of which appeared on the album The Queen Does Her Own Thing.
It was a bizarre moment, almost like all the others. Her pronunciation of the Shakespearian language was far removed from what an Oxford professor sounds like. A pageant of words flew out of her mouth like a typhoon, whose exoticism always kept the audience interested. Refuge was sought after in psychedelics for the response it produced in the day tripping blabbermouth. That’s why there were invitations to festivals where she would share the stage with Iron Butterfly and Jethro Tull. In in the midst of all this it should also be added that the Village Voice prostrated itself before her when they unabashedly published:
She is Janis, Aretha, and Edith Piaf all mixed into one. She sings ballads better than Piaf, and covers songs like the other two singers, but with added insanity. She could make a fortune in the rock scene. La Lupe is devastating, and it looks like she is self-destructing. Mr. Mojo Risin’, take note.
Amidst that destruction there’s a television episode that would be appreciated by those who remember it from The Dick Cavett Show. This show, which had guests like Lennon, Zappa, or Hendrix, also dedicated an airing to Yiyiyi. There’s absolutely nothing that was left on the cutting room floor. She comes out dressed in gold from head to toe, with a turban, a robe, and a parade of jewelry of the same color. She looks like the cheap girlfriend of an Oscar. The thing is, as she sang “Afro Blue,” she takes off her robe, high-heeled shoes, and turban. She also smacks her belly, and shakes her titties like she wants to rid herself of them. By the end, she’s just in a one-piece suit that looked like it was painted on, and the back neckline was so low you could just barely see her crack. After the musical exorcism, she walks, quite satisfied, grabs her fun-bags, shows off a golden booty, and gives a basket of cookies from Morón, which she made herself, to a surprised Cavett as she told him: “the morale is not high, but it’s abundant.” The gringo takes them, then goes with La Lupe to sing “Allá en el rancho grande,” and he starts to disrobe as his guest just had.
Those would be the final stellar moments because everything afterwards was more error than execution. La Lupe was recruited into the ranks of those who practiced Santeria in New York. And those kinds of things bring baggage. For example, when she was in the Broadway Shakespeare play, Two Gentlemen From Verona, it turned into a disaster. The ogress, as seductive as only she could be, fastened a Chango stone around her waist with a string for good luck. She went out to sing, and halfway through the song the ingenious woman disrobed, and, it must be stated, when she fell her mouth produced a sound that was louder than an explosion (but it had nothing to do with flavor). They say that the people, after hearing the scream from the woman who fainted, nearly died of laughter. But it seems that she was not at all amused to find out about her forthcoming dismissal from the show due to black magic.
And now that we’ve gotten to that point, it should also be mentioned that afterwards, in an interview, it occurred to her to state that Celia Cruz and her husband followed Palo (in other words, they were dirty insects that fucked with the dark side of the saints). It’s not known if it was due to this, but the other woman became America’s guarachera singer, became a staple for Fania Records, and got a legion of followers while doors were being shut for Yiyiyi (except for Hell’s). You have to imagine what the person who was once considered a goddess suffered. Especially when you add the fact that her husband, in the throes of schizophrenia, nearly beat her to death with a pipe in their home. Oh, and another thing, before it bleeds into the next paragraph: on one of those days the candles for her saints burned longer than they should have until they produced the mother of all flames in her abode.
But more things had to happen in her life: the death of her partner, the seizure of Rudolph Valentino’s mansion, the goodbye to her fancy cars, diamonds, and jewels, her confinement in an apartment in the Bronx, the attempts at a comeback in Venezuela, and her friend, Tito Puente’s attempts to resurrect her. But it was all for nothing. Everyone turned their backs towards her. And it was a crazy banishment: along with her daughter, Rainbow (nobody really knows about her other child, René), she ended up living in homeless shelters, receiving social security checks, and getting sporadic help from her musician friends who were leaving behind the onstage fancy footwork and mental breakdowns.
Splendor had given way to misery.
If she had been a mere mortal, like the person writing this, surely she would have played a La Lupe album, and hugged the jukebox to mourn the vindictive act. But her extravagance had its limits. And besides, the tigress had one more stripe to earn: it happened on New Year’s Eve, 1984. Because that was the day of the fall, while she decorated her home to receive the New Year. Yes, the fall that left her in a wheelchair and with no hope of moving her feet for the rest of her days.
