by María Volonté
I was born in Ituzaingó, in the province of Buenos Aires. In those days, Ituzaingó stood halfway between the great metropolis and the vast countryside of Argentina. It was a place where the perfumes of the pampa mixed with the sighs of the city.
I lived with my parents and my five sisters in a large, bright house. My father worked as a draftsman and painted watercolors. But above all he was a great — though frustrated — showman. He had spent much of his youth acting, reciting and singing in cinemas, theaters and cabarets. When he married, his first wife made it clear to him that the delights of married life were incompatible with a life in vaudeville. After that ultimatum, he devoted himself to transferring his fascination with a life lived on stage to his daughters.
My father created a universe around of us of constant artistic provocation: oil, pastel, tempera paintings; masks and homemade fancy dresses; books, pictures, films. A typical afternoon at home would find us in the kitchen with painted bed sheets hanging as scenery; bright lamps with their shades removed for shadow plays; and improvised family orchestras outfitted with rice cans, saucepans and wooden spoons. My mother dealt with this never-ending chaos as best as she could and with infinite patience.
But above all the other arts it was music that filled our lives. We listened to and sang music from all over the world: tango, folk music, bolero, flamenco, jazz, opera, musical comedies, French and Italian songs and Portuguese fados.
One day when I was five, Dad came home with a “Geloso,” one of the first home tape recorders and recorded me singing “Catari” (“Cuore ingrato”), an old Neapolitan song. Today I am still impressed when I hear my small but determined voice singing and weeping at the same time because I was so moved by the music and the story of lost love. There was so much secret pain in that melody, so much love! That day I discovered, unknowingly, that singing is only a matter of allowing oneself to be pierced by passion.
After such an upbringing, it was very difficult for me to adapt to the rigors of school. Every day I would anxiously wait for the final bell to ring so I could go back home where my favorite occupations were reading, making up songs, putting on fancy dresses and performing the plays I dreamed up with my sisters. I also enjoyed playing classical music records and staging choreographies for my sisters to perform.
THE MAGIC GUITAR
When I was ten, my father gave me my first guitar. Many years later we took to calling it “the Magic Guitar” because after it came into my life, something changed in me forever.
Music became my way of communication. When there were events or talent shows at school, I used to sing traditional Argentine folclore songs or the songs from the nascent Argentine rock scene. In the 1970s, I began mixing in songs from Violeta Parra of Chile, Nicolás Guillén of Cuba or Paco Ibáñez and Joan Manuel Serrat of Spain. But long nights playing guitar with friends, drinking wine into the wee hours were giving me courage and warming up my voice.
MUSE OF THE UNDERGROUND
I started to sing professionally in the 1980s. Just married, love was the great incentive to begin a new stage in my life as an artist. It was an intense period of learning: I studied music, dance, theater, song writing. I began taking voice lessons with a great master of vocal technique in Buenos Aires, Julio Méndez.
We lived in the old San Telmo neighborhood of Buenos Aires and I was part of the active cultural scene that revolved around the central square, the Plaza Dorrego. I sang in cafes and in abandoned warehouses of Buenos Aires where many of the best Latin rock concerts took place. My friendship with several extraordinary musicians who are still a part of my life dates from that time: the inexhaustible murguero Ariel Prat; the beloved and subtle bass player Horacio “Mono” Hurtado; the precocious, ultra-talented Javier Malosetti.
In the 1980s I was exploring ways of fusing Argentine tango and folclore with Latin sensuality and the strength of rock. I wrote many songs in that vein.
I dove into the underground culture of Buenos Aires, which was seething after the fall of the military government. Our co-adventurers were an extraordinary bunch of characters: Jorge Pistocchi (creator of the “El Expreso Imaginario” and “Pan Caliente” magazines) and who gave me the nickname “La Musa del Underground” (“The Muse of the Underground”); Poly, Skay and El Indio Solari, who later became the famous Argentine rock band the “Redonditos de Ricota”; and an assortment of musicians, poets, writers and other eccentrics who populated that bohemian world.
A RETURN TO TANGO
Though I started my professional career singing folk and Latin rock songs, it was clear even then that tango would be a deep well from which to draw and a constant companion on my musical journey.
In 1985, on one of my many nocturnal explorations of Buenos Aires, we ended up with friends drinking in a desolate, downtown cabaret where they played Greek music while women danced with clients. Whiskey in hand, I listened to the sensual and melancholy music and looked at the women around me. I felt a wave of tenderness for these unknown women, ersatz belly dancers in tight jeans and tee-shirts who, alone or with a client, young or weathered, seemed to have abandoned all hope that life could one day surprise them pleasantly. I stood up, taking advantage of a break between songs, pushed a chair to the center of the dance floor and sat down backwards on it, leaning on the chair back. I looked into the red spotlights that blinded me and, without any accompaniment except my own desire to sing a song to them, began to sing a classic tango of broken dreams and long nights, “La Ultima Curda.” As the song flowed from my lips, one by one, out of the shadows, these silent women approached me with their eyes moist, and with expert hands that barely touched me, inserted bills into my cleavage.
When I finished, the women circled around me – leaving their consternated clients in the shadows – and applauded me like a long, warm embrace. If I had any doubt that I could reach people with tango in ways that were deep and mysterious, it was banished that night.