On the corner of Avenida Almirante Brown and some muddy, unfinished street in La Boca stands – or rather squats – the Blues Special Club. It ain’t Mississippi, but it’s about as authentic as you can get. The other storefronts on that forlorn stretch of street are so run-down that their hopeless owners don’t even bother to put up For Sale signs. When it rains, the asphalt-less side-street that serves as a parking lot becomes a pond. Even on the best of nights, the place retains its lonesome neon twang. In case you didn’t get the point, the walls are painted blue.
Fancy get-ups don’t suit the blues. Blues is always on the way in or on the way out, living on the ragged edge of the mainstream moment. It’s like La Boca: it never goes away but it never quite thrives either.
The vibrant Buenos Aires blues scene seems, at first glance, odd until you realize just how much blues and tango have in common: the melancholy, the fatalism, the shared roots in brothels, the desperate sensuality which is our last inalienable right.
Take some old blues man and set him down in a tango joint on the fringes of Buenos Aires and he’ll understand the scene right away. He’ll almost feel at home. The rhythm will be different. He won’t understand the lyrics. He’ll get tripped up in the steps, but he’ll recognize the underlying lament of the music and the need of people to move their bodies and rub up against each other.
And when the bandoneon starts in with its sometimes playful, sometimes mournful voice he’ll think of the harmonica in his pocket which can be either a child’s toy or the most sorrowful instrument in the world. After the human voice, the harmonica is the most intimate instrument there is. There are no buttons or keys; everything depends on the air you breathe in or out, the form of your mouth cavity, the shape of your lips. It is a way of singing for those who don’t have the voice to do so otherwise.
There was a blues club in Oakland, California I used to frequent called Eli’s Mile High Club. (It still exists but it has become something quite different.) It’s was under an overpass. There was a pool table, a bar, a little stage in the corner. The chairs got pushed back when people wanted to dance and that was every night. They served soul food. There was an empty lot out back with a few broken down cars where people went when they got too hot inside or wanted to be alone in the dark with someone.
I remembered Eli’s when I walked past the Blues Special Club late the other night, on my way home after the milonga. A wind storm was gathering up all the city’s lost plastic bags. There were only a few cars parked outside, but the handful of people inside were making more than their share of noise for a guy with long hair who was shaking that little blue building down to its roots with the wailing of his harmonica.