Global Trad Music

The Urban Cowboy Fiddlers of Rio and Buenos Aires

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Fiddling is an essential part of traditional folk music from Mexico to Argentina. You’ve seen violins in Mariachi music (and if you are a bit more plugged into world music, you’ve heard of son huasteco), but have you heard of the Afro-Brazilian rabeca players sawing away on Samba tunes with their medieval handmade fiddles during the sweaty Carnival season in the Northeastern coastal regions? How about Argentinian fiddlers playing to swaying gaucho couples in Santiago del Estero?

The fiddle is alive and well in Latin America. And by fiddling, I mean a violin-led music style of traditional melodies and rhythms played mainly (but not exclusively) for dancers.

I was lucky enough to visit both Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires over the past few years and get a glimpse of some regional fiddle styles, in a distinctly urban environment. Just as Appalachian fiddling in the US has made it to cities across the country, rural fiddle styles in Latin America can now be found in the major cities of Latin America.

FORRO DE RABECA IN RIO

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Internal migration has changed the face of many cities in Latin America. Poor migrants from Northeastern Brazil have been pouring into Rio de Janeiro for decades, often ending up in hillside favelas. They also brought their distinctly Afro-Brazilian culture with them, especially the Forró music which can be found today in clubs throughout the city.

Many associate Forró with the accordion, but many throughout the country now play the music on the most ancient of Brazilian instruments, the fiddle-like Rabeca. Brought over by the Portuguese, the rabeca is thought to be a Sephardic origin and has more or less died out in Portugal. But it lives on in Brazil and is even enjoying a mini-renaissance.


Rabeca…and a rabbit

Rabeca…and a rabbit

Rabeca music has been high on my list for decades, after a 2008 trip to the country when I heard recordings of Carnaval music from the Northeastern state of Pernambucana. The recordings were all heavy on percussion and rabeca. I was entranced. It was like Appalachian fiddle music after 10 caipirinhas (an example here).

Forró in Santa Teresa

When in Rio in 2016 for work, I had the good fortune to have colleagues who are very linked in to the musical scene there. One in particular, Michel Tasky – a public health nut by day/Belgian-Brazilian Samba star by night – really hooked me up. A few WhatsApp messages later and I was connected with Rabeca player Rodrigo Bis.

I was able to catch Rodrigo at a café in the hipster Santa Teresa neighborhood, where he serenaded me with a great “Toada do Cavaleiro.” I managed to do a quick recording:

It was a great show, and I had a fantastic time hanging with Rodrigo and his friends.

Forró in Downtown Rio

Rodrigo pointed me towards another concert happening that week, this time in the downtown Rua do Ouvidor – a real, honest-to-god forró de rabeca. The forró was on a stage in a public square surrounded by the 19th century colonnaded buildings that make up this shopping area. Despite the downtown location, it was a rootsy and authentic gathering.


On stage was Daniel Souto, another Rio-based rabeca player. The dancing was intense, and I couldn’t get over the unique sound of Daniel’s sawing fiddle over the percussive and syncopated backing band. Brazilian music is already original enough, but add the medieval-sounding drone of the rabeca and you get an rich and unique sound that is undeniably Brazilian.

FIDDLING IN BUENOS AIRES

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Sure, when in Buenos Aires for a few nights, most music lovers will try and find an authentic tango night. With good reason, if you hit the right place, you will be in for an evening of musical virtuosity, passion, and a fundamentally Argentine experience.

When I was there in 2015 I opted for something a bit more folksy. Again, local colleagues were my ticket to good fiddle music. When I described my desire for something rootsy, I was instantly directed to one of the many peña in Buenos Aires.

As in Rio, internal migration has helped to define Buenos Aires as well. Migrants from rural Argentina have been moving to the city since it was founded. Migrants and their descendants remain proud of their rural traditions, and the peña bars in the city are bastions of regional culture, featuring song and dance. If the milonga tango parties are a tribute to the cosmopolitan immigrant culture that defines Buenos Aires, the peña pays tribute to the rural culture that characterizes so much of Argentina.

Chacarera music from Santiago del Estero

One form you can find in the peña is the fiddle driven Chacarera music. It is believed chacarera originates from the word chacra, meaning “farm.” This makes sense, since the musical form comes from the heavily agricultural provinces like Salta and Santiago del Estero. Traditionally it is played by a lead violin, a guitar, and the unique bombo drum.

I was brought to La Peña del Colorado (above), in an unremarkable area of the city. But stepping inside it felt like I was transported to the great plains of Argentina. Armadillo guitars, jugs of red wine, all sorts cattle horns, and importantly, great chacarera fiddling and dancing:


I’m pretty terrible at describing dancing, but the above video speaks for itself! I found it slightly similar to a contradance, with lots of partner dancing and a healthy dose of foot-stomping and circling.

Latin America has such a mind boggling array of folk music and I can’t wait to discover more fiddling!

For more info

Make sure to check out Pena and Tango nights in Buenos Aires. In Brazil check out Rodrigo and many other new generation rabeca players in town!

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