Peñas, in their various guises as rustic dance-halls, restaurants and musical workshops, took Buenos Aires by storm in in the 1950s, as communities from the rural provinces began to flock to the capital. Nostalgic for the traditions and slow-paced rhythms of country life, these communal gatherings served as cultural havens, introducing a city disposed to the passionate, anarchic strains of tango to Argentina’s other cultural inheritance: the sonorous lyricism of folklore.
From its heartland in the Andean provinces, this popular form of music emanated from a cross-fertilisation of indigenous, European and African influences.
The contemporary peña comes in two distinct guises: restaurantes and bailables. Live shows and regional delicacies remain staple attractions of the former, but their real charm is a post-show affair, known as the guitarreada. These impromptu jam sessions provide a platform for talented, local musicians who come to strum a tune and fete their own lyrical traditions.
The bailables are an altogether much rowdier affair, where mingling is encouraged and the improvisational dances – chacerera, chamamé and zamba – take centre stage.
Below are a handful of the permanent fixtures on the peña scene. A host of underground folkloric events take place on a more spontaneous basis, the best known of which are Cabillito’s La Resentida and Flores’s A Desalambrar. The newly opened Salta y Resto showcases up-and-coming folkloric talent. Whilst out of town, the Sunday market at Mataderos is considered the most picturesque venue to catch traditionally-attired dancers in action.
This vast, chandelier-crowned colonial dance hall is transformed once a month into an much celebrated peña bailable. After eight years as a word-of-mouth phenomenon, the venue has successfully established itself as a staple fixture on the capital’s folkloric scene. Far from the sedate, familial ambience of the traditional peña, Los Cumpas draws in a sprightly, fernet-bearing crowd who pack out the hall until the early hours. From its launch in 2003, the venue has provided a slice of Jujuyan life for those who, adrift in the bustling metropolis, yearn for the convivial atmosphere of the Northern provinces. In the process, it has placed Jujuyan culture firmly on the porteño map. A succession of dynamic bands from Jujuy, Salta and Tucumán cultivate a festival-like atmosphere, animating the invariably packed-out dance hall. The emphasis here is less on mastering moves than on providing a forum for a vast array of Argentine and Latin American dances – chacarera, gatito, saya and carnavalitos – under one roof.
$35 entry, Second Saturday of the month 9pm-7am. For more information click here.
This Salteñan bar in the heart of Palermo might not be as raucous as its Jujuyan counterpart, but it is the most atmospheric of the city’s mainstream peñas. The brainchild of a sister-brother partnership, María Belén and Maxi Aragón, now managed single-handedly by the former, Los Cardones continues to pull in a nightly crowd of 500. Modelled on the peñas of Salta, with its lemon-yellow and open brick decor, flanked with paintings of dancers and the city’s cathedral, this familial bar-restaurant is typical of Salta’s famed Balcarce street. From ten in the evening, families, couples and groups of friends gather to sample the regional cuisine and take to the dance floor with a flurry of silk scarves. According to María Belén, Los Cardones attracts some of the most celebrated names in folklore and, with its buena onda approach, has secured itself a loyal following. Musicians come to pen lyrics and compose a tune on one of the on-site guitars until the early hours in this warm, home-from-home atmosphere.
Everyday 9pm-5am. Shows Wednesday to Saturday. For more information click here.
Hailed as the most quintessential peña in the city, Del Colorado, with its rustic time-gone-by aura, is most likely the kind of bodega that a tourist imagines when they think of Argentina. The food is certainly a forte. Succulent empanadas salteñas, Tucumán tamales and a fine selection of wine serve as fuel for the musicians, while those who come to enjoy the show can sample a richer assortment of homemade stews and equally delightful chocolate desserts. The peña boasts an excellent programme of folklore throughout the week, with artists such as Raúl Carnota and Horacio Fontova, as well as tango, jazz and Brazilian music. But for the real Del Colorado treat, linger on after the show when the line between the public and the ‘performance’ blurs. Local musicians congregate, imparting their own musical tradition in the front room, which features a wonderful old piano, a collection of Spanish guitars, charangos and accordions, which circulate with mate on always brimming tables. Del Colorado has maintained its reputation over the years as a place of intercultural exchange and a breeding ground for talented musicians.
Shows $25. Everyday 10pm-4am. For more information click here.
La Catedral might have carved out a niche for itself as a visually-striking milonga, but what might come as a surprise is that it doubles up as an equally impressive peña on Sunday nights. The vast, eclectically decorated music-hall venue serves an alluring backdrop to the plangent sounds and enchanting rhythms of folklore. For the chacarera novice, excellent classes with Jorgelina Contreras at 10.30pm will put you in good stead for mastering the dance and mingling in with the local crowd. A running programme of musical acts each week serves as an accompaniment to performers, as well as to the less experienced dancers, eager to practice their newly-leant steps. Whilst less convivial – the vast, dimly-lit space is not overly conducive to table-sharing – La Catedral offers a more accessible inroad into the musical tradition than other more established peñas. For those who are not partial to dancing, whilst not regional fare, the restaurant offers some of the best empanadas and picadas in town.
$25 entry. Sundays from 10pm. For more information click here.
De La Ribera
This open-air peña in Olivos might seem a little out of town for a Saturday night, but its atmospheric, magical location makes the trek worthwhile. Declared a place of cultural interest in 2008, de La Ribera has become a staple fixture on the Zona Norte scene. Open every Saturday from October to March, the peña comes to life in the summer months when the tree-lined, fairy-lit patio serves as an arena for a host of festivities and moonlight dances. In winter the peña, which takes place on the second Saturday of the month, moves inside, showcasing a finely-picked list of live bands, spotlighted against a striking amber sun backdrop. Most of the crowd are old hands at the art of folklórica and the dancing floor quickly packs out in the evening. Whilst the decor is more rustic than chic, the ambience is warm and inviting, with a fair amount of table – as well as story – sharing. A delicious selection of sugar-dusted tarts and empanadas make perfect accompaniments to the regional wines on offer.
$30 entry, Second Saturday of the month. For more information click here.