The search for a metaphor to explain Argentina is endless, but the one that has remained in the collective memory of people who generally love (but sometimes hate) this country was hatched in 1971. Hy Maidenberg, a financial reporter for The New York Times who was surprisingly sent to cover the Southern Cone as the paper’s Buenos Aires-based correspondent, once said that Argentina was like a five-star hotel in which all the guests were complaining about the room service.
The concise clarity of his observation immediately did the rounds of dinner parties and soon, it was elaborated upon into a changing metaphor. In the 1970s it was an accurate summing up of a fractious nation which, under president Arturo Illia, had returned to democracy after a military coup, only to devolve back to a dictatorship after yet another military coup.
Over the years since then the metaphor changed again, first depicting Argentina as a ship instead of a hotel to suggest that the country was like a luxury liner. The introduction of the maritime element also introduced the idea that Argentina’s destiny was circular. In other words, the cruise ship was going nowhere and its voyages were repetitive. The thought of the guests in the five-star hotel complaining about the room service was unthreatening, but the thought of a crew taking over a ship which, of course eventually happened, suggested that there were serious consequences to be considered.
I thought of Hy Maidenberg’s affectionate metaphor for Argentina upon returning to Buenos Aires recently after a year’s absence. As a foreign correspondent, one who had spent most of his career up until then on Wall Street reporting on commodity prices, Maidenberg revelled in the freedom of reporting from Argentina. He recognised the country’s great wealth in natural resources and could see its huge potential. His metaphor had a message: those fractious hotel guests had no reason to complain about the room service. They merely had to stop bickering and recognise what they had to do in order to do their best helping the hotel run smoothly.
I hesitate to propose a metaphor for the present trying times but – as my wife and I were looking forward to a concert a few days after our arrival – I idly wondered this week if I could compare Argentina today to an orchestra, one in which all the sections and most of the members are playing a different tune, with nobody taking any notice of the conductor. That, I thought, would be going too far. Yet the metaphor of Argentina as an orchestra struck me as valid when we attended to the concert.
Latin Vox Machine, the orchestra we heard perform, is an example of what Argentina could be if everyone played their part. Formed by musicians who are refugees from Venezuela, most of the musicians make their living while performing on trains, on the capital’s subway lines and on the streets of Buenos Aires. Most of them are young musicians who were trained via the famous ‘El Sistema’ musical and cultural programme founded by José Antonio Abreu, which has spread from Venezuela around the world, creating what might be called a mass movement of musicality. Today, more than a million young people are bringing classical music to the masses, if they want it.
In Buenos Aires, the Sistema-trained musicians have thrived since deciding to escape the political megalomania and economic chaos of Venezuela. They have embraced the chance to begin their lives again from nothing, rejoicing in the freedom they have to make music wherever they go. They are happy here. Despondent porteños should take note.
Forgive the cliché. This story is truly one of magic realism. A visiting musician, the internationally acclaimed conductor Jooyong Ahn, heard the sound of perfectly played classical music in the subway. That led him to the discovery of Latin Vox Machine. Jooyong, who was born in South Korea, has conducted famous orchestras all over the world. He has used his mastery of classical music and his experience as a teacher to take on the task of shaping more than 80 ‘street musicians’ into a great orchestra. And he is succeeding. The night of the concert, at the El Globo theatre under the South Korean master’s baton, the musicians played Dvorák’s New World Symphony (No. 9 in E minor) as if they had played together for many seasons. My wife Maud summed up the experience this way:
“The New World became real with the feelings of anguish, longing and perhaps, in the last movement, conquering. The performance was excellent. [Jooyong] did wonders with these young, enthusiastic musicians. The composition took form under his direction. Very moving. The folklore before and after did not upset the strength of the Dvorák. It made me think of something left behind, of memories of the past.”
The connection is indeed moving. Jooyong and his wife Suzanne have essentially adopted this happy band of young musicians. At the concert, Suzanne was collecting baby clothes and toys for one of the musicians who, she said, was expecting to give birth “at any moment.”
Later, the orchestra also performed in the concert hall of the Kirchner Cultural Centre and the performance was broadcast live, with commentary by Nelson Castro.
However, it would be unjust to say that what we witnessed was only the result of magic. There are innumerable people who can testify that magic wasn’t the only thing responsible for what we saw. Among them, notably, was someone who was previously known as “my friend Harry” to readers of the Buenos Aires Herald, thanks to references in the late Dereck Foster’s ‘Good Living’ column. His full name is Harry Ingham and it was he who provided the music stands, found a place through his connections with The Salvation Army for the orchestra to rehearse and arranged for the performance at the Globo concert hall, among other things.
Harry, who has been insisting for some time now that Argentines should stop grumbling, pull up their socks and count their blessings, provides an example to follow in attempting to update our metaphor for Argentina. Whether on land or sea, we need to come to our senses and finally realise that we are all in the same boat.
Colonia del Sacramento’s first-ever international arts festival
Whenever Buenos Aires seems too much, I recommend a trip across the river to Uruguay. At any time a change from the fervour of the big city to the green and pleasant village-like city of Colonia del Sacramento is like a tonic for the soul. And now is the perfect time to get away from it all.
From November 8 to 10, Colonia del Sacramento will host its first-ever international arts festival, modelled on the famous Spoleto Festival of Two Worlds founded by Gian Carlo Menotti (which takes place in Italy, with a “twin” event, the Spoleto Festival USA, in Charleston, South Carolina). The organiser and director of this new event is renowned Uruguayan pianist Enrique Graf, who is based in Charleston. The focus of the festival is to bring together rising artists from Argentina, Brazil, the United States and Uruguay for a special three-day run of performances. It will be the first festival held in Uruguay that brings together classical music, tango, jazz, theatre, documentary film and the plastic arts.
Among the artists are some notable names, including Argentine pianists Mirian Conti (resident in the United States) and Fernando Pérez, Hércules Gomes of Brazil and Foderé of Uruguay. Renowned leading actress Estela Medina will also give a one-woman performance on home soil, ranging from Gabriel Calderón to Baudelaire. Uruguayan singer María Antúnez and the Uruguayan group La Mufa cover the vocal arts, from opera to tango.
Full details at www.FestivalColonia.org, where tickets are already on sale.