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 "Bravo!" de Trad Magazine France

Chango Spasiuk The Charm of Chamamé
C'est cru mais chaud, c'est léger mais ça enivre, c'est un style connu mais c'est la surprise: c'est la chamamé tel que cet incroyable Chango Spasiuk. Il est né au nord de l'Argentine, non loin du Brésil. Ses grand- parents étaient ukrainiens mais il baigné dans un univers de cultures multiples venues des communautés indigènes guarani, des créoles, des européens d'horizons divers. Il fut nourri de polkas et trouva tout naturellement un terrain de prédilection dans le chamamé et ses bases fixées sur les danses européennes. Des bases que les accordéonistes bousculent avec un mélange de sauvagerie et de grandiloquence, comme le font les grands bandonéonistes avec le tango. Spasiuk est de ceux-là: surprenant, espiègle, délicat, forcené...Il faut l'écouter fort. Ce compact est une compilation de ces trois disques réalisés en son pays.
(Etienne Bours, Trad. Magazine No. 96 Juillet/Août 2004)


"A feast of groundbreaking accordion-led argentine music"

The sounds of country cattle followed by a wild accordion tune may not suggest that what follows is going to be as cutting edge as it is traditional, but that's a fair description of the music of Chango Spasiuk and group.
Chamamé is the powerful accordion-led style of north-east Argentina, in which the complex rhythms of African and Creole-Spanish immigrants have been slowly fused with those of indigenous Mbya-Guaraní Indians and other peoples. Middle European settlers such as Spasiuk's Ukranian grandparents added to the mix a love for dancing polkas, schottisches and other lively folkloric salon dances ­ exemplified here by 'Besela Doroha', 'Ivanco' and the glorious 'Posadas'.
Spasiuk's tangy music is suffused with percussive textures and he plays passionately, teasing out emotion from the sprightly yet seductive moves he makes between one note and another. 'San Jorge', with its flute dialogue, suggests Spasiuk may be an innovator along the lines of a contemporary great like Finland's Maria Kalaniemi. And such suspicions are confirmed by the emotional scope of pieces like 'Pynandi', the Brazilian-underpinned 'Escenas de la vida en el Borde' (Scenes of life on the Frontier) and the voices of 'Adios Beatriz'. The fact that Mercedes Sosa, one of Latin americas most potent singers, guests on 'Solo para Mi' (Just for me) ­ with music by Spasiuk and lyrics by Victor Heradia ­ is the cream on the cake. This is a groundbreaking work by a significant musician.

Songlines UK, January/February 2004 Jan Fairley


Chango Spasiuk
The Charm of Chamamé

Everyone and everything in Argentina is borne of a mixing of bloods, cultures, trends and topographies. Everyone knows the great urban fusion tango and many have heard the Andean 'criollo' (Spanish-Indian Creole) hybrid folk sound of Mercedes Sosa and Atahualpa Yupanqui.

Far less well known is the music Chango Spasiuk plays - chamamé, a warm-hearted, accordion-based rhythm that taps into native Guaraní, Spanish, Brazilian, criollo and European traditions. Its natural home is north west Argentina (Spasiuk is from the deep green province of Misiones, made famous in the Merchant Ivory film The Mission, and much visited for its awesome Iguazú waterfalls).

To this multi-stranded, complex but extremely popular regional form, Spasiuk brings a daring, virtuoso accordion style and elements of his own Ukrainian family roots. It was in fact the polka that gained him a following outside the folk circuit several years ago in Argentina, and he still includes several in his live repertoire.

This, his seventh album, pulls together traditional songs and some of Spasiuk's own compositions from his most recent - and best - three albums. Throughout, he explores the tropical, dance-oriented, usually upbeat chamamé genre much in the manner of Piazzolla testing and pushing the tango. Tapping into chamamé's less obvious melancholy strains on "Preludio a um beija-flor" and "La Ponzoña", Spasiuk still manages to tease out sweet, seductive strains. During track 11's polka, we've got one foot in Kiev and the other in subtropical Argentina - both are dancing.

