Argentina's sad song
Soprano Judith Mok is based in Ireland but has
long had links with Argentina. On her last visit to Buenos Aires, she
was shocked at how a sophisticated city could now be home to children
grubbing though rubbish for food T V CAMERAS were the first thing I
noticed when we drove up to the ramshackle soup kitchen somewhere in
the wastelands of Buenos Aires. BBC, CNN,TV were all filming the hungry
children of the soup kitchen 'Los Piletones' as a cautionary example
for the rest of the world.
Margarita, a monumental Argentine woman in charge
of the kitchen, was talking to the press while my colleague Susanna and
I tried to approach her through the crowds of journalists. We were
carrying a plastic shopping bag full of paper money: the proceeds of a
benefit concert we had given a few days ago in the Teatro Colon.
Senora Margarita had been there and was waiting
for the money. She now joined us in a little room full of clothes and
medicine- all donations, she said - and we handed over our precious
pesos. Real money has become rare in Argentina an for many people real
food is too. So, with my Argentine college Susanna Moncayo and Fernando
Perez, I decided to give a benefit concert for Los Piletones.
I first met mezzo soprano Susanna Moncayo during a
Mozart Festival in the south of France where we were performing Cosi
Fan Tutti. I had decided that I wanted to start a vocal chamber music
duo looking for the right person and the right voice. Our first
performance took place 11 years ago in the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam -
Holland at that stage, my home. Then we started touring Europe.
A few years later I paid my first visit to Argentina. We toured the
county with the argentine pianist Fernando Perez and were now a trio.
While we travelled the country I would feed my memory with the things
we saw: the small horses waiting patiently outside the schoolhouse; two
or three children dressed in colourful blankets rid ing bare back to a
home 20 miles or more miles away; the real gauchos galloping their
flocks of horses along the road at sunset; the quick and intense change
from day to night; our public waiting for us outside the provincial
stage doors with flowers and chocolates or home made cookies a jam.
They would have studied works that we sang in advance, and quoted texts
to us from our songs as if they came from their cherished tangos.
And then, back to Buenos Aires. Eight years ago,
it was the European capital of South America. Paris, Madrid, Rome could
all be recognised in its buildings and streets. The shops displayed an
enormous variety of the familiar fashion names as the as more exotic
south Indian gear. The middleclass were thriving and poverty was
scarce. After the concerts and plays or the wild cabaret shows people
would wander out in to the city very late night meals and lots of
Then there was the Teatro Colon, the Opera House
that seats 4,300 and is one of the best in the world. To me the public
seemed one of the best in the world too: there they were, standing
outside the stage doors clapping, not so different from the provincial
crowds after all.
I was curious about the real, raw tango singing -
and off we'd go to the remote suburbs to hear the real thing. In an old
bar, a Chinese man would welcome us and ask for our names. While we
waited at the back amongst the turmoil of smelly dogs, he would
announce us from behind the bar as if we were royalty. Then, thin old
ladies or little boys would step up onto a table and sing a tango. Very
late at night or early in the morning I would be driven back to my
quarters through the big silence of the sleeping city.
No children in the streets then, looking for garbage, searching for
food in every bin or plastic bag they encounter. For eight years, I
have been visiting this city to sing - and enjoyed it until this time.
When I arrived in Buenos Aires last month I had quite recently
performed with my trio for another child of Argentina. The Dutch Crown
Prince Alexander had wed an Argentine girl called Maxima. Our trio was
an example of good collaboration between the Netherlands and Argentina
so it was decided that we would give a concert of them as an official
wedding present. The wealthy elite of Holland sat and listened to us.
The royal couple was delighted, we chatted with
them over a glass of wine after our concert. Nobody mentioned
Argentina. Our Princess Maxima has Dutch nationality now. But Susanna
and Fernando asked me to come over and perform with them in the Teatro
Colon in a benefit concert for the children of Buenos Aires.
The City seemed the same as ever when I arrived
that Sunday after the long flight from Dublin. It was winter and it was
very hot. I recovered from my flight in the company of friends.
Late in the afternoon, we went for a stroll. People came out of their
houses to put a wide variety of garbage on the sidewalks. And then the
Dickensian hordes arrived: children with dirty faces and torn clothes,
not begging, totally focused on the garbage and the scraps of food it
The city lights were low, at night the cars were gone. Horses and carts
roamed the city like phantoms of another era. The quiet drivers
collected paper and scraps to sell for a bit of food. My pockets were
full of worthless change which I deposited in the long rows of
The economy is dead. The President Menem has sold
his country. They talk and talk and find a million reasons the children
do not care about. Clowns and fire-eaters perform at traffic lights.
Coins are flung out of barely-opened car windows. People are frightened
to go out, but they still come to us as we go to them.
We love to listen to the Indians singing in local
bars and the people who drift over from the Bolivian mountains of from
Paraguay. Our repertoire is always inspired by folk music and what
famous composers made out of these healthy and beautiful tunes.
We are now, Susanna and I, travelling to Dublin to perform Luciano
Berio's folk songs - the local songs from Europe and America that are
so important to us. We travel in our music and we like people to travel
with us. Even the hungry children of Argentina gave us a few songs in
their sky-blue-painted kitchen as we visited them.
We shall be looking around for the Irish composers who want to arrange
a few Irish folk songs for us. And we might pick up some tunes
ourselves in a lovely pub. After the concert, that is.