When the Caribbean sounds. Cuban rhythms in Buenos Aires
En Buenos Aires se dice que los argentinos bajamos de los barcos. Una creencia arraigada que no sólo abraza una ascendencia europea exclusiva, sino que pretende invisibilizar las vertientes indígena y afro. Estas dos poblaciones en Argentina fueron lentamente diezmadas y reducidas por distintos factores (genocidio, guerras, enfermedades), especialmente durante el siglo XIX.
Pero si volvemos a la frase, una manera de desmentirla es considerar que lo afro también bajó de los barcos. Si el Río de la Plata divide dos orillas culturalmente identificadas como la uruguaya y la argentina, hay otra orilla algo más lejana cuyo pasado colonial y esclavista la acerca, como una extensión de los puentes submarinos de Brathwaite y Glissant. Los ritmos cubanos y rioplatenses, sin lugar a dudas, tienen en común el componente afro, que luego se hibridaron con lo criollo y lo europeo (y en algunos casos del folclor argentino, con lo indígena). Sin ir más lejos, el patrón rítmico del candombe es exactamente igual a la clave del son cubano.
Those ties multiplied in the 20th century with the expansion of cultural industries - especially with tango and bolero - and the development of social processes on the continent that constituted different milestones. From Carlos Gardel's tour to Havana that was truncated at the Medellín airport, to the only recital of the Trío Matamoros in Buenos Aires with his tango El huerfanito. From Che Guevara humming The message of Ramón Ayala in the Sierra Maestra, to the years of residence of the pianist Bola de Nieve in Argentina. From the success in Cuba of Vete de mí, by the Expósito brothers, to Mercedes Sosa's visit to the Casa de las Américas.
Closer in time, a turning point for Cuban music in Argentina were the 14 recitals by Silvio Rodríguez and Pablo Milanés that filled the Obras stadium in 1984, months after the end of the bloodiest military-civic dictatorship the country has ever experienced. South American (already during the 70's their cassettes had been pirated). On the other hand, while salsa became a global phenomenon, bands that added Caribbean rhythms emerged in Argentine national rock, such as Los Fabulosos Cadillacs (and the remembered Empty Glasses with Celia Cruz) or, later, Mimi Maura.
In the mid-90s, a group of Cuban musicians settled in Argentina and began to shape the scene that would host the rhythms of their country from different traditions. Scene that, beginning the 21st century, had the accolade of the global success of the documentary Buena Vista Social Club. In fact, the son of one of its protagonists was the architect of one of the first links in the Cuban circuit in Buenos Aires. Ibrahim Ferrer Jr. has lived in Argentina since 2001 and, among other people, was in charge of the Ron y Son restaurant, in the central Monserrat neighborhood, which gave space to numerous Cuban and Argentine musicians. Years later, the space changed owners and was renamed Cuba Mía, where, without the splendor of the time, it still summons son and salsa ensembles. Ferrer Jr. had other ventures that combined gastronomy and live music, to later dedicate himself fully to his band, with which he presents sones, boleros and guajiras crossed by Latin jazz.
A la par, en esos primeros años de Ron y Son, trabajó uno de los fundadores de la nueva trova cubana, Rafael de la Torre. Este músico y musicólogo camagüeyano tiene una vasta trayectoria en Argentina, donde conformó numerosos conjuntos e investigó sobre los lazos que unen a los géneros musicales de ambos países y a los del Caribe en general, desde el bolero hasta el ska. En 1998 formó el Quinteto Habana, que más tarde se renombró Clave Cubana, y como tal perdura hasta la actualidad con gran recepción en el circuito salsero. Integrado por músicos cubanos y argentinos, propone un repertorio de boleros, sones y timbas. De la Torre es un estudioso de la música latinoamericana con una variopinta e intensa carrera por la que fue declarado Personalidad Destacada de la Cultura por la Legislatura de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires en 2019.
