Argentine artist Marcelo Ponce talks about his experience with the greats of Blues and Afro American music

"The blues is full of mystery. The stories, the musicians, the crossroad, and of course the music. If you want to play blues you must cross a line and put your soul in risk."

Marcelo Ponce: Afro Pan-American Blues

Marcelo Ponce is an Argentine singer, guitar player, choir conductor, songwriter, classical composer, vocal and instrumental arranger. He graduated in Guitar and Composition at Departamento de Artes Musicales y Sonoras 'Carlos López Buchardo' (DAMus - IUNA). Since 1992, he plays Blues & Gospel with Viviana Dallas. They were invited to perform and to give workshops in a lot of Festivals not only in Argentina, but also in other countries. They performed at Festival 'Ecuador Jazz 2009' (Quito) Ecuador, 'Arts International Festival' at Francis Marion University, Florence (SC, USA) and the '7th annual BLUES BY THE SEA' at Freshfields Village Green (Kiawah Island, SC, USA).

In 2013 they were invited to prestigious ‘Blues al Río’ Festival (Guayaquil) and ‘Quito Blues’ (Quito), Ecuador. Viviana and Marcelo have been shared stage or performed with great Argentine musicians like Cristina Dall, Miguel Botafogo, Hugo González Neira, and great international artists like Gregory Hopkins (Minister of Music from Convent Avenue Baptist Church of New Cork), Zakiya Hooker (John Lee Hooker’s daughter), Stefan Grossman, Drink Small and James Cotton, among others. He and Viviana are directors of Afro American Music® - Loft Studio, where a lot of students come every year to improve their Blues and Gospel knowledge. A lot of gospel groups were formed in Afro American Music® since 2000. Their main objectives are researching, teaching, and spreading out the African American culture and its music, with the intention to preserve the folklore roots, and spirit of this music. They both give also workshops and courses in agreement with the Institute of Jazz by University of Flores, Buenos Aires, since 2006, member of ‘International Society Jazz Research’, based in Graz, Austria.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from Afro American culture and music and what does Blues mean to you?

Blues mean to me what Leadbelly said once: ‘The Blues is like this. You lay down some night and you turn from one side of the bed to the other, all night long. It’s not too cold in that bed and it ain’t too hot. But what’s the matter? The blues has got you. When you get up and sit on the side of your bed, soon in the morning, you may have a mother and a father, a sister and a brother around, but you don’t want to talk out of them. They ain’t done you nothing, but what’s the matter? The blues has got you. When you get up and put your feet under the table, you look down at your plate. You got everything you want to eat. Well, you wake up, you walk away, you shake your head and you say: ‘The Lord have mercy, I can’t eat and I can’t sleep.  What’s the matter? The blues has got you and they want to talk to you. 

"I miss the country-blues and the folk singers playing everywhere, this way of playing and singing. The songsters, the acoustic sound from the deep south..." (Photo: Marcelo & Viviana Dallas) 

How started the thought of “Afro American Music®”?

We started playing Blues & Gospel with my wife Viviana Dallas (a great female blues and gospel singer), since we first met in 1992. Since that time, we formed a Country Blues duo called ‘Uvas Amargas’, a rhythm & blues band that played west coast blues (T-Bone Walker, Lowell Fulson style) called ‘Texas Rhythmakers’, a Gospel & Blues vocal quintet, the first one in Argentina who sang covers of the 1930’s vocal quartets, a Blues trio that played Women Blues in the 20s style (Bertha Chippie Hill, Ma’ Rainey, Bessie Smith covers), three gospel choirs, and two more vocal groups, among other projects. By 2000, we tought that all these groups and our teaching work, must be joined up in an Institution under a name that represent all them, so we created ‘Afro American Music®, our school of music. A lot of students come to Afro American Music® every year; most of them are playing now in the local scene and all around the world.

What characterize Marcelo Ponce’s philosophy and mission?

