Tuesday, July 3, 2012

La Ensambe Serenata

Yesterday was a public holiday in honor of Saint Peter and Saint Paul.  Chileans don't generally pay too much attention to the honorees of their many public holidays.   When a gringo asks, they shrug and say that they're not entirely sure, but ISN'T it nice to have an extra day to spend with family?
Chilean work days are very long, and I can't imagine that anyone worth the honoring would mind being remembered in happiness and family rather than by name. 

On this particular long weekend, we were taken out by a group of musical friends to La Maquina  (the Machine) a small club in Providencia to listen to la Ensamble Serenata.  La Maquina is housed in an old, high-ceilinged Chilean house.  Room dividers had been knocked out and floor levels now vacillate around an unspecified mean-floor-level.  The walls have been painted ochre-red and hung with large papier-mache carnival masks: one of the men in our party whispered to me that with the ochre color it was a VERY Valparaiso sort of club - and now I will have to go down to the coast and do the midnight-till-five club scene there, just so I can find other places just like it.  La Maquina was bold and cheery and squashed in with far too many tables, just like all the best clubs in every city everywhere. We were a large and cheerful party and had a large table right in front of the corner of the old house that had been roped off for the band.  

As he passed around the menu,  the proprietor of the place bent his head to ours and whispered that machas were available - not on the menu, but happening back in the kitchen for those in the know.
Machas Parmesanas are a very Chilean dish: surf-clams baked in their shells under a layer of parmesan cheese,  and cooked until the cheese is brown and crispy around the edges.  They are served by the dozen, on a plate swimming with a rich, cheesy broth, and they are always accompanied by with a basket of bread-rounds to sop up the juice.
To repeat, this club is called La Maquina, and it is situated at Seminario 65 in Providencia, Santiago, only 500-odd meters from the Baquedano Metro Stop. I note this, not in passing, but because the machas parmesanas that they serve here are some of the best machas that I have ever eaten - the sort of meal where you inhale the meat and lick the shells clean afterward and fight to sop up the broth - double dipping and be damned- until the plate is clean and shining and everyone has had almost enough, but not quite, so that you need to order another plate.  And possibly another one after that.

We sat at our cheery, squashy table and ate machas and drank red wine and weirdly de-natured strawberry daiquiris, and music happened all around us. La Ensamble Serenta counted  a flautist, an oboist, and a percussionist in a corner with all manner and sort of drums and cymbals. There was an acoustic bass guitar, a man with a perpetual and dreamy smile who alternated between an acoustic guitar and a mandolin, and Senor Claudio Acevedo, the band leader, who played nine instruments over the course of the night  - from maracas to a Bolivian charango and a squeeze-box, as well as two guitars, one of which was strung with something that made the sound come across all silvery like a harpsichord.

They played music that combined Caribbean Latin rhythms with Andean scales (for those not familiar with Andean Music, listen to El Condor Pasa, one of the most internationally familiar songs in the genre), lifting all that was best of both and fusing bright percussion with the minor chords and melancholy flutes so that toes tapped while we sat still and LISTENED. 

At intervals, the percussionist stood and became a tango singer.  He had a deep, dark, caramel-colored voice, the sort of voice created to be heard with your eyes closed and your hand wrapped around the hand of another listener, but he carried so much emotion outside his voice that closing your eyes was a terrible waste of him - his hands reached up before his eyes, his face twisted with pain and his back was racked with it, and we sat with our eyes wide open , eating and drinking his story until the very last ululating note.  As the evening passed, songs grew looser and toes tapped harder and people were clapped and rocked along with the music, and then, suddenly, after and hour and a half that had passed like a breeze, Senor Acevedo announced that they would sing their last song - and they did - and then they bowed and put down their instruments and left the building by the back door.

And the protocol was all bent - the closing of a concert demands a hemming and a hawing and at least two encore sets before the performers leave the stage, and here they were - gone.  We couldn't be having with that at ALL. 

In Australia - and the United States, an ovation is a critical mass of personal appreciation- there is a hail of applauses, and individual volleys of 'Encore!' are lobbed back and forth across the room like errant tennis balls until the noise rises like a storm.  The Chilean approach is rather more collectivist.  A Chilean audience stands abreast, links elbows with its neighbors and chants "Otra! Otra! Otra! Otra!"  ("Another!  Another!") until something happens to its liking.  Eyes may be dancing and mouths may be smiling, but the collective Voice has an edge that says that there had better BE an Otra, or there will be Trouble.  There is more than the whiff of a football mob about it.

A good band will pay attention to the way the winds are blowing: after just enough time for a quick cigarette and a single quick hand of poker, the Ensamble came back from outside and stood again behind their instruments.  They played a long rolling encore piece, and then they put their instruments down and Senor Acevedo took up a microphone and presented to us, one by one by one, each of the musicians.  We clapped and whistled and howled and stamped - and from the back of the room, ululated even - for all of them.  The flautist took up the microphone and told us that the oboist had learned that same day that he was to become a father, and he held out a hand to the back of the room where the oboists wife stood blushing and smiling - so we clapped and cheered and ululated for her as well. The oboist took the microphone from the flautist and pointed to the table behind ours, where, he said, all of the men there were a group of oboe-makers from France, visiting Santiago for an oboe-fest.  He went around the table, introducing each of them  by name, and we stamped our feet and gave every single one of them a great big hand of appreciation as well.  And while we were all turned around with our backs to the stage showing our appreciation to the French oboe-maker in the far corner, the band dropped their instruments and scarpered.

But we weren't NEARLY done.  We howled and whistled and clapped and cheered and ululated some more, and then we put our hands to the tables and began to drum.  We liked the sound of that, so we put our feet to the floor and began to stamp.  the sound thundered and the high windows began to shiver, and we raised our voices even higher and chanted 'OTRA' until the ceiling rang.  It wasn't that - or ONLY that - we wanted more songs; we had been sitting still and mostly quiet all evening while the live music bent itself all around us and now we were primed and firing and we wanted OUR turn to move. 
The band seemed to understand.  As the noise grew and harmonics in the floor became a susurration underneath the roaring sound, Senor Acevedo appeared once more.
He lifted his hands.
           "Silence."  He said. 
We stopped.
            "We will play two more songs." He said.  "The man who is to become a father would like us to play Ventana a las Estrellas for his wife.  And then we will play La Columbiana for you so that you all can dance."
Ventana a las Estrellas (Window to the Stars) was a sweet, simple, sentimental piece.  We sat through it patiently, nodding to the music, and when they finished we slipped loose and exploded.
The Band-leader fixed a gimlet eye upon us.
            "Now stand."  He said.  "Find a partner.  And DANCE."
And the band played La Columbiana three times all the way through without stopping.
And we danced in the narrow spaces between the tables.

Mr Tabubil wasn't dancing - he was in a three-way percussion battle on the table with the bassoonist from the Santiago Philharmonic and the Director of the Universidad de Catolica Chamber Orchestra.  Behind us, the French oboe-makers were stepping rather more soberly than there rest of us, smiling faintly and taking tentative stabs at a salsa. Their  host, a round, teddy- bearish Chilean gentleman,  was jamming it up alone between the tables.  When he saw me dancing by myself, his eyes lit and he snatched my hands and we were OFF - spinning and twirling and stamping along with a six-piece Chilean Ensemble Band, and a three part percussion accompaniment pounding out our way up to the sky.

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