March 8, 2014
A journey into the heart of indigenous Argentina
Electrofusion duo Tonolec: ‘We need to broaden our identity’
She’s a former ballet teacher turned journalist turned actress turned singer. He’s a classically trained musician whose creative experiments led him to electro-pop. In a tale of paths that cross, Charo Bogarín and Diego Pérez embarked together on a journey that took them deep into the heart of indigenous Argentina, where they formed Tonolec, an electrofusion band that merges contemporary sounds with lyrics from the native Qom and Guaraní communities.
The duo sat down with the Herald at the historic Café Las Violetas in the Almagro neighbourhood to discuss life, music, indigenous Argentina, and this country’s changing national identity.
To the uninitiated, how would you describe Tonolec?
Charo: “Tonolec” comes from the language of the Qom community, which is native to northern Argentina. It means “Bird of hypnotic song from the forest of the Chaco.” As a band, what we do is a type of fusion of two genres: electronic music with Argentine native song.
What’s the story behind your musical partnership?
C: I threw a concert at a friend’s place and Diego was there. A few months later he contacted me through a friend to see if we could work together. He liked what I did on that first show. On top of that, my repertoire was what he was listening to at that time, Portishead, Pink Floyd. That was the beginning.
And Tonolec was born from an MTV contest you won…
Diego: We won an MTV trip with (our band) Laboratorio Wav to tour Spain, and when we returned to Argentina in 2001 it was at the peak of the (economic) crisis. We were both a little unsettled. I remember a conversation on the plane where we felt that things were going really well for us because we were a group formed just six months earlier without having passed through Buenos Aires. But, on the other hand, we felt that we weren’t putting forward what really represented us or the place we came from. And upon hearing the music of the Toba Chelaalapí choir, we found the imagery of our place in the world. From there, we went out looking for more.
And your work with the Qom communities?
D: We made the decision to get to know members of Toba Chelaalapí, which is a choir from Resistencia comprised of older people who pass their culture on from generation to generation. When we met them, they treated us like grandchildren, the way they taught us. That’s where the most intense process began for Tonolec, it’s perhaps where our roots are… Charo and I wanted to learn as part of a process, not just make electronic remixes but really learn and be part of a process, which turned into four years of us visiting Qom communities and another year of production for our first album.
What are some of the sensitivities of working with an ancient culture whose language was only first documented in writing 30 years ago?
C: The Qom language is still under construction — I think the sensation, or sensitivity as you say, is one of great responsibility, of understanding ourselves as artists, as musicians, as communicators. We’re transmitting and sharing a culture that’s alive in our society. That’s very important because in Argentina, on a historic level, there’s been a lot of denial, denial of indigenous heritage, denial of native culture. We’re reasserting the heritage and the values of this culture, to try to help repair some of the damage that we’ve put our indigenous communities through.
How do you avoid falling into the trap of getting political when, in some way, you speak on behalf of an entire community?
D: That’s a complicated question because we see a lot of things are lacking (in the Qom community). But on the other hand we’re very happy being artists, with artistic messages. That’s not to take away from art; in fact a lot of times it can achieve much more profound things. One thing we’re also certain of — and we’ve always tried to stay away from this — is that today in Argentina there’s use and abuse of people’s opinions. On one side it’s the press, on another it’s the government.
C: Our approach is to highlight the Qom for what they have and not for what they’re lacking. Because that’s the manipulative hand of the media today in Argentina: more than press freedom, there’s press licentiousness. They did that with the Qom communities when one sector of the media presented them in the midst of a tragedy. Of course it was bad (the tragedy), but the tabloid press then clang on to the morbid elements of that story. It’s very important that we stop looking down on indigenous communities because it nullifies them.
You played to sell-out audiences at the CAFF in Palermo this year, where you told the crowd that primary school teachers had been requesting the lyrics of your songs. What does this say to you about your music?
D: Keep in mind that they used to tell us that we’d only be successful abroad. It’s World Music, they’d say. Here nobody was going to pay attention to us. And then all of a sudden they start calling us from all over the country. In the last five years we’ve travelled everywhere. It’s mind-boggling; it’s one of the most beautiful elements of our work. And now kids sing it in school, and they can sing indigenous music instead of always singing phonetically in English. There’s nothing wrong with that, but why not indigenous languages, as well?
What does the term “identity” mean to you in this society where people are so aware of their European cultural heritage?
D: I was born in a family that was always active in social policy, in Latin American integration, which is how I became aware of a trend in Argentine society to ask, “Well, what are we? Aren’t we the Europe of Latin America?”… We need to broaden our own identity, which was always based on denial: “Don’t act like an Indian! Don’t speak with that Paraguayan or Guaraní accent. Don’t be like that, don’t speak with your accent from Chaco.” But now it’s the other way around: “How great is it that I’m from Chaco and I have this accent, one that’s closely related to Guaraní and Qom, a type of Spanish with a native tone!”
And for you, Charo? You often mention your indigenous heritage in interviews.
C: During primary school I was in a real tight spot with this face, with these features, with this skin colour. For those of us with this appearance, European stereotypes meant we were discriminated against. Thank God the social fabric in Argentina and in Latin America has changed so that today different types of rules define beauty, with different types of stereotypes that include different skin colours. And that’s magnificent because there’s indigenous blood in our veins and we have to be proud of it. We have to be proud bearers of this blood! Proud of this face, of these features. It’s magnificent! For me, it was Tonolec that made me feel like I truly belonged to this land, to this native blood. It was a process of self-discovery — a process that’s difficult to achieve when you try to see yourself as Claudia Schiffer in the mirror.
What can you tell us about the new album you’re working on?
C: The new album marks the opening up of Tonolec to other native communities. We’ve been on this journey of discovery for thirteen years, learning about Qom culture, one of the main cultures in Chaco and Formosa provinces, where we’re from. But we’ve recently started to become restless and ready to take on another culture. This time it’s the one I carry in my blood, Guaraní. We worked in four Guaraní villages in the summer of 2013. We went to Misiones province and experienced first hand the spirit of Guaraní music, where the most marked difference with the Qom community is that Guaraní musical traditions are almost exclusively for children. So the spirit of the music is fresh, very playful, which is something we want to highlight with our new album.
And there’s a Tonolec documentary, too…D: Along with the album, we’re working on a project that we would have liked to have done with the first album, but it would have been impossible because we were learning so many things at the same time. We travelled to Misiones and filmed our first trip. The idea was to highlight the work of Tonolec, the communities, what’s great about them, what they can teach us, their wealth, their wisdom. And from there, we want to try to share with the world what we see.