Argentine rocker Andrés Calamaro, both loved and loathed, is back again with some old and new friends
Certain musical artists require only one name to evoke their mythic presence — Elvis, Beyoncé, Shakira, Morrissey. But few monikers can match the beautiful peculiarity, the weird symmetry, of the given name of iconoclastic Argentine rocker Andrés Calamaro, known to his fans simply as Calamaro, the Spanish word (more or less) for squid.
Like his cephalopod namesake, Calamaro over his 40-year trajectory has proved adept at subtly changing colors — from rock, funk and reggae to jazz, boleros and tangos, with a voice that can be silkily seductive or raspy as sandpaper — while constantly churning up the waters of South American popular culture. That combination has allowed him to be a pioneering soloist who also lent his talents to two essential bands of the rock en español movement.
Though unquestionably an idol of the genre, Calamaro has developed a kind of love/hate relationship with many Latin Americans and Latinos that starts with his enigmatic utterances, his insistent devotion to the blood sport of bullfighting, his blunt, ever-churning opinions on gender politics, environmental issues — you name it, he’ll kick it with you.
“There are people who argue with me and laugh with me, and if necessary, I let them cry on my shoulder,” Calamaro, 60, said during a recent Zoom interview from Madrid, where he now spends most of his days.
“The Western world is split in half. I am a lifelong feminist, and now there is a very aggressive feminism. There are bizarre ideas concerning animals, the environment, races. I have always been a tolerant, liberal person, not at all authoritarian, and I believe that extremes are being reached that have no other use than dividing people, than generating confrontations.
“They argue with me when I’m right, and I’m not going to stop being right because they argue with me.”
Some would say this attitude smacks of entitled rock-god arrogance. And yet, face to face, Calamaro strikes many colleagues and interlocutors as charming, personable and open-minded.
Which is exactly what Calamaro will tell you about himself.
“Look, I don’t have a car or drive. I would be a horrible Angeleno. I don’t have a watch, either. However, I take the temperature of the street. If I sit down with four friends, they all think differently than I do.”
His perhaps surprising talent for playing well with others shows up in Calamaro’s latest album, “Dios los cría,” 15 duet versions of his own songs that cross both generational and geographical borders. Its collaborators include veteran Spanish pop idols like Julio Iglesias and Raphael, younger representatives of the Latin sound such as Sebastián Yatra and Mon Laferte and Oaxacan neo-traditional indigenista Lila Downs.
The new record affords a singular artist of proven staying power the chance to revisit his former groups, former lives, former selves.
Born in Buenos Aires, the singer-pianist made his musical pininos in a formidable number of little-remembered bands: Raíces, Dickinson Power Trio, Chorizo Colorado Blues Band, Elmer’s Band, the Morgan and Stress.
Then, in the early 1980s, he was called by legendary Buenos Aires singer Miguel Abuelo to join the reconstituted lineup of the already popular Los Abuelos de la Nada, which in its new form went on to become one of the most successful bands in Latin America within its genre.
With Los Abuelos (as they began to be called), Calamaro recorded three studio albums and composed several songs that live on as party anthems, including “Mil hours,” with its immortal refrain, “Tengo un cohete en el pantalón / Vos estás tan fría.” (I have a rocket in my pants / You’re so cold.) After his departure from the group, he took his first steps as a soloist, releasing four albums that, despite critics’ blessings, pretty much tanked commercially.
All that would change with his relocation to Madrid and the founding of Los Rodríguez, a band made up of two Argentines and two Spaniards that conquered Latin America first, then the Spanish-speaking motherland. One Calamaro track, “My Illness,” became the signature tune of Argentine soccer demigod Diego Maradona, who at the time was spiraling into hard drug use.
Los Rodríguez itself proved to be ill-starred and short-lived, breaking up after half a dozen years. One guitarist died of AIDS complications. The bassist committed suicide. But its boldly experimental influence endures.
“What Andrés did in Spain with Los Rodríguez is extremely important, because he combined rock, flamenco and rumba to create a format that is now completely incorporated into rock,” Gustavo Santaolalla, the L.A.-based Argentine musician-composer-producer, said in an interview.
“He realized that it was not only necessary to write in our language, but also to play in our language, incorporating things that had to do with our identity,” added Santaolalla, himself a pioneer of Argentine rock with the Rainbow Fusion Group, producer of such artists as Café Tacvba, Maldita Vecindad, Molotov and Julieta Venegas, and a double Oscar winner for the “Brokeback Mountain” and “Babel” soundtracks.