Both Piazzolla and Yupanqui are definite inspirations here _- but so are Bartok, Tchaikovsky and the great writers of classic chamamé, Cocomorola, Montiel and Martínez Riera. This rich brew of classical, folk and modern musical influences makes for a sometimes clamorous collage of phrases and no end of digressions, but chamamé's gentle, seductive swing underpins the whole.

It's a complicated journey to the bottom of a musical style so unknown outside Spasiuk's home region. But it is always enjoyable, and there is a searching, quasi-mystical element in Spasiuk's whirling, wandering solos -_ he talks of a 'vacio' or 'nothingness', a place to which only music can take you (track 7, an 'improvisation', finds Spasiuk in full-on abstract, ambient mood).

Others will perhaps find a more earthy quality in the sound - sourced in chamamé's easy tempo and barn-dance spirit, which springs from a community-based celebration of everyday rural life, long train journeys, family ties and a sharing of woes and wonder. Somewhere between these two extremes - the metaphysical ponderings and the mooing of cows - Chango Spasiuk is making a powerful musical case for chamamé.

Strong support, in particular Sebastián Villalba on guitar and vocals, and Chacho Ruiz Guiñazú on percussion, keep the rhythm a constant delight. The disc is breezy and refreshing, and reveals an utterly new side to the Argentine soul. The accordion is hardly a fashionable instrument - but try this one. You'll surprise yourself.

Reviewer: Chris Moss BBC interactive, November 2003


  The radio DJ's ever-mounting pile of unheard albums demands a fast and inevitably arbitrary decision-making process. Reasons not to listen are welcome, to allow time to check out those records with more allure. On the front cover of The Charm of Chamamé sits a blond accordion player whose name, Chango Spasiuk, rings no bells in my head. Finnish, perhaps, or Latvian? On the back, a daunting nineteen tracks are listed. Later, if ever, for this one, which soon disappears under the pile of the next few days' post.

Among the names announced for this year's London Jazz Festival in November are those of several unfamiliar musicians, but one sends me back to that pile on the floor. Retrieved from its hiding place, Chango Spasiuk's The Charm of Chamamé proves to be a delightful revelation.

If the prospect of a 19-track album by an accordion player seems overwhelming, doubts are dispelled by the first sound we hear. A cow moos. Another answers. It's impossible to avoid smiling. Wherever we thought we were, we are suddenly far away from any city. Emerging out of the farmyard noises, the accordion announces its presence, and a rumbling, surging bass picks us up and whirls us around the room. If we did not have the benefit of a useful sleeve note, my best geographical guess would have been Mexico. But it turns out that this is a selection from the first three albums by the leading accordion player from the far north of Argentina, close to the border with Brazil, where at the start of the last century a substantial number of immigrants from Eastern Europe went to work in the jungle plantations. Two of Chango's grandparents were from Ukraine.

By the time the album has finished, it feels as if we have heard references to every genre that was ever based around the accordion, including Louisiana Cajun waltzes, Polish mazurkas and Mexican border rancheros. But for each tune that has a vaguely familiar form, there are two others in styles that are new to me. Among three vocal tracks, Mercedes Sosa is featured on the final 'Solo Para Mi', but most of the tunes are instrumentals at varying tempos from whirlwind fast to stand-still slow, several finishing with applause.

Justifying that billing in the London Jazz Festival, there's a strong sense of interplay between Chango and the other members of the small group (guitar, violin, stand-up bass, brushed drums). But although there's no doubt that Chango Spasiuk is a virtuoso with plenty of what the Americans call 'chops', this is not a jazz album and never becomes simply a demonstration of his technique. The aim is always to generate an atmosphere, not to impress us into awestruck reverence. The result is a record that will fill your living room with light or make you wish your car journey was long enough to hear the entire album in one sitting.

Charlie Gillett

Post-script: This review was written for the Observer Music Monthly and first published in the edition of November 16th. Since then, I have witnessed the debut concert by Chango and his band at the Purcell Rooms, and come face to face with their mastery when they played two songs live on my radio show on Saturday 22nd. Amazingly enough, considering my high expectations, they turned out to be even better than I dared hope. Be sure to catch when they return to Europe, and meanwhile look for this album. I defy you not to smile.


 Chamamé is rustic, upbeat, and reveals a side of Argentina quite unlike the great urban form, tango. Chris Moss talks to accordionist Chango Spasiuk.

