Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Fitness Stalkers of Buenos Aires?

Spending five to six months a year on the road makes it a challenge to stay in shape. At home in California, my favorite means of exercise is cycling, which I do several times a week for distances up to 35 miles (60 km or so) in the Oakland/Berkeley Hills. Being something of a loner in this regard, I’ve never gone to a gym but, just a block from our house in Oakland’s Temescal district, I can’t help but notice the presence of CrossFit, which has occupied part of a recycled carpet showroom for the last few years.
Every day, while walking the dog, I see CrossFitters sprinting up and down 41st Street in between punishing sessions at the weights and other exercises. More than a few people have branded it a cult that’s comparable to submitting to a permanent regime of Marine Corps basic training, but that isn’t what bothers me. Rather, I’m annoyed that (as the photograph above shows), they’ve described our neighborhood as part of Uptown rather than Temescal, presumably because nearby Uptown’s a bit edgier and hipper than middle-class Temescal (which was, admittedly, edgier and hipper when we bought our house in 1992).
CrossFit hasn’t been a major annoyance but, when I headed to Buenos Aires last winter, I had apparently underestimated the extent of its globalization. On my first walk from our Palermo apartment, I found that CrossFit had set up shop barely a block away, in a recently opened building that included the boutique-ish Hotel Casasur Bellini (pictured above), luxury flats, offices, and several cafés and restaurants at street level.
To be sure, there were plenty of stylish young Porteños getting their basic training, but what got my attention was that the locale called itself CrossFit Palermo Chico – after the conspicuously wealthy embassy row neighborhood across Avenida del Libertador. In that, they’re appealing to a different sort of snobbery than their Oakland counterpart – looking down upon their middle-class surroundings rather than dismissing them from below.

In Buenos Aires, whose monotonously flat terrain and vicious traffic make it largely unsuitable for the kind of cycling I prefer, I have to get most of my exercise by walking. I certainly can’t persuade myself to join a gym like CrossFit, especially when they appear to be stalking me across continents and, worse than that, deceiving their clients with misleading geography.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Bueno Aires, Beyond Tango: Struggling and Striving in the Music Scene

I first met Grant Dull a few years ago when, on assignment from National Geographic Traveler, part of my job was to consult an expert on local nightlife and spend a night on the town with that person. In the end, for that assignment I went with an Argentine rather than an expat, but there’s no doubting Grant’s commitment to the city’s creative music scene in particular.
The stereotype of Buenos Aires nightlife is, of course, tango, but there’s much more and Grant’s made himself a career of exploring and promoting it through his record label ZZK. In Argentina’s complicated economy, though, musicians often have a hard time of it – something he’s hoping to help remedy through expansion in the near future. What follows is a lightly edited email interview with him.

WB: When did you arrive in Buenos Aires, and where did you come from originally? What brought you to Argentina, and why did you stay?

GD:  I first arrived to Buenos Aires in 1999. Fresh out of college. Wet behind the ears. Itching to see the world. I’m from Texas but studied in California. What brought me essentially was a book, and a song. My Buddhism professor my last semester at the University of San Diego told me I should read Borges. He blew my mind. Then about three months later, while deciding where I was going to start my international adventure, I heard Astor Piazzolla on the radio and that was it. Buenos Aires I was going. Fifteen years later, here I am working in music, arts and culture. So you can also say it’s what’s kept me here: music and culture.

WB: Am I correct that your first professional project was the What’s Up Buenos Aires website? Is that what led you to become a music promoter (if that’s a fair term)?

GD: You are correct. I came back to Buenos Aires in 2004 after teaching English for five years around the world.  I wanted a change and decided to put all my know-how of getting to know a city and being a traveler hunting for the best and most authentic experiences into the website. It was at a time where Buenos Aires was becoming a sort of  “hot spot” for travelers looking for a great city on a budget and WUBA became a great source of information. That is what led me to start being a promoter.  I wanted to translate what we were doing online to real life. So I started getting involved with the scene I was promoting online, throwing parties, producing events, producing content (music, visual) for different events. That's what lead to starting a weekly party Zizek, that inevitably birthed the record label, ZZK.

