Thursday, January 26, 2012

An Agentinian Superstar and His Doc

Find Mundo Alas on Video

An Agentinian Superstar and His Doc


So you're planning to go to the theater on Friday night, a blockbuster movie on Saturday night, and a fabulous dinner on Sunday night? You can thank me later for telling you to cancel one of those engagements and instead go the AMC Empire 42nd Street Theater at 8:15 to see, not Inception, Salt, or Toy Story 3, but the New York theatrical premiere of a wonderful, truly inspiring little documentary called Mundo Alas (World Wings), preceded by a mini-concert by the film's celebrated director, Leon Gieco, Argentina's preeminent singer-songwriter. The amiable Gieco (b. 1951), called "Argentina's Bob Dylan" because his folk songs typically have political content, filmed a tour he did with several immensely talented and fascinating performers with disabilities, and you'll get to see why it has been a sensation in their native country. I had the privilege of interviewing him in early April before the picture played at the Havana Film Festival here in New York. I have to say that despite his not speaking English and my not speaking Spanish, the two of us bonded due to our mutual love of Dylan, the Byrds, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger, with whom he has become very close. In fact, during the middle of our chat, he ran up to his hotel room so he could get a number of his CDs for me. I now have them in constant rotation on my CD player, and it's my hope that New York will now be exposed to one of the world's most significant musical artists. I hope to see you at the AMC theater this weekend! Meanwhile, here is the brief chat we had, with the help of a translator.
Danny Peary: How did you get the name Leon?
Len Gieco (laughing): My name was Raul and when I was ten and had a rock band, I was plugging in the amps and blew the circuit. Because I blew the circuits, my friends thought I was "Leon, the Beast." That's how I got my name. Leon is an old Russian name but over fifty years a lot of kids in Argentina are named Leon because of me.
DP: You started performing when you were eight and became a professional at ten. Did your parents like that idea?
LG: Si. My parents supported me very much. My father was a singer in a big band where I was born, the Province of Sante Fe, which is about 500 kilometers from Buenos Aires. He was an alcoholic and pushed me to go to Buenos Aires so I could pursue my career and succeed when he hadn't been able to. He helped get my career going and my mother was so happy and proud because I wanted to be a dancer and sing music tied to the folkloric music of Argentina. So she supported me in everything I wanted to do.
DP: A dancer?
LG (laughing): Si. I know how to dance all the popular folkloric dances of Argentina.
DP: When you want to Buenos Aires, were a lot of people already doing what you wanted to do? Was there a lot of music there?
LG: I wasn't the first one. For the first five years there was already an upstart movement of Argentinian rock, and I became part of that.
DP: In the United States, Bob Dylan was a pioneer at mixing folk music and rock. Did you hear Dylan and were you influenced by him? Or did you go back farther to Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger?
LG: I first became a fan of Bob Dylan and later became familiar with Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. I first heard a Dylan song when I was fourteen. What happened was that there was a radio station in Buenos Aires that used to broadcast really loudly, and I was riding my bike around town when I first heard "Mr. Tambourine Man" by the Byrds, but I didnt know who was singing or who wrote it. I got goose bumps. When I was eighteen I passed a record store and heard the song again and again got goose bumps. So I went in and bought the record and was told who the band was and became a fan. The next day I returned to the record store to buy more records by the Byrds. The salesmen said he didn't have any more but he told me Bob Dylan was the writer of the song and I ended up buying "Freewheelin'". On that album, I found that Dylan had composed a great song, "Blowing in the Wind".
DP: Thats a political song, unlike "Mr. Tambourine Man". Were you excited by its social commentary?
LG: Even without knowing English, I understood its soul and what it was about. I really liked it!
DP: You probably know that there was a tremendous furor in the folk community when Dylan switched from acoustic to electric...
LG: the Newport Festival.
DP: Right. Did that happen to you when you for mixing folk and rock music?
LG: No, it didn't happen to me because when I began the electric guitar had been incorporated into the sounds I was trying to create. [Laughing] Now, at almost sixty-years-old, I got a negative reaction because I just let out a heavy metal album, and we opened for Metallica! So now everyone in Argentina is asking, What is he doing?
DP: What are you doing?
LG: I like and listen to all types of music. Even when I was eight I had a rock band and a folkloric band. So I don't see contradictions in playing different types of music and don't understand the negativity when I do.
