The eclectic musician behind the soundtracks to 21 Grams and plays a sold out show on Sunset
It is Saturday evening on the Sunset Strip and the Roxy’s lights illuminate the street trash whipped up by the Santa Ana winds. The marquis announces the date: “October 11,” and performer, “Santaolalla and the Bajofondo Tango Club.” Outside, a crowd huddles against the wind waiting to enter. Stepping inside, West Hollywood’s legendary Roxy Theater buzzes with excited voices in English, Spanglish and Argentine-accented Spanish.
Suddenly, the black velvet curtain rises and the audience is astonished by a flash of blue light. We hear a stunning musical chord and then distinguish a mournful violin, tinkling keyboard, expressive guitar and plaintive bandoneón. The crowd goes wild as the stage ignites, revealing black-clad, energetic musicians. Welcome to the Bajofondo Tango Club!
The name “Bajofondo,” loosely translated as “below the surface,” reflects the myriad and complex textures and styles of this eight-piece modern tango ensemble of musicians from Argentina, Uruguay and Los Angeles. Leading Bajofondo is the visionary-legendary-genius Gustavo Santaolalla, the multiple-award winning musician-composer-producer. His reputation as the “godfather of Latin alternative music” and the “Musical Midas” speaks to his influence and recognition that all the music he touches turns to gold. Ernesto Lechner, author of Rock en Español: The Latin Alternative Rock Explosion, explains Santaolalla’s achievements saying, “The man’s artistic hunger is limitless.”
Born in Buenos Aires in 1951, Santaolalla achieved fame while still a teenager with his innovative folk-rock group Arco Iris (Rainbow.) This was the time of Argentina’s “dirty war,” a politically turbulent era in which tens of thousands of people “disappeared” because of so-called “subversive” ideas. Because of his progressive music, hippie appearance and counter-culture lifestyle, Santaolalla was jailed several times. This prompted him to leave Argentina and move to the United States, where he settled in Echo Park.
With newfound artistic and creative freedom, Santaolalla’s career skyrocketed. He became a renowned producer of major alternative Latin musicians including Colombian rock idol Juanes and Mexican superstars Julieta Venegas (whose performance filled L.A.’s Nokia Center on Oct. 10), rap-metal quartet Molotov and the celebrated Café Tacvba.
Santaolalla’s success extended to his movie scores and soundtracks for films such as Amores Perros (2000), 21 Grams (2003) and the Motorcycle Diaries (2004). His soundtracks for Brokeback Mountain (2005) and Babel (2006) were honored with Academy Awards.
Santaolalla still found time for a multitude of other projects such as producing a traditional tango revival album. He also created his own recording studio in Echo Park, known as “La Casa” (the house), on a deceptively residential, working-class hillside just three miles from Occidental College.
I had good reason to be ecstatic about seeing Santaolalla perform with the Bajofondo Tango Club at the Roxy a few weeks ago. I attended their show at the El Rey Theater last summer, and love both their albums, Tango Club (2002) and Mar Dulce (Sweet Sea) released this August. (Mar Dulce refers to the Rio de la Plata, the river sharing the boundary between Uruguay and Argentina, where tango was born in the early 1900’s.)
The concert experience was thrilling. The ensemble clearly honors traditional tango with its repetitive dance rhythms, accordion-like bandoneón, and melancholy, lyrical style. But it is so much more as the sounds of rock, electronica, hip-hop and rap are added. Many of the songs were new, reflecting their innovative style touching on an ever-growing variety of musical sources.
Bajofondo demonstrated their skill at combining tango with percussive dance beats, samples and “scratch.” An upright bass blended well with an electric bass. An amazing hybrid instrument called a horn-violin was wonderful. Some of the music was instrumental, some songs were in English, and others in Spanish. Regardless, music’s universal language expressed bittersweet love, nostalgia and jubilation. Not only does Santaolalla write many Bajofondo songs, he performs on guitar and vocals in their live shows. Like many Argentina natives, Santaolalla grew up with tango and his mastery of this music is apparent.
Watching Santaolalla in concert was thrilling. The crowd went wild as his face radiated a passionate joy and his burly frame energetically frolicked on stage, pausing to jam with the pianist, dance with the violinist and strike the cymbal of the drum set. His band-mates fed off Santaolalla’s energy; even the stage assistant danced wildly on the side of stage while waiting to help with equipment.
Midway through the concert, Santaolalla introduced his band, crediting their diverse home cities including Montevideo and Buenos Aires. When he identified himself as an Angelino the L.A. natives in the audience shimmered with pride, recognizing his importance as a golden thread in the cultural fabric of our city.
Bajofondo performances have been called a “breaking loose of a wonderful, unpredictable, sweaty hell” and this was an apt description of the Roxy show. As the final songs were performed, the ecstatic audience broke into spontaneous dance and Santaolalla invited everyone on stage. The crowd seemed to regard Santaolalla with genuine love as well as a kind of awe. Not only is he a musical genius but he also puts on one hell of a good show.
Listen to the music of Bajofondo Tango Club at http://www.myspace.com/bajofondomardulce.
© Copyright 2010 The Occidental Weekly