My first experience of chamame was Raul Barboza (the King of Chamame) playing at La Trastienda in Buenos Aires. Then, in 1999, two friends inspired me to check out Chango Spasiuk, an incredible accordionist creating a potent hybrid of polka, folkloric, and this half forgotten country dance music, chamamé.

Talking to Spasiuk at London's South Bank, I can only just keep up with his pace and erudition. He talks like he plays, fluidly and forcefully, sometimes fierily. He pours scorn on ex-president Menem and his frivolous politics in the 90s, analyses the current economic crises, and he drops in quotes from Gurdjieff, Jung and Bela Bartok, and from Piazzolla and Yupanqui as if he read them all the night before. But above all, he provides me with a multifaceted answer to the question: what is chamamé?

"People think of chamamé as happy, lightweight music, but it's not that at all. It's over 300 years old and it's the product of a complex racial mixing [mestizaje in Spanish],"'
"Chamame is powerful; but its sound is also melancholy. It's been marginalised and undervalued, not because of how it sounds, but because for some people it represents workers who came to Argentina in the period of its industrialisation and poor people from the country." Horacio 'Chango' Spasiuk was born in 1968, in the town of Apostoles, in Misiones, a province famous for the Iguazu Falls, for yerba mate (the tea almost all Argentinians drink daily from a gourd) and for its namesake Jesuit missions. The Spasiuks were one of six Ukrainian families that settled in the region in 1897. "They came to Argentina because, along with the US, it was a country that had passed laws to encourage immigration. Eastern Europeans with experience of agriculture came to harvest the yerba - which, unlike the cattle industry in the pampas, wasn't a feudal affair.

Spasiuk was already playing the accordion by the time he was 11. His father, Lucas, worked as a carpenter, but also played a mean violin; his uncle Marcos was a singer. They would jam together in their patios. "I was taught violin and I'd play Ukrainian music on that at first," recalls Spasiuk, "but on the radio they were playing chamamé so I began to listen out for that, keep an eye on other musicians in the region and learn from them."

"It was never a question of written music. There's something in chamamé that you can't study - you are born and you live in a place where it's always 40 degrees celsius, where after your siesta you go out and everything around you looks out of focus. The earth is deep red. You have to live with these impressions for a long time and then learn to express them with an instrument. I am very intuitive, almost never writing down the music I play."

In his teens, he absorbed the music of modern chamamé's founding fathers: Transito Cocomarola, Isaco Abitbol, Ernesto Montiel and Bias Martinez Riera. He still considers them the pillars of the genre - but insists that the form needs taking forward and must not get grounded by fond nostalgia for some idyllic 'folky' past. This he expresses in totally personal terms: "I play to reveal what is around us now. I play to search for beauty. But I play to arrive at something which is in the future. Instead of saying 'I was,' I say 'I am'."
After leaving secondary school, he wanted to be an anthropologist, "in order to have another means of expressing myself outside of music - but I never sat a single exam."
Instead, he employed his musical education and his ancestry in something like a project of cultural archaeology. Spasiuk is committed to trying to understand the relationship between his own roots, upbringing and region, and those of pre-Colombian native cultures and neighbouring lands.

He tells me "chamamé is a style of music that existed before immigrants arrived - the main contribution made by immigrants was the accordion. The deepest roots go back to the Mbya Guarani, the natives who lived in north-east Argentina before the arrival of the Spaniards. Next came the Jesuits, who tried to educate the indigenous Guarani through baroque music. After that, it's the turn of the criollos - the creole people of European descent born on American soil - which in my region mixes in turn with the Guarani."
When Spasiuk talks about immigrants he means the great wave of Europeans who arrived in Argentina in the first quarter of the 19th century. He says that "inside a radius of 90km from Apostotes, you have the Brazilian and Paraguayan borders, the Parana and Paraguay rivers, Guaranis, Germans, Poles, Swiss communities." Little wonder that his own music, which feeds off his Ukrainian heritage, as well as all the above, is so complex, multi-stranded, and hard to define.

