Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Mancha de Rolando: a Tale of Music, Travel, and Serendipity

Two weeks ago.  I'm sitting in a pub in El Chalten, a tiny frontier town on the border between Argentina and Chile.  My daughter, Tanya, and I have just finished eight days of trekking and camping in Argentina's Glaciares National Park and Chile's Torres del Paine.  The hikes were astounding: immense landscapes of mountains, glaciers and rivers, twisted Nothofagus trees, fields of heather and endless rocks.  Patagonia is an elemental place: Stone.  Ice.  Sky.  Water.  And earth, tinged with early autumn's red and gold fire.  We've climbed to the base of FitzRoy, named after the captain of the Beagle on Darwin's famous Patagonian journey.  We've walked along roaring rivers, pitched our tent at the foot of ice fields, forded swollen creeks.  We're both content and exhausted.

And we're deeply grateful for our wine and cheese plate, which would be delicious anywhere but tastes even better after many nights of freeze-dried camping cuisine.  We're enjoying the whole scene so much, when a song playing over the pub's stereo system catches my ear.  It's nothing fancy--straight up rock and roll, like most of my favorite music, as elemental as the local terrain: Bass lines, rising and falling.  Swell of the keyboard.  Great guitar grooves.  And the drums, strong and steady, driving it all along.  

I tell Tanya: "Listen.  It sounds like Bruce Springsteen meets Eddie Vedder, with a bit of Latin flair around the edges.  I love it."  Then I ask our server, who is sweet, earnest, and blessedly good in English: "Who is that band we're hearing?"  

He responds: "Mancha de Rolando." He writes this name on a small piece of paper and I tuck it into my shirt pocket.

Fast forward.  I'm back in Buenos Aires, showered and laundered and with good internet access.  I go to Apple Music and search for Mancha de Rolando.  I download a bunch of their tunes and love them all.  Just as I remember from the pub in El Chalten, it is great, no-frills rock and roll, sung with honesty and integrity that somehow comes through even though I can't understand a word.  I learn that the song I first heard is one of their biggest hits, a standard called "Arde la ciudad"--"Burn the City."  I listen, again and again, to two different versions, one from their 2001 album Caballo Loco and the other from their 2010 live record, Vivire Vianjando.  I'm not sure which I like more!

Two days later, I'm walking down the street in the Colegiales neighborhood of BA and look up at a big screen atop an office building.  It's advertising a bunch of stuff: wine, depilatories, cell phones--and a Mancha de Rolando concert at La Trastienda Samsung, a venue in the old Buenos Aires neighborhood of San Telmo!  If there are tickets, I'm going!

Saturday night, April 1.  We show up at the venue at 6 pm and get general admission tickets for the 9 pm show.  When we arrive, we somehow find terrific seats in the balcony, just to the left of the stage.  The place reminds me a lot of Boise's Knitting Factory.  The band comes on at 9:10, and the music, live, is even better than what I've heard on recordings.  Way better.  The crowd is young and passionate.  They know the words to every song--and they sing along.  They sing and surge back and forth and dance and chant and toss red and black balloons and spray confetti everywhere.  The band plays for two hours, all cylinders firing on every tune.  It's one of the best shows that I have ever seen.  I didn't understand a word.  And I understood a lot, beyond the words, because that's how it is with music.
I still can't believe it.  Sitting in a tiny bar in an outpost town in Argentine Patagonia, I serendipitously caught a song by a band that I had never heard of before.  Two weeks later, I'm marveling at their show.  

Of course they ended the set with  "Arde la ciudad". 

It rocked.  All of it.