Among this foundational litter, the musician and sociologist Nelson Falcón Martínez also stands out. With a rumba tradition, it developed different projects such as the Iyamba group ―which interspersed Afro-Cuban rhythms with songs and religious rites to the Orishas―, Nasako, Baya-Kan and the cycle Los Sábados de la Rumba. Later on, he stood out as a sessionist for musicians and bands of Argentine folklore, such as Chango and Micaela Farías Gómez, and Los Arcanos del Desierto. For his part, the pianist Luis Lugo, classically trained with forays into jazz and popular music, was another of the Cuban musicians who arrived in the 90s. Baptized as "the piano of Cuba" by the Argentine Ministry of Culture, he participated in the show Snowball, by the singer Cecilia Rosetto, and gave concerts at the Colón theater. Along with Dagoberto Hernández, percussionist, singer, composer and producer born in Cienfuegos - also the architect of that initial scene - he has shared numerous projects and shows.
The salsa move
Currently, the Cuban music circuit in Buenos Aires is multiple and diverse. In a city that is cosmopolitan and culturally eclectic in itself, spaces range from dance clubs to cultural centers, to theaters and live music venues. The salsa movement is the most popular, every day of the week a Cuban party is guaranteed in the dance club circuit, although not always with live bands.
El Toque Cimarrón, located in San Telmo, is one of the most important places for live music of Cuban origin. It is preferably a dance space in the style of the Cuban clubs of the 50s, but the type of shows proposed give special relevance to the bands that play rhythms from the Island and the Caribbean. For its part, the danceable dance club Azúcar, in El Abasto, is more devoted to salsa and bachata. On its track, which dominates the space and mimics that of Caribbean locals in the United States, whether with recorded music or live bands, they rub shoulders from the most novice to the most professional dancer. Other dance clubs that stand out are Azúcar Belgrano and Mil959. But there is also a consolidated commercial circuit for live shows, such as Notorius and Bebop Club (more related to jazz and blues), Café Vinilo and Hasta Trilce, to which the public especially goes to listen.
The emergence of this move is also explained by the social pulse in Argentina. The Cuban music boom in early 2000 coincided with one of the worst economic and social crises in its history. Added to this situation, in December 2004, was the burning of the Cromañón bowling alley during a concert in which 194 people died. Since then, the state has applied more restrictions to venues, to the detriment of many spaces for live shows.
That was the context for the establishment of a new generation of Cuban musicians. The celebration of the Bicentennial of the May Revolution, in 2010, brought the Septeto Matamoros to Buenos Aires and, with it, the tresero and musical director Yoelis Matos Torres. There also percussionist Wilbert García Díaz, who had been in the country for a year, and with whom he shared different projects, ended up as a guest musician until he came together in La Verdad del Son. "There is a movement and a very open environment to work with salsa, with dance music, not so much with Cuban music as such," says Matos Torres. The artist emphasizes that his academic training in the Cuban sextet allowed him to set up ensembles that do not need as many musicians, instruments or sound to make dance music.
For his part, García Díaz - who also forms part of the Ferrer Jr. ensemble - emphasizes a certain inbreeding: "Cuban musicians are like a clan where we are almost always the same." La Verdad del Son was the result of a first project called Cuban Good: "It was a canyon, quite a few people followed us, we had our own themes and we made new arrangements for traditional themes," says García Díaz. When they separated, the project took another form with some of its old members and, according to the percussionist, it is currently the only band in Argentina made up entirely of Cuban musicians.
The aforementioned boom in the Buena Vista Social Club was also a trigger for the appearance of Argentine bands of Cuban music. One of the oldest is Los Sábalos, the septet of son formed in 2001, with a rhythmic base of bongo, harpsichord and maracas; set of strings with guitar, double bass and four, and trumpet. Gustavo Kriger Anselmi (first voice and four Creole) says that they were initially a Latin American folk band, but due to the economic crisis and the impossibility of renting rehearsal rooms, they adapted to the acoustic format of the son. In 2004 they were sponsored by the Septeto Matamoros, who was on tour, and they finished consolidating their identity.