After separating from Los Rodríguez in the late ’90s, Calamaro returned as a solo artist with “Alta Suciedad” (1997), a decisive album in his career thanks to the inclusion of “Flaca,” a lover’s acerbic confessional, which became inescapable across the Cono Sur. Shortly after, he began his most prolific and impressive stage, releasing “Brutal Honesty” (1999), containing 37 songs, and “El Salmón” (2000), an amazing five-fold CD with more than 100 songs.
Calamaro’s irrepressible creative effluvium of two decades ago was followed by a temporary drought, but since then, he has recorded nine additional studio albums, including “Cargar la Suerte” (2019), which won the Latin Grammy for pop/rock album.
Now, the gaucho singer-songwriter has returned to the music market with “Dios los cría,” much of which was recorded between 2016 and 2018. Though the album is quarried from Calamaro’s prodigious songbook, its compositions have been re-conceived in a novel format. Firmly distanced from their rock origins, the songs adopt a considerably gentler style, and its many recognizable voices lean toward the bolero.
Though Calamaro has been mining this musical vein for awhile, he seems drawn to co-conspirators able to elevate his ambitions to an almost Wagnerian level.
In 2016, he released an album built around only piano arrangements by Germán Wiedemer, who’s also the pianist and arranger on “Dios los cría.” But on the new album, he’s working with an all-star lineup of singers and also drafted producer Carlos Narea, who has overseen such lofty spectacles as a version of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” with 40 singers, an orchestra and Queen guitarist Brian May, and a Guadalajara tribute to Plácido Domingo that filled a soccer stadium with 80 musicians and a mariachi band.
Calamaro’s initial connections with most of his collaborators on “Díos los cría” came from encounters at the Latin Grammys. One of the new album’s most unexpected presences — as a collaborator on a version of “Algún lugar encontraré” that evokes U.S. Southern rock — is Carlos Vives. The Colombian singer-songwriter’s preferred medium of modern vallenato, a Caribbean-accented, dance-oriented folk music, would seem miles removed from Calamaro’s Anglo-Andean hybrid rock.
Yet it’s worth remembering that Vives once described his own style as “rock de mi pueblo.”
“I started listening to Calamaro at 19 or 20 years old, when I discovered rock in my language, and it marked my life,” Vives said during a Zoom session from Bogotá. “He is one of the icons of that movement, as are Charly [García] and Fito [Páez] and as was Luis Alberto [Spinetta],” naming other members of the Argentine rock pantheon.
“It is part of a world that I deeply love, that we South Americans enjoy very much and that should be much more appreciated in the United States.”
The youngest of all the guests on “Díos los cría” is another Colombian, Yatra, a new Latin pop sensation who’s comfortable making forays into reggaeton.
Calamaro and Yatra met in Las Vegas, and Yatra offered to sing the guitar ballad “Paloma” in what Calamaro approvingly describes as “a fickle way, with great humility.
“And manners and humility deserve a positive response from me, so we sang it together.”
Yatra said that the track was his parents’ favorite and that it was “an honor that the teacher has given me the opportunity to do this.” In his hometown of Medellín, there is a lot of influence of Argentine musical culture, from tango to rock, he added.
At the end of 2020, Netflix premiered the documentary series “Break It All: The History of Rock in Latin America,” on which Santaolalla served as an executive producer and Calamaro provided commentary. Naturally, the series aroused all kinds of passions across the Latin world over its inclusions and omissions. Calamaro’s hardcore haters let loose on social media. The artist parried with mostly good humor, neither stooping to performative virtue nor being overly concerned with who might take offense.
“In Buenos Aires, sarcasm, irony, trash talking are used a lot, and they don’t always understand us,” Calamaro said. “I am a rock musician, and by mandate, rock has to offend, step on all puddles. In addition, I grew up in a family where they spoke seriously about politics, music, culture, the avant-garde. Some of my ideas are ahead of time by many years.
“In Argentina, there is a scene of division; in Chile, there is another; in Peru, there is another. In Colombia too, right now. And in Spain. We have different fractured maps, and the cultural question is very upset. I was always part of the minorities. What is happening now are whims of the middle class; I don’t go through life hugging trees.”
Santaolalla is not unaware that his compatriot isn’t everyone’s cup of maté.
“He is a very opinionated guy, and like every human being, he can say something now and something else in two years; not because he is inconsistent, but because people change.”
At the end of the day, Santaolalla said, “Calamaro is a special person — an artist. Take it or leave it.”
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