First Lady of Latin Rock

Celeste Carballo finally steers north

No matter how many times it happens, the moment still stuns. A star shoots from the firmament over Latin America and lands somewhere in Miami: On this June night, Celeste Carballo touches down on an armchair in the corner of a dimly lit living room in the Design District, balancing an acoustic guitar on her lap.

"This is like a quinta," gushes Gustavo Fernandez, host and head of indie record label Delanuca. For tonight -- an intimate preview of material from Carballo's tenth album, celesteacústica -- Fernandez's rambling historic space is a vacation home in the Argentine countryside. "And all of you," he tells two dozen or so media and industry types sitting in a half-moon of armchairs and overstuffed couches, "You are family, friends, and lovers."

"Oh, the lovers!" giggles Carballo, zipping a finger across her lips. She is not wearing makeup, but it's easy not to notice, the way her eyes flash blue when she shakes her head. Even without the paint and powder, she looks much younger than her 45 years, forever the youngest child showing off for her seven older brothers and sisters, catching everyone up in her mischief. "Nobody knew about the lovers," she beams.

Celeste Carballo unplugged and unencumbered
Steve Satterwhite
Celeste Carballo unplugged and unencumbered

For the past twenty years, few people north of the pampas have known about the First Lady of Latin rock either. Compared early in her career with Janis Joplin ("Because I'm white and sing blues," she shrugs), Carballo sings in a style less blues shouter than pop-rock diva with blues and country influences tossed in, like an Argie Dusty Springfield gettin' off on the daughter of a preacher man.

Despite the astonishing power of Carballo's voice, she and onetime-partner Sandra Mihanovich are probably most notorious in Argentina for the in-your-face poster campaign that promoted lesbian pride along with their 1989 album Mujer Contra Mujer (Woman Up Against Woman). "I don't regret being gay," says the singer, a little abashed by continued interest in the stunt, "but that was thirteen years ago. So many things have happened since then."

With celesteacústica released by Delanuca, listeners in the United States will have their first opportunity to hear what Carballo's been up to over the years, catching the singer's always-astonishing voice at the height of maturity. Here she plays guitar, bass, and drums on new acoustic versions of her earliest hits, plucking a Sheryl Crow-style pop-rock version of "Me Voy al Oeste" ("I'm Heading Out West") and a country-tinged version of the rocker "Me Vuelvo Cada Día Más Loca" ("Every Day I Get Crazier"). Carballo also nods to fellow Argentine rock legends with covers of tunes by Pappo and Andres Calamaro and cameos from Charly Garcia and Juanse, of Ratones Paranoicos.

In a departure from her usual pop-blues-rock, she includes here two forays into Argentine folklore. On a traditional north-country zamba Carballo delivers the hard-won knowledge of love lost with stunning clarity; on the devastating "Un Tango Desnuda," screeching strings execute swift kicks while the bandoneon draws dramatic figures around Carballo's naked voice.

Never one to live in the past, Carballo asks her host's permission to sing a song she has just written even though it is not included on the album. She says that she wrote "Nueve Lunas" ("Nine Moons") as a reflection on the past nine months since she left her comfortable house in rural Argentina for the road. Singing of the "love-struck sword" with which she will conquer the world, her voice swells and rubs against the high ceilings. In that moment, there is no need for a band or an amp or a microphone; her voice is all the sound a soul needs.

"It's just that my family is very rude," she joshes audience members who smother her with praise after the show. "They don't sit quietly like all of you. I had to learn to sing louder and louder just to be heard."

 
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