At the end of that first decade of 2000, there was a confluence of musicians who began to mix and contribute among themselves, according to Kriger Anselmi. “Musicians not only of son, but also of timba, salsa, Peruvian music and other countries with salsa and sononera tradition. A diversified scene was formed, also accompanied by the Latin Americanism of the time and the celebration of the Bicentennial in 2010, ”he adds. In the same way, the public that usually goes to see these groups is quite heterogeneous: “Argentine public but also from other countries in the region, many timba dancers, salsa dancers, are, casino. And, depending on the place, there may be a more familiar and listening environment, like when we played at the Casa de la Amistad Argentino Cubana, ”explains the musician.
Another example is that of La Carga, a big band with more than ten years of career in which they went through different searches around salsa, mambo and Latin jazz. Maxi García (timpani and backing vocals) tells that they started doing Latin jams once a week at Uniclub, in El Abasto, that they brought together a large audience and musicians who, in the long run, joined La Descarga or formed other bands. "These are rhythms that you can study at home, but they need to be played in bands and live, if not like you are missing a table leg," synthesizes García about the process that formed the band. He agrees with Kriger Anselmi that Cuban music has grown in the last ten years at the band level. "Before, the guy who set up Cuban parties did not want to take a live band because of the costs, so only recorded music was danced." However, he considers that salsa is not very popular in Buenos Aires. “We always wanted to play for a wide audience and in Latin jams we did a little bit. But salsa has a rhythmic and listening complexity that I think prevents it from being more massive. ” Once the band consolidated, it was difficult for them to transcend the salsa circuit: "Even though when we put together moves, the two audiences mix, when they hire us the audience is salsa," says García, who is also part of the group Elemí, of Cuban rumba. , and Murumba, of fusion rock. As a result of the pandemic, García believes that "we salseros have to lose because imagine that you dance tight ...".
Most of these son and salsa orchestras have tried to organize themselves in a space to assert their rights, by creating a civil association called MUSA, Musicians of Salsa and Son Asociados. Although the project could not materialize, “it allowed establishing a space for exchange, dissemination and debate on the issues” that musicians and bands are going through, as Kriger Anselmi points out.
A unique experience is that of Changüí Guararey, a group that draws on rural rhythms from the east of the Island, such as changüí, kiribá and nengón. Formed in 2017, they work with original instruments such as marímbula, bongó de monte, guayo and tres. Edison Cochi (voice and guayo), who explored these rhythmic matrices in Guantanamo territory, emphasizes that "they try to play the primary, the most folk changüí", and considers this to be one of the roots of more modern urban rhythms such as timba. Outside the more commercial circuit, Cochi points out that they are proposed as a cultural dissemination project. Last June, with the participation of De la Torre, they performed virtually at the Changüí Festival held in Guantánamo.
It is worth mentioning that the movement of Cuban music is not limited to Buenos Aires. As Kriger Anselmi explains, "in the rest of the country there are also strongholds" such as Córdoba, Bahía Blanca, Paraná, where the El Combo Mutante orchestra stands out, and La Plata, where the La Candela orchestra, another of the timbaleras, was formed. with great call in the Buenosairean scene.
The accruals of la trova
But of course, the Cuban music scene in Buenos Aires is not limited to the salsa or more traditional music circuit. The vein opened by the Nueva Trova, which was already mature in the 1980s, was continued by younger singer-songwriters who also built a loyal audience in Argentina, such as Santiago Feliú, Yusa, one of the exponents of Cuban song and his crossbreeding with the Jazz, funk and other rural and urban rhythms, came to the country for the first time precisely accompanying the Havana troubadour. Later, the tresera chose Argentina as her place of residence, where she lived until 2018. Here she recorded albums and performed numerous shows and collaborations with other artists.
