Sunday, May 9, 2010
The northwest of Argentina, near the borders with Bolivia to the north and Chile to the west, is mountainous and beautiful. Our destination, the dry, colored rock canyon country north of Jujuy (hoo-HOOee) is in many ways reminiscent of the American southwest. Beyond the colored rock canyons, there’s the adobe architecture, corn based food, and cultural expressions that blend Spanish and native American—in this case South American—elements. Then, of course, there are the pan pipes, charangos and a number of unique and surprising ingredients—like the erque, a 10-foot-long wind instrument with a hooked tin horn at the end of a long stretch of thin tubing. The erque produces deep blasts of flatulent melody believed to provide spiritual benefits when played in winter (about to begin here), but also to attract diseases during summer, when by custom it is not played.
Tomas Lipan met us at the airport in Jujuy. A bear of a man with a long, black ponytail and an oversized personality, Lipan is a celebrity throughout the region. Everywhere we went, friends and relatives came out to hug and kiss him, or at least shake his hand. Any hint of official harassment, such as when we tried to record a session amid the restored ruins of an 11th century fortress in Tilcara, vanished instantly at the mere mention of his name. “Tomas? Tomas Lipan?” asked the officious guard at this national monument, “Well, in that case, go right ahead. Do whatever you want.” In the end, it was the wind, not official protocol, that forced us to do the session in a gift shop across the road from the ruin.
Lipan plays guitar, various drums and pan pipes, charango, and even the signature instrument of Buenos Aires tango, the bandoneon. He also sings with a fabulously deep tenor that lends itself to all sorts of genres, from authentic folklore of native peoples to varieties of hybrid shtick. One night after a dinner of llama steaks and locro (local corn and beef stew), he treated us to a reworking of “Auld Lang Syne.” (Check Tomas Lipan out on YouTube; you won’t regret it.) As to the “authenticity” of local folklore, Lipan would be the first to tell you that it is quite unknowable. European conquerors and immigrants have raised cultural havoc in this region for well over a century. Lipan grew up in and around Purmamarca, in the shadow of the spectacular Cerro de Siete Colores (Hill of Seven Colors), and he recalls being a schoolboy ashamed of the clothing, cuisine and music that were part of his home life. He has travelled a long road to become one of the most successful and passionate exponents of local music. He’s a devout Christian who still honors his native ancestors. He performs hybridized local genres of music, including festival songs and mystic, bawdy coplas (couplets), as well as his own songs and music targeting popular audiences throughout Argentina. He is a jolly, high-spirited man, and a notorious flirt, but he became quite emotional—almost teary—when recalling the fates of his ancestors in the violent days of the past.
We spent three lovely days with this man, driving up the and down the Humahuaca Valley from our cozy base in Purnamarca. Lipan introduced us to a number of his favorite musicians, like Fortunato Ramos, accordionist, poet, bandleader, folklorist and operator of a peña (restaurant and traditional music venue) in picturesque Humahuaca. He played the erque for us, apparently safe to do as it is currently autumn here. On the last day of our northwest swing, we camped at a stylishly funky rural restaurant in the green hills outside San Salvador de Jujuy. After a lavish meal—featuring mountains of meticulously barbecued meat (parilla!)—we had the place to ourselves for a series of recordings with regional musicians. The highlight had to be Baguelera Vasquez, a character to rival Tomas Lipan. A “baguelara” is an interpreter of coplas, those short, wise and witty poems that combine Latin literary tradition with earthy and inscrutable local lore. In his red poncho-cape, wide-rimmed hat, and cowhide mudflap trousers, he looked like some kind of gaucho shaman as he held his buzzing frame drum (caja) aloft, tapping out rhythms and roaring out coplas set to spare, tritonic melodies. The themes featured wine, women, horses and goats, and they had those attuned to the language in stitches. When these shows air on BBC Radio 3’s World Routes, listeners will be treated to full translations.
Now it’s back to BA for a quick turnaround and up to the rivers and jungles of Misiones and Corriente in the northeast…