Trombonanza: Argentina's Unlikely Music Festival
“There's trombone playing in all parts of the world, but the heart of all that is here at Trombonanza.” –trombonist Paul Compton
For most of the year, Santa Fe, Argentina is a nondescript provincial capital located in the heart of Argentina's pampa plains region. But during the first week of August, the small city is transformed as dozens of trombonists converge upon it for Trombonanza, the city's unique low brass music festival. Throughout the week, the streets are peppered with people of all ages walking the streets with their large instrument cases in tow---and since the locals have embraced the festival as their own, this might be the only place in the world where a passerby wouldn't mistake them for golf clubs.
Trombonanza, which began as a regional gathering of some of South America's top classical trombonists and tubists in the year 2000, has since grown into a weeklong celebration of low brass music in many forms, welcoming students and professionals alike for a week of masterclasses, faculty recitals, and performances. The signature event, a concert featuring all 150 musicians performing together on the steps of the municipal theater, is truly a sight (and sound!) to behold:
This year, from August 5-10, I attended Trombonanza this year for the third time, having also previously attended in 2005 and 2007. The amount of positive energy and truly world-class music-making packed into the week has always struck me as remarkable, and so it was a special pleasure and privilege to be able to return this year. As you can see in the video, the festival has grown tremendously since I last attended, and this year included esteemed faculty from across Europe and the Americas. Significantly, none of these world-class musicians receive any payment for their services---travel, food, and hotels are all paid for, but nobody takes home a dime. This contributes to the atmosphere of shared celebration and mutual love of trombone-playing that makes the weeklong festival so unique. This can be seen in the film Trombon, a 2009 documentary about the festival, where the words “love,” “brotherhood,” “heart,” and “the music” are frequent themes throughout the faculty interviews:
Trombonanza is a product of the dedication and organizational talents of Ruben Carughi, a professional trombonist based in Santa Fe, and Enrique “Heini” Schneebeli, bass trombonist in the Teatro Colon orchestra of Buenos Aires. It is supported by an interesting coalition of forces, including local government at both the municipal and state level, local unions, and also a number of local businesses, as well as other professional trombonists. Carughi takes pride in the fact that the festival is entirely supported by local institutions, even ones that occasionally disagree on other political matters.
During the daytime, the festival's curriculum includes masterclasses, group rehearsals of various sizes from chamber music to the massive all-festival low brass choir. From Monday though Friday, the masterclasses and rehearsals are packed throughout the day. Students come from all over Latin America to participate in the week's festivities---one especially dedicated Ecuadorian trombonist endured a six-day bus ride to attend. Other students from Venezuela, Colombia, Chile, Guatemala, the United States, and many different parts of Argentina took in all the professors had to offer. Those faculty who did not speak Spanish had their instructions translated by one of the other faculty or students; for example, I spent much of the week translating for the New York-based jazz trombonist Nick Finzer. This informal network of translators was more than enough for the professors to get their musical and technical concepts across to the students.
In the evenings, Trombonanza returns the favor to its supportive public---with the exception of one concert, for which tickets were sold, all concerts were free and open to anyone, with recitals taking place every night of the festival. The free orchestra concert on Friday, for example, completely filled the municipal theater, with hundreds of Santafecinos (residents of Santa Fe) taking in the ambitious program that included works by Sibelius and Mussgorsky alongside modern concerto works for the faculty soloists. Although most are classically-trained trombone virtuosi, the evening recitals displayed an astounding variety of what can be played on the instrument---this included beautifully lyrical romantic repertoire, a thrilling jazz performance with a local rhythm section, mind-blowing avant-garde compositions, and performances with both the municipal band and orchestra of Santa Fe, both of which featured world premiers commissioned specifically for the festival. On the first evening, for example, the Argentine trombone quartet Viento Sur performed along side a local tango group:
This diversity of musical offerings also manifests itself in a wide variety of spaces: most classes take place either in the city's music school or one of its main theaters; however, concerts take place in various venues throughout the city, including the aforementioned outdoor concert on Saturday. There are also ample opportunities for less formal music-making, the most prominent of which is the Tuesday night asado, or barbecue. On that day, four of Carughi's friends spend the afternoon preparing an entire cow's worth of meat for the entire cohort of festival attendees; that evening, once we had digested our first helping of fresh meat, some of the musicians began performing jazz standards, cumbias, and salsa hits while others danced along. It's not every day that you can hear great trombonists from all over the world jamming exuberantly with fellow musicians, but that's precisely what happens at the Trombonanza asado.
Trombonists Ruben Carughi, Fernandito Acevedo, and Jonah Levine at the asado. Photo by Silvia Torres.
Imbued as it is with the spirit of shared love for low brass, all of this trombone-playing makes for a week of music unlike anything I have ever heard outside of Santa Fe. Although it is difficult to describe, the quality of this experience may have something to do with what Compton meant when he called Santa Fe the “heart” of the global trombone community---an unlikely site, to say the least. Nevertheless, 14 years since the festival's inception, the city has proved to be an inseperable part of what makes the weeklong festival such a vibrant celebration.
More information on Trombonanza (in Spanish):
Alex W. Rodriguez is the Managing Editor for the Ethnomusicology Review Sounding Board. He is also a writer, trombonist, and PhD student in ethnomusicology at UCLA.