Monday, May 17, 2010

Northeast and Central Argentina with BBC Radio 3

Next stop on the BBC Radio 3 World Routes Argentina tour was the provinces of Misiones, Corrientes and Chaco, essentially the northeast of the country. Misiones and Corrientes—bordered by two rivers and tucked in between Paraguay, Brazil, and Uruguay—are lands of dense bush and rivers. That’s where most of the beloved yerba mate is grown. This leafy green shrub is the source of a stimulating hot beverage that is part and parcel of many peoples’ lives in Argentina. Everywhere you go, especially in the north, you can see people walking the streets carrying small round gourds filled with maté with metal straws protruding upwards. A thermos tucked under the other arm supplies a splash of 80-degree water for each shot of the communally shared drink. The taste is a tad bitter, but the effect decidedly invigorating and the social custom quite delightful once you get used to it.

This region is also the home of the music called chamame, a local blend of European accordion music, Spanish guitar, and ineffable aspects of indigenous Guarani language and culture. The music’s genealogy is mysterious, but the sound is a delightful, playful blend of rhythms. As our guide accordion maestro Chango Spasiuk explained, it is deeply polyrhythmic music, juxtaposing 6/8 and 4/4 times in a way not unlike a good deal of African music. Teasing the “Africa” out of this and other Argentine folk genres is a tricky business. Africans certainly passed through Argentina prior to the mid 19th century, but most moved on to places like Brazil and Peru. Those who stayed were more apt to have been domestic servants in fancy homes and on private ranches than involved in any kind of large-scale commercial endeavor. And it seems that many blacks were killed in a protracted regional war against Paraguay between 1865 and 1870. Few visible reminders of an African presence remain anywhere in Argentina, but it certainly feels like the continent’s rhythmic stamp exists deep in the mix of some of the country’s hybrid folk musics. And not surprisingly, this subject is much discussed—and debated—among devotees of Argentine music genres.

Indigenous South American populations do still exist in Argentina, although they are somewhat isolated and marginalized. In Resistencia, we recorded an indigenous “choir” of Qom (Toba) people. They sang and played drums, shakers, and a distinctive violin called n’vike, most often constructed with a tin resonator (formerly a gourd) and a single horse-hair string. The Coro Chelaalapi made music with notable similarity to native music in the western United States—a deep, slow and steady beat with spare strong vocal melodies. Given all the cultural disruption, including a strong acculturation effort on the part of active evangelical churches, it is difficult to assess the ultimate authenticity of the surviving indigenous music. But the artists we met are dedicated to keeping what remains of these traditions alive, and the music they make is certainly compelling.

Side-by-side with indigenous culture and peoples in places like Resistencia, one finds all sorts of hybrid criollo music and dance. Popular dance rhythms like cuica, zamba, and chacarera bridge a genteel waltz feeling with lively 6/8 time. Further west in and around the city of Santiago del Estero, we spent a fantastic day with the popular criollo music maestros Duo Coplanacu, who accompany their tight, zesty harmony vocals with guitar and the large local bombo drum.

Our final days included a tour of Buenos Aires’s only hand-made accordion factory. Anconentani Accordions only repairs instruments these days, but it preserves a fascinating and colorful history of what has to be Argentina’s most prevalent instrument. We also heard more tango, and spent two days in the pampa ranch country south of Buenos Aires, exploring the work of local cowboy poets, and the lilting milonga—a music that Robert Farris Thompson observed is to tango something like what the blues is to jazz. We worked around the town of Maipu, birthplace of the amazing young singer Cristóbal Repetto, whose voice sounds remarkably as if it were emerging from a 78-rpm record player, loaded up with vinyl from the earliest days of tango. He was also a most gracious host, who helped open doors to all sorts of distinctive regional musicians, many of whom he joined in their performances for the BBC.

The fruits of World Routes’s Argentine adventure will begin airing in September on BBC Radio 3, and continue in 2011. There will be 5 programs in all, with yours truly as host. The recordings are quite spectacular and nothing short of dazzling in their variety. Watch for links and details.
Banning Eyre
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