Argentines are musical people, their interests ranging from folk, pop, rock, and blues to classical. Popular music takes many forms, from Andean folk tradition to the accordion-based immigrant chamamé of the northeastern lowlands and the hard-nosed rock nacional of Buenos Aires. Both instrumentally and with lyrics, the signature sound and dance is the plaintive, melancholy tango, the Argentine blues. Performers are versatile and quick to cross boundaries—the late folksinger Mercedes Sosa, for instance, collaborated with erratic rocker Charly García, and classical composers and performers have adapted tango into their repertoire.
Classical Music and Dance
Since its completion in 1908, Buenos Aires’s Teatro Colón has been the continent’s preeminent high-culture venue. Thanks to the Colón, the Teatro Avenida, and other classical venues, early-20th-century Argentina produced an abundance of classical composers, particularly in opera and ballet.
Contemporary Argentine classical music can boast figures like Daniel Barenboim (born 1942), a pianist and conductor who has held posts at the Orchestre de Paris, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and the Deutsche Staatsoper Berlin. Barenboim is a versatile figure who has, among other achievements, recorded tango and other popular music (also an Israeli citizen, he has played the West Bank in defiance of that government’s objections).
Though she lives in Brussels, pianist Martha Argerich (born 1941) has sponsored competitions in Buenos Aires. She has drawn rave reviews from the New York Times for her Carnegie Hall concerts, and has won a Grammy for best instrumental soloist.
Rosario-born but Europe-based tenor José Cura (born 1962) has drawn attention as a credible successor to Luciano Pavarotti on the international opera scene. The most significant ballet performer is Julio Bocca (born 1967), a prodigy who performed in New York, Paris, and elsewhere. He has formed his own company, the Ballet Argentino, but retired from performing himself.
Tango overlaps the categories of music and dance, and even within those categories there are distinctions. As music, the tango can be instrumental, but it earned its popularity and international reputation through the tango canción (tango song) of the legendary Carlos Gardel and others. One porteño songwriter has described the tango as “a sad feeling that is danced,” and it clearly appeals to nostalgia for things lost—whether an old flame or the old neighborhood.
The charismatic Gardel (died 1935), whose birth date and birthplace are topics of controversy, attained immortality after perishing in a Colombian plane crash. According to diehard admirers, “Gardel sings better every day.” Uruguayan-born Julio Sosa (1926–1964), who also died young in an auto accident, was nearly as important; at a time when Peronism was outlawed, his subtle smile and on-stage gestures evoked the exiled caudillo.
As opposed to the tango canción, orchestral tango is the legacy of bandleaders and composers like Osvaldo Pugliese (1905–1995), Aníbal “Pichuco” Troilo (1914–1975), and especially Astor Piazzola (1921–1992), whose jazz influences were palpable. Key lyricists included Enrique Santos Discépolo (1908–1992) and Homero Manzi (1907–1951).
Practiced by skilled and sexy dancers, the tourist-oriented floor show tells only part of the story. The tango is not just for the young and lithe—one could argue that its nostalgia lends it to older individuals with longer memories—and a recent revival has raised its popularity with mixed-age audiences at milongas (informal dance clubs).
Tango remains a daily presence in Buenos Aires, with both a 24-hour FM radio station (FM 92.7, www.la2x4.gov.ar) and a cable TV channel, Sólo Tango. Contemporary performers of note include Eladia Blásquez (1931–2005), Susana Rinaldi (born 1935), and Adriana Varela (born 1958). Pop singers such as Sandro (1945–2010) and Cacho Castaña (born 1942) have also sung tango, while the much younger Omar Giammarco produces tango-flavored music using accordion instead of bandoneón.
Tango may be an urban folk music, but the true folk tradition stems from payadores, gauchos who sang verses to guitar accompaniment; in dance, it can take the form of malambo, a competitive male-only affair with echoes of flamenco. An older current derives from the northwestern Andean highlands, featuring the zampoña (panpipes) and charango, a stringed instrument whose sound box is an armadillo shell.
