Chamamé for Dummies

A Listening Guide to the Music of Corrientes

By Eugenio Monjeau

Two children dance the chamamé in Puente Pexoa, Corrientes, Argentina. Photo by Facundo de Zuviria www.facundodezuviria.com

There is a traditional Andalusian dance, the vito, inspired by the “St. Vitus dance,” a name given to Huntington's disease for centuries. Symptoms of this disease include twitching that sometimes hinders walking. Nevertheless, patients, considered victims of a dance mania of sorts, made pilgrimages to the chapel of St. Vitus, in Ulm, Germany, hoping to be healed by the saint. In the province of Corrientes (which makes up, along with Entre Ríos to the south and Misiones to the north, the Argentine Litoral) there is also a mania, although not as dangerous: the chamamé. It manifests itself in various ways, but the most common symptom (as with the pilgrims) is dancing. Festivals are higher forms of dances. The Fiesta Nacional del Chamamé takes place during ten days in January, the hottest month in one of the hottest places in Argentina. The 104° F temperature and hours of uninterrupted music send thousands of revelers into a kind of trance. My goal with this short article is to prompt you, dear reader, into a domestic, modest and tidy version of that trance.

But first, some history. According to Argentine expert Rubén Pérez Bugallo,
the chamamé is the result of a mix between certain Spanish musical forms that entered the American continent through Peru, continued on to Paraguay, and then arrived in Argentina, and certain Central European popular dances from the 19th century, such as the waltz and the mazurka. Pérez Bugallo specifically argues against the idea of Guarani roots for the chamamé. There is a Spanish-Peruvian base, he reasons, with a 6/8 beat, typical of the so-called Ternary Colonial Songbook, to which those other 3/4 European forms are added:

One fine day, Europeans and locals decided to make music together. Those coming from Europe brought their accordions and two types of rhythms: the binary polka and schottische and the ternary waltz and mazurka. The men from the hinterland brought their guitars and strummed along, rhythmically loyal to the call of tradition: 6/8. […] As far as the result of this mixture is concerned, it’s a known fact that in any spontaneous instrumental association the rhythm is dictated by the accompaniment—which in this case meant the local guitar. […] Indeed, an accordion mazurka accompanied by a guitar in 6/8 rhythm results in something hardly distinguishable from a chamamé.

(Rubén Pérez Bugallo, Chamamé: Raíces coloniales y des-orden popular [Buenos Aires: Ediciones del Sol, 2008], pages 110 and following).

Pérez Bugallo traces the first appearance of the term “chamamé” to the February 17th, 1821, edition of the Buenos Aires newspaper Las Cuatro Cosas, in which the priest Francisco de Paula Castañeda is said to have “danced a chamamé over someone’s head.” According to Bugallo, it’s a political metaphor (Father Castañeda was a known polemicist) and actually “chamamé” was only a translation to jopará (Guarani spoken by Spaniards and locals) of “fandango,” the Spanish dance in vogue at that time in all Latin America. The fact is that the term disappears from documents until 1930, when RCA Victor uses it as a label for the song “Corrientes poti” by Paraguayan singer Samuel Aguayo. From then on, chamamé is established as a folk genre in its own right and its name remains unaltered.

Chamamé’s orchestration barely extends beyond the aforementioned guitar and accordion. A traditional full band consists of accordion, bandoneon, guitar and double bass. Even though the beat is one of the most characteristic elements of the genre, due to its polyrhythm, syncopation and off-beats, percussion is not part of the typical instrumentation (although it has become common in recent times and some traditionalists complain that the Fiesta Nacional del Chamamé should be called the Fiesta Nacional de la Ba-tería—drums—instead). All of chamamé’s rhythmic richness lies, on the one hand, on the written score, and, on the other, on the skill and sensitivity of the performers (somewhat schematically: the bandoneon—of sweeter tone and greater ductility—carries the melody, while the accordion is tasked with the beat and most of the ornaments).

Singers are added to this typical formation in traditional ensembles. Sometimes it’s a single voice, but more often duets with sharp nasal voices singing falsetto in parallel thirds and sixths. Interestingly, even if we go by Bugallo’s Creole-Central European origin hypothesis, the largest and best part of the repertoire is sung in Guarani. The subgenre known as “chamamé caté” (from categoría, Argentine slang for elegance; chamamé classification isn’t final, but we can mention, besides caté, chamamé kangui— sad, in Guarani, slower and more melancholic, and its opposite, the chamamé maceta, popular, very rhythmic, typical in dances and festivals) is always sung in this language, which is widely spoken in the Litoral. All correntinos—residents of Corrientes— incorporate it, to a greater or lesser extent, in everyday speech, even those without indigenous ancestors, and it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that almost all chamamés include some Guarani terms in their lyrics. Furthermore, Guarani is an official language of Corrientes Province.

