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It was a pretty normal February night in The Blue Front Cafe, located in the town of Bentonia, Mississippi, population of about 450. For most people, Bentonia doesn’t ring a bell whatsoever; it doesn’t muster any kind of significance. But for those who love the Blues, Bentonia is sacred ground. To continue the metaphor, The Blue Front Cafe is a temple.
The place received a historical marker by the Mississippi Blues Commission commemorating its importance in the state’s history of the development of the genre. Nights here are not very different from what they were in 1948, when the place was opened by Carey and Mary Holmes, the parents of current owner Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, one of the last remaining blues legends. But this night, back in 2017, promised to be very different for Duck and the rest of the customers, once three Spanish-speaking strangers walked through the door.
One of them introduced himself as an Argentine journalist, and immediately afterwards introduced one of the others as a musician. Duck decided to put this last one to the test and gave him his old, busted guitar, probably expecting to humble him to the point of intimidation. To his surprise, the musician grabbed the instrument and played a couple of Bentonia-style blues songs, a unique country style that originated in and immediately around the town.
Jimmy “Duck” Holmes was impressed. He decided to grab another guitar, and they continued to jam until their fingers hurt. Who was this guy that dared to walk into heart of blues country and play in front of a legend? His name was Gabriel Grätzer, he’s from Argentina, and he’s dedicated his entire life to playing, researching, and teaching the blues in over 70 cities, 17 countries, and four continents.
Gabriel was born into a family of musicians from Buenos Aires, but their background could not be more different from what he would eventually pursue. “My family is made up of classical musicians, who play Baroque and Renaissance music for the most part,” he explains from the Escuela del blues he helped create in Buenos Aires. “There was very little space for popular music.” His childhood was mostly spent going to the Teatro Colón or to churches to watch people perform Bach.
His first forays into other styles of music came thank to his older cousin Mariel, who gave him a used, scratched Beatles record. “I had a record player in my room, mostly for children’s music. But once the Beatles arrived, it just blew my mind. I had no idea what rock was, or what blues was, but it blew my mind.”
Similar to many musicians around the world, The Beatles marked an important milestone in Gabriel’s youth. But he found himself being drawn to the the more acoustic facet of the Fab Four and not their flashier rock songs. “I was much more into songs like ‘Blackbird’ and ‘I’ll Follow the Sun’ than ‘Hey Jude’ or ‘Get Back.’ I’m not sure why, but that was just the way it was.”
As usually happens with Blues lore, Gabriel’s story has a dash of something mystical and otherworldly behind it. He recalls having an image stuck in his head from a very young age of a guy in a plaid shirt and a hat playing his guitar in some sort of rural field, an image he would later discover to be linked to country blues. But he can’t recall where he got it from: “It doesn’t come from my family and it doesn’t come from movies, which are where one usually gets these images. I wasn’t an avid reader of western comic books either, so who knows.”
It’s as if, in some way, his fate had somehow been written from the start…
By the time he was a teenager, Gabriel’s family got him into guitar classes, where he would constantly ask about these rhythms he knew he liked but couldn’t quite understand. “They did what they could, but they really insisted on my learning musical theory and technique on my guitar.
“That was fundamental for my craft.” He began to attend concerts with his friends and discovered a kind of blues rock that had originated in Argentina in the late 60s and early 70s thanks to the influence of British bands like Cream, Led Zeppelin, and the Rolling Stones, who had themselves blended all sorts of blues influences into their individual styles.
“Argentine blues had its own idiosyncrasies. It was sung in Spanish and became popular thanks to bands like Manal, Spinetta in some of the stuff he did with Pescado Rabioso, Los Gatos, Pajarito Zaguri, and Pappo, to name a few.” Even though he liked these bands and has, over the course of his career, played these sorts of blues, he was sure back then that this was not what he loved the most. “That kind of music sung in Spanish didn’t really speak to me. I couldn’t really recognize it as blues but I couldn’t say what it was either.”
His first real steps in the music he would eventually grow to venerate would be laid out thanks to three people in particular. One was Cristina Aguayo, one of the greatest blues singer in Argentina’s history and with whom he would collaborate a number of times. The second was Fernando Goin, also a teacher and the founder of quite possibly the most influential blues group that young Gabriel had the chance to see: Folk and Blues. “They were this mythical country blues band and I vividly recall when I saw them play at Jazzología, which are these legendary sessions that are organized to this day in Teatro San Martín.”
The third person who influenced him was Max Hoeffner, one of the greatest blues collectors in the world, to the point that he’s a contributor with several European record labels that re-edit old blues records. “Max didn’t know much English, so I would go to his house on weekends to translate lyrics and he would teach me about blues in exchange.” He started to take note of every name, every region, every date, and then archive it all in a rudimentary system he developed at home, the genesis for his massive blues research database.
“We lived in an era without internet or even access to specialized discography or bibliography. Let’s say I heard a Beatles song I liked, such as ‘Kansas City.’ I would look for the composers, which were Leiber and Stoller, and then that would take me to discover that they had also written ‘Hound Dog’ for Big Momma Thornton in ’52, and so on. But this process could take months, if not years. And even then it would be tough to contextualize. This is all info that ended up not only in the Blues School but in the books I later edited.”
With the arrival of the 90s and the CD format, access to information became broader, but Gabriel still credits those initial old school days for his vast knowledge of the genre. “I know what’s right and what’s wrong on the Internet, because there are a lot of errors as well. My students are actually amazed, because we give them a lot of things that they just can’t find anywhere else. It’s good to have information but it’s more important to know how to use it.”
With all this knowledge under his belt and his music abilities fine-tuned, Gabriel spent the 90s releasing three studio albums and touring the whole country and continent. He began to make a name for himself beyond Argentina’s borders and began touring Uruguay, Paraguay, Ecuador, Colombia, Brazil, and Venezuela. It became a rule of thumb to do his best to encourage local musicians to create their local blues scenes, which eventually led to several of these countries to organize their own festivals.
By the time the 2000s rolled around, he had amassed enough recognition as to begin to travel to Europe and Asia, participating in festivals such as the prestigious Blues Sur Seine were he was the only Latin American act in a lineup that featured such renowned artists as Corey Harris, The Golden Gate Quartet, and JD Williams.
His repertoire is filled with countless anecdotes from around the globe told like only he can tell them, the same way he does during his concerts, where he usually blends songs and stories seamlessly. “I was always very passionate about storytelling. I can’t imagine music without context. You’re playing something that isn’t yours, in a language that isn’t yours, so you can tell the audience a couple of pointers: the year, who wrote it. Then you mix it up with references to the heat in Mississippi or the fact that the song was written when the composer was abandoned by his wife. It makes them travel a bit.”
With his career booming, the recognitions began to pile up back home. By 2005, he had been named Argentine Blues Ambassador to the World by the country’s Foreign Ministry and had used his influence to open up what would become the hugely popular and influential Escuela del Blues, one of the very first of its kind in the world. He even became the only musician, to this day, to have played blues in the Teatro Colon, the legendary place were as a kid he would go with his parents to see classical concerts. “Blues has given me so much and I owe a great debt to it,” he says, with a lost look in his eyes.
But through it all, something was missing, and continued to be missing until 2017: he had never traveled to the United States, the birthplace of the genre to which he had dedicated his entire life. That year, his book Bien al Sur, the History of Blues in Argentina, which he co-wrote with journalist Martín Sassone (yes, the journalist mentioned at the beginning of the story) was included into both the permanent library of Blues Hall of Fame and the Blues Collection of the University of Mississippi – the first time that has ever happened for a book written in Spanish.
The trip was, as one might expect, very emotional. Gabriel was able to see, with his own eyes, the cotton fields, the plantations, the train stations, and the highways… All the places that comprised the lyrics of the songs he had sung countless times before. “I was very moved,” he recalls.
So why did it take all those years to, in a way, come full circle? “It could be because I was waiting to be invited. Or it could be because I was really busy touring. Or it could be because, unconsciously, I knew it would be such an intense experience and I just wasn’t ready for it. But I do believe everything happens for a reason, and if I would’ve gone earlier maybe I wouldn’t have met Jimmy ‘Duck’ Holmes in Bentonia, for example. This is all kind of metaphysical, but who knows, really?”