Q&A with Boulevard Gospel Singers (A. Diaz & G. Grätzer) - one of the most important Argentinian groups

"The Blues, when taken seriously, can be a meaningful reminder of common values that most human beings share when they’re children. When you’re a kid, you do not think about the color or status of the kids you’re playing with. You’re just playing, sharing. Remembering those values is central in the construction of an egalitarian world."

The Boulevard Gospel Singers:

Oh, Happy Gospel Days!

In Argentina, since the 1930s many styles within the Gospel and Negro Spirituals have been performed. The Boulevard Gospel Singers is a small vocal group that recreates a specific period of this genre: the one of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s Southern churches both rural and urban, white and African-American. On the Roads of the Gospel, the choir's new album is a trip through the sounds, rhythms and stories of the Gospel and Negro Spiritual: in a natural, spontaneous, with no staging nor religious praise. It is an attempt to show the clear-cut folk roots of the music we love. We try to go back in time to recover the values, the essence and the seed of the Gospel so we can honor and pay tribute to the true masters that passed on these wonderful works.

On the Roads of the Gospel One of the most important recent Argentinian Gospel albums. A trip through the sounds, rhythms and stories of the Gospel and Negro Spiritual of the Souther rural churches of the 1920's and 1930's. Twenty singers and a small band under the direction of Gabriel Grätzer: Andrea Díaz, Yanina Asensio Green, María Leveratto, María Pibernus, Carola Lagomarsino, Alejandra Atorressi, Débora Tomé, Agustina Almeida, Alejandra Gallo, Emiliano De Lio, Carlos Menteguiaga, Daniel De Vita, Javier Russomano, Cinthia Raiter, Natalia Ciel, Cristina Coehlo, Sabrina González, Florencia Horita, Greta Kohan, Clara Ajo. Piano: Joaquín Lascano; Bass: Florencia Rodríguez; Drums: Rodrigo Benbassat; Guitar: Gabriel Grätzer.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the blues and Gospel culture? What does the blues mean to you?

Andrea Diaz: What I constantly learn is how to transcend circumstances. It’s a way of doing things. It’s about trying to give back a little portion of what music has given me: a sense of relief. In Maya Angelou’s words, it’s about being “a rainbow in someone’s cloud”. And sometimes the cloud is your own fear, frustration, illusions, limitations, etc. The Blues means the world to me, it is my rainbow. It has given me a sense of belonging, a way of expression and a responsibility towards authenticity. It cannot be done without a genuine innocent intention of letting it all out.

Gabriel Grätzer: Blues, Country Blues and Gospel in particular made me learn a way of life. Not in terms of living like they lived in the past, but how to think life, how to feel this incredible language. I don’t sing or play a song, I feel it, and every song I choose is a part of me, of my life. Maybe I sing the same songs for years if they still represent me. I’m not interested in touring around the world and thinking about myself like an artist or someone who will give you a “show”. I just play on stage as if I’m on my living room or in my garden, at home. That’s Blues, Gospel: more than a nice structure or style: it’s life. It means a lot. I grew up listening to Blues; I’ve spent twenty seven years playing Blues and, the most important thing is thinking’ the Blues as a way of living: because of the Blues I met my wife and know I have a beautiful “Blues” kid!

How do you describe The Boulevard Gospel Singers sound and songbook? What characterize band’s philosophy?

Gabriel: I’ve been in the Argentine Gospel scene since 1994. I’ve created the first Argentina Gospel Workshops and I created some of the first Gospel Choirs in our country. The Boulevard Gospel Singers is a vocal group (with guitar and sometimes a little band) in which we sing old country Gospel repertoire from the 20’s until the 40’s just like the old groups did: in little churches and without amplification. We are the only group to play this way in Argentina and we think of our work as a way to show the genuine folklore. We don’t have auditions looking for the best singers and we don’t need any theatrical elements on stage, we are just ourselves.

We sing African American and white Gospel so you can find songs of the country white gospel tradition like The Harbor of Love or I’ll Fly Away or hymns such as Amazing Grace, Negro Spirituals (Swing Low Sweet Chariot or This Litte Light of Mine) and, of course Afro-american songs like Do you Call That Religion, Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn me Around, I feel Good, Telephone to Glory, among others.

