The New York Times
Sunday Styles
Out There – Mexico

“A Diva Outraged and Outrageous”

By Tim Weiner

March 4, 2001
A Peaceful revolution kicked the world’s longest-ruling party out of power. Creative artists helped lead the charge with a devastating weapon: they laughed at the old regime. The party sometimes tried to silence them, but nothing it did could stifle the subversive giggle of Astrid Hadad.

Ms. Hadad could be called a cabaret artist, but it would be a little like calling a peacock a pretty bird. Hers could be one of the most provocative stage acts since the Weimar Republic was in bloom. It’s a swirl old songs turned inside out, performance art, political barbs and clothes so surreal they make Salvador Dali look like Norman Rockwell. It may be seen if not believed at her trippy web site, www.astridhadad.com.

At 2 a.m. on a recent Saturday, she was sipping tequila backgate at La Bodega, a stage inside a carved-up old mansion in a neighborhood of curvy Art Deco buildings called La Condesa. The first truly international neighborhood in Mexico City, it was once a landing spot for refugees from all over the world, people fleeing hot wards, cold wars and culture wards. The crowd at La Bodega on the night she performed was just as mixed –old, young, straight, gay, lesbian, pancultural – a seriously hip scene to a Mexico most tourists never see.

Ms. Hadad had portrayed in voices and costumes a carnival dancer, a cantina waitress-cum prostitute, the Virgin of Guadalupe (Mexico’s patron saint), La Malinche (the devil woman who sold out the Aztec empire to the Spanish conquerors) and a psychedelic plant glowing with all-seeing eyes and the bleeding heart of Christ. Stagehands with pulleys had tugged her long black hair left, right and straight up in a coif of crucifixion. All this came amid a torrent of songs – rancheras, boleros, fados, tangos, cocktail jazz and lounge lizzard music – studded with barbed political jokes.

Whirling onstage, striking poses from come-hither odalisques to the Statue of Liberty, Ms. Hadada painted Mexico as a woman of easy virtue entertaining a callow gringo named Bush at a border brothel. The day before Feb. 16, George W. Bush had visited Mexico on his first trip abroad as president, meeting Mexico’s president, Vicente Fox at his family’s ranch.

“We’re selling the essence of Mexico” Ms. Hadad said from the stage. “Let’s see if Bush buys it.” Her zingers, flung from the quiver of girl-power politics, pricked from Mexican politicians left and right. Her take on the bombing of Iraq, and by interference the power of America over the less fortunate people of the world, was expressed in a piece of advice: “Visit the United States before it visits you.”

Ms. Hadad’s family is Lebanese, but she was born in a remote corner of southern Mexico, on the border with Belize. She might be 40 or so, but one doesn’t ask a diva - not backstage at 2 am, anyway. Her face could be Middle Eastern or Mayan or mulata, but she doesn’t place herself on an ethnic spectrum. It doesn’t matter: on stage she becomes Mexico, bearing every symbol of the country’s long history. And she turns familiar lyrics inside out to make them new. To sing an old, impossibly massochistic ranchera (“You beat me so hard last night I could die. But if you ask me to stay I’ll stay. Just give me more.”) she limped on stage with a bandaged head, leaning on a crutch. Sung her way, the song’s beaten woman was more powerful than the man. And then, in her own voice, she said, “I feel like a national monument.” Adios machismo.

“She is taking the sterotypes of Mexico in the songs, the sad violent songs that make you cry in your beer, and she’s framing them, attacking the macho culture and the government and the globalization of Mexico,” said Diana Taylor, director of the Hemisheric Institute of Performance and Politics at New York University, who has seen Hadad onstage.

Ms. Hadad put it this way: “You have to be brave to do what I do. For a long time in Mexico no one understood what I do.”

She and her artistic sisters, like Jesusa Rodriguez and Liliana Felipe, who run their own theater in Mexico City, El Habito, have been working since the 1980’s to destroy the old order by mocking it with songs, satire and stinging images.

Ms. Hadad says her act has its origins in the cabaret of Brecht and Weill, “the political cabaret that was a new way of experiencing life” In the 1920’s and 30’s, Mexico Citys’ clubs were also filled with performers who skewered the powerful in their acts. But no one since has stuffed all of Mexican political and cultural history into a dress and laced it up with a feminist attitude quite like Ms. Hadad.

“Her body is her stage, and she flaunts it,” said Roselyn Costantino, a professor of Spanish and women’s studies at Pennslyvania State University. “she becomes a walking representation of Mexico’s history, folklore, symbolic systems and dominant discourses.”

She may appear onstage wearing a green stain gown that looks as if it were last inhabited by Billie Holliday, then an Aztec pyramid with carved snakes and skulls, a tropical bird’s tail feathers made of agave leaves, or a confetti-filled sombrero. But this isn’t cotton-candy kitsch or impenetrably coded culture. It is pure pleasure, whipped up fresh and served up staright, without pretense, whether on the tiny stage of La Bodega or in New York during one of the several appearances she makes each year before a growing crowd of stateside devotees. Her most recent visit was in January, when she performed at Joe’s Pub at the Publick Theater.