On Spasiuk's six Argentinian solo albums - and on the The Charm of Chamame compilation released in the UK last year - you can hear all the strands. You can hear cows mooing, church bells ringing, steam trains passing beyond the fields - all these both literally and figuratively - and you hear a fiddle played for a funeral or a fiesta. There are the rhythms of work songs. There are also slap bass guitar and rock riffs in there - Spasiuk is a fan of Hendrix and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and has played with Divididos as well as less well-known rock bands who do gigs in the underground rock circuit in Buenos Aires, where he now lives. One Canadian critic commented that everyone can hear their own folk music in Spasiuk's chamamés. But there is always great artistry, the marriage of virtuoso talents and a deeply rooted affinity with his music. Spasiuk is always searching and his Béla Bartok quote. serves as a kind of mantra: "Thrust yourself into the unknown from what is already known but unbearable." Sometimes, indeed, he seems to have fused the experimental rigour of classical geniuses like Bartok with the basic, primal sound of ancient folk. It's not quite 'Variations on a Theme from Knees Up Mother Brown', but it's almost there.

In addition to being Argentina's leading chamamecero, Spasiuk is credited with reviving the polka in his work. If he berates urban intellectuals for pigeonholing chamame as country fun, he is no softer on folk purists. "People from the region where I was born believe they can 'consume' the polka music because it's very traditional, it's something they've heard before. It's a bad habit which has become widespread throughout Argentina, to, think that what is different is solely for intellectuals."

In some ways, a couple of hours with Chango Spasiuk is a bit like going to therapy. You feel sorted and more confused at the same time - certainly more alert to music, culture and life in general. But for all the mental meanderings and issues unearthed, we constantly return to a search for definitions, which brings out,a missionary zeal in Spasiuk. But it goes way beyond definitions: "Chamamé is a music which is defined, but which is waiting to be developed. It's not an extinct aesthetic in the way that tango is.' Transformation is the end purpose - you have to do something,break it, and do it again." Chamamé is, he believes, like Latin America, "an open wound -nothing is closed."

Chris Moss, Songlines July/August 2004


 Chango Spasiuk is wearing light khaki bombachas. Like long baggy cotton plus fours, they are the trousers of the Gaucho horsemen of Argentina who traditionally herded cattle across the vast plains. "They're comfy," he tells me, "I wear them all the time, on and off stage,"~ They are what you might expect a man to wear whose album opens with the sound of mooing cows. "I recorded those cows about 20 kilometres from where I was born, and the horses and birds and church bells on the disc, from the places I grew up."
Home is the town of Apostoles, in the state of Misiones in the northeastern corner of Argentina, sandwiched between Paraguay on one side and Brazil on the other, with the state of Corrientes below it. It's a state known for its rainforest, rivers, waterfalls (the outstanding Iguazu in the far north), beautiful flora, animals and birds, including tucan parrots.

Spasiuk plays the swingy emotional dance music of the area called chamamé, its 6/8 rhythms full of criss-crossing movement for feet and hips. Unlike tango and other Argentinian music played on the square bandoneon, chamamé is played on the accordeon. It is, he tells me, not music of an urban landscape but, "Of the country, deep country."
We're backstage at London's Purcell Room talking in his dressing room after a very relaxed soundcheck. There's a few hours still to go until his first-ever UK concert as part of the London Jazz Festival. He's busy sketching me a map of Misiones on a piece of paper, explaining as he draws, "Misiones is semi-tropical and extremely hot in the summer from December to March, and the earth is very red and it is very agricultural. It lies in the embrace of two large rivers, which eventually lead down to the River Plate and Buenos Aires. The original people are the Mbya-Guarani Indians. Many [Spanish] Jesuits came there and established a line of Catholic missions, so it has a huge history of their happiness at having been there. People who live there are Argentinian, but they speak what we call Portunol, a mix of both Portuguese (which the Brazilians speak) and Espanol. It's also the border with Paraguay so the people are bilingual, as they speak the Indian Guarani language as well as Argentine Spanish."

