Captivated by the sultry song of Argentina

Posted: Thursday, May 11, 2006

The first time I was in Buenos Aires I sat alone in a rundown cafe on Correntes Avenue, watching smartly dressed businessmen pass. Were they off to the stock market or going to meet a mistress? A tired matron in a tattered coat walked by, oblivious to the rain. I wondered if she was alone in the world.

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Lightning flashes lit the buildings and thunder rumbled from near and far. I was consumed with thoughts of the woman on the other side of the world who broke my heart. Each flash of lightning made my brooding darker. It was then I understood tango.

I sipped my tea. Smitten by the sprawling city, with its grand boulevards, cafes and tango spilling into the streets, I tried to write some epic poem of loss. If only I could play the bandoneon or write music. I'm sure I could have composed a tango song the broken-hearted would dance to, thinking of a happy past, a melancholy present and an unknown future.

I've been back to Buenos Aires three times and have tickets for my next return in October. Though it takes almost 24 hours to get there from Juneau, it's worth every second.

Southern comfort

The hospitality of Buenos Aires residents, known as Portenios, is extraordinary. Through friends in Juneau I met my now good friend Martn Vilches and his family 16 years ago during my first trip to Buenos Aires. I've spent many a night at Martn's house arguing politics, playing games, listening to music, discussing economic theory, love and war and sitting on his patio sipping yerba mate with his wife Christina. Mate, the national drink of Argentina, is a mix of herbs brewed and sipped through a metal straw from a hollow gourd. It's a bitter drink but the ritual of sipping mate with friends is one of the must-have experiences in Argentina.

So is the barbecue, or asados as they are known there. I can say this with all authority: Martn is the best barbecue cook in the world. I have been to the top New York City chop houses, the famous BBQ joints in St. Louis and Buenos Aires and many steak houses from San Francisco to Alberta. All of them good. But all of them pretenders compared to Martn. Maybe it is the Argentine beef many consider the best in the world.

Or maybe it's chichimichurri sauce, the national condiment, a magic culinary potion Martn creates from the simplest ingredients - oil, lemon, garlic, salt and paprika. With the sauce, he can coax flavor and glory from any cut of beef.

Asados in Argentina are large family affairs - all topics are up for discussion at dinner time. I have to be prepared to bare my soul for my friends between sips of diet Coke and bites of beef. When I'm home I often dream of sitting on Martn's patio as the sun goes down, the radio playing tango as he patiently tends the grill and Christina prepares her Italian-influenced side dishes. Dinner at Martn's is one of the great transcendent experiences of my life. A tango of tastes.

Paris with a tango beat

Buenos Aires is New York City, Paris, LA, Seattle, Washington DC all rolled into one metropolitan area of more than 13 million inhabitants. The city has a strong European feel reminiscent of Paris...but Buenos Aires has a heart that beats to the rhythm of tango.

Webster's gives a clinical definition of tango as, "A ballroom dance of Latin American origin..." That barely describes the dance born in the brothels of Buenos Aires - it is a sensual mix of life, longing, hope and despair. Add dramatic music tinged with sadness and it coalesces to make tango.

Hotels provide their guests brochures advertising the many tango shows in the city. They are similar to big Las Vegas or Broadway productions. The shows usually include dinner and round-trip transportation from your hotel. I have been to many shows and have not been disappointed. The orchestras were all fantastic. The dinners fine. The men dancers handsome and the women dancers devastatingly beautiful.

But there's no need to buy a ticket to see a show.

Florida Street, a long pedestrian-only avenue in the center of Buenos Aires, is crowded with street performers. Some are couples dancing tango to music played on simple boom boxes. Others are dance troupes with full sound systems. In the San Telmo neighborhood on Sundays, several tango orchestras play for tips near the Plaza Dorrego, where you can buy antiques at the weekend flea market.

Stars of the street

San Telmo is where I heard the greatest singing voice last year. He serenaded Sunday strollers from the sidewalk, backed up by a nine-piece band, including a piano. He sounded like he refined his definitive sound by gargling lava and smoking 10-foot long cigars made of tree bark.

While exploring on Florida Street I saw an old man playing a bandoneon, an accordion-like instrument. I passed several times before stopping.

I requested the famous tango song "Por Una Cabeza." He played a beautiful yet mournful rendition. I thanked and tipped him and moved on.

On my way to dinner about 9:30 p.m. he was still playing. He had been performing on a little stool for almost 12 hours, from the hot midday-sun into the cool evening. I introduced myself. His name is Tulio Manferre.

I asked if he knew "The Anniversary Song" and to my delight he played it. It was my mom and dad's favorite song.

When I asked how many years he has been playing tango music, he gave a sad smile and showed me a 55-year-old poster of him looking like Clark Gable with his tango band. Back then he and his band played in venues around Buenos Aires. Now his stage is a busy street, his spotlight a street lamp and his audience consists of mainly indifferent passers-by and the occasional tourist.

When his wife arrived, he put his bandoneon in a brown leather bag and struggled to stand up. His tip box had a few pesos and other small change. He earned less than $5 for 12 hours of work. I paid him $20 for the concert, ashamed I couldn't pay more.

"I'm so tired," he says to his wife as they walk arm in arm into the Buenos Aires night.

Invoking Jack Kerouac

As my flight took off from Buenos Aires, I saw millions of lights from the great city, from Avenues Florida and Correntes, and my favorite neighborhood of San Justo. I wondered if I could see the streetlight Senor Manferre was performing under, and what mournful tune he was playing.

To borrow from Kerouac, the plane climbs through a layer of clouds and BA disappears and there is only a warm glow of the city. I think of my favorite tango song "Beautiful Sadness." I think of drinking yerba mate with Christina, thunderstorms, quiet cafes, broad avenues, and Martin's asado. Martin's family. I think of Martin.

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