Sheila Goloborotko, a Brazillian-born artist who caught the Joe’s Pub show, called Ms. Hadad “a baroque goddess with a poignant voice and poisonous performance that remind us that there was once a pre-Prozac society, where art was fun and an artist could entertain while having fun.”

Ms. Hadad prefers not to analyse. “I don’t have a philosophy,” she said. “I have senses”.

SF Gate
The Mexican cabaret singer is much more than the second coming of Frida Kahlo

By Jeanne Carstensen

Oct 10 2002
Back to Astrid Hadad, who is in town to present a best-hits show culled from more than a decade of her outrageously funny, politically charged cabaret performances.

In a way, one could say that Hadad’s wild cabaret is a little like a Frida Kahlo painting come to life. Like Frida, she draws from the rich motherlode of images offered up by Mexican history and culture: Catholic saints, Aztec and Mayan iconography, revolutionary heroes, exuberant flowers and plants, campesino and indigenous folk art, the golden era of Mexican cinema and so on.

But if Frida Kahlo, through no fault of her own, has been reduced, in some quarters, to a mouse pad, Hadad has absorbed this inheritance of a uniquely Mexican and female surrealism and created her own surrealist cabaret that pulses with campy humour and irony. “Hers could be one of the most provocative stage acts since the Weimar Republic was in bloom,” Tim Weiner writes about Hadad in the New York Times.

Like Cantinflas, the great Mexican comic actor most famous for creating loveable characters in the vein of Charlie Chaplin’s tramp, Hadad, through her unruly cabaret, play with stereotype to great comic and satirical effect.

Listening to Hadad on one of her three CDs (with her backup band Los Tarzanes, with whom she performs as well) would be easy to mistake her for a very good interpreter of music from the popular Mexican songbook, including traditional rancheras, rumbas and boleros. Her deep, throaty voice is captivating in its own right, but to only hear her is to miss the full effect of her show, which combines the singing with dance and costumes and set elements straight out of a Mexican feminist version of “Beach Blanket Babylon,” with large headdresses, heavy makeup and plenty of bawdy jokes that don’t make it onto the recording.

In other words, unless you’re planning a trip to Mexico City anytime soon, you don’t want to miss this show.

Dressed up in a massive inverted wedding cake skirt covered with skulls representing the pre-Columbian earth goddess Coatlicue, with two large Aztec serpents propped against each hip and large maguey leaves (the plant tequila is made from) fanning out behind her like rooster plumage, Hadad tells the story with quips about Catlicues’ “third-world immaculate conception” occurring while she was sweeping since the poor always have to work.

In an even more outrageous number, which she introduces as “the history of Mexico”, Hadad appears on stage with an outlandish vest covered with multiple rubber breasts that she strokes mischievously – “the goddess Isis was always giving and giving” – and skirt decorated with a cactus and hearts. Her headdress is an Indian tree of life covered with Christmas lights and with Barbies and Kens suspended from the branches to represent “Mexicans under the weight of the World Bank.”

“Corazon Sangrante” is a 40s-style bolero and rumba that Hadad wrote tof the Aztec king Montezuma whose “heart was bathed in chile” after he was betrayed by Cortez. “Where can I go, where can I put heart, so it won’t hurt, won’t bleed…” she croons as she dances across the stage in a velvet gown adorned with golden pyramids, an outfit she describes as representing the syncretic nature (European and Indigenous) of Mexican culture.

If this sounds like a history lesson, it is, but it’s hysterically funny. For her farewell number, she prances around the stage in a big sombrero with a moving rubber hand sticking up from the center. “Yes, this hand is for self-pleasure,” she quips, “It comes in three speeds.” The band picks up the tempo and Hadad reaches inside the brim to grab confetti, which she tosses into the air.

Besides the affinity with European cabaret tradition, Hadad explains that her style is also linked to the Teatro del la Revista, a popular theater movement performed in small circus-like tents in revolutionary Mexico that both entertained and informed great segments of the Mexican population, most of whom had no other source of news. “It was very popular and very critical of the government, of course. It was so successful that some performers were persecuted and had to go into exile in Cuba,” Hadad says. This theater eventually became apolitical, “just crude jokes fo joking’s sake,” a state of affairs that is inimical to Hadad’s sensibilities.

Nevertheless, she insists that her work is not political per se. “That’s not the intention. I talk about politics and social problems, but this is cabaret. The point is to entertain.”

Hadad’s success, both internationally – she tours Latin America and Europe frequently (she’s just back from the Lyon Dance Biennial where she performed the same best-hits show she’s presenting at Brava) and in Mexico City, where clubs such as La Bodega and el Habito support a vibrant cabaret scene with many politically oriented female cabaret artists – is more evidence that Mexican culture, far from clinging to its past, is churning with new ideas and open to new influences.

Although Hadad has never donned a unibrow, she may do so in the not-too-distant future, at least metaphorically. \ For the first time, she is working Frida into her act. “ I won’t say how until it’s ready.” Hadad tells me tauntingly, “except to say it’s by the way of the gods.”

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