A legend in his time: composer Agustin Lara

Art & Artists articles Culture & Arts

Rita Pomade

Music is the universal language that crosses all barriers and penetrates the heart. There was no composer who understood the emotional draw of music better than Agustín Lara, and no song writer who has captured better the soul of the Mexican people.

Agustín Lara’s career spanned nearly 70 years. In that time, he penned over 600 compositions and gained himself an international reputation as one of Mexico’s most prolific and dearly loved musicians. The skinny, unattractive scar-faced man, affectionately known to his fans as “Flaco de Oro”, had women swooning at his feet and national leaders offering him accolades only reserved for ” living national treasures”. Such was the power of this musician-poet who wrote such timeless, moving compositions as “Granada” and “Veracruz”, the second national anthem of that lovely port city.

Lara was born in Mexico City on October 30, 1897 though he claimed Veracruz as his birthplace. His father, a doctor, was a capable piano player who introduced his son to the instrument at an early age. The relationship between father and son did not go well, and the young Agustín was sent to live with his Aunt Refugio.

Refugio recognized the boy’s special talent and enrolled him in the Fournier school where he learned not only piano but also to speak French fluently. While at Refugio’s, Lara discovered poetry through an old gardener who introduced him to the Mexican romantic poets of the 19th century, among them Najera, Nervo, Acuña and Manuel M. Flores. Though he rebelled against the music school, preferring to do it his way, the experiences gained while living with his aunt were to serve him for a lifetime.

When he was 13 years old, a friend got him his first “gig” at a local brothel. His shocked and autocratic father interrupted his career and sent him to military school, but the rebellious young man was not to be deterred from his calling. In no time, he was back in Mexico City doing what he loved.

The bohemian lifestyle suited his temperament. However, when Plutarco Elias Calles came into office and ordered the closing of Mexico’s houses of ill repute, the romantic and restless young man had to look elsewhere to broaden his artistic horizons. Fortunately, while working the Mexico City establishments, he made friends with other musicians, including Rodolfo Rangel, who helped him expand his repertoire to include a wide range of musical styles.

He gradually began writing his own compositions, mostly melancholy love songs, which were to be identified with him for the rest of his life. He borrowed from and excelled in a variety of styles, from fox trot, tango, and waltz to blues, early jazz, ranchera and bolero. He brought a cosmopolitan flair to his music which blended a number of the different musical influences.

In 1928 his first composition “Impossible” was recorded. In the fall of that year, a New York company hired the Ascencio Trio to sing another of his compositions, “Clavelito”.

Soon after, he went on a national tour with singers Juan Aruizu and Ana María Fernández. That tour took him to Veracruz, where he discovered the city’s walkways, beaches, restaurants, cafes and clubs. It was the beginning of a life-long enchantment with the port. The people of Veracruz were equally enchanted with him.

In 1929 he began performing on “La Hora Intima”, a radio show out of Mexico City, which earned him a dedicated national following. Between 1930 and 1939, while doing his radio show, he wrote most of his legendary songs.

He became famous for his “boleros” (romantic ballads), which had their roots in Cuba in the 1800s, and the Cubans adopted him as one of their own. In 1932, while performing in Cuba, he became ill. In need of rest, he returned to Veracruz to a cheering crowd. The people opened their hearts to him, and their generosity along with the beauty of the port led him to write his unforgettable “Veracruz”.

During his convalescence, he visited Tlacotalpan on the banks of the Papolapan River, just south of the port of Veracruz. He fell in love with the spot, and from then on declared it was the home of his birth. Also, during this period, he met María Antonia Peregrino de Chazaro, better known as Toña la Negra, who was to become one of the major interpreters of his music.

In the 1940s, Mexican night life was thriving in the night clubs and dance halls, and everywhere, the sensuous and romantic music of Agustín Lara could be heard. 1943 saw the debut of his own orchestra, “Orquestra de Soloistas de Agustín Lara”.

In spite of his flourishing career, Lara found time to look into Mexico’s rapidly growing film industry. From its earliest days, he became a major contributor. His introduction to this medium began in 1931 with his compositions for “Santa”, one of Mexico’s first films to use sound.

“Santa” was in the “caberetera” genre, which flourished in the late 40s and early 50s and lent itself to the lyrics and music of Agustín Lara. The “caberetera” type of plot usually dealt with a young woman’s fall from grace due to lack of opportunity and hardship in the big city and culminated with her demise. These sad, bitter-sweet stories blended with Lara’s style and added to his growing fame.

In 1946 he married Maria Felix. Felix said of him that although he was not a handsome man, she was totally in love with him. She told her sister his music entranced her. During their one-year marriage, he composed some of his most beautiful songs, most of them inspired by her – “El Chotiz Madrid”, “Humo en los Ojos” and “Maria Bonita” – which throughout her life was performed every time she walked into her favorite restaurant in Paris.

The marriage ended due to Lara’s excessive jealousy. There is even a rumor he tried to shoot her. But she claimed she never stopped loving him though she went on to marry several times again. He said he loved her throughout his life.

The 50s saw Mexico’s golden age of films give way to more commercial movies, but Lara’s contributions continued. His music had touched a nerve in the movie-going public. Not only did he contribute songs, but he performed in several of the productions including one on his own life produced in 1959 titled La Vida de Agustín Lara. His association with Mexican film making would last a lifetime.

Radio and film popularized his music, and he became increasingly well-known throughout the Spanish speaking world. During the 1950s, he cemented his international star status by touring Europe to wide acclaim.

In 1954 an association of Spanish businessmen sent Lara to Spain, which was to be for him an unforgettable trip. The Spaniards showered him with their appreciation of his music. He was taken to Granada, a city he had never visited but had written a song about – a song that was to become the second most performed work in the world. When he finally saw it, he said that everything he wrote about it was true.

On his return from Spain, the mayor of Veracruz gave him the keys to the city and a house ( la casita blanca) near the beach. The house is now a museum and well worth a visit. A Bechstein piano and a white satin settee flanked by a silver champagne bucket reveal Lara’s elegant lifestyle though he was most at home in bars and brothels. Displayed throughout the house are wall after wall of photographs that record his colorful and well-lived life among the rich and famous and beautiful. A desk in the bedroom contains eighteen leather-bound books of news clippings. Lara’s music pours from the wall speakers, and his tapes and books can be purchased on the spot.

In 1963 he married his fourth wife, singer Rocio Duran, but his health began to deteriorate, and in 1970 he died of a heart attack. He was 73 years old. At his funeral, thousands of his fans walked through the streets of Mexico City in homage. A minute of silence was observed in many places throughout the nation. In the Teatro Blanquita in Mexico City, Toña la Negra sang a chilling rendition of one of Lara’s most powerful songs, “Noche de ronda” in tribute.

Agustín Lara had three passions – women, music, and the state of Veracruz. He gave himself fully to all three. He lived high and lavishly, yet managed to produce an extraordinary number of memorable songs. Artists as diverse as Xavier Cugat, Desi Arnaz, Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby have recorded his work. On the centenary of his birth in 1997, Placido Domingo recorded a full album of his compositions entitled “Por Amor”

His lyrics touch the heart, and his music touches the soul. The timeless quality of his work is re-discovered with each succeeding generation, ensuring that his music will continue to be recorded and re-issued for many years to come.

Published or Updated on: April 1, 2004 by Rita Pomade © 2004
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