Oh reader, what glory is the world of Porteño indie rock! I have had two forays, quite distinct but equally lovely, into this particular cultural phenomenon. The first was a show that an Argentine friend of mine played in the barrio San Telmo at a bar called La Cigale. This odd fellow looks a little bit like a porteño Prince (or the artist formerly known as). Seriously. He wears, always, un chaleco with some sort of ironic t-shirt–though, to be honest, I’m not sure if they’re ironic or not in his world, but they certainly work that way in mine. From one of his ears dangles a silver feather. This manner of dress, from which I have not once seen him stray, functions as a kind of signature for him. He plays guitar and sings accompanied by another guitarist and vocalist, a bassist and a drummer. He claims his music is influenced by the Strokes but I’m not sure I hear it.
This show was more or less like any amateur show you can attend in the states: a crowd of onlookers far too small to warrant the volume, an entirely unnecessary smoke machine (a good half of the audience was smoking during the performance), and crappy acoustics. The beer was overpriced but delicious. The most appreciative audience members were friends of the band.
My second jaunt into this cultural underbelly (and what will likely be of greater interest to you, dear readers) is a little project in which I’m taking part. I’ve been asked by another local musician to help translate Belle & Sebastian lyrics into English. So far we’ve met once and managed our way through three songs. But imagine, if you will, trying to explain “Stars of Track and Field” in a language that isn’t your own. Or trying to communicate a Bob Dylan reference, or a common phrase like “caught a glimpse.” In those three hours I learned more local slang than I have during the rest of my nearly month-long stay here. He was so thrilled with the translations that we’re continuing the work tomorrow (and, likely, throughout my time here).
This musician has a real obsession with the aesthetic of the 80s, by the way. Too early to say whether this is a broad cultural phenomenon among hipsters in this town or specific to these two.
Well, my dearest comrades, let me tell you of my wanderings. I took a tour this week of a little barrio in Buenos Aires known as La Boca, so-named because it is situated at the mouth of the highly polluted Riachuelo. The neighborhood is (and long has been) working class. In the late 19th and early 20th century immigrant families who labored at the docks here painted the barges which trafficked meat and leather goods along the river. The story goes that they used any remaining paint for the brick and corrugated-metal walls of their homes. While the industry which employed them has mostly vanished, the residents continue the tradition. Hence the broad range of color on any given street. It truly is beautiful.
The thing about La Boca (as any guidebook will tell you) is it’s dangerous. I’ve been advised not to stray from a few square blocks devoted to selling tango shows, souvenirs and Boca Juniors (the barrio’s well-known soccer team) apparel.
In this area in La Boca everything about the barrio is forced performance. For example, instead of allowing people to stand on the balconies of the buildings, they put grotesque statues of ‘old-timey’ porteños. Instead of hosting real milongas, or tango dances, they hire young men and women to dance for onlookers at every street cafe, all wearing somewhat ridiculous costumes that I think are meant to indicate an earlier, lovelier epoch of tango.
Despite the warnings from locals and the guidebook, my friend and I wandered (albeit a mere block) outside the designated tourist trap. It was fantastic, though the the colors on these houses are considerably faded. Stray dogs run everywhere as do children and real-live folks stand on balconies and mill about on doorsteps. There is a ‘there’ there, far superior to the bizarro simulacra that is “La Boca” as tourists see it. I do get the sense that the people that live in the barrio are perfectly happy to keep outsiders relegated to their specific square mile and relatively controlled, so perhaps there’s something to be said for the power of imitation. Certainly, given the radical politics of this particular neighborhood and the class status of its residents, throngs of camera-toting Europeans and Americans out to see what ‘real’ Argentines live like would be, in a word, repulsive.
Either way, it’s a fascinating thing about certain kinds of travel–so much of what you see is a reference to something you don’t, a representation of an original that never really existed.
You’re strolling down the cobblestone streets of Barrio Palermo at, oh, say 3:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning. You manage to dodge a gaggle of drunk German girls stumbling out of one or another of the wholly unbearable dance clubs that speckle the neighborhood. Suddenly, there he is, a vision in horn-rimmed glasses and a pearly-buttoned Western shirt. He is walking towards you, this man, the loveliest Porteño hipster you have ever seen. Thrilled, you make furtive eye contact in the hopes that he will (unlike anyone on the planet, ever) randomly strike up a conversation with you, you poor American girl walking by on your lonesome way home. But, alas! Though he looks in your direction, maybe even returns your coy glance, he passes by without a word. Just as he does you turn to watch him go, a melancholic ache deepening in your black heart. But wait. What’s this? A special little surprise delivered unto you by the gods; a small but priceless consolation for letting the man to whom you were surely fated to wed slip through your fingers. He has a rat tail. Yes, he does. He is but one more Argentine with this most heinous of haircuts.
I cannot now nor will I ever be able to explain why they do this to themselves but oh so many of them do. Porteños love the rat tail. This style is a far, far worse offense to their otherwise dashing good looks and breezy charms than would be the standard L.A. hipster mullet. It is the sort of haircut that can, in fact, induce nausea in a foreign onlooker. But it is heartening to know that if you live and die alone in Buenos Aires, you’ll have avoided ever having run your hands through such a greasy, ugly, disastrous assault on reason and reasonable aesthetics.