DP: You have always done a lot of touring and I've read how you went into various towns and learned their music. Were you influenced by American troubadours like Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Jack Elliott, and Cisco Houston, who would go to the people rather than expecting people to come to them?
LG: Si, Woody Guthrie inspired me. I recorded twice with Pete Seeger. I did the same thing. In fact, I did a record that is a compilation of all the different kinds of folkloric music of Argentina and received an honorary doctorate from the University of Argentina.
DP: Did you want to be a famous star?
LG: I wanted to be a musician. I'm not sure if I wanted to be a super, super star, but I wanted to be like Bob Dylan. I didn't know if people would like me but I sang in school when I was eight all I ever wanted to do was be on stage singing. I think people respect me because I make politically-driven music. And political songs are actually a problem in a capitalist country. During the Argentina dictatorship I actually had to leave the country for two or three years. I want to Barcelona, Rome, London, Los Angeles, and Ann Arbor, Michigan.
DP: How well known are you in the United States by the public and musicians?
LG: Musicians know me better and are fans but the American public doesn't know of me or my music because it was never translated. David Byrne says he learned Spanish listening to my music. Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Holly Near, Bruce Springsteen know me. I played with Pete Seeger in a concert in New York and David Byrne, who was at the height of his fame with the Talking Heads, showed up because he wanted to meet me and played two songs with us in Spanish. Tracy Chapman played with me in a show in Buenos Aires for Amnesty International. Sting, Peter Gabriel...Since 1982 I've recorded all my records in Los Angeles and James Taylor's road band plays with me.
DP: Talk about Pete Seeger.
LG: We met in Ecuador. There was a big festival and at the end all the musicians came out and sang one of my songs. Pete Seeger wanted to know whose song it was and they told him it was by an Argentinian singer who was backstage. And Pete Seeger went backstage to meet me, which was an honor. I had seen him backstage but was afraid to approach him. He asked me to play with him in Buenos Aires and Chile. Then we recorded two records together and he invited me to play in Washington, Boston, and New York. The New York concert was organized by Harold Leventhal, Bob Dylan's manager.
DP: Was Pete Seeger surprised by how popular you are in Argentina?
LG: Si. Pete is very popular in South America, particularly because of "Guantanamera". He is a guru. When we first played together in Argentina we made only $500 because our economy was very bad. Pete was traveling to Nicaragua to do another concert and I told him to just take the money and give it to a hospital there. He donated the money and sent me a leaf from a tree near the hospital and said, "This is the receipt."
DP: I imagine Mundo Alas is popular in Argentina.
LG: It is the most popular documentary in Argentina and has won many awards.
DP: When did you conceive of this tour with disabled performers?
LG: The ex-president of Argentina opened his doors so we were able to do concerts. He called me and told me he wanted an original concept concert at the palace. It was called "Une Salem Blanco Differente," and it was an alternative concert. During my fifty-year career, I had at some point met all the disabled musicians. I had played with them at one time or another and decided to put them all together on stage at the presidential palace of Argentina. It was aired on TV and became a hit across Argentina. Everybody was fascinated by it. The head of cinematography at the University of Argentina called and said, "We really should do something in a cinematic form, a documentary, of this kind of concert with these types of people." So we went on tour together and documented it. That's how it came about.
DP: Is this the first time you've been on screen?
LG: It's the first time I directed a movie. I've composed music for seven or eight movies and I've played in three rock-concert movies.
DP: At one time in the movie, you say that it is the first time you've ever felt part of a family on tour, as opposed to being the head of a band.
LG: Si. It was the musicians who created that environment. When they met for the first time at the presidential palace, they meshed and got along, and they created that atmosphere that I became a part of. It just kind of happened. I play with three bands and with all of them I feel like the leader. But in this case, for the first time in my career, I didn't feel like I was the leader, just part of something bigger, a group. That's what I loved.
DP: At one point in the movie, you refer to yourself as a "bridge." Did you see yourself as a "bridge" who could expose their music to the public?
LG: I was a bridge in that I was the person who brought everyone together to meet each other. Also I felt like I was the bridge of communication. I am the person who put them together so they could communicate with one another and be a collective.
