The Peruvian singer and songwriter Isabel Granda Larco (1920-1983), known as Chabuca Granda, was an icon of popular music in her country although, unlike other South American vocal stars, she never sought stardom in the United States and has remained little known among English-speaking music listeners.
Chabuca Granda's voice, a powerful low contralto combining nostalgia with a hint of a weary groan, was inimitable. She began her career singing in the traditional Peruvian folk style known as Creole music, but she had a command of rhythm that would have been at home in American jazz, and later in life she served as a primary inspiration for Susana Baca and the other singers who brought Afro-Peruvian music to international prominence. She sometimes said she had the voice of a dog, but with swing. Granda was also unusual among Latin American female performers in that she wrote much of her own material. Several of Granda's songs, such as “Fina Estampa,” are regarded as classics of Peruvian music.
Born in Andes
Though identified with the Peruvian capital of Lima, Isabel Granda Larco was born on September 3, 1920, in the Andes mountains, in the small town of Cotababamba in the Apurimac region. She called herself a proud sister of the condor who could wash her face with the stars. Her father, Eduardo Granda y Esquivel, was an engineer who supervised a copper mine in the area; her mother, Teresa Larco Ferrari, came from the city of Trujillo. Granda's family was shaken by the sudden death of her brother, and they decided to move back to Lima. They settled in the Barranco neighborhood where Granda grew up, and where a statue of her stands today. In Lima Granda she encountered the music of black Peru, very different from the mountain sounds of her early childhood.
Granda attended the Colegio Sophianum, a private girls' high school in Lima, where she sang in the choir. At that point she had a fine soprano voice, but a throat operation lowered it by an octave and left her with the smoky alto heard on her recordings. She took a few guitar lessons, but as a teenager she was more interested in sports, especially tennis. In 1942 Granda married Demetrio (or Henry) Füler da Costa, an aviator. The marriage produced two sons, Gustavo and Eduardo, and a daughter, Teresa, before it dissolved in 1952. In Catholic and conservative Peru, divorce was almost unheard of, and Granda's caused a scandal in Lima social circles.
Granda's performing career began during the final stages of her marriage when she started singing at clubs and parties (although she had written her first song, “Callecita Escondida” (Hidden Little Street), at 18). She was part of a duo called Luz y Sombra (Light and Shade) as well as other groups, working days at a Helena Rubinstein cosmetics counter in Lima. In contrast to nearly every other Latin American female vocalist as well as many from other countries, she was a singer-songwriter almost from the start of her career. She wrote her first hit song, “Lima de Veras” (Truly Lima), in 1950, when she was 30. A friend, Maria Isabel Sanchez Concha, initiated her into a small group of leading entertainers in Lima, and her popularity began to grow. The music from the first part of Granda's career was in the Creole genre, sometimes described as folk music in Englishlanguage obituaries of Granda, but more accurately called old-style pop, with a vocalist accompanied by a small, quiet instrumental ensemble.
Penned Song as Tribute
The Estacion tierra world music Web site described her early compositions as “evocative and painterly,” suggesting the vanished world of Lima's nineteenth-century high society. Her lyrics rarely had the conventional romantic themes of popular song; instead, she had literary ambitions. A good example of Granda's style, and one of the songs for which she remains best known, is “La Flor de la Canela” (Cinnamon Flower). The song was inspired by an Afro-Peruvian woman named Victoria Angulo, the sister of two of Peru's leading singers of the day; Granda wrote it as a kind of homage, or thank-you, for her growing acceptance in Peru's creative circles.
“La Flor de la Canela” was a song about a city and about a woman. “Déjame que te cuente, limeñno,” it opens, over a rhythmically free guitar accompaniment: “Let me tell you a story, resident of Lima, about the dream that evokes memories of the old bridge over the river, and of the poplar grove.” Angulo is described this way: “Jasmine in her hair and roses in her face / The cinnamon flower walked gracefully / Exuding charm as she passed, leaving / The mixed aromas that she carried in her breast.” “La Flor de la Canela” remains perhaps Granda's most popular song; it has been translated into many languages and recorded by major contemporary artists, including opera star Plácido Domingo. Today it serves as Lima's—or even Peru's— unofficial anthem.
Granda had other major hits in Peru in the 1950s and 1960s, including “José Antonio,” “Zeño Manué,” and “Estampa Fina” (Good Looks). The last of these was written on the occasion of Granda's father's death in 1963. Granda occasionally recorded in French (“La Vals Créole”) and English (“Tickertape”), but she remained less well known outside of South America than more politically-oriented roots singers such as Chile's Violeta Parra and Victor Jara. Other major Granda recordings included “Mi Canción de Ausencia” (My Song of Absence), “Mi Ofrenda” (My Offering), “El Fusil del Poeta Es una Rosa” (A Poet's Rifle Is a Rose), “Amor Viajero” (Traveling Lover), and “Bello Durmiente” (Beautiful Sleeper, also referring to Peru). Various reissue compilations of Granda's work have appeared on compact disc and Internet download sites.
Mentored Younger Artists
Granda's home in Lima was a sort of artistic meeting place, attracting creative writers, visual artists, journalists, historians, and musicians on a regular basis. As she herself had been helped along, she nurtured the careers of younger musicians such as vocalist Rubén Flórez, father of the tenor Juan Diego Flórez. Often these included black Peruvians such as percussionists Carlos “Caitro” Soto and Rodolfo Arteaga, and guitarists Felix Casaverde and Alvaro Lakes. The rhythmic and melodic freedom of Granda's songs had always seemed to push the boundaries of older song forms, and later in her career her music took a turn toward Afro-Peruvian rhythms. Susana Baca and other Afro-Peruvian singers from the late twentieth century invariably cited her as an influence.
Granda's music also took a more political turn later in her career. She dedicated a set of songs to Violeta Parra, and another to the poet Javier Heraud, who was killed in 1963 after joining a leftist guerrilla faction. She deplored the extremes of wealth and poverty in her country, saying in an interview quoted by United Press International that “I tried to contribute to the making of Peru, and I deplore the fact we are facing the birth of a generation of minds limited by hunger.”
Suffering from ill health due to a series of heart attacks beginning in 1974, Granda nevertheless continued to perform. She was hospitalized in Lima in February of 1983 and transferred to a hospital in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, for further treatment. Five days after undergoing open heart surgery, she died on March 8, 1993, with her three children at her side. Her body was flown back to Lima, where performances in the city's clubs were called off in mourning. In a review of a Granda reissue disc, Spain's El País noted that “her compositions, with their refined poetry, incorporated Afro-Peruvian percussion and raised the Creole waltz to a level where it transcended national boundaries. One can speak of a before and after when regarding her appearance in the musical panorama of her country, where many people consider her the greatest popular composer of the century.” Her Order of Merit award from the Peruvian government, given in 1994, was posthumous.
Associated Press, March 8, 1983.
Miami Herald, March 9, 1983.
El Nuevo Herald (Miami, Florida), March 9, 1983; March 26, 1983.
El País (Madrid, Spain), December 23, 1999.
United Press International, March 8, 1983.
“Chabuca Granda,” Estacion tierra, http://www.estaciontierra.com/artistas/artista.php?id=184 (February 17, 2008).
“Homenaje a Chabuca Granda,” http://www.trazegnies.arrakis.es/chabucagranda.html (February 17, 2008).
“Maria Isabel Granda Larco—Chabuca Granda,” Criollismo, http://criollismo.perublogs.com/2006/10/MARIA-ISABEL-GRANDA-LARCO-----CHABU.html (February 17, 2008).