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Wyatt Smith, Keegan Traveling Fellow

Wyatt Smith

2010-2011 Michael B. Keegan Traveling Fellow
Vanderbilt University

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Feb '11

Experiencing the Richness of Argentine Culture

Historic Defensa Street in the San Telmo district, one of Buenos Aires' oldest neighborhoods, come alive each Sunday afternoon with a mile-long street market.

A week into Argentina, I am reminded of how edifying it is to be out in the world. There is much to explore in Buenos Aires, the city of European-inspired cobblestone streets, steakhouses, street markets, teeming public life, and tango dancers. Factor in 86-degree summer weather in February, and it’s hard not to find high spirits.

Walking through Buenos Aires, few things stand out more than the cultural richness of its neighborhoods. In my area, the tango haven of San Telmo, 300 year-old buildings watch over tree-lined streets leading to public spaces full of artisans and musicians. A bit farther north, the Palermo neighborhood is equally gripping, boasting classic Argentine restaurants with spacious outdoor-seating and a series of museums that showcase the country’s historical grandeur. And Recoleta, perhaps the most upscale neighborhood of the capital, takes the cake with its world-famous gated cemetery, which locals term “the most expensive piece of real estate in South America.”

Perhaps the most wonderful aspect of Buenos Aires is the music. Sounds of guitars, drums, trumpets, and saxophones can be heard in every neighborhood. A troupe of electrical violinists play for tips in San Telmo’s Sunday street markets, only to be outdone by a group of Iranian marimba players a bit father down Defensa Avenue. Artists perform on corners in the day and in restaurants late into the night, reminding me every bit of the struggling musicians in New York to Nashville back home.

The best show I encounter takes place in one of the capital’s less-developed neighborhoods, west of the ritzy Palermo enclaves and Recoleta’s high-priced cemetery. Hundreds of twenty-somethings crowded into a small, open-air venue to hear the styling of La Bomba, a 16 person, high energy drum ensemble. Think a South American version of Blue Man Group, but with more musicians, less body paint, and a dimension of underground feel.

La Bomba takes the stage for their dance-inducing performance. This drum line put on the best musical act I have seen since leaving Nashville last May.

La Bomba puts on a diverse show, blending the sounds of hand drums, snares, quads, and even a guest saxophonist or two to make a uniquely Argentine sound. As the drumbeat resonates through the night air, groups of young people all over the venue jump, shake, twist, and spin, contorting their bodies in time with the sound. As concerts go, this one was high on the interactive scale.

Beyond the music, I am also a sucker for the food. Steak dinners, in particular, are a guilty pleasure of mine here in Argentina. Bellissimo, a restaurant around the corner from my hostel, serves one of the best: a 300-gram sirloin with steak fries and a glass of Malbec for 53 Argentine pesos ($13). I have eaten it three times, all around 11pm or midnight. The small restaurant is never more than half full, but the waiters invariably take their time in filling orders. Not that I need to look at a menu.

Argentine food, like everything else in the country, is a blend of influences from different regions of the world. Italian-style cooking has deep roots here, as evidenced by the plethora of pizzerias and bakeries across Buenos Aires, but one is also likely to notice hints of Lebanese, Spanish, Mexican styles as well. Within a four-block radius of my hostel, I can find fresh carne empanadas (beef in pastries), newly baked lasagna, hand-made pizza, or heartily cut steaks. There’s even a Chinese restaurant down the street, in which I was able to impress with my recently acquired, 20 word Mandarin vocabulary.

Then, there is the night scene. Argentines love a good party. And they find reasons to celebrate in many different forms. I prefer the more low-key, late night musical act, but appreciate the excitement of a tango street fair, like the one held in Republica Square on my first weekend in Buenos Aires. I arrived just as it was wrapping up for the night, but the thousands of Argentines pouring into areas nightclubs and tango halls did not seem fazed by the end of the official performance. As daylight broke, many of them were still celebrating the approach of Carnival with an air of festivity.

Here in Buenos Aires, it’s been difficult for me to gain access to official channels for interviews, but I am confident that my conversations with Argentines on the street mixed with the range of reading materials will allow me to flesh out more substantial views on the country’s transition from military dictatorship to democracy, as well as the challenges posed by the inflationary pressures in their economy (the Economist pegs real inflation in Argentina at nearly 18 percent, almost double the reported rate).

But until then, I am enjoying the wonderful culture. And the night life.

PS: While I didn’t film this, it does give you an idea about the La Bomba musical experience…


2 comments to “Experiencing the Richness of Argentine Culture”

  1. Dr. Harbin Says:

    Okay… this is where I want to be! Beautiful place… wonderful editorial. Hope you find many contacts and a blazing network of people, stay safe and God Bless! (PS – that night life is not keeping you from posting, eh? :-})

  2. Jamie Palmer Says:

    Wyatt, glad you enjoyed Argentina. It’s amazing, isn’t it? Safe travels as you journey onward.

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