by Philip Jacobson
Video by Louis Sparre
Streets named for a French socialist and an Argentine revolutionary enclose Avenida Sarmiento's 3100 block, where this Monday evening motorcycles ride up sidewalks, young porteños share pipes and beer, hostel hoppers from overseas empty out of cabs, and drum beats drift forth from Konex, the oil factory turned entertainment venue that occupies this twilight. In the outdoor enclosure beyond the ticket window neon K-O-N-E-X glows like five red moons. Beneath it, a giant staircase spills from the structure's upper depths. Its landing functions as a stage; the concrete hall beyond it, a white pillared ribcage filled with thousands of people, holds another. Soon, 17 of the best percussionists in Buenos Aires will take it, as they do every Monday night as La Bomba de Tiempo. Using the conductor-led, hand signal-based method of structured improvisation under which Santiago Vazquez united them four years ago, dressed in heartbeat red, they will pump the place with percussive energy, and Konex will shake with cardiac force.
Historically, Argentina is probably the least percussive nation in South America. It certainly is the whitest. Though the country once contained a substantial number of afro-argentines, no one seems to know exactly where they went - popular explanations include a yellow fever epidemic, their use as cannon fodder in war against Paraguay, or a simple fading into the general population over time - and the national census hasn't even counted them since 1887, when it found they numbered 1.8 percent. While neighbors like Brazil and Uruguay developed drum-oriented styles like the samba and candombe, Euro-tinged Buenos Aires became synonymous with tango. Still, the country had a thriving Carnival tradition, until the military government that came to power in 1976 discontinued it and banned Murga, the performance group that is the celebration's singing, dancing and drumming essence. In those dark years it was forbidden for three or more people to be on the streets together doing anything, much less amongst a drum circle.
During that time, a young Santiago Vazquez lived in Spain with his family. They returned to Buenos Aires in 1985 when Vazquez was 14. By 30, following years of musical experimentation and a bit of notoriety with his band Puente Celeste, Vazquez was training percussion groups. He saw Buenos Aires as a city in need of some kind of collective social space. A place where people could come together and dance. He envisioned something centered around a percussion group, something genuine to Buenos Aires, a new invention rather than an imitation of an already established musical form like the samba or candombe.
Vazquez had been making music with a group he created called Colectivo Eterofónico, based on a system of harmonic signs he had developed to explore conducting improvisation. He had also for years been collecting rhythmic ideas which he hoped to put into use in a large percussion ensemble. As he began to understand how his many ideas could fit into one project, Vazquez ended Colectivo and started planning what would become la Bomba de Tiempo. He developed a new system of signs for conducting rhythm specifically. He drew up the construction of the group and then began the process of recruit members. For his system, strange as it was, Vazquez needed musicians capable of understanding complex ideas and fluent enough to play naturally while he threw an arsenal of signs at them.
"So I called the best," Vazquez says with a smile. We’re sitting in a back room of the Konex following a Monday show. He’s wearing a purple v-neck and a white sweater tied around his waist. Laugh lines converge at his eyes, which light up when he talks. He looks distinctly younger than he is through sheer healthiness. Most of the other members of Bomba eat at a table behind him. When Vazquez proposed they join his group four years ago, they didn't fully understand what he was trying to do, but the prospect of working amongst one another and the challenge of the signs was a strong incentive to participate.
"The initial 15 minutes of the first rehearsal were terrible," Vazquez says. "Because I didn’t explain what we wanted to do. Just, let's jam a little bit. I was just trying to listen [to] what was the natural jamming of that group of people." Afterwards he explained the concept, how he envisioned them divided into almost autonomous sections, how they were to balance repetition and creation, his idea of free composition. "And then they got it very soon, and I could start to see that it could work."
After two full months of Monday night rehearsals, Vazquez pitched the idea to Konex. On May 8, 2006, 350 people paid five pesos each to attend Bomba's first open rehearsal, rigged up with old Chinese microphones and a borrowed sound system. Four years, 17 red uniforms and some big-time equipment later, Bomba regularly draws 3,000 people. Last year they added a few Saturday Bombas to meet demand; Fiesta de la Bomba, as they are called, always sell out, capacity 3,500. Other members have established themselves as directors. Since they play with a different guest musician every week - everything from a bassist or a singer to a Trekkie-looking guy behind a turntable - no show is ever the same.
Perhaps the largest accomplishment is that Bomba has become the collective social space that Vazquez dreamed of creating. Before the show, you can't hit the kiosco for a litro without the guy at the other register yelling about how Bomba is the best thing on the planet. Outside, a young suit getting out of a cab greets his dreadlocked friends drinking on the corner; in this city business suit and eyebrow piercing are not mutually exclusive. There's a didgeridoo salesman; if he decides you have good vibrations, he might aim his instrument into your chest and give you some of his own. Then he'll teach you to mimic an elephant's trumpet, done by rolling your R's into the great cylinder, and talk up the shamanistic Wachuma ceremony he leads next week. "It's like ayahuasca," he says in broken English, referring to the ancestral plant's better-known cousin, "but for here instead of here," pointing first at his heart, then at your head.
And there amid the crowd on the corner waiting for the signal to cross, stands Cheikh Gueye, the most ferocious drummer in Bomba. Slung over his shoulder is his great djembe, fashioned from goatskin and teak by a childhood friend 11 years ago in Senegal. Tonight, when he rips off a solo that stampedes through Konex's cavernous inner chamber, his head will arch upward and convulse violently from side to side, sending his fitted hat flying and his short black dreadlocks into seething animation. This is inevitable; Gueye's solos are a pillar of Bomba. It's just a matter of when he receives the sign.
