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Argentina's sad song
February 2003

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 champagne.

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 might contain.
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 outstretched hands.

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.