I finished my studies of classical guitar and composition at Conservatorio Nacional (DAMus) in Buenos Aires. You know, theory, harmony, counterpoint, classical guitar and many other pedagogic subjects. On the other hand, I took private lessons of electric & acoustic guitar for ten years, focusing in country-blues, country-gospel, electric blues, jazz, African American styles. These different points of view, gave me a lot of tools. Sometimes, I am writing some music for orchestra or for a camara group, in a contemporary language and sometimes I am playing Charley Patton songs and I always find points in common. A lot of students think that if they start studying theory, for example, they gonna lose their intuition and spontaneity. I’m always trying to improve in both fields and try to do the same with our students. I often invite them to improve their intuition, musical knowledge or both, depending in what stage I consider they are. If I add musical knowledge to my intuition, I can play more freely, in my opinion.

Why did you think that the Afro American Music continues to generate such a devoted following?

Because the blues is full of mystery. The stories, the musicians, the crossroad, and of course the music. If you want to play blues you must cross a line and put your soul in risk.

"I would like to go to United States, some day in the sixties, 1964/65, just to see how people was living in the same era than Elvis Presley, The Beatles and the Blues revival." (Photo: Marcelo with Viviana & Drink Small) 

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?

Music gave me the opportunity to share great moments with incredible and talented musicians. I had the honor of playing with Gregory Hopkins (Minister of Music of the Convent Avenue Baptist Church - Nueva York), Zakiya Hooker (John Lee Hooker’s daughter) and his band,  Shrimp City Slim (East Coast Blues piano player) and his band in our first USA Tour, Stefan Grossman (prestigious guitarist, educator  and historian of country-blues), in his first Argentina Tour in 2010 (presented by of US Embassy in Argentina and organized by Afro American Music® with cultural endorsement by the Institute of Jazz and Contemporary Music of the Universidad de Flores – IDEJazz) and of course, a great moment: the meeting with B.B. King during his Argentina 2012 Tour. Also in USA, we played  (openers) in two important Blues Festivals organized by Shrimp City Slim,  with Drink Small and James Cotton as headliners.

I learnt a lot from every musician I played with, but I remember four important advices given to me:

First one: ‘Try to do your own versions of the blues classics, don’t try to imitate, be yourself’ (Ollan Bell during Zakiya Hooker Argentina Tour). Second one: playing with Shrimp City Slim and his band, he and his drummer John Etheridge, they showed us the differences between to play ‘on the beat’, and ‘behind the beat’. Third one: talking about electric guitars, B.B King said to me: the only thing that electricity does is to make what you know can sound louder and the fourth one: playing with Stefan Grossman, he taught me a lot of licks and positions for country-blues guitar, and I remember a special one, a kind of D9 with the thumb of the left hand doing the bass by pressing the sixth string and he said: ‘Son House taught me this position’, amazing!!!

"There are a lot of young students that come to our school to study Blues & Gospel, so the future sounds good, Blues will never die, so I think nothing to fear about ..." (Photo: Marcelo & BB King) 

Are there any memories from gigs, festivals, jams, studio, and BB King which you’d like to share with us?

I’m a lucky man. I played with some great musicians. When we started playing Blues & Gospel with Viviana Dallas in 1992, we had a dream: to play some day in the land where the Blues began, the United States. That dream came true in 2011, in our first USA Tour; we were invited by a great musician and a great person, Shrimp City Slim. We played in two International Blues Festivals, and did some gigs with Shrimp City Slim band. We share stage with headliners like Drink Small and James Cotton, in South Carolina and Georgia. In 2010, we played with Stefan Grossman, in his first Argentina Tour. Stefan also gave some workshops. Concerts and workshops were organized by Afro American Music®, with the support of US Embassy in Argentina. This was a great experience. Stefan is an incredible musician and a really nice person. We also recorded nine tracks with Stefan, and we expect this material can be released in a cd soon. We also played in 2004 with Zakiya Hooker (John Lee Hooker’s daugther). We did some backing vocals and the shows were recorded on a cd. I did the vocal arrengements for these perfomances. In 2013 we played at Blues al Río Blues Festival and Quito Blues Festival, in Ecuador, where we also did some workshops; we met a lot of nice people in Ecuador. Ecuador’s audience is very warm. More than a thousand people at each show. The meeting with B.B. King was crazy. We were invited by US Embassy and producer Mariano Cardozo, to see his show in Buenos Aires, during his Argentina 2012 Tour. After the show, we (me and Viviana and some students) went to the backstage, and BB was there. We were shocked. He said: please, if you want to know something, just ask me. So, I asked for the two women in a well-known picture of 1951 at Beale Street, where all the band is standing by a big bus. He said: ok, sit down here (pointing his left side), and we continue talking for thirty minutes. Amazing!