Born in Buenos Aires Province, the late Atahualpa Yupanqui (1908–1992) belongs to these purist traditions, as does the Salta-based group Los Chalchaleros, an institution for over half a century. Tucumán native Mercedes Sosa (1935–2009) was less a purist, having performed with rock musician Charly García. Their contemporary León Gieco (born 1951) crosses the line into folk-rock and even rap.
Tomás Lipán, an Aymará Indian from Jujuy, embodies the Andean tradition, but adds urban touches like the bandoneón to create a hybrid. Soledad Pastorutti (born 1980), who performs under her first name only, is a self-conscious folkie who sings and dresses in gauchesco style.
Immigrant communities have left their mark in accordion-based chamamé, typical of the northern Mesopotamian provinces. Notable performers include Antonio Tarragó Ros and Chango Spasiuk (born 1968), from a Ukrainian community in Misiones Province.
Rock and Pop
Despite the handicap of trying to fit a multisyllabic language into a monosyllabic musical idiom, the practitioners of rock nacional have had remarkable success. In terms of live music, there’s something almost every night; the down side is that some top bands have a small but pugnacious hard core of fans who often crowd the stage; visitors unaccustomed to the scene may prefer to stand back.
Argentine rock’s pioneer is Roberto Sánchez (1945–2010). Better known by his stage name, Sandro, also a movie idol with a domineering manager, he draws obvious comparisons with Elvis Presley, but “El Maestro” was also a credible tango singer and the first Argentine to appear at Madison Square Garden.
Charly García (born 1951) transcends generations—many of his fans are in their twenties and often younger. García, who sings and plays mostly keyboards, incorporates women into his backing bands even as lead guitarists and saxophonists; he displays a sense of history in adapting Spanish-language lyrics to classics like Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues.”
Nearly as revered is Dylanesque León Gieco (born 1951); his album Bandidos Rurales (2002) bears thematic resemblance to Dylan’s John Wesley Harding. Fito Páez (born 1963) and García protégé Andrés Calamaro (born 1961) also have major solo careers.
Many acts have a stronger group than individual identity. Among them are Attaque 77, Babasónicos, Los Divididos (famous for versions of the Mexican folk song “Cielito Lindo” and the Doors’ “Light My Fire”), Las Pelotas, Los Piojos, and the Stones-influenced Los Ratones Paranóicos. Almafuerte and the power trio A.N.I.M.A.L. are the leading heavy-metal bands.
Grammy winners Los Fabulosos Cadillacs (best alternative Latin rock group in 1998) have toured North America, playing salsa- and reggae-influenced rock at venues like San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium. Others in this idiom include Los Auténticos Decadentes, Los Cafres, and especially Bersuit Vergarabat.
Buenos Aires has a robust blues scene thanks to performers like guitarist Norberto Napolitano (better known as Pappo, 1950–2005) and groups like La Mississippi and Memphis La Blusera. The female vocal trio Las Blacanblus, who broke up in 2006, treated blues standards in a distinctive style with minimal accompaniment (only guitar and piano).
In a category of their own are Les Luthiers, an eclectic bunch that makes its own instruments (which defy description) and caricatures society’s most authoritarian and bourgeois sectors. While musically sophisticated, the band’s shows are as much theater as concert.
Both traditional and free-form jazz play a part in Argentina’s musical history. A fixture in the former idiom is Buenos Aires’s Fénix Jazz Band, whose vocalist Ernesto “Cachi” Carrizo says he can’t sing blues in Spanish because “the blues in Spanish seems as absurd to me as tango in English.”
Better known beyond strictly Argentine circles is saxophonist Gato Barbieri (born 1932), also composer of the soundtrack for The Last Tango in Paris. Famous for TV and movie soundtracks like Bullitt, Cool Hand Luke, and Mission Impossible, Hollywood regular Lalo Schifrin (born 1932) originally moved to the United States to play piano with Dizzy Gillespie. His father, Luis, was concertmaster of the Teatro Colón’s orchestra.
© Wayne Bernhardson from Moon Argentina, 3rd edition