Jamming in an Uruguayan attic: music as a mother tongue


The snare drum didn’t even have a snare and it was  cold in that attic. I don’t know how the hole at the top of the kick drum’s batter head got there, but it was there, and the cough that sputtered from the open front end (the resonant head was M.I.A.) with every strike of the cotton-head beater, worn down to its wood core, only made it worse. The hi-hat was missing its clamp giving the lazily stacked, rusted cymbals a noticeably wishy-washy sound, more like that of a loosely fitted china cymbal than the characteristically crispy “tic”. The concave heads of the un-tuned toms had seen better days; the previous player’s recklessness, or unbridled anger,  was shown by the indelible craters splattered about the clear film surfaces. The drum set was junk – it was beautiful.

Key in one frozen hand, upturned stick in the other, I begged silence from “El Chino” and his faithful Spanish guitar as I made my best attempt at tuning these condemned cylinders of sound. After nearing some semblance of a worthy pitch, I dusted off the precariously mounted crash-ride hybrid to my right, and with a glance to Chino as if to say “¿Vamos?” he strummed a lone E chord. I tapped my sticks together, and the conversation began.

El Chino and I had never spoken much apart from the usual “Hola, ¿cómo estás?” followed by the conventional relaying of our daily routines and our shared lament in all things universidad. We met through a friend of a friend and shared an eight-person bungalow in Cabo Polonio during a weekend over the summer, but despite living only a block from each other, we’d never really spent time cara a cara. This would change when we learned of our mutual interest in la música.

Our first jam took place about nine months into my year-long Uruguayan exchange. At this point, I had a pretty good grasp on the language (for all of those who inquired about my level of Portuguese prior to my departure, I can assure you that in Uruguay they speak Spanish), but in certain circumstances (mainly when confronted with those I deemed to be “cool”) I found myself reverting to español a la Dora the Explorer. (Un)fortunately, El Chino fell into this category of “cool.”

Every time we would speak, in his tone of relaxed certainty he would hit me with some new slang, and I, playing the ‘I’m-too-hip-to-ask-the-meaning’, would do that thing you do when you are learning a foreign language and nod with a moronic smile and a raising of the eyebrows. Chino knew what was up: he was the skipper of our vessel on the Latin-based linguistic seas, and I was the son of a land-bound lineage, frantically searching for his sea legs.

But there was one thing I did know: music. Since the age of eight, my hands and ears had been connected my sound – I look down and do not see hands, but instruments. Since birth I had been surrounded by the melodious sincerity of John Coltrane, the heartfelt bellowing of The Boss, the unrelenting punkish kicks of New Found Glory, the heartbreaking immensity of Eric Clapton, and the harmonious brass of Chicago. I could understand music. I could speak music. So, in music we spoke.

The jam began as most jams do: with a phrase begging elaboration. Though familiar with each other’s prosaic speech, the jam took us to task relearning how to speak, how to communicate with one another through feels and grooves. Gradually working through our culturally disparate musicality, leveling the dissonant ground to lay a smooth foundation, we syncopated our words and the conversation took flight.

Echoing off the stone and plaster attic walls, our language danced and swooned in a cacophony of Latin strings and American beats. With each uniform vibration, our rhythmic incantations dug deep into the solid floor, reaching down into the whiskey glasses of the men in the boliche below. We found a way to speak in something other than words.

That afternoon in El Chino’s attic, I discovered a new Rosetta stone engraved with images of bass and treble clefs. Music was our language. Music was our mother tongue.


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