"Blues, Country Blues and Gospel in particular made me learn a way of life. Not in terms of living like they lived in the past, but how to think life, how to feel this incredible language."

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

Andrea: After a show a few years ago with the Boulevard Gospel Singers, an old man came up to me and mentioned that the song I’d performed (My Journey to the Sky by Sister Rosetta Tharpe) was a tune he used to sing with his wife, who had passed away. Not only was that moving from an emotional perspective, but also, a few days later I found out he’d been a crucial figure in the early development of Blues in Argentina. The recognition coming from expert ears was truly humbling. There was also the gig we had at the US embassy with Gabriel Grätzer and his band at the Mississippi-themed celebration of the 4th of July. After having traveled together 4 months before that around many towns in Mississippi, the whole thing was surreal.

Gabriel: I’ve been travelling all around the world touring, playing in big festivals. I’ve played in more than 20 countries, 4 continents, 100 cities. I’ve written two books (Blues por Regiones and Bien al Sur, Historia del Blues en Argentina), both of them were included in the Library of the Blues Hall of Fame from the Blues Foundation. I also recorded 4 albums (my last one with the Boulevard Gospel Singers). So, I can’t share specific memories. I think it’s all part of my life. I’ve meet more people, countries, cities than I ever imagined. In 2000 I created the Argentine School of Blues. Since then more than 1500 students have studied in those classrooms. We changed the Argentinian Blues scene. So I think that we can share our experience, not for us, in particular, but to keep the Blues and Gospel alive and say “thanks” to all the real masters who shared their knowledge. Anyway, last January, I had the chance of playing a few songs with Jimmy “Duck” Holmes on the Blue Front Café in Bentonia. For me it was incredible. We also spent around two hours in Dockery Farms…I’ll never forgot that moment, walking around where Charlie Patton started…

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

Andrea: I miss the focus on raw expression, rather than on virtuosity or loudness. I’m afraid the Blues might become just a bunch of guitar licks or vocal runs that people might take for granted. I hope there will be more and more people daring to be vulnerable about their own stories, people who dare to let themselves be fully present in a song.

Gabriel: Nothing. We have the records, books, videos so we have all the Blues alive to enjoy it. We can go to Mississippi, go to the places were the blues began…I think there is nothing to miss about the past. We can learn about the past, enjoy the present to continue to build a future. Many people are afraid about the possibility that the Blues might disappear. I think it won’t.  Maybe the social, economic and cultural context will modify the way the Blues can be played. But…the same thing happened in the past: Charlie Patton wasn’t the same than Robert Johnson. Then Muddy Waters played the Blues in a different way, etc., etc. but the essence of the genre, the heart of the Blues. Then, it’s only a matter of taste.

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

Andrea: Blues in Argentina is something quite eclectic. I’d even use the word fragmented. In terms of gigs, the 90s were definitely the most interesting period in terms of international shows. Many of my superheroes were alive and came to Argentina to perform. Unfortunately, I did not get to see them because I was too young.

Gabriel: Blues in Argentina starts in the 30’s. But the 60’s was the period in which the “Argentine Blues” was born. A blues sang in Spanish and not necessary with the blues structure. It was, in many ways, a rock-blues style. But it was our Blues: a new kind of Blues. From the 90’s onwards many Blues legends from the US and UK were brought to Argentina so, our Blues, got mixed with the traditional Blues. So in the last 20 years we’ve have a really great period. Argentina has a very big scene. Everybody knows a lot of Blues, history, names. In Argentina we edit more than 30 blues records per year. We have the Blues School, jams, festivals, blues books, magazines, radio programs, many local musicians around the world and a new generation of young people that secure the future. Meanwhile, the older musicians still play and have a big recognition so this period is pretty good.

"Many people are afraid about the possibility that the Blues might disappear. I think it won’t.  Maybe the social, economic and cultural context will modify the way the Blues can be played."

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

Andrea: Lately, I’ve been laughing ‘just to keep from crying’ at the struggle I went through to find a place where to hold my album release party. Putting a little humor onto the stress of being a musician can be a healthy outlet. On the other hand, what touched me is the fact that even in the Smartphone era, people still weep over music, people look for that genuine connection that only music can stimulate. It’s something that happens to me as an audience member, but when someone (especially men, who are told not to cry) comes up to you and says “hey, that song really moved me”, that’s when I feel that being a musician makes sense and gives meaning to my life.

