After a month or so in Buenos Aires I decided I wanted to play an instrument. I played trombone from third to twelfth grade and even tried guitar in middle school (isn’t that the most likely time a kid would want to learn guitar?) but the one instrument I have always tried to play and given up on is harmonica.
I wanted to learn tango. Tango on the chromatic harmonica which is distinct because it enables the player to play every note instead of only playing notes in one key. The chromatic harmonica means you could use one harmonica for any song. I bought a cheap (relatively) after a week or so of back-and-forth-shouldIreallybuythis—then I did.
I was just screwing around with it until I happened upon a milonga where I saw a slightly balding, scruffy, paunchy dude playing harmonica and (in fact) leading a band playing tango. This was my chance and I asked him if he’d give me lessons. He said sure (and spoke English well) and asked what kind of harmonica I had. A Chrometta 10.
“Oh that’s shit man.”
That’s the first thing I remember Rafael telling me.
He seems like he’s in his late thirties. Divorced. We had the first lesson in the park by my home-stay and he biked from far way to be there. We couldn’t have it at his place because he was living with his ex-wife at that time and as one might expect, he told me “it isn’t a good situation.” So we sat down in the park and he taught me how to get a better sound. He wasn’t a professional teacher but rather a musician who, like many of the (few) artists I have met here, teaches anything they can to make extra cash. He told me I needed to cover the holes on the instrument more, surround them with my mouth, “like eating a p***y.” This comparison would come up again. It’s part of who Rafael is. I think it shows how Argentine he is.
But he’s not from Buenos Aires. The reason why he can speak English so well is because he spent two years teaching snowboarding in Vermont. The reason why he can snowboard is because he spent some of his childhood with his father at their home in Bariloche, the gateway to some of the best skiing on the continent. I think his parents split up when he was young. His father is alive but his mother died a few years ago. He still keeps an embroidered flower in his wallet to remember her by.
The next few lessons were at a clean apartment he was renting as long as he could. For a few weeks this French woman stayed with him. He lived in France for a few months and could speak more or less fluently. She had bought him a top-of-the-line harmonica in France, something he couldn’t buy in Argentina. But it was the best.
He didn’t have the money to pay for it so he asked me if I wanted to buy his old harmonica—a nice Hohner. I eventually decided to buy it for 200 pesos less than retail along with his snowboarding jacket thrown in for free. I felt like I was ripping him off and he seemed sad to sell both but he really needed the money for the new harmonica.
He is a patient teacher and he has a passion for music. He freely admits that he teaches tango classes to get laid. He loves to snowboard. He says he has to dance every day or he feels sick. I haven’t heard from him in a month.
About once a week it will pour in Buenos Aires. It is a characteristic of the weather in this small part of Argentina which as a whole is experiencing its worst drought in fifty years. The sun is blocked out by a white sky which filters the light so that patches of the city may be more lit up than others but the light is flat and dull, though in a way that makes plants look better than buildings which seem more drab in the cool air. Last night it was raining as hard as I have seen it here and I went out at around this time (2 am) to San Telmo, the neighborhood that everyone says looks more European than most parts of the city. I had been to a market there before and can attest to the difference but at night I didn’t see it. All I saw were dark streets punctuated by yellow lamps diffusing their glow through the downpour. I pulled up to a very nondescript location and tried to find the address my friend had texted. It was a scratched up black door in what was the front of a building but what I remember as a brick wall.
Inside was a tango school—of course closed now but not very busy during the days either, I was told—where people were dancing and drinking. From the door I walked through a brick-walled hallway with no ceiling and saw practice rooms on my right. There was dancing and drinking going on in the furthest room and I mainly moved between there and the largest practice room the entrance of which was lit up with a pink spot light. Inside there were chairs, a few records on the wall, a mirror at ground level, and a piano. Whenever someone would enter the pink hue that the spotlight threw on the piano would disappear for a second and then return. As the rain continued to rinse the city my friends along with Argentine musicians and artists listened to tango, milonga, and more that I can’t place.
It was a great night and I hope I’ll remember it but certain things may grow fuzzy. The conversations, the look of the place, the smell, the sound. I didn’t bring a camera here so I can’t take pictures, but in the age of facebook the issue of the photographic experience is not so much the feeling one gets from having a picture as it is about the feeling they get from taking one. My friend brought his camera along and I’ve added one of his pictures here. I like the idea of posting pictures other people took because it shows how they wanted to remember a moment that we both experienced but in different ways. So that is it.