Misiones was populated by an unusual mix of first the original Guarani people, then the Portuguese and the Spanish who came with the idealist Jesuits, who fought the iniquities of the conquest by setting up socialist missions in the area for freed Indians and runaway slaves. They established garden economies and lived respecting local language and custom until they were expelled in 1767, their legacy the ideal of a caring community. At the end of the 19th beginning of the 20th century, a new group of immigrants arrived including Spasiuk's Ukrainian grandparents: "Six Ukrainian and six Polish families came in 1897 to the village where I was born and one of those families was my grandparents. My father Lucas was born there and he and my uncle Marcos grew up with the music of his family and those immigrants, with polkas and waltzes and schottishes. My father played them on the violin, my uncle sang them. Then it was purely immigrant music: today it is the music of everyone, the music you play for weddings, a baptism, a party."

"You learn chamamé by playing it live in the places where people come to hear it and dance to it. I began to play accordeon when I was 11; I learned from my dad and my uncle and most of what I learned from them were rural polkas. I heard chamamé on radio and at dances where the
accordeonists played it all by ear and so I learned everything by ear. I learn contemporary music that way too. I don't really write my own music down; I play and piay until I know it by heart."

Where does the name chamamé come from? "Chamamé means everything and nothing really - no one is really sure of its origin, but it has a Guarani rhythmic ring to it and also an African percussive quality. Some say it was music that Guarani played, which I think is a little far-fetched as their civilisation is ancient and they undoubtedly had their own music and myths. Some say it is a deformation of a Guarani word meaning doy sombra a menudo (I give shade from time to time) , because chamamé was always danced in these outdoor patios with red earth floors and plaited roofs to shade you from the sun. There are various theories and I reckon they are all valid."

The Charm Of Chama me, the first Spasiuk disc available in Europe, is a compilation of pieces chosen from his last three CDs, including La Ponzona (The Gift, 1996); Polcas de Mi Tierra {Polkas Of My Country,1999); and Chamame Crudo (Raw Chamame, 2000). It features traditional, even sentimental pieces from the northeast like Besela Doroha and Starosta, as well as the characterful Gato Negro, a local folk
hero, and Spasiuk's own striking original compositions like Escenas and Misiones.

"Quite a lot are pieces my father taught me which were originally Ukrainian. We recorded them live in places in the countryside where the people get together, actually at the time of the annual fiestas patronales, the village patron saint festivals. The people work hard and then enjoy the party. When you are close to the people you play for, you get what I call the feeling of 'skin' in the music, that you can never get in the studio even though the audio may be good. Chamamé songs blend melancholy and happiness together as one. So it is like a wild and energetic music with many sad histories in it, of people who have passed through many situations. It's a music with many levels: like an onion, you peel off the layers and find real lives inside it. My own pieces tell the stories of the latest generation of our popular music who are
no longer immigrants. I've dedicated the album to Astor Piazzolla as he is a composer who means a lot to me. He showed how music could be developed."

The album is a flow of atmospheres: romantic couple dances, twirling polkas, lively waltzes and compelling chama me pieces like Adios Beatriz. At the soundcheck Spasiuk played Kilometre 11 by Coco Marola. "It's a piece which blesses the stage, it is so beautiful," he tells me when I ask about it. Dancing chamamé itself involves sweeping the feet in half circles as you move forwards and backwards while
holding your partner tightly, the woman following the movements of the man. The dance is more than 100 years old and is strangely reminiscent of nengon, early son still danced by tobacco farmers near Santiago de Cuba. The classic instrumental format is guitarist, accordeon and violin. In Spasiuk's group, guitar is played by Sebastian Villalba with Victor Renaudeau on fiddle. Sebastian also sings in a high voice that, when eyes are closed, could be taken for
coming from either a man or woman: "Sebastian is like a man bird for me. He sings like a bird and he plays the guitar like a bird. He was actually born in Buenos Aires but his parents are from the north. His way of playing and singing really gives me pleasure."

For polkas like Alegria casi /lorar (Almost Crying With Happi-
ness) and Ivanco, you can hear the dancers foot tapping, clapping and shouting. It's music brimming with fun and celebration and you can almost feel the sweat dripping on the dance floor. Spasiuk explains one of his own 'traditional' pieces to me: "Pynandy, it means something like bare feet, 'without shoes', which is true of many people in the country in Argentina. It's not meant to be depressing: it's about the fact that there is poverty, yet people manage to live with dignity with few resources." One of his own more experimental compositions opens with the sound of church bells, "That's based on the bells of the Byzantine Church for the
Hoshiuv Virgin, an icon of a black Virgin brought by Polish immigrants. It's an improvisation between bass and accord eon and we start from the two notes of the bell."

