Songs of Argentina fill new album with bass-baritone Federico De Michelis

Argentina’s rich musical world is often subsumed, and so wrongly, under the single word “tango.” There’s so much more. All one has to do is utter the names Mercedes Sosa and Atahualpa Yupanqui, and whole genres of folk and traditional music come to mind. In the classical world, Alberto Ginastera, Osvaldo Golijov (see here and here), Astor Piazzolla, Ariel Ramírez, and Carlos Guastavino stand out.

A new album issued by the New York Festival of Song (NYFOS) features bass-baritone Federico De Michelis in a 12-song collection that shows off the singer’s voice and highlights the last three of the classical composers plus others, much less known, who wrote art, film and cabaret songs. The overriding sentiment is one of melancholic recall of past loves and places, nostalgia, self-pity, longing, loss and absence—what the Portuguese language sums up in the word “saudade.”

Ramírez is well-known in the U.S. for his popular Misa Criolla, an Andean folk-tinged setting of the Catholic Mass that still receives the occasional live performance. Here he is represented by a single song “Allá lejos y hace tiempo” (Long Ago and Far Away), accompanied by guitar alone, in De Michelis’s arrangement (and, unstated, played by him too):

Far, far away my homeland went on
tinting the day blue,
yonder the sky,
yonder time,
I come back a child, to the wonder of the south,
and through my blood a motherly voice
proclaims ARGENTINA.

Piazzolla, known for his modern, updated interpretation of the tango tradition, also has but a single song on the disc, the 1982 “Siempre se vuelve a Buenos Aires” (You Always Come Back to Buenos Aires”), replete with sad rumination: “I turned a corner within myself to understand / that no one escapes the despair of his own existence!”

Carlos Guastavino

Carlos Guastavino (1912-2000) captured NYFOS founder Steven Blier’s imagination, and he includes four of his songs (out of an estimated 500 to 600, most of them unpublished). “The more I play his songs,” Blier writes in his extensive program notes, “the more I feel he earns his sobriquet, ‘The Schubert of the Pampas.’” The first of them on the disc, the lilting “Noches de Santa Fe, canción del litoral” (Santa Fe Nights, a Song of the Coast), celebrates his hometown a few hundred miles up the Paraná River from Buenos Aires. It’s followed by his energetic “Abismo de sed” (Abyss of Thirst), in which a singing troubadour from Tucumán drowns his feelings of solitude in paeans to wine, love, and song. In the third Guastavino number, “El clavel del aire blanco” (The White Carnation of the Air), the poet (León Benarós) breathes in the innocence of “the flower in the young girl, / the young girl in the flower.”

It’s in Guastavino’s fourth song, “Hermano, canción del sur” (Brother, a Song of the South) from 1968, where we see the hazy line between conservatory “art” song and popular music: It was first recorded by folk artist Mercedes Sosa in a simplified version for voice and guitar. The lyric by Argentine poet Hamlet Lima Quintana, perhaps inspired by Pablo Neruda from neighboring Chile, made it a natural candidate for the “Nueva Canción” movement in Latin America, the wave of “new songs” that expressed the long pent-up aspirations of a continent for justice and liberty. It’s the most socially conscious song on the album:

Behold, brother, how you go around singing,
The whole earth listens to you, along with me.

From the furrow to the gully,
from the wind to the wood,
from time to the tenderness
of the authentic life.

Because one must possess
a broken heart,
shreds of old dreams
gradually abandoned and forgotten.

From the cry to the prayer,
from the fire to the memory,
may the man in searing pain
sing the blood of his story.

And when at last
your heart goes quiet,
you will embody a nation touched
by a miraculous singer.

After Guastavino’s four songs, Buenos Aires native Carlos López Buchardo (1881-1948) has the next-highest representation, with three numbers. On the enchanting “Vidala” (Dear Little Life), to a poem by Gustavo Caraballo, De Michelis is joined by tenor César Andrés Parreño, about whom I didn’t see a word on the CD or in the program notes (although he is pairing with Bolivian soprano Shelén Hughes, and Steven Blier, on a NYFOS Dec. 5 program of South American songs in New York). “Vidala” (“life” in Spanish with a sweetly endearing suffix from the Quechua language) is a touching reflection on life, perhaps at the end of it on some remote alp:

Breezes of my homeland, vidalita,
where peace reigns!
Tell them that I am dying, vidalita
far from her soulful spirit.
Over the mountain ridges, vidalita
laments the strong, cold wind of the Pampas,
like the sad echo, vidalita,
of my wandering love.