WB: How would you describe the Buenos Aires music scene? I think when most people hear the word cumbia, the initial impulse is to think of the tropical Caribbean. Is there anything in common between that and cumbia villera?
GD: The Buenos Aires musical scene is as diverse as the city itself. Anything you’re into, you can find. Rock, blues, jazz, electronic, cumbia, folklore, salsa, classical.  Really, it’s everywhere, and a lot of it, and a lot of it’s really good (see the video above). Argentines are very musical and Buenos Aires breeds good artists. Cumbia is a rhythm that was born on the Carribean coasts of Colombia and Panama, with origins from Africa, that mixed with the music from the European settlers and the indigenous people. A real mash-up of the Americas and New World.

Cumbia villera was born out of the slums of Buenos Aires and was a musical, cultural and societal reaction to a country in crisis. The common thread of what we do and cumbia villera is that it tends to get really raw, synthy and psychedelic. But our scene isn’t necessarily directly related to cumbia villera, rather it shares the same platform (Buenos Aires) but in a different socio-economic-cultural context.

WB: Where did the name ZZK come from? How many acts do you have, and what styles do they play? It seems the thrust is electronic dance music, but some performers incorporate strong folkloric elements such as accordion-based chamamé (which bears some resemblance to Tex-Mex conjunto?).

GD: We decided to stop using Slavoj Zizek’s name when we realized we were going to become a global brand.  One thing is to name an underground nightclub after a famous philosopher, another is to start a business. So ZZK is just an acronym of Zizek.
Historically, we’ve produced 15 acts. Their styles are all pretty different but always thread the line of “New Latin American” or “Latin American Digital” meaning they’re all working with Latin American sounds and rhythms, but in a new, contemporary context. Yes, chamamé is featured on the La Yegros album (see video above), malambo on Tremor’s album, coplas on Chancha Via Circuito’s album, huaynos on Mati Zundel’s album. They all tend to experiment with different folkloric rhythms. That’s what makes it so interesting. It’s not your typical electronic dance music. There are roots involved, swaths of earth, traditions, culture! 

WB: What are the best places in Buenos Aires to hear the latest music? Are there any up-and-coming performers who deserve special attention?
GD: Niceto Club, Club Matienzo, Salón Puerreydón, La Trastienda (pictured above), La Oreja Negra. So many little underground spots that are popping up every day.  The newest artist we’re about to present to the world is Nicolá Cruz. He’s based in Quito, Ecuador. Here in Buenos Aires I’d keep an eye out for Barrio Lindo, Dat Garcia, SidiRum, Femina and Sofía Viola.

WB: How do you deal with the challenges of operating a business – music is a business, after all – in such a complex economic environment as Argentina?

GD: By staying on my toes, being creative, working a ton, calling on our friends and fans to help out, being open to change, being flexible to adversity and day-to-day struggles that are commonplace in Argentina, and the music industry. 

WB: What are your plans for the future? I understand you have a crowd-funding project underway.

GD: More music, more everything.  I’ve started working in documentary filmmaking too as a branch of ZZK, our first project is in development. Our crowdfunding project through IndieGoGo is about our future. We launched it about three weeks ago and we have about four weeks to go. We’re calling on our friends and fans to give a little something back to a little, independent operation that has given the world some amazing music, and wants to continue to doing that.

WB: Where can people find ZZK music to buy?

GD: Bandcamp, iTunes, Amazon, Beatport, Spotify. If you’re in a big city with some great music stores you might be able to find them there too, like Amoeba in Berkeley, San Francisco or Hollywood.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Firing Up the Grill: Argentina's Mallmann Does Netflix

