Rodrigo: King of Malambo

Mendoza Argentina, 1974

I had just turned 12 and was heading out to Plaza Chile, a midsize square in Mendoza, close to General Las Heras Avenue.

I was coming from the La Rioja Hotel where a Chilean style peña had just ended. (The peña tradition started in Latin America in the early sixties. The main idea, developed especially by Chilean composer and singer Violeta Parra, was to have a gathering place where artists of all disciplines could share a space.)  I had shone, with guitar in hand, by singing dirty songs  (double entendre that is) that I had learned from some of the not very “sophisticated” other Chilean performers. Many people had come to Argentina fleeing Pinochet’s dictatorship, so it was a mixed bag of political refugees, economical and also shady characters that my parents told us to stay away from (we were the political kind).

The plaza was only a couple of blocks from the hotel and had become a hangout for the kids of the refugees, we used to go there all the time to play futbol (football) and sometimes get into fights with each other or with the Argentinian kids. This time was kind of special, for I was to challenge “El Cafiche“, a local lowlife that made the plaza his main hangout.

I had been practicing my steps and moves and was feeling confident that this time I would emerge victorious, when we arrived, El Cafiche was waiting (more likely just passing the time and conducting his business) as we approached him, he let out a loud and scratchy laugh (I’m pretty sure he got a kick out of us every time he saw us).

A big circle was made and the two of us were put in the middle, and  the rest of the kids started mouthing the rhythm of that ubiquitous Argentinian dance. El Cafiche had proclaimed himself  “el rey del Malambo” (the king of the Malambo), but I was determined to dethrone him this time.

The guttural music continued as I began my foot stomping, I did a half turn and tap-danced my way to the edge of the water fountain, another half turn and some more foot stomping took me back to the middle of the circle, the music got louder as I bowed and ceded the lime light to his majesty.

He began by doing his usual stomping and raising of arms as he traveled the edge of the circle, he ended his routine with a leap as he stared at me in disgust and spat on the ground. Loud applause and cheers were let out by all present, but I was not discouraged. I leaped back into the middle of the circle, the music kept getting louder and louder and the whole plaza was now teeming with excitement.

I gave it my all, I held nothing back, you could probably hear my foot stomping all the way from the hotel, as I went around the circle very fast a number of times I raised my arms and tapped away furiously like a flamenco dancer, finally I concluded my presentation with a Russian style move from the Kozachok dance, very loud cheering and applause followed.

As I looked at my contender’s eyes, he looked very irritated as he stepped into the ring, he started to stomp the ground very fast and with all his might, the crowd became silent except for the music that continued but in a more subdued way, he continued his agitated dance by leaping several times in the air, you could see his sweat on his forehead but he looked determined to keep his crown.In his mind, he was the best Malambo dancer the country had seen, but unfortunately for him the last jump caught him off balance and he landed on his behind, there was complete silence for a couple of seconds, then, incredibly loud laughter and mocking sounds followed.

He looked humiliated, and defeat was not in his plans, so he got up and went for a rake that had been left by a gardener, and we ran for our lives back to the hotel. (Luckily for us, he was in his usual state of affairs, which is approximately half drunk). We all arrived back at the hotel with me being carried on the shoulders of my supporters and been proclaimed the new King of Malambo.

Rodrigo admits that this is a true story, though somewhat embellished.

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