López Buchardo also wrote the tender cradle song “El niño pequeñito” (The Tiny Boy), and “Canción de ausencia” (Song of Yearning):

As my sorrow bursts forth
in the cruel loneliness of your absence,
the anguish I have hidden away
wants only to cry out in song.

Steven Blier makes no secret of his gayness and has even structured NYFOS programs around the gay sensibility in song. His ear is attuned to the subject. Speaking of composer Carlos Guastavino, he writes that he “lived a simple, austere life, shunning not just the spotlight but the company of friends and admirers. He kept his love life secret, though it appears he had a relationship with the poet Francisco Silva Valdés,” a frequent collaborator for his music.

But beyond that, Blier explores the social history of the tango in an illuminating way that I had never thought about:

“Initially it was a male-male-dance, used by pairs of guys to pass the time in the waiting rooms of bordellos. Others claim it was a substitute for a barroom fistfight, a way for men to engage safely in competitions for dominance. It allowed their sublimated aggression to percolate without descending into outright violence.

“Current historians have a more convincing explanation for the same-sex legend of the tango. At the end of the nineteenth century, there was an influx of men immigrating to Argentina as they fled European famine. This created a huge gender imbalance in the population. Men needed to be good dancers in order to attract women at weekend socials, and so during the week they practiced in male couples. Tango was only one of many dances in their repertoire, but it was special. According to Daniel Trenner, a North American tango expert, ‘The risqué thing that made the tango different from other dances is you put your leg in the space between the follower’s legs. The tango was their fantasy dance of what they’d like to do with the girls but didn’t get to.’ Of course, tango was a boon to the still-closeted gay men in Buenos Aires. They were much in demand because they were more relaxed about not leading, making them ideal dance partners for their macho friends.”

In 2011, the USPS issued a series of “forever” stamps honoring Latin Music Legends.

Throughout the album, aside from Steven Blier at the piano, we hear Shinjoo Cho on the bandoneon, Sami Merdinian on violin, and Pablo Lanouguere—who also provided several arrangements—on double bass. At 44.5 minutes, this album could be considered on the short side, but honestly, I had begun to tire of Sr. De Michelis’s voice and repertoire. He has established the better part of his career in opera, and he brings that full-throated, often stentorian delivery to songs that in many cases ask for more intimacy. Don’t get me wrong: I’d love to hear him in the opera house. And maybe even in a cabaret or concert setting where one’s attention is somewhat divided. It’s just that on an album he bears almost the entire weight, and it gets heavy.

This impression of a note-perfect operatic divo going pop is perhaps strongest in the final number on the album, in Blier’s own setting of “El día que me quieras” (If Ever You Should Love Me), the famous song composed and recorded by the incomparable, irreplaceable, inimitable Carlos Gardel (1890-1935), with lyrics by Alfredo Le Pera (1900-1935). (The same premature death date for each of them reflects the fact that they died together while on tour, in a horrific plane crash.) Anyone familiar with Gardel will miss the honeyed, caressing, vulnerable timbre the song seems to cry out for.

Steven Blier’s intelligent and sometimes personal program notes also contain a Spanish translation and the texts and translations of all the songs. Fluent speakers of Spanish may not need to follow along with the printed lyrics, but for everyone else, they are very useful. It would certainly have helped if, on the disc itself, the producers had mentioned the existence of the complete texts online. I didn’t discover that until after my second listen. Several cuts from the album can also be heard on the NYFOS website.

I might have wished for a more comprehensive collection that reached beyond the nostalgia-bound, but still, where else, in one place, would we find this material, these rare Argentine musical gems? For that I am grateful. A “making of” the album video can be viewed here.

Mi País: Songs of Argentina
Federico De Michelis, bass-baritone, Steven Blier, piano
NYFOS Records, 2023

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Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.