Whether in Guarani, Spanish, or a mixture of the two, chamamé’s lyrics often talk about local characters, animals, people of the Litoral and, above all, the Paraná River. The correntino poet Albérico Mansilla (who penned the beautiful chamamé “Viejo Caá Catí”) has said: “The river is to chamamé what adultery is to tango.” But I’d like to point out something usual, if somewhat unexpected, which also links the chamamé to the tango, but as opposites. While the latter tirelessly explores the theme of jail (where the lunfardo slang itself originated), theft, guns and all kinds of illegal activities, chamamé has a close link to the army and, as heard in the songs themselves, “authority.” Mario Millan Medina’s “La guardia de seguridad” is a humorous chamamé expressing a humble correntino’s admiration for the police. The character, an aspiring policeman, sings: “¡A los yanquis y a los bolches, / si los llego a encontrar, / les voy a encajar una sableada, / para que se dejen de bochinchear!” (“Yank or commie, / if I come across you, / I’ll cut you down, / I’ll shut you up!”—a Cold War chamamé!). There are scores of chamamés dedicated to chiefs of police (Tránsito Cocomarola’s “Comisario Silva”) and to Independence heroes (the chamamé “Sargento Cabral” is known for the beauty of its lyrics and music and is a tribute to a correntino soldier who at the Battle of San Lorenzo stood between the enemy bayonets and the injured body of another correntino, General José de San Martín—you might have seen his statue in Central Park—to protect him; legend has it that Cabral uttered his last words to San Martín: “I die with a glad heart, sir, for we have beaten the enemy”). 

Chamamé musicians enjoy playing. Photo by Facundo de Zuviria.

The origins of chamamé date back to the civil war between the litoraleños (Litoral residents), who supported territorial autonomy, and the supporters of central administration by Buenos Aires. There are stories about chamamés being played by military bands on both sides after battles, and until a few decades ago there were certain chamamés which couldn’t be played during elections because they aroused violent passions in militants of the political parties that emerged in the mid-nineteenth century in the context of this confrontation between Corrientes and Buenos Aires. Moreover, militias have a particular importance because of their role in transporting musical forms throughout the colony. Let us consider the troops marching down from Peru to the current Argentine territory and going through Paraguay, at the time the Viceroyalty of the River Plate was founded. Guitars were de rigueur luggage for any group of soldiers. According to Pérez Bugallo, for example, “the Canary polka or chamarrita must have come to us when the Brazilian army marched through our territory [during the terrible 1864-1870 Paraguayan War, which pitted Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay against Paraguay, EM].” The chamarrita is now a vital part of the Litoral repertoire and has been defined as having “the beat of a horse trotting without reins,” poetically portraying another local appropriation of a form of European origin. 

My relationship to the genre goes back to 1997. One day my father brought home a chamamé record and said: “You have to listen to this. It’s awesome.” I laughed and mocked him. I was repeating one of the “intellectual” platitudes of the Argentine middle class: chamamé is low quality music, restricted to the province of Corrientes, to correntinos living in Buenos Aires and, generally, to the poor. Rarely in my life have I been so compelled to admit a mistake as when my father, in a car on the road and giving me no alternative, played the very same record; seventeen songs in which rare instrumental virtuosity combined with passages both austere and expressive.

It was the album Por cielos lejanos, by Rudi and Nini Flores. Rudi (guitar) and Nini (accordion) are two correntino brothers who for three decades have been developing a sort of chamber chamamé. It’s as if they managed to capture the spirit of chamamé, isolate it, study it and display it in each of their recordings. By means of a thorough understanding of their predecessors (including their own father, the remarkable bandoneon player Avelino Flores), their formal music studies and the uncanny edge that comes from their being brothers, Rudi and Nini seem to have arrived at the purest expression of chamamé. They can be taken for a sort of chamamecero archetype.

First of all, the music of Rudi and Nini is a perfect example of chamamé’s inherent tension between, shall we say, high and low culture. The chamamé is, just as I thought before listening to it for the first time, popular music that is played for thousands of people at festivals that last entire days, music of precariously produced records and improvised concerts in poorly lit bars. But it’s also music that can only be played by masters. The whole chamamecero repertoire is sustained by the virtuosity of the accordionists, who have at their disposal an infinite variety of dynamics and tone colors to use. The genre takes the instrument to its utter limits. Perhaps this ambiguity began to form with chamamé’s very origins, when a Spanish rhythmic tradition deeply rooted among the locals encountered sophisticated European salon dances. (We may add here that just as there are sister cities thousands of miles away, chamamé has a genre brother in the United States: bluegrass. Both have European origins but were raised upon the banks of American rivers, both are part of the national folklore, both feature amazing instrumental development despite being truly popular music—not only by the virtuosity required but also by the singularity of their emblematic instruments: the accordion and bandoneon for chamamé, and the banjo for bluegrass. Their melodies proverbially unite joy and sadness and produce unwavering devotion, while to the ears of the uninitiated all chamamés and bluegrass sound the same.)