Bad things tend to happen like a downpour, like a rising river. Everybody knows that. Everybody also knows that downpours give way to the sun. The calm of Lupe Victoria Yoli Raymond’s storm came in a most unexpected way for those who are least familiar with the story: from the hand of the Evangelical Church. Her friends, the singers Blanca Rosa Gil and Xiamora Alfaro, took her to the temple where the miracle happened. It was before the only crowd she ever feared to face in her life that Yiyiyi was brought into the fold. An Evangelical pastor asked her if she believed in God, placed his hand on her, and released her like you would a sack of potatoes. A vision softly creeping covered the hysteria. The black woman lay on the ground with no hope. Someone, finally, whispered during the sound of silence and asked her how she felt.
She stood up and said: “you know, not too bad.” And, when she realized she was helped by God, Lupe began to jump around like a frog and ran like a gazelle.
If you think that Madonna changed her image a lot, what happened afterwards must be explained: the woman dedicated herself to studying scripture, she sang, but only in church, she renounced low-cut clothing, rejected offers for comebacks, and stopped putting make-up on. She had become a slightly different kind of wild and bizarre woman, the religious kind. And that’s why those who were least familiar the story were referred to: Yiyiyi made the Bible rowdy when she recorded bolero adaptations to songs sung to Jehovah. You can hear her orgasmic scream in all of them as well as understand the slogan: God is love. Is there any other way to be Pentecostal that doesn’t involve being outrageous and salacious? And isn’t that why they called her Yiyiyi, for her moans and screams of ecstasy?
That sarcastic reinterpretation of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz lived happily in her new skin. They say that she felt like the most fortunate woman alive, even on the night before dying of a heart attack while in a deep sleep. That happened on a day that was as unusual as herself: February 29, 1992.
Why are these lives so alluring? Is it that they’re morbid? Is it because people insist on Héctor Lavoe and not Rubén Blades? Or because they prefer La Lupe over Celia? Could it be that chaos is more interesting than tranquility? There’s rules for everything. The most precise rule about the ogress came from her friend and composer, Tite Curet: “she is Baroque art: dynamic, exaggerated, and frivolous.”
Praise be to God!
Alfonso J. Gustave has received a B.A. in Spanish with a minor in translation from the University of Texas at El Paso, and will receive an M.A. in Spanish in December of 2016 from the same institution. He was a speaker at the “Carolina Conference for Romance Studies” (2016) at The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill with the presentation entitled “Human Flesh as the Entrée: The Historical Banquet of Juan José Saer’s El entenado,” as well as at “The Cleric’s Craft: Crossroads of Medieval Spanish Literature and Modern Critique” (2015) at the University of Texas at El Paso with the presentation entitled “Paradigms of Intellectual Thought in Europe: The Impact of the Escuela de Traductores in Toledo on the Western World.” He will present “Painting a Picture with Words: Structural Similarities Between Carmen Boullosa’s Cielos de la Tierra and Hieronymous Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights”” at the University of Oklahoma during the Twelfth Annual Conference on Latin American, Peninsular, French, Francophone and Luso-Brazilian Literatures, Music, Visual Arts or Cinema in October, 2016. He is currently an editor and the translator at the Revista de Literatura Mexicana Contemporánea (Journal of Contemporary Mexican Literature).
Daniel Centeno Maldonado has a Master’s and a PhD in journalism from the Complutense University of Madrid. Daniel was the editor-in-chief of Alfaguara in Venezuela. He is the author of a volume of interviews, chronicles, and profiles about writers, musicians, and international filmmakers: Retratos hablados (Debate-2010), and Ogros ejemplares (Lugar Común/UANL-2015). His journalism, criticism, and creative work can be read in publications such as ABC, El Universal, Feriado, Letra Internacional, Armas y Letras, FronteraD, La Palabra y el Hombre, Arcadia, and Rolling Stone Latinonamérica. He was a finalist of the XV International Prize Julio Cortazár for the Short Story, and the XXX edition of the International Prize Juan Rulfo for short stories. Daniel has a MFA from The University of Texas at El Paso, where he was the editor-in-chief of the literary magazine Río Grande Review. He has been an invited guest at the Feria Internacional del Libro de Guadalajara, and at the writer’s gathering called Centroamérica Cuenta. In addition, he is the director and founder of the literary journal Coroto.