Gabriel: Seeing the young generations. The passion they have. When I started I didn’t have internet. Now, they have all that information but anyway, they go out singing, playing with so much emotion…sometimes I can’t believe what is happening in the countryside in small towns. You can find so many people in love with the Blues. Personally, what filled me with pride and emotion was that my last nationally and internationally tour was declared of cultural and educational interest by the National Ministry of Culture of Argentina. It is the first time that an official Ministry makes such recognition a on the local blues.  I felt it as recognition to so many years of artistic and educational work. It was also incredible to be recognized by the Blues Foundation, along with Martin Sassone, because of our books. The same happened in the University of Mississippi in Oxford.

Are there any similarities between the blues and the genres of local folk music and traditional forms?

Andrea: I honestly wouldn’t be able to tell: I listen to music in English ever since I was a kid, so I don’t have enough knowledge on local folk music so as to compare it to the Blues. However, from the few artists I have listened to, I can say that local folk music reflects everyday stories from everyday people, just like the Blues.

Gabriel: It’s a long answer. Afro-American music, folk music, minstrel songs and ballads from the United States came to Argentina in the 19th century because of the British invasions through American soldiers who stayed in Buenos Aires when the war ended. Our Folk Music has its own story but…Blues and Tango are “parents”. Both began because of black slavery and…we can find a good example in W.C. Handy’s St. Louis Blues:  Handy made a 12 bar Blues but in middle of the song he intended to do a Tango: he mixed a tango Rhythm with Blues.

What does to be a female artist in a “Man’s World” as James Brown says? What is the status of women in music?

Andrea: Being a woman is, first of all, a challenge to be faced with courage these days. It is our responsibility to change the current state of affairs. As a female artist, sometimes you are not taken seriously, as if image was above musicality. A while ago, I played in a small town and someone said “whatever you do will be fine”, as if a woman’s physical traits were more relevant music. On another gig, someone yelled to a friend “next time wear a mini skirt to pass the hat” as a friend was passing the tips jar in a show. After a very productive and peaceful conversation, I could bring the guy back to his senses, but being objectified is still common these days. Good grief, your own colleagues can be condescending, disrespectful or inconsiderate. However, I’m very grateful for the men I’ve worked with so far on different projects. They have been outstanding and they understand that changing the sexist culture we live in is everyone’s business.

"Seeing the young generations. The passion they have. When I started I didn’t have internet. Now, they have all that information but anyway, they go out singing, playing with so much emotion…sometimes I can’t believe what is happening in the countryside in small towns. You can find so many people in love with the Blues."

What is the impact of the Blues music and culture to the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?

Andrea: The Blues, when taken seriously, can be a meaningful reminder of common values that most human beings share when they’re children. When you’re a kid, you do not think about the color or status of the kids you’re playing with. You’re just playing, sharing. Remembering those values is central in the construction of an egalitarian world. The Blues is a very powerful instrument: as a singer you can say give out a meaningless message or you can sing about what all of us want: peace and freedom. The great thing about the Blues is, also, that just by saying the key and tempo of the song you’ll sing and you can be jamming with complete strangers:  this fires up a musical conversation. Who cares about how much money you got on your pocket when you’re playing? We’re all the same when jamming. In a way, the Blues can be a very positive political statement.

Gabriel: Like the Beatles in the 60’s or like punk music in the 70’s, just to mention a few examples, different types of music had an impact in the occidental culture. The Blues itself is the root of all the contemporary genres. Rock n’ Roll, Pop, Heavy Metal, Jazz, etc. nothing would exist without the Blues or Gospel or the old Country Blues. So its implication in racial, political and socio-cultural is very important directly or indirectly and not only in the United States, but in the whole world.

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

Andrea: I’d go backstage to the day when Rosetta Tharpe and Willie Dixon played together. I’d love to pick their brains.

Gabriel: Maybe to a Gospel Church to listen to Sister Rosetta Tharpe! Or to a bar in Chicago to listen to Memphis Minnie or to any Mississippi town where I can find Tommy Johnson or Garfield Akers or Blind Willie McTell playing!

The Boulevard Gospel Singers  - Home

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