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Alejandro Brittes Quartet performing at Library of Congress
The Alejandro Brittes Quartet performing at the Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC on September 21, 2023. (left to right) Charlise Bandeira, André Ely, and Alejandro Brittes. Carlos de Cesare, the group’s bassist, is not pictured. Photo by AFC Folklife Specialist, Douglas D. Peach.

Homegrown Plus: Alejandro Brittes Quartet, Masters of Chamamé

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In the Homegrown Plus series, we present Homegrown concerts that also had accompanying oral history interviews, placing both together in an easy-to-find blog post (Find the whole series here). We’re continuing the series with a concert and oral history with the Alejandro Brittes Quartet.

The Alejandro Brittes Quartet is one of the leading practitioners of chamamé—a traditional musical genre associated with northeast Argentina, southern Brazil, and Uruguay. On September 21, 2023, the American Folklife Center (AFC) welcomed the Alejandro Brittes Quartet to the Library of Congress for a concert and oral history interview. AFC staff organized Brittes’ visit as part of the Center’s Homegrown Concert Series and in celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month. Led by Alejandro Brittes on accordion, the quartet’s other members included Carlos de Césare (bass), André Ely (guitar), and Charlise Bandeira (flute and percussion). At times, the group was also joined by Dr. José Curbelo, the group’s manager, on accordion.

The Quartet’s excellent concert, which you can see in the player above, featured original compositions and traditional chamamé songs. “Un Mate y la Distancia” [at 7:29 in the video] is an example of the group’s original material. While raised in Argentina, Brittes has lived in Porto Alegre, Brazil since 2010. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Brittes was quarantined in Brazil and separated from his extended family. He composed “Un Mate y La Distancia” to connect to his Argentine family members, despite the physical distance between them. As Brittes explained during the concert, “[music] is our way of communicating, of being close to our loved ones.” “El Guanzuncho,” [at 1:00:05 in the video] a traditional chamamé song composed by Fito Ledesma (1935–2005), was the final song of the performance. Ledesma was a famed chamamé musician, from the Argentine province of Corrientes—a region of northeast Argentina strongly associated with chamamé music. Ledesma was also a mentor to Brittes—the elder musician even gave Brittes his prized accordion. Brittes used the same accordion, gifted from Ledesma, for his performance at the Library of Congress. Ending the concert with “El Guazuncho” and playing Ledesma’s instrument was like an homage to a chamamé master, made by one of this generation’s most accomplished tradition bearers.

In his oral history interview, viewable in the player above, Alejandro Brittes discusses his early life, his musical career, and his research about the origins of chamamé music. Key to Brittes’ success was his upbringing in Buenos Aires to parents from the province of Corrientes, located approximately 500 miles from the Argentine capital. Although they were separated from Corrientes, Brittes’ parents worked hard to support chamamé music in Buenos Aires. His mother produced a chamamé radio program and his father organized performances for traveling musicians. Because of his parents, Brittes grew up surrounded by chamamé music and culture. Mornings began with chamamé on the radio. Weekends were occupied by visits to chamamé dances. Chamamé groups even held rehearsals at his home. Summarizing his immersion in the culture, he said, “in my house, we breathed chamamé” and “my lullabies were [even] chamamé.”

Despite his parents’ dedication to the music, Brittes’ mother was not enthusiastic about her son becoming a musician. As he explained, “My mother didn’t want me to be a musician. Why was that? Because, logically, she saw, not the suffering, but the work that it took, the hours spent away from one’s family, the risk of living life on the road, and, well, the bohemia. All that comes along with being a musician. So, she did not want me to be a musician.” After promising to study in a music conservatory and finding a chamamé instructor in Buenos Aires, named Nini Flores, Brittes, at the age of eleven, finally convinced his mother to allow him to follow his dream of becoming a professional musician.

