Although Argentine rock (rock nacional) and tango remain at the heart of Argentina’s musical culture, over the past decade blues has begun to put down roots in the capital of Buenos Aires, where a small but passionate community of musicians works to keep the spirit of blues alive, pure and relevant.
The bluesy ‘black sheep’ of Argentina
Historically, blues has not been a big player in Argentine popular culture. Rock band Manal is said to have introduced blues to the Argentine rock scene in the ‘60s, and since then a few popular Argentine musicians have been influenced by its narrative and rhythm – but blues in its purest form has only recently picked up steam, affecting a subculture of musicians who have incorporated a piece of this lifestyle in their daily routine.
Mario Magno, who moved to Buenos Aires from Puerto Madryn eight years ago, recalls the first time he was introduced to blues.
“When I was a teenager I used to listen to a lot of funk, and never really found my musical identity until I was introduced to Robert Johnson’s records, and subsequently The Delta Blues.”
After that revelation, B.B. King fell into his lap, and he was enamored.
Like most teenagers, Magno was discovering and forming his identity in part through music. He recalls investigating blues in particular because it made him feel comfortable, confident, and a part of a soul-filled story often told in the lyrics and composition of blues.
While most kids were listening to popular bands such as Spinetta and Soda Stereo, Magno was among the black sheep of Argentina, listening to Muddy Waters, Stevie Ray Vaughn and, of course, B.B. King.
Magno remembers reading an interview with Eric Clapton and immediately digging into B.B. King’s story.
“That’s when I became addicted to playing the blues. It’s cathartic. We all like to hear the truth, and King’s voice gave you the truth.”
He began to play his guitar on a daily basis and plugged into the Buenos Aires blues scene.
“Blues led me to form relationships with other talented musicians, and build a community between us.”
Walter Gandini, a tattoo artist who plays blues regularly, picked up the harmonica at age 16 and fell in love with blues soon after.
“I always wanted to play the violin, but when my parents separated they never bought me one to start my lessons. I found a harmonica lying around the house, and started to teach myself how to play,” recalls Gandini.
As it did for Magno, blues became a form of expression for Gandini.
“It was a way to let my soul free. To communicate with the world. B.B. King was always one of the greatest references I had while learning.”
Magno and Gandini currently play live blues sets and participate in jams around the city. The two played their first show together last week at El Universal, which hosts an Open Blues Night for musicians.
A space worth a listen
About a year ago, two passionate musicians-turned-business owners found a cozy space to host live music and decided to create an opportunity for an acoustic folk and call-and-response blues environment.
Federico Petro and his business partner Martin Grossman started a unique open mic night, called Open Folk Nights, which drew instant attention in the community and gave rise to Open Blues Nights as well.
“There aren’t many spaces in the city where amazing blues musicians can come together and perform a tight set to a reverent crowd. We work very hard to bring our audience the best blues out there,” says Petro.
Every day Petro and his team review material submitted by local artists. In the end, 20 musicians get the opportunity to play three songs which have been selected by the Open Blues Night team and featured that week.
“We’ve discovered musicians that literally blow our minds!” says Petro. “People who are around but you never hear them because they just don’t have the space that supports their art.”
Petro notes that the intimate space, paired with the high expectations of Open Folk-Open Blues, encourages guests to stay longer and makes them eager to come back.
In the true spirit of blues culture, the shows host great musicians, offer good food and drink and create a familiar atmosphere for locals to hang out and have a good time.
“Hopefully by bringing more and more blues musicians together, we can keep the spirit of blues and B.B. King’s impact alive in Buenos Aires,” Petro says.
Tonight’s Open Blues Night will honor the music and legacy of the iconic King, who passed away last week.
Petro is an Argentine producer, musician and journalist. He picked up the guitar at a young age and credits his love of the blues to the teacher who showed him his first notes – the 12-bar blues progression.
When he was 13 years old, he bought a book of B.B. King’s songs. This started his journey into the blues world.
“[The book] had all of his lyrics and solos,” recalls Petro. “I became obsessed with this man and tried to understand where his sound came from… how he picked those notes that made me jump out of my chair.”
Blues and Argentina’s taxing economy
The blues became one of Petro’s strongest companions through tough times.
“When you listen to it, when you play it, you don’t feel alone anymore,” he says.
As he sees it, blues lyrics are full of themes that are relevant to the current situation in Argentina.
“There is a huge gap between classes here, and you can feel its intensity every day. We’ve been struggling with corruption, poverty and hunger ever since I can remember.”
Petro shares his reverence for the founding fathers of blues and their ability to make people feel more human.
“The way they could just pick up a guitar and express the injustice happening to them – the low wages, the lack of jobs and the residue of slavery is very inspiring.”
The musicians agree that the ongoing struggles in the world today help make the blues timeless. Without a doubt, it lives on in Buenos Aires, where these passionate artists ensure that King’s influences continue to speak to the Argentine public.