DP: In the movie Pancho jokes, "I'm here to work, not to be a superstar." But doesn't he want something more than to work, such as being recognized as an artist?
LG: Pancho wants to be known as an artist and a composer. They are all artists and want people to recognize that. They feel they are artists and don't want their handicaps to be a factor at all. In the movie, their being handicapped doesn't matter, it doesn't come up in conversation, even amongst themselves. They are all musicians and artists. That's how they see themselves and that's how I see them.
DP: At one point Pancho, who has no arms or legs, tells you that he doesn't want to be treated like a handicapped person but as a musician. You tell him that you see him as a musician. You are so comfortable with these people, but was it always like this or did you have to adjust to them at some time in the past?
LG: It was always like this. I always saw them as artists as I met them one by one through the years. I have not ever seen them as handicapped artists. I met Pancho twenty years ago. He came backstage and said, "How can I do what you do and become as famous as you?" I took off my harmonica and put it on him and said, "You can play this." Now Pancho has four CDs out and composed everything on them. This documentary started for me twenty years ago, when I met them and saw them perform. I appreciate them as artists.
DP: In the movie, everybody gets along perfectly in front of the camera. But during the tour were there any troubles?
LG: No. They do all love each other very much and what you see on the screen is how it really was. There is no competition among handicapped people and there is none of the ugliness that you normally see. They feel very much like a family.
DP: Since you were the organizer of the tour and a first-time director, did you ever have to stop yourself, particularly at the beginning, from being bossy?
LG: No, it was total freedom for me as a musician. Again, it was the first time I ever felt part of a group. I realized that everything worked well on its own and I never had to step in and act like a boss. They get around and do everything very easily, so I never had to help them or do anything. I was surprised by that. My manager was the manager of the tour and this was the first time he felt at ease because everybody was so professional. It was as if they'd been working professionally for twenty years because everybody showed up on time where they had to be and was prepared. Nobody had to babysit anybody.
DP: It's a film about humanity. I love the scene when Maxie feeds Pancho and asks him if it's okay.
LG: That scene and others, they did on their own; it's very organic. I never told them to do that.
DP: Did you ever worry about taking away their spotlight?
LG: That just didn't happen. [Laughing] When we did press conferences the reporters asked them questions, not me.
DP: The tour was such a high, so how did everyone react going back to their normal lives?
LG: They were fine with it because they knew it was a tour that would end. And because they would tour again. They're about to do a tour in Spain. And they make money, which helps their families.
DP: Did they all stay in touch with each other?
LG: Si, it's like family.
DP: Do they know the film will play in New York?
LG: Si, and they are waiting for the opportunity to come here. Pancho and his band will play in Mexico in April. Alejandro, who helped compose a song with me, will go to Spain. And the two tango dancers who have Down's Syndrome have been hired to teach the tango to others with Down Syndrome in Brazil. Maxie is going to Munich to receive an award. In Argentina there is a state channel that features art, and there are twelve different episodes that feature the individual musicians who played with me. They've become very, very popular.
DP: Who benefited the most from this tour?
LG: I think everyone benefited equally. You would see that if you watched those twelve episodes. They all had things they were holding back, but they managed to break through.
DP: I would have guessed the blind woman, Carina, because she seems more in a shell than the others.
LG: In the movie, she doesn't speak very much, but she's actually the most politically driven and the one who talks the most!
DP: But performance-wise, it seemed like she was the shyest.
LG: No, no, no. There is much that we filmed that we couldn't put in a 90-minute movie, including songs that are on the CD.
DP: I thought the scene where everyone signs autographs is very touching. Do you agree?
LG: Especially with Maxie, I was touched. Because Maxie doesn't read or write but does everything through memory. He'd ask people their names and they'd tell him and he'd write them all by memory. It was incredible to see that.
DP: As a viewer I was often touched by what is in the movie. Do you ever feel the same when watching it or do you just think, this is just the way it is?
LG: When I see the movie I don't feel the same emotion as others do. But I feel emotional knowing that I will sit in a theater in New York City and screen this movie and see them up on the screen. I think the movie will make people cry but it's a happy cry, not a sad cry.

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