For many gringos, the idea of an open mic night conjures images of off-key hippie types lumbering through clunky Bob Dylan covers in a boho coffee house in some nameless college town. But on Tuesday nights at Gitano Restobar in San Telmo, a rotating cast of porteño, expat, and backpacker musicians turn this stereotype on its head, producing a show reflects the diversity of an international magnet city like Buenos Aires.
On a chilly Tuesday in late June, a dozen groups of musicians and individual performers took the stage to play everything from Spanish-language blues to heavy prog rock into the wee hours. The crowd was similarly diverse, with tables of Argentines and foreigners alike listening to the music over beer and burgers.
The night definitely featured an overabundance of crowd-pleasing covers (everything from Paul Simon to Radiohead to the Kinks), but the overall musicianship was markedly high. And while the performers and the composition of the crowd obviously change from week to week, this kind of musical and cultural mingling is exactly what musician Bronson Tennis, 26, had in mind when he started the event last December.
After arriving in Buenos Aires from Philadelphia, Tennis noticed a conspicuous lack of US-style open mic nights despite the city’s huge arts scene.
“There are so many musicians in BA: the porteños, the expats like myself, and the backpackers,” he said. “I saw that there was a need for people to get together and play, either beginning musicians who needed stage time or more established musicians just to get to meet each other and collaborate.”
With a legitimate raised stage and a full sound system, performers bring their own instruments, allowing them to branch out from the more standard acoustic fare often featured at open mic nights.
Slots are first-come, first-served, and this particular Tuesday they filled up quick.
The first act of the night was Tennis himself, who went on a little before 11 and played a crop of Jack Johnson-style originals in addition to a few covers, including ‘Just Like Heaven’ and ‘Folsom Prison Blues’. He eventually invited the rest of his 3-piece band on stage, who form part a core group of musicians that have frequented the open mic night for a while, lending each other a hand as back up musicians and doing duets throughout the evening.
But the night also featured many acts that seemed to have come out of left field. Highlights on that front included a Haitian backpacker who crooned a soulful cover of Lionel Ritchie’s ‘Hello’, a four-piece Latin-infused jazz band, two yanquis who did a rousing cover of ‘Because the Night Belongs to Lovers’, and a porteño three-piece comprised of two teenagers on guitar and a middle-aged man on drums (none of whom were related to each other, apparently).
While the bulk of the performers were clearly talented and poised, Tennis said that part of his goal is to create a space for upstart musicians to cut their teeth.
“I think it’s really important for beginning musicians to be encouraged, to be given a chance,” he said. “Making people feel safe to play music is really important to me. I hate when beginning musicians are put down or told to give it up.”
The open mic night happens every Tuesday at 10pm at Gitano Restobar, Chile 424 esq. Defensa. Bring your own instrument; house drummer provided. Entrance is free.