You’ve taken your seat, the house lights have gone down, and the velvet curtain opens. The spotlight falls upon a young man sitting at a piano. He can’t be more than a teenager. The room is a salón with dark wood and luxurious leather furniture. Gold tassels adorn pillows on sofas. Dim light slips out from under red, feathery lampshades. The air is hazy with cigarette smoke and perfume. A woman in figure-hugging satin slides past the piano like a hand smoothing a silk bed sheet. It takes only a moment to realize that this is a bordello.
The young pianist is Agustín Lara, and despite what some might consider a questionable start to his career, he is destined to become another one of Mexico’s superstar composers, writing several hundred songs and contributing enormously to Mexico’s music and film industries.
Unlike the other artists that México elegante has examined so far, Lara never really studied music. One source of research says that Lara’s father played the piano and encouraged young Lara to play also.1 Another source has it that Lara’s aunt was the one who encouraged him, even offering to pay for music lessons. Apparently, Lara began taking lessons,2 but it wasn’t long before he stopped. “[T]eacher and student were frustrated with each other as Agustín wanted to play the improvisations he heard in his head. His family consulted another piano teacher who told them the youngster did not need lessons; he already knew how to play.”3
The talented Lara was rebellious by nature. All he wanted to do was play the piano (his own way), and when Lara was just 13 years old, an acquaintance got him his first job playing at a local brothel.4 When his father found out, in shock and embarrassment, he immediately had Lara sent to military school. This disciplinary measure didn’t work, however, as Lara soon escaped the school and returned to working in various bordellos in Mexico City.5
Things changed when Plutarco Elías Calles became president and “ordered the closing of Mexico’s houses of ill repute.”6 But through his working in various places around the capital city, Lara had made many connections with other artists, and his repertoire gradually began to expand. He started composing his own songs and blended elements from multiple genres, including jazz, ranchera, and bolero.
When Lara was in his 30s, his career really began to take off. “In 1928 his first composition ‘Impossible’ was recorded. 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.”7 Some of his most popular creations are “Granada,” “Veracruz,” “María Bonita,” “Mujer Divina,” “Solamente Una Vez” (known in English as “You Belong to My Heart”) and “Piensa en mí.” “One of the greatest examples of Lara’s romanticism is his best-known work, ‘Granada,’ [about] a city he had never set foot in when he wrote the song. Still, he was able to capture the sights and sounds of one of the world’s most beautiful cities, evoking the excitement of a bullfight and the passion of flamenco.”8 Placido Domingo recorded “Granada” on an album of Lara’s works called “Por Amor,” which was released in 1997 in honour of the centenary of Lara’s birth.9
In addition to performing live and on the radio, Lara became involved in Mexico’s Golden Age of Cinema, which is considered to be from about 1930 to the mid-1950s.10 In 1931, he wrote the music for “Santa,” one of the first movies with sound produced in Mexico.11 He went on to compose musical scores for many films, and he acted occasionally as well. A movie about his life, “La Vida de Agustín Lara,” was made in 1959.12
It has been said of Lara that “no song writer…has captured better the soul of the Mexican people.”13 He also captured the imaginations of listeners worldwide with his mega hits. For example, in 2018, I was at a concert with my mother in Canada. The performers were Anna Maria Kaufmann and René Giessen, both from Germany, and Jorge Jiménez from Mexico. With the first few dramatic notes of one particular song, the audience drew a collective breath of excitement, and my mother knew the song instantly. “Granada,” she murmured, smiling with appreciation. From Lara’s imagination in 193214 to us in 2018 and beyond, this powerful song, along with many of Lara’s other works, carries with it the elegant essence of the Latin spirit.
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Picture of Agustín Lara from El repositorio digital de acceso abierto del Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia de México