‘María De Buenos Aires’ it says in black letters on the van. It’s an older model, but well cared for and trust inspiring. All the important parts, such as its shiny wheels and fenders, look new and expensive. White, compact, and sturdy, it has been converted into some kind of multi-purpose mobile home/trailer. The initial passenger space now serves as a tiny stage dressing room or, if needed, as a bedroom. There is a clothes rack with stage costumes, a vanity, and everything the artist needs to transform herself for a grand appearance. This past year there were thirty-three of them in five months.
The driver climbs out of the cabin, stretches his legs after the long drive, and opens the rear doors to reveal a compactly packed, neatly organized system: suitcases in different sizes, duffel bags, guitar cases, a complete sound system, and even camping gear — just in case. Only he knows how to stack properly all these items which have become essential for life on the road. Everything from dishes to towels, from CDs to laptops, from extension cords to repair tools has to fit into that tight space.
‘María’ is a 1991 GMC Vandura and she has seen quite a bit of the world. As have her two passengers, María Volonté and Kevin Carrel Footer. The couple has been touring the American West Coast, the East Coast, and most states in between in this vehicle for about a decade. They make a remarkable pair, she being a well-known, striking Argentine tango singer-songwriter and guitarist whose talent was discovered by her late husband. Surprised, when he found out one day that it was his young wife singing in the kitchen and not, as he had assumed, someone on the radio, he urged her to train to become a singer. Encouraged by his confidence in her talent, she took his advice and has since risen to become one of the most critically acclaimed performers and innovators of Argentine tango.
Her partner on the other hand seems at first glance like the casual guy from next door, but is in fact the singer’s strong creative counterpart and at the same time acts as the duo’s super-efficient manager. He organizes and controls every aspect of the business down to the last detail. This journalist-turned-harmonica player, originally from Oakland, California, ended up by chance in Buenos Aires in the early nineties, trying to piece his life together after a failed marriage back home in the States. By coincidence he stumbled into the world of Argentine tango where he eventually found himself, the multi-facetted world of tango becoming his life.
When their paths crossed, they each had built a respectable career for themselves. María’s had already stretched over more than two decades, both as a solo artist as well as with her own trio. She had won the prestigious Carlos Gardel Award, had been nominated for a Latin Grammy Award, and had been inducted into the Tango Hall of Fame. She had performed across Latin America, the United States, and Europe — where she most memorably sang the title role in the Piazzolla opera ‘María de Buenos Aires’ for a stage production in Munich.
Kevin was a writer and photographer whose pictures of people in tango appeared in international magazines and on the covers of award-winning CDs. And he played the harmonica, an instrument he had learned to master on his own journey to the birthplace of the blues, the Mississippi delta. This small wind instrument had long been considered just a kid’s instrument in Argentina. But thanks to innovative artists like harmonica-player and composer Hugo Díaz it had been accepted as a lead instrument in modern tango, equal to the bandoneon.
blues and Argentine tango — these two musical genres began to merge when María Volonté and Kevin Carrel Footer joined forces. They labeled their new fusion Blue Tango Project. It is a work in progress: as they state on their website, a very personal and unique way of exploring and interpreting “the emotional and musical crossroads where tango and the blues embrace”. They consider their musical project a “road-centric approach to life”. This statement can be taken quite literally since, after starting their creative union at the 2008 San Francisco Jazz Festival, the couple spends the better part of every year on the road.Their new lifestyle began when they gave up their permanent home in a quaint neighborhood of Oakland. “We threw everything out!” recalls María with a sweeping arm movement. After which they prepared for their life on wheels by converting the white van into a well-equipped mobile home. From then on they would stay during the first six months of the year at their home in Buenos Aires and then spend the second half of the year in North America, with occasional engagements in Europe. The white Vandura remains parked at a safe location in Oakland after each tour and gets pulled out again in mid-summer for a thorough inspection and overhaul before it hits the road again.
The couple’s two lives couldn’t be more different. In Argentina’s buzzing capital “we live a typical urban life,” says Kevin. “We go to cafés, bookstores, milongas, we have dinner with friends.” It is where their creative work comes into being and where they compose and record new pieces, many of which have been inspired by their adventures on the road. Once the Argentine fall turns into winter, around July, they set out to the now summerly Northern hemisphere, touring the United States and Canada in their van, to perform at many different venues across both countries, from outdoor festivals and big stages to eclectic little bars and coffee shops in remote places. Many of their fans whom they have met on the road have become friends over the years, and commonly ask them to play at their private house-milongas, regularly inviting them to stay for a few days at their homes – which hospitality is almost always answered by an impromptu intimate performance in their living room. In fact, adds Kevin: “we almost never stay at a hotel.”
What sounds like the romantic life of two traveling bards is in fact hard work. The tightly packed Vandura can almost be seen as symbolic for the down-to-the-last-detail meticulously organized, daily life of these two musicians. My partner and I got to know them over the past year when we plunged into the adventure of preparing several gigs in upstate New York and Northern California. By becoming a small part of their five-month strenuous tour, we got a glimpse of their tightly organized life and the discipline it takes to pull off such an endeavor.
We learned that there is a strict routine at the bottom of this seemingly free lifestyle. Kevin’s meticulous planning typically begins months before the actual start of the tour. When he maps out the tour schedule, it has to follow the basic underlying rule of ‘one day driving, one day resting before a performance.’ On the day of the show, there is the usual unloading of instruments and sound equipment from the van, setting up the stage, tech rehearsal, and some rest before the show. Then a light snack during intermission and after the show, and off to bed as soon as permissible without offending their hosts, and sleeping in the morning as late as possible. This last, however, is not always an option, since their tour schedule is tight and venues are often long stretches apart. At the same time they are often so charged up after a performance that sleep doesn’t come until the early morning hours, as María once admitted to me, adding that yoga exercises before breakfast in the morning whenever possible help her to maintain inner balance. Even under the best of circumstances — meaning no delays on the road, no issues with the van, and a properly prepared team at each venue — they both agree that “the biggest challenge is getting enough sleep.”
It may seem a strenuous lifestyle, but as a look at their websites — https://mariavolonte.com and www.bluetangoproject.com makes clear it is a successful and enjoyable lifestyle and one that shows no sign of slowing down.
Photo no. one and two by Blue Tango Project