Screechy, erratic noises fill Diego Pojomovsky's living room. It's a recording of Conduction 104, a previous installment of an ongoing traveling musical production put on by American jazzman Butch Morris. Under Morris' conduction system, in which he directs an improvising ensemble through signs, the Conduction series has for over 20 years traveled all over the world. Morris’ travels from city to city forming ensembles of local musicians to perform under his direction. When Morris came to Buenos Aires in 1998 Pojomovsky played the bass.
The eerie music sounds like what children fear at night. Juxtaposed with this aural monster under the bed and Pojomovsky’s own face – long hair, unshaven – his accent comes off a bit vampirish. "How do you conduct this? How?" he says. Tension builds before dissolving under a hushed cymbal until the music approaches near silence. Pojomovsky's voice, an instrument by its own rights, conquers the space. "I remember one sign at this very moment directed to me which was—" Pojomovsky's right hand makes a come-hither motion and eight creeping bass notes enter the composition. "So I was playing freely." His gaze falls slightly as he loses himself in the memory. His hands remain raised. "There he asked several players to do two long notes. Oooone, and the other. That's the way it works. There is no key, no scale, nothing. I'm free to do whatever I want." His hands continue to reproduce the signs he saw 11 years ago. His left thumb and forefinger form an upside-down L. "He's asking me to repeat. I'm beginning to repeat."
Vazquez was also to play in Conduction 104, but had to drop out because of a scheduling conflict. Out of interest he attended a rehearsal. What he witnessed proved to him that he could make the music he had been imagining. Inspired, he began to create his own language of signs that became the basis for Colectivo and later converted into Bomba. Vazquez took Morris' conduction concept further, designing a system that would allow him to experiment with his own musical ideas. "Butch Morris only used signs related to dynamics and movement and listening and getting with another musician," Pojomovsky says. "There were signs to repeat things, to memorize, to change. But he never used signs like we used in Colectivo in relation to notes or scales." Morris never used rhythmic patterns, for example. But the members of Bomba utilize a set of songs they call memories, which they sometimes use as a jumping off point for improvisation. One is a famous tango composition, another a mix of folkloric rhythms Vazquez wrote. Most often they use an Indian formula, the memory that allows them greatest flexibility.
In their Wednesday rehearsals they constantly experiment. A recent focus was metric modulation, a way to instantly change tempo instead of gradually slowing down or speeding up, and for a few months before that they played only in the 5/4 time signature. It is here, in this incorporation of new ideas, where the members' diverse musical backgrounds really come into play. Richard Nant, a middle-aged man with a U-shaped goatee and a hoop in his left earlobe, grew up listening to jazz. He plays trumpet every Wednesday with his other band, Los Gauchos, at a club called in Recoleta called Thelonius. The leader of Los Gauchos is especially well-versed in writing metric modulation, so Nant brought into Bomba some exercises and rhythms they had been working on.
"Everyone has different backgrounds, but no one is only about one style," Nant says one afternoon at a restaurant in the city's center. "Nacho, he's a very Candombe concept player, he plays in a Candombe group in La Plata [Buenos Aires Provincia]. But he can play anything he wants to play. Tiki Cantero, [is] the connection with folklore, and also Mario Gusso. Gabi Spiller, his grandfather was a violin master, he played in the Teatro Colon. Carto, he is a jazz drummer. But how can I define Carto? It's like an intuition. Carto is 100 percent intuition. Totally free. Juampi Fransiconi, he is from Littoral and they have that flavor, you can hear that flavor in his playing. Then you have Ale Oliva. Oliva is like a piece of Buenos Aires. He's porteño. You have Lucas Helguero, he's very methodic, always studying. He's very related with Brazil. He can play the berimbau. You can see where everybody's coming from." Nant pauses. "Santiago is a thinker. Intelligent, fast. He did a really great casting call."
Vazquez likes the idea of helping other groups develop their own styles within the Bomba-born system. There exists what is essentially a Bomba school, called CERBA, the Center for Rhythmic Studies, which Vazquez and other Bomba musicians started to teach the system to anyone who is interested in taking the classes. As the language spreads, Vazquez aims to keep it universal and avoid a splintering into different dialects. "If after some years we have different languages, you lose the chance to play with others and to communicate," Vazquez says. "So if we have a new musical idea we want to try, we first try to do it with the signs we already have, combining things in a different way to express that. If there is no way then we have to create a new sign." It's an ongoing process, the language growing organically with the ideas behind it, becoming more complex as more people come into its fold.
"I really use in my mind the model of soccer," Santiago says. "I don't know what is the limit for this movement. But there are very enormous things that at the beginning they probably were very small. Like soccer. So I don’t know what is the real size that this has to have. We only can just keep doing it and see what happens."
Alejandro Oliva puts a finger to his lips, sits down on stage and motions the crowd to do the same. They do. The semicircle of percussionists behind him have also followed their director’s lead and ceased making noise. For a moment the place is actually silent. Oliva jumps back to his feet and resumes his swaying tai-chi dance movements, and the drumming picks up again at full fury. In La Bomba de Tiempo there is always that moment when everything pops. When the crowd, having gradually progressed from standing still or a simple head nod to the more discernible upper body swaying to the edge of total froth finally reaches its boiling point. Directly in front of the stage is the hottest. Imbued with kinetic energy they fly off in all directions, repeatedly colliding and bouncing off of one another like water boiled to steam. Oliva, sagely, expressionless, is playing with that line, cooling them done and heating them up again. Another Monday, another ritual.