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

Maybe I miss the country-blues and the folk singers playing everywhere, this way of playing and singing. The songsters, the acoustic sound from the deep south ... We are lucky to be contemporary of Keb Mo’ or Stefan Grossman.

Nowadays, there are too much electricity, haha ... There are a lot of young students that come to our school to study Blues & Gospel, so the future sounds good, Blues will never die ... so I think nothing to fear about ...

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

When I was young, most of the people, some relatives included used to make me two questions the first time they met me.

1. – What do you do? My answer: - I’m a musician. I do music

2. – Ah, and how do you earn your life? My answer: - I’m a musician. I do music to earn my life.

I would like to change this situation. We live in a society that sometimes, thinks that music it’s a kind of breaktime. Some people see music not as a possible job. Of course I enjoy playing music, but music is my job, too.

This situation causes some people in the music business take advantage of young musicians, by their desire to play, at least in Buenos Aires.

Make an account of the case of the blues in Argentina. Which is the most interesting period in local scene?

I think ‘Manal’ (Javier Martínez, Claudio Gabis and Alejandro Medina) were pioneers of the blues in Argentina in the late 60s. They started singin’ Blues with lyrics in Spanish. Then came Pappo and many other good musicians. In the 90s there were a lot of pubs dedicated specially to the blues, a lot of international blues musicians came to Argentina and a lot of blues bands started playing everywhere. After 2000, most of the pubs closed and the local scene changed. Nowadays, I think every band try to make its own circuit, producing themselves their own concerts. However, I think these are good times, too...

"I think Blues is folklore and Tango is an urban music. From this point of view Tango could be closer to Jazz, and Blues could be closer to argentine folklore such as vagualas, vidalas, zambas, milongas camperas, etc." 

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues from Africa to United States and continue to Argentina?

Blues has been influenced by diatonic music from Europe, and by African melodies and rhythms (quarter tones, microtones, rhythm fluctuation, syncopation, etc). We have in USA, in the first rural recordings at the beginning of the 20th century (we can find country-blues at the end of the 19th century), some country blues in Texas, that preserve the legacy of the hollers (solitary songs), with a free rhythm and fluctuation, that not allows you to make the rhythm with your foot and melodies with a wide range between the lowest and the highest note. On the other hand, we have a country-blues in Mississippi that preserves the legacy of the worksongs (groupal songs), with a regular rhythm, melodies with a fifth of extension at last, and the pattern lead-group.  Most of these men of Mississippi went to Chicago and created the Chicago sound in the forties... In my point of view, this Chicago sound, this urban blues has influenced Argentine musicians more than others kind of Blues (east coast blues, Texas blues, west coast blues, etc)

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the local music circuits?

A couple of months ago, we had to play in a pub. For an unknown reason, the lights went out. We decided to go ahead with the concert, playing without amplification. It was funny, people eating in silence, with candles on his tables, listening to our vintage blues, like in the twenties...

There is one thing that touched me emotionally from our local music circuits: just to see artists that studied with us some years ago, playing now their music at pubs, teathers, etc in a proffesional way.

From the folklore point of view can you find any similarities between Afro American Music and Tango?

I think Blues is folklore and Tango is an urban music. From this point of view Tango could be closer to Jazz, and Blues could be closer to argentine folklore such as vagualas, vidalas, zambas, milongas camperas, etc. But there are similarities in the lyrics between Tango and Blues: the woman that has left the man, drink, gamblers, horse races, love stories, losers, prostitutes, etc.

"Music gave me the opportunity to share great moments with incredible and talented musicians." 

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

I would like to go to United States, some day in the sixties, 1964/65, just to see how people was living in the same era than Elvis Presley, The Beatles and the Blues revival.

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