Rudi and Nini Flores also resume that tension between local music and European music, in this case even biographically; they settled in Paris in 1994, at a time when the chamamé still belonged, in view of the middle class, to the poorer classes. While they weren’t the first chamameceros to come to France—Raúl Barboza had preceded them—they were the first to make refinement their novelty, while Barboza had adopted an edgier style that sought sophistication by appealing to the hotly disputed Guarani and jungle roots of the genre. With the Flores brothers, waltz, polka and mazurka return to Europe hand in hand with chamamé, which later returns to Argentina as a music genre with instrumental, rhythmic, harmonic and melodic sophistication. The chamamé was thus introduced to small concert halls, cultural centers and traditional bookstores in the city of Buenos Aires.

But chamamé is also musically ambiguous due to the styles of its main composers and performers, some of which are closer to the local spirit, to the 6/8 beat, while others are more lyrical, more Central European. I mentioned that the first chamamé labeled as such was recorded in 1930. Rudi and Nini Flores formed their group in 1984 and their most relevant discography is approximately dated in the decade after 1997. What happened between the beginnings and what I personally consider the zenith of the genre? Who preceded Rudi and Nini and forged the thousands of recordings, lyrics and melodies of the chamamecero heritage? The list of musicians is endless and I’ll mention just a few names for the reader to look up: Tránsito Cocomarola, Ernesto Montiel, Isaco Abitbol, Tarragó Ros (chamamé maceta champion and the first Argentine musician to sell more than a million records), Damasio Esquivel, Pedro Montenegro, Blas Martínez Riera.

I’d like to dwell briefly on the first three, who possess quite different playing styles even though there are some contact points among them and Montiel and Abitbol started out in the same group. Abitbol’s style is the most lyrical and melancholic. Montiel, on the other hand, plays much more forcefully. What you hear in his phrasing and in the way he drags his notes is a kind of contained violence. This is especially noticeable in the waltz-like “La vestido celeste” or in the “Gente de ley” chamamé (the last and first track respectively of this album). Abitbol never had a similar sound, and is, in fact, the composer of the lyrical chamamé par excellence, “La calandria.” Cocomarola’s style is very elegant; it’s not violent like Montiel’s nor melancholic like Abitbol’s, but includes some very fine tunes, such as “Kilómetro 11,” arguably the most famous chamamé of all time, so successful that it was worthy of a video clip, or “Prisionero.” It’s no coincidence that among the three, the most lyrical two have chosen the bandoneon as their instrument, while Montiel chose the accordion. Rudi and Nini Flores explained in an interview published in the newspaper Clarín on November 30, 2004: “In Corrientes, the north was Cocomarola’s, while the south, was Montiel’s. We always lived in the capital, and it was all Cocomarola. Montiel had a more dynamic, more seasoned, southern style. Cocomarola, on the other hand, was more serene, more lyrical, sadder.”

“Nueva ilusión,” a chamamé by Rudi and Nini, displays, on the one hand, the lyricism of Cocomarola’s tradition, and, on the other, the duo's own sophistication. It was the first to captivate me on that road trip in 1997 and remains my favorite chamamé: it starts off as an idea that is simple and brilliant at the same time; the melody is slightly melancholic without being sad and is flawlessly interpreted. But it also has another merit: it is impossible to say, perhaps due to the Flores brothers’ personal and professional background, what part is European and what part is local. Perhaps the “New illusion” referred to the brothers’ excitement about their arrival in Paris; or—who knows?—it's perhaps a carpincho (capybara) jumping about to escape from the jaws of a yacaré (alligator) on the banks of the river. Like most chamber music this chamamé has no lyrics, so that, dear reader, is up to you.

The duo Rudi (guitar) and Nini (accordion) Flores have developed a kind of chamber chamamé. Photo by Ian Kornfeld. 

Eugenio Monjeau studies philosophy at the Universidad de Buenos Aires and works at the Centro de Experimentación del Teatro Colón, devoted to Argentine contemporary opera and ballet, and at the Asociación por los Derechos Civiles, an organization committed to strategic litigation and civil rights.  In 2010 he took part in the Paraná Ra’Anga expedition through the Paraná River, led by former DRCLAS Robert F. Kennedy Visiting Professor Graciela Silvestri, and contributed to a book of the same name. He has written for La Nación and Clarín about politics and aesthetics.