I love Argentine music and even used to play in an Argentine folk group in college, so I couldn't wait until we went to our first pena at La Casona del Molino. A pena in South America, especially in Argentina and Chile, is a cheap, popular venue where folk music is played and simple food and drink are served in a casual, friendly environ. Usually music is in the form of Nueva Canción, the kind of music popularised in the 60's and 70's by Chilean and Argentine musicians singing about social justice, the environment and grassroots culture.
Considering what attire to wear, Anne asked me what to expect at a pena so when I told her its a casual local cafe with live music and not to worry it wasn't enough detail for her to picture what she needed to know. As soon as we walked in the door of La Casona del Molino she said, "Oh, I get it!" There were no other gringos in the big old colonial house with room after room filled with patrons sitting around on old wooden chairs and tables covered in empty wine bottles clinking glasses vibrating with chatter, laughter, and song. Local musicians come with guitars and drums in hand to take up their place in the corner of a room.
Romina Cortez and her three friends assembled themselves at a few other tables in the back room reserved for our group. Penas typically provide local faire so we ordered up a bunch of food to share: humitas are fresh corn masa wrapped in corn husk like a big tamale with cheese and pieces of sweet kernels that give them chewy consistency; empanadas filled with spicy beef; locro a hearty meaty local soup; pizza, and salad with fresh summer greens (beause it's still summer here). We select delicious Torrontes whites and various red blends that we share with our jovial house musicians.
Before we know it Romina is strumming her guitar with a classical Argentine rhythm and her companion knocks out a 3/4 beaton his big bon bon cowhide drum (See video below).Then she sang, so passionate, so deep, so loud and powerful it brought some of us to tears and most didn't even need to understand the lyrics to feel it was pura vida!
One of Romina's friends at her table was a professional guide who explained what each song was about so we would know the story of her laments such as one song about a man in love with two women speaking with his heart asking why his heart was doing this to him. Another song was about the plight of protecting the endangered vicuñas on the altiplano of the high Andes.
That evening a good friend and local resident, Fernando Escudero Director of Tourism Promotion for the State of Salta showed up to share a few words about the exciting new developments he is spearheading for adventure travel in northwest Argentina. He gave us all lovely picture books of Salta and at the end of this wild night of Salteno culture everyone was asking Romina to sign their books as a wonderful memory. And truly, we may very well have be party to a historical musical event sitting in the same small room of a local pena with a rising star of Argentine music.