Accordionist Alejandro Brittes onstage at Library of Congress
Alejandro Brittes onstage at the Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress. Photo taken on September 21, 2023 by Douglas D. Peach

Musical success was soon to follow for the young Brittes. After becoming a regular performer at chamamé dances in Buenos Aires, Brittes recorded his first album, Por la Senda Chamamecera (On the Chamamé Path), at the age of fifteen. At twenty, Brittes received national attention by winning the prestigious “Best Instrumental Soloist” award at the Cosquín Music Festival—arguably the most important folk festival in Argentina—which was broadcast on national television. From that moment, Brittes’ career blossomed. He released several albums, recorded with some of the most important artists in Argentina in a variety of genres, and began to tour the world.

Brittes’ success as a chamamé musician was hard-earned. As he explained, he did not find other young musicians interested in chamamé during his training in elementary and middle school. Rather, his classmates were interested in rock, pop, jazz, and classical music. Folk music, and especially chamamé, was not de moda (in style). As an aspiring musician, Brittes had to sustain his love for chamamé within a community that did not share his passion for the tradition. As he said, “I had to, shall we say, create protective armor for this little flame, this fire, that I had inside [for chamamé], in order for it to survive.”

These early difficulties made Brittes’ later success in chamamé all the more sweet. Reflecting on a chamamé album made later in his career, he said, “I wanted to say that, despite having opened this protective armor and being open to the influences that have passed through my filter, I didn’t stop being a chamamecero. I continue being the same chamamecero, that same kid who started to record at fifteen. Now, almost thirty years have passed and that chamamé fire remains intact. But now, what was once a fire, is a burning flame.”

In recent years, Brittes has worked to understand the origins of chamamé music. Along with historian Magali de Rossi, Brittes has conducted research among Guarani indigenous communities, in the archives of Jesuit preachers, and with contemporary thinkers about the histories than inform chamamé culture. Their work resulted in the publication of a book, titled O Origem do Chamamé: Uma Historia Para Ser Contada (The Origin of Chamamé: A Story to be Told). Brittes gave a copy of the book to staff at the American Folklife Center during his visit. Today, O Origem do Chamamé rests in the collections of the Library of Congress so others can learn about this important musical history.

AFC Folklife Specialist, Douglas D. Peach, and musician Alejandro Brittes
AFC Folklife Specialist, Douglas D. Peach, and Alejandro Brittes exchanging copies of Brittes’ book A Origem do Chamamé: Uma História Para Ser Contada and his album, (L)este, on-stage at the Coolidge Auditorium of the Library of Congress. Photo by Dr. José Curbelo.

In 2020, chamamé was recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as part of the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. When asked about the significance of this designation, Brittes first gave credit to artists of previous generations before explaining what the recognition meant to those in the contemporary chamamé community. He said:

This [designation] is a recognition of all those artists, pioneers, who left their homes—be they in Corrientes, in Misiones, in Chaco, in Formosa, and went to Buenos Aires to work or to try to make a living in music. Many musicians wanted to join tango orchestras, for example, like that of Isáco Abitbol. And, [it is a recognition of] those people who fought, who were taking the dirt roads, bringing the music to others, suffering, and, at times, experiencing discrimination, or whatever it took to put the music on the radio, on television. And, to that, you have to add poets, dancers, painters, sculptors . . . the people who struggled. It is, for those of us who are active, it is a recognition that gives us the endorsement to be able to be proud of this. And, it will be an endorsement for the generations that come and embrace this genre and continue sharing it, no matter where it will be. Because this opens the curiosity of other parts of the world. Today, I am here, for example, bringing this music [to the Library of Congress].

While the American Folklife Center’s request for Brittes to perform was not directly related to the UNESCO designation, the musician did bring an important fact to our attention: to the best of our knowledge, the performance by the Alejandro Brittes Quartet is the first chamamé concert in the history of the Library. Given this long-standing tradition, its international recognition, the quality of Brittes’ performance, and the buena onda (good vibes) of his accompanying musicians, we wonder – what took us so long?

Collection Connections and Links

Resource Guides

Resource guide to the American Folklife Center’s Brazil Collections

Resource guide to the American Folklife Center’s Latinx and Latin American Collections

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