There’s something that pop radio isn’t telling you. There’s a secret that all your favorite movies, TV shows, and even your favorite sponsored Spotify playlists aren’t letting you in on. And that is the true scope of the music scene in Buenos Aires; its richness, variety and ingenuity. Enter independent record label Elefante en la Habitación.
The label’s name translates to “elephant in the room”, a reference to the metaphorical idiom used to describe a large, imposing issue that has gone unacknowledged for too long. When speaking with two of its founding members, musicians María Pien and Nahuel Carfi, you get the feeling that the name is more than just a cute moniker; that it could also be used to describe an eclectic, ever-expanding music scene in Buenos Aires that eschews traditional subgenre tribalism by instead combining influences from every corner of the musical spectrum, all the while remaining staunchly auteurial. A scene which, in spite of the unbridled enthusiasm and creativity on display, has gone largely ignored by major-label support. A scene that seems all the more vibrant for it.
Regardless of how fitting that interpretation may seem, that’s not how the name actually came about. “We were at one of our first meetings, and we had been putting off coming up with a name”, explains Pien. “And the name was a big deal, because it would enable us to buy our domain and start establishing our identity. And at one point in the meeting I just said, ‘guys, when are we going to talk about the elephant in the room?’ And someone else said ‘that’s the name!’”. Still, bringing attention to a new wave of strongly devoted musical artists popping up in Buenos Aires is an essential part of the EH ethos; born in 2011 out of the need of a group of likeminded musicians to bolster the art they were passionate about, the group sought from its very beginnings to shine a light on certain corners of the Argentine musical landscape that weren’t being represented by traditional labels. Carfi states, “We recognized that there was something happening in the underground, in the peripheries of the Buenos Aires music scene, that had a strong artistic quality and needed to be shared”.
The musicians who make up Elefante en la Habitación don’t really share a music genre. This is not a group defined by their aesthetic similarities with each other. What they do share is a passion for the song form, as well as a fierce independence and desire for self-determination. Every musician in the group wears many different hats; from logistics to bookings to marketing and press outreach. This is the DIY punk ethic in its truest form. So what do they gain out of doing this together? What does it even mean to be an independent label in the age of Spotify?
Carfi explains: “We manage our own careers in a very real and tangible sense. We take charge of the artistic side of our endeavors, while also being involved in the logistics. That involves taking an active role in engineering the circumstances for our music to be heard and shared as widely as possible. And also, on many levels, creating a community around that music.” Pien adds: “We are fortunate enough to be able to fulfill a traditional label role by serving as a representative entity for artists, as well as being a kind of bastion of independence, of militance, of what it means to work in the arts and manage your own career. That is what we share, and what keeps us together.”
As it turns out, sharing is also a key component in the EH operation. From its earliest beginnings, the group has been built on a foundation of mutual admiration and collaboration, with musicians pushing each other to new heights as sparring partners. As an outsider looking in, the overall impression you get from observing the EH musicians (who, quite endearingly, refer to each other as “Elefantes”) is one of a group of friends partaking in the unadulterated joy of making music together. And though Elefante en la Habitación has evolved from its origins as a nebulously-defined musical collective into something more closely resembling a traditional record label, that collaborative spirit lives on; both in the music itself and in the events the group runs. An example of this is a series of shows called Canción Sobre Canción, in which an Elefante is matched up with one of their main musical influences to play a joint set of each others’ songs. A kind of jam session, minus the tie-dyed shirts and extraneous guitar noodling.
Another one of the label’s events is coming up this weekend: the fourth edition of FestiEH!, a festival featuring several of the Elefante artists as well as other acts from Buenos Aires, La Plata and Cordoba. The event seeks to highlight some of the rich and varied sounds from the emerging music scenes in all three cities, putting together an eclectic line-up of artists, spanning folk, funk, rock, traditional rhythms, among others (scroll to the bottom of this post for a Spotify playlist containing samples from some of those musicians). After an inaugural show at La Plata on Friday, the action moves to Buenos Aires; specifically, Palermo’s Vuela el Pez bar, where the various acts will congregate on Saturday and Sunday for two nights of chasing musical whimsies.
So what could someone who’s never heard any of these artists expect to find at the FestiEH shows? With a smile, Pien says: “A wide-open panorama of song. There are thousands of scenes in Buenos Aires, and so many different options. What we want to show is a variety of musical approaches that revolve around songs, and that share a sense of independence and collaboration. Maybe the kind of thing that isn’t represented by our country’s mass media. Something unusual. Something unexpected.”
The musicians who make up Elefante en la Habitación are:
María Pien plays gorgeous, emotionally resonant folk music that can be achingly sweet as well as devastating. Contrast her 2014 single, the perky and sugar-shot “Sol de Septiembre”, with her latest work, the sprawling, cinematic Tres Poemas EP (above). Everything she does is worth checking out. And hey, some doofus I know wrote a pretty great essay about her once.
Guli’s work is a remarkable piece of musical architecture, combining elements of Prince-like misshapen funk with reverb-soaked psychedelia. A largely upbeat, sometimes frightening, thoroughly stimulating listen.
Chaucoco’s music is a sideways approach to rock; lively choruses injected with just the right amount of melancholy, rhythmic exploration, and sometimes, why not? A clarinet solo.
A singer-songwriter exploring the deeper recesses of the piano-based pop song. His 2016 album Pianos, containing a set of lovely, lushly-orchestrated ballads, is highly recommended.
David Chorne’s music combines elements of jazz, afrobeat, reggae, Uruguayan candombe and other forms of traditional music to make a thrilling melting-pot of an act (see the absolute scorcher of a track posted above).
The last word on bedroom-folk. Estábamos Tan Tristes Que No Podíamos Cantar is a beautiful, autumnal, intimate album of largely hushed guitar-and-vocals songs that manage to keep you riveted throughout.
Guitar gymnastics are fun to listen to, but less so when they’re not supported by strong songs. Lautaro Matute’s work is pure ear candy, supported by captivating and adventurous compositions.
An album that music critics in 2005 would’ve referred to as “Baroque pop”, Lucila Pivetta’s new album is a thrilling, lively piece of work filled with exquisite arrangements that reward repeated listens.
A highly-gifted cellist and vocalist using his instrument in innovative ways to explore mood and texture in service of his songwriting.
Also, check out our Spotify playlist featuring the artists playing at FestiEH, including several non-Elefantes: