To walk into La Grande, a musical spectacle held every Tuesday night in the heart of Palermo Viejo, is to walk into the beating heart of hipster Buenos Aires. Young, bearded porteños spill out of the theatre into a courtyard to smoke and buy bottles of wine. A parrilla sizzles with veggies and chorizo. Inside, a conductor flicks his fingers, pulling music out of thin air, and a crowd sways in response.
La Grande is the brainchild of Santiago Vázquez, a porteño musician, composer, and producer. Vázquez is best known for creating and conducting La Bomba de Tiempo, the famed improvisational percussion ensemble that draws 2,000 people to Almagro every Monday night, and has become a musical destination for both locals and tourists.
Vázquez is no longer involved with La Bomba de Tiempo—in 2014, he stepped down from his role as director in order to focus on new projects, such as La Grande. Still, La Grande and La Bomba de Tiempo share DNA as both shows utilize a language of improvisation created by Vázquez, known as the Rhythm of Signs, which is a sign language used to conduct improvisational music.
Vázquez created Rhythm of Signs back in 2005 after meeting Butch Morris, a jazz musician and conductor from the U.S. who was using hand signals to direct his musicians. Vázquez, who had always had an interest in improvisation, was inspired by Morris. “The idea, for me, was very interesting—to tell the musicians with hand signs, what you want in an improvisation, instead of making noises and interrupting the sound,” he said. Vázquez developed Rhythm of Signs and used it to direct La Bomba de Tiempo. Rhythm of Signs has since taken on a life of its own: more than 200 musical groups around the world now use it to create music.
Vázquez assembled La Grande back in 2009, with a goal of combining his personal discography (from the 20 CDs he has recorded over the years) with his passion for improvisation. He assembled a group of musicians that closely resemble a traditional band— a guitarist, bassist, keyboardist, trombonist, and saxophonist— taught them Rhythm of Signs, and La Grande was born.
The music La Grande creates is distinguished by its baseline: Vázquez’s music provides a hopping off point for the band. With every performance, the group layers improvised music with samples from his discography, while also pulling various rhythms and melodies to layer with samples from other music. The result is a remix or a mash-up; Vázquez compares it to a DJ mixing music, but in front of an audience.
The result is difficult to predict, and every show is distinct. “It’s band sound with brass, but it’s experimental and it’s groove music” Vázquez explains. “It may sound like funk, afrobeats, very experimental, weird stuff, calypso. It is a game of improv, which creates the type of music that moves you to sway, dance.”
On a recent Tuesday night at the indoor music venue Sala Siranush, Vázquez sits at his drum set and begins to conduct. The rest of the band—eight men ranging from truly young to truly old-ish—have their eyes set on him, as he begins to count down with his fingers. The audience, standing only inches from the stage, sips their beers and waits.
At first, the music is groovy, jazzy, funky. The band then surges into a percussion-heavy interlude as the brass and strings lean off their instruments, letting the drums and percussion take center stage. Later, there is clapping, the wawaaaaa of an electric guitar. Alejandro Franov, keyboardist and vocalist, begins crooning into the mic—not quite discernible lyrics, but sounds, and Vázquez soon joins him, in a mix of scatting and beat boxing. The sway of the audience begins. This is the type of music you can close your eyes and move with.
Every La Grande show features a musical guest (past guests include Miss Bolivia and Juana Molina) and tonight it’s Fémina, an Argentine folk and fusion trio from San Martín de los Andes. Two of them are here tonight, and they bound on stage in monochromatic outfits of red and blue, with their long hair tied back in braids. They are singers, but it quickly becomes apparent that they are also rappers. At one moment, they spout sassy, crisp verses, before transitioning into soaring vocals. Immediately, the energy of the room shifts to elation, and swaying becomes dancing that uses all levels of the body.
While Vázquez drums, he signs. He counts down on his fingers, makes the “rock on” sign, taps on his forehead, circles his head with his hand. If you didn’t know to look for hand signals, you might not even notice them—they are fleeting, and other aspects will pull your attention elsewhere. Fémina look into each other’s eyes, chat in between vocals, planning their next moves. As Vázquez guides the musicians into another song, one Fémina lifts her eyes to the ceiling as she considers the new beat. She bops her head, then looks to the other. They launch into another round of vocals.
Other changes abound behind them—a percussionist switches from bongos to güiros, the saxophonist becomes a trombonist. At times, the musicians look like they are even surprising themselves.
A group of thirty-somethings close to the stage are particularly enthusiastic, and they kick off their shoes to twist and contort themselves to the beats. Vázquez taps his forehead, and the rhythm shifts again. Before the show, he said of his intent, “I want to create a space where people can meet together with friends and just have a free time, have a time where they feel free to dance to music that is also free.”
An hour and a half later, the first portion of the show comes to a close. The stage lights dim, and audience members walk to the courtyard and queue up to buy drinks and falafel. In the grass, young people sit and wedge bottles of wine between their thighs, creating a makeshift picnic. There are games of foosball and ping-pong, and a buzz in the air.
Slowly, the crowd gathers again inside. The second portion of the show is #JamDeLaGrande, which invites any musicians or conductors who are familiar with the Rhythm of Language to join the band on stage. Vázquez stands before the musicians, with his back to the audience. But the band is different than before: the trombonist and drummer have been switched out for unfamiliar, eager faces. Vázquez does a karate chop-like movement, and the music kicks in again.
Fémina runs back on stage, and ushers in a trance-like song. The stage is more crowded now, and the music is busier; you can hear that there are more musicians than before. Vázquez lifts and raises the melody with his arms. He then reads names from a piece of paper, and three men in baseball caps and flannels storm the stage. One takes Vásquez’s spot at the front, and the other two position themselves behind microphones. A woman behind them shakes red maracas. The crowd likes this group—they cheer in response— and the dancing is scattered and enthusiastic. The men are kind of terrible singers, but no one seems to care: one of them flails his body and baaa ba duh buh baaaaahhhhs. When the conductor grips the song to a close, everyone is panting.
Other conductors and groups follow. Trombonist Juan Canosa takes a turn conducting, and concocts a more bebop fused with classical rock sound. One of the dancers who had put her shoes to the side of the stage earlier joins the jam as a vocalist— not words, but sounds. Vázquez is to the side of the stage now, and there is a different person sitting at his drum set. Canosa taps his forehead, and the music flips.
La Grande is an event—one with a sprawly exposition that creeps into a climax, which itself creeps into the intermission of choripán eating and chatting, and waivers and stretches until #JamDeLaGrande pulls to a breathless close. At times, it sounds so clean that it’s hard to believe it’s rehearsed, and at other times, it morphs into hardly organized chaos. If you want to sweat, you can take your shoes off and join the regulars at the front. If you want to sway, you can stand toward the back, and you’ll still be close enough to see the expressions on the artists’ faces. It’s good, clean Buenos Aires fun, and it is difficult to not get wrapped up in it.