Friday October 12, at UCLA’s Royce Hall, the University’s Center for the Art of Performance presented an emotionally charged and artistically inspiring evening with 8 musicians, singers and composers celebrating the music of the Plata del Rio, collectively known as Bajofondo.
Beginning as Bajofondo Tango Club, a primarily studio based collection of producers, singers and musicians, their initial musical offering under the same name was awarded the Latin Grammy as ‘Best Instrumental Pop Album’ of 2003. In a manner similar to some of the wonderful Celtic bands of a decade earlier Bajofondo Tango Club began by experimented with the application of modern studio techniques such as programming and sampling with current and traditional instruments to tango, a musical form steeped in the despair of loss.
In an increasingly globalized (read: homogenized) world there is perhaps no dimension of commerce or art that sustains and carries culture more fully and directly than music. Tango emerged as musical forms and instruments of African slaves and European settlers combined with those of the indigenous people of Uruguay and Argentina. From it’s beginnings tango has been a marriage of dance and music. As it has evolved musically and in it’s physical expression, with the expected struggle between innovators and purists, it has sustained both its thematic focus of existential loss and loneliness, and it’s fiery, heart wrenching passion. Someone may correct me, but I think I even detected the sounds of eastern European music represented in the violin and the accordion like bandoneon.
Friday Bajofondo provided a tour through the evolution of tango that, over the arc of the evening’s performance, kept the fire of the heart on display. Whether the musical offering was the acoustic ‘Iguaçu’ (composed by the groups founder and talented composer and Academy Award winning film scorer, Gustavo Santaolalla), which recalled the double stringed charango, or the exquisitely sampled and performed ‘Zitarrosa’, there was an exquisite tension to the music that, even for an English speaker like me, spoke of the approximation of romantic, artistic, political fulfillment without it’s ever being fully apprehended. Powerful stuff, in several ways similar in its history, poignancy and longing to traditional blues – but somehow the aching called forth by the shamans of Plato del Rio Friday night was deeper.
The instrumentation was extremely effective, and the fact that many, if not all, of the bands members are talented multi-instrumentalists added to the experience. A bass in the hands of Jaco Pastorius is in some respects a different instrument than the same four stringed solid body held by Graham Maby. Bajofondo demonstrated a superb grasp of that wisdom and the switching of instruments between violin and drum kit for example came a cross not as showmanship but as essential to the expression of the sentiments of the composition.
Observations of passion, disappointment and loss as expressed in much of the music shouldn’t be construed the majority of the performance was by any means in a minor key or at a slow pace. Drawing heavily from their more current compositions, much of the evening was up-tempo with some really wonderful sounds created by the violin work of Javier Casalla following along with the notes and runs of the guitars and keyboards of his band mates.
The second set closed with an exuberant performance of ‘Los Tangueros’ from the Bajofondo Tango Club album. As Tangueros developed members of the audience joined the band on stage in an exuberant display of multiple styles of tango and less structured expression of the joy of music. I’ve seen other artists bring audience members up on stage to dance: Springsteen, Carlos Santana and Dave Wakeling (The English Beat) all seem to enjoy the energy that creates between artist and audience. But if there weren’t 100 members of Friday evening’s celebrants somewhere between on the stage and right in front – that’s because there were even more.
Bajofondo is an important band in both its exploration of the possibilities within a major traditional musical format and in its ability to bring that format to modern, even unfamiliar, audiences through the insertion of modern instrumentation, arranging and production techniques into its own compositions and the interpretation of classic pieces.
Bajofondo is Gustavo Santaolalla (vocals, guitar and percussion), Juan Campodonico (sequencing and DJ), Luciano Supervielle (piano, scratching, DJ), Martin Ferres (bandoneon, an incredible instrument in both the sounds and the visual aspects of it’s presence onstage, wonderfully played), Veronica Loza (vocals and VJ – which by the way was the best job of selecting and timing of video with live music that I have ever seen. Veronica’s contribution to the completeness of the experience can’t be overstated), Javier Casalla (violin), Gabriel Casacuberta (bass) and Adrian Sosa (percussion). All are really strong musicians with a great feel for the blending of traditional and boundary pushing into an evolutionary experience that is Bajofondo .
When the chance comes round again I would strongly recommend getting out to see them.
Photography by: Spencer William Davis, used with permission of the photographer