In the course of two-decades-plus writing guidebooks and other travel pieces on southernmost South America, I’ve only rarely stayed at elite hotels – they’re expensive and freebies are far less common than many people think they are – but I have managed to eat at some of the region’s best restaurants. It’s one thing to shell out US$500 for a room and something else entirely to splurge on a meal (especially at times when devaluation makes eating cheap even when top accommodations maintain their prices at international levels). For me, personally, a hotel is rarely more than a place to sleep, but a fine dinner feels like a reward for a hard day’s work.
That’s why, the other night, I streamed the new Netflix series Chef’s Table with interest, because one episode covers Argentina’s Francis Mallmann, who’s become something of a franchise with restaurants in Mendoza, Buenos Aires, and Uruguay, but with strong connections to Patagonia. As one might expect from an Argentine, Mallman specializes in cooking over an open fire.
My only meal at a Mallman restaurant came at 1884, at Mendoza’s Escorihuela winery (pictured above), where I summarized the offerings as “gourmet versions of regional dishes such as kid goat from Malargüe , and a diversity of tapas-style appetizers.” A few years ago, after being commissioned to write a National Geographic Traveler piece on Buenos Aires, I missed an opportunity to dine at his Patagonia Sur (pictured below) because it was closed on the only night my invited guest and I had mutually available.
The Netflix program focuses on Mallmann’s time at Bahía Arenal, a remote lakeside lodge in a part of Argentina’s Chubut province that I’ve never visited (I’ve been fairly close to it on the Chilean side of the border, but there’s no access from there). Throughout the show, Mallmann displays his devotion to fire – sometimes Big Fire – as a cooking technique. He also displays a mammoth ego but, I suppose, that’s not unusual among celebrity chefs with his pedigree.

Mallmann implies, strongly, that his preference for cooking over open fires was something of a reaction against the European training he eagerly sought when he was younger. There’s still something of a disconnect, though, between the self-conscious rusticism of a wealthy restaurateur who prefers grilled food, and the practices of poorer people for whom there is no alternative to firewood – even when the smoke within their homes, essential for heating and cooking, is a health issue.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Wild Tales from Argentina

Over the past couple weeks, I’ve neglected this blog as I worked on a deadline project and struggled with clunky software (thanks, Adobe!). Saturday night, though, I finished up and treated myself to a movie – in this case, the 2014 Oscar nominee Wild Tales (trailer below), from Argentine director Damián Szifrón (whose work I had never seen before).
Wild Tales is not a conventional narrative, but rather a series of vignettes that deal with themes of resentment, and even revenge, in a dysfunctional society. My Argentine wife, who saw the film in Buenos Aires, sees it differently, suggesting a more universal theme of reactions by people pushed to the edge in extreme circumstances.

There’s an argument for either, but there must be a reason – other than just Ricardo Darín – that it’s been a big box-office hit in Argentina. It does have an all-star cast, though not many of them will be familiar to English-speaking audiences – Darín appeared in the 2010 Oscar-winner The Secret in Their Eyes, and composer Gustavo Santaolalla has won two Oscars for best original score (2005 for Brokeback Mountain and 2006 for Babel).

To my non-Argentine eyes, though, Wild Tales expresses the frustrations that many Argentines experience every day, ranging from unresponsive customer service to class conflict to road rage to rampant corruption – not that these are mutually exclusive. To Szifrón’s credit, he often does so with humor, though it’s usually a gallows humor that may not amuse everybody.

That said, the individual episodes are uneven. My favorites were La Propuesta (The Proposal), in which a wealthy and influential family protect their son from a vehicular manslaughter charge to the detriment of their loyal handyman, and Bombita, in which Darín’s character fights a parking violation. The former, though, was stressful to watch for its portrayal of corruption in the legal system and its impact on the unfortunate handyman (though he himself was not incorruptible).
Whenever I watch such a movie, I always try to identify the locations from my own travels. Most were in Buenos Aires, though I couldn’t them with any precision except for the international airport at Ezeiza (pictured above) The road rage episode El Más Fuerte, though, was shot in the scenic canyon country (pictured below) near the northern Andean wine district of Cafayate (mentioned in the dialogue and acknowledged in the credits). The scenery, though, takes a distant second place to the class-based hostility between the two drivers (though it has its humorous moments).

Without giving away too much, I would recommend the movie to anyone curious about Argentina and its society, but I’d also hope it wouldn’t discourage anyone from visiting the country. Bronca (aggravation) is part of being an Argentine, but it’s not everything.
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