These days Spasiuk, after moving to Buenos Aires at the age of 20 and living there for 10 years while he developed his career, now lives 60 kilometres outside the capital, in the countryside in General Rodriguez. His CV includes working with the great Mercedes Sosa (she sings the haunting ballad 5olo par Mi for which Spasiuk wrote the music and folk-rock hero Victor Heredia the lyrics). More recently he's worked with percussionist Cyro Baptista on an album produced by John Zorn with Greg Cohen, Marc Ribot, Romero Lubambo, Nana Vasconcelos and Vanessa Falabell.

I imagined we might talk about growing up around the carpenter's shop his father managed, but Spasiuk's chat turns spiritual very quickly when talking about creating his own music. "I don't feel any need to show myself off as a virtuoso accordeonist. I don't need to do that: my need is to play myself. I am not a vanguardist but I am trying to be honest to tradition while searching for a new sound, an original one of my own, creating textures and singing them. I think maybe, above all, I am searching to make a space in my music, almost an emptiness for things to develop in, both for me and those who are listening; something more abstract. I was really influenced by reading Kandinsky's book,
On The Spiritual In Art. He talks of the visual world, of the sensual world of colours and the ideas of the sound world. So music can be audio-visual, like painting, as if the music was colours creating forms. I am trying to keep things open, creating a space for people to come into. I don't want to give the same impression to everyone: everyone will have a different reaction inspired by the music. What I hope for is connection with the people. I had rather a fight with words at one time and I think I am now at a stage again where words cannot reach what I want to say."

He reckons Escenas de la Frontera, his favourite piece of music, more or less sums him up. If he could play only one piece tonight it would be that. The title is translated as 'Scenes Of Life On The Edge', but maybe he thinks 'edge' might be better translated as 'frontier' or 'border', for he's talking about the cultural diversity of the lives of those who live in that frontier community. "I composed that music for a film documentary. The borders are not just geographical, because it also means the frontiers and borders inside yourself, who you are. My way of looking at it is like the beads in your necklace." He is looking at a necklace I am wearing around my neck, with small interlinked circles of red, yellow, brown, blue, green, white: "That's what the culture is like in Misiones. There are many points in common and they all touch and look good together, but it's a complex ethnic mix with many colours and they don't all become one colour. My music comes out of that; it takes on all those colours."

He tells me that great musical and spiritual influence has come from legendary 20th-century Argentine poet, singer-composer Atahulapa Yupanqui. For Spasiuk, Yupanqui is above all a philosopher: "Yupanqui had a way of thinking which really influenced me. He asked many questions. In one of his books he says, 'The art and light which illuminate the heart of the artist is a torch people can use to see the beauty on their pathway'. My piece Busqueda (Search) is about the possibility of people finding themselves by getting closer to beauty. I think there is a difference between searching for beauty and entertaining yourself - yet they can be the same. And I am trying to play, leaving space for things to happen, so my head stops functioning and I am just playing and leaving space for something of a subtle spiritual quality to corne in. And I am also trying to keep it simple! I like simplicity, I would rather take out things and make it simple than overwrite it."

One of Spasiuk's closest collaborators is his percussionist, Chacho Ruiz Guinazu. They've been working together for almost 10 years. Among an array of percussion, Ruiz plays Peruvian cajon; a large bombo parche drum which has a string inside it; the Brazilian berimbau; and dark mellow-toned wooden-tongued cajas Africanas (African boxes). Ruiz also invents his own instruments to make the sounds he wants. He plays everything by hand: "I prefer to use my skin on instruments as the sound is much warmer; I like to invent things. For me, music is a game and if you approach it with the head of a playful child, you can learn from playing playfully. Chango and I are good friends and often we just search for sounds. We can play for hours like that and the music that comes is very vital. It's not even tiring because we are playing while we play! There are no words for that."
Chango Spasiuk The Charm Of Chamame (Weltwunder Records; CD WW 601); Spasiuk returns to the UK in November 2004.