This aspect of the author's song, touched by styles from the Island and certain searches to untangle from the schemes, had a clear feedback with Argentine rock and other local genres. It was reflected in the tour El sur suena cubano, in which Yusa, Yissy García, Kelvis Ochoa and William Vivanco toured the country with the intention of materializing that cultural and musical bridge that South America has with Cuba. The project set out to show that Cuban musical wealth transcended the Buena Vista Social Club and the Nueva Trova, without ignoring their lineage ties, and exposing the very influences that these artists had on Argentine music.
The Karma Duo, formed in 1999 by Xóchitl Galán and Fito Hernández, is part of this line and, based on Cuban, African and Latin American rhythms, created a repertoire for children and adults. On their first trip to Argentina in 2010, as part of the Nuestra Voz para Vos tour organized by the Pablo de la Torriente Brau Cultural Center, they had exchanges with Liliana Herrero, Juan Quintero, Luna Monti and Sebastián Monk, close to folklore or to children's music. Already settled in Buenos Aires (constantly alternating with Havana) they began a career independently but which included Silvio Rodríguez's invitation to his shows at Luna Park; with the first Argentine tour of the La Guarandinga project, together with Rita del Prado, and with the collaboration of Yusa in the recording of one of her albums. Currently, "we continue working on the genres of Cuban music, the fact of being away from home made us rethink and strengthen this root," says Galán. As a musical, audiovisual and literary project, the duo adapts their recitals to the type of audience and space where they play, a cultural center or large theaters such as La Usina del Arte in La Boca. Even, according to pandemic times, they made a show via streaming in late July. About his audience, Galán says that “there is a love for the Cuban, an empathy with the music and art of our land that made our path shorter. This response has been very stimulating and makes us take great care of the stage work, it keeps us always renewing and perfecting all the proposals ”.
For its part, La Trovuntivitis had an extensive arena for Argentina, both collectively and by a part of its members as soloists. The most remembered tour was that of 2017 when the movement, simmered in El Mejunje in its hometown, was celebrating its 20th anniversary. Among the large number of shows in different locations in the country, where they toured various rural and urban genres they explore, the one at the Kirchner Cultural Center, an ancient and magnanimous building managed by the State, stood out.
One of its members, Karel Fleites, lives in Paraná, Entre Ríos, just under 500 kilometers from Buenos Aires, where until two years ago Mitchel Portela, another exponent of the group, lived. "For many Argentine musicians it is very difficult to arm their circuit here, manage the places where they can play. Not to us, it must be because we come from outside and the music from outside may be more attractive, "says Fleites, who says that on the last tour with a couple of members of La Trovuntivitis they played 25 times in a month in different Argentine cities . Although he is more influenced by genres such as blues and rock, his shows always bring rhythms from his country. He even affirms that "when we make traditional Cuban music, it is very difficult to play with a percussionist who is not from the Island, because of the Cuban bomb that these rhythms carry." In turn, the artist highlights that the public has a particular affinity with Cuban music by virtue of a certain sympathy with the social and political history of the Caribbean country. "There is a sector that may be politically or ideologically identified with the Cuban beyond what each musician may think. But that sector feels an admiration for Cuban music and musicians, "he adds.
Other names of La Trovuntivitis that left their mark on the Argentine card are those of Yaima Orozco and Roly Berrío. The first toured in 2013 and 2019 to present her two albums, which visit traditional rhythms combined with some pop, all modeled with a voice with a wide register. Berrio, meanwhile, a cultist of the live, is a regular visitor to Argentina, where he has come almost every year since 2007 with proposals that include sharing the stage with local artists in cultural centers or in larger venues such as Niceto Club.
"When the river sounds, water carries," says the saying in Argentina. But when Cuba sounds in the Río de la Plata it carries all four elements. Caribbean, candle, wood and cyclone. And body too. Raw materials of a musical diversity that forges multiple sounds, ensembles, exchanges and audiences in these latitudes. And that they consolidate, through their rhythms, that cultural relationship between Cuba and Argentina, atavistic and at the same time modern, of submarine bridges that emerge on stage.
Acknowledgments: Marina Belinco, Humphrey Inzillo, Kaloian Santos, Gustavo Kriger Anselmi.