Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Bo Diddley's a Gaucho!

At first, this entry might sound awkward, but I can't let the week go by without acknowledging the death of Ellas McDaniel, better known as Bo Diddley, the subject of an extensive New York Times obituary to which I can at least add an anecdote.

I never saw Bo play live, but I did see him in person, coincidentally thanks to my Southern Cone interests. In 1984, after finishing up several weeks of historical research on the Falkland/Malvinas Islands in the Public Records Office at Kew, I flew from London back to Baltimore/Washington International Airport. On board, I noticed a bulky, vaguely familiar black man but never made the connection until, at the luggage carousel in Baltimore, his voice rang out "Anybody see a gui-tar here name of Bo Diddley?"

He may not have said it with his signature Afro-Cuban clave beat - as important to contemporary music as Chuck Berry's guitar - but it was a performance I've never forgotten. Every year, as I spend several months driving around Argentina and Chile while updating my guidebooks, this world music pioneer remains part of my iPod soundtrack. I always enjoy the classic "Say Man," with its good-natured trash talk between Bo and maraca player Jerome Green:

Green: Where you from?
Bo: South America.
Green: What's that?
Bo: South America.
Green: You don't look like no South American to me.
Bo: I'm still from South America.
Green: What part?
Bo: South Texas!

In fact, this exchange is not so different from the Argentine gaucho's payada de contrapunto, an improvised singing duel that was usually friendly but could end in a knife fight. According to historian Richard Slatta, many gaucho payadores were Afro-Argentines - a parallelism that makes Bo's lyrical bragadoccio credible.

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