These musicians fled home – but brought the music with them

Why We Wrote This

From subways to concert halls, these Venezuelan refugees are trying to make a living in their new home. But when they pick up their instruments, they’re also thanking Argentines for their generosity – and expressing their own.

Howard LaFranchi/The Christian Science Monitor
Latin Vox Machine musicians play in La Plata subway station in Buenos Aires, Argentina, including saxophonist César Pérez and violinist Elizabeth Gordones.

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Four and a half million Venezuelans have fled their country’s crisis, with most heading to nearby nations like Colombia. But thousands have gone farther south to Argentina – including, to Omar Zambrano’s surprise, fellow musicians.

Mr. Zambrano, a Venezuelan pianist, was just scraping by when he arrived in Buenos Aires a few years ago. Chatting with buskers around the city, he discovered that Latin America’s cultural capital was now home to dozens of Venezuelan musicians, many of whom trained at the same world-renowned El Sistema schools.

Today, he is the founder and executive director of Latin Vox Machine, an orchestra of 150 musicians, most of whom are Venezuelan refugees, playing everything from classical to big band to tango in some of the city’s top cultural venues.

Argentina is reeling from its own economic troubles. But on the whole, this country of immigrants is still welcoming them. Now, if these refugee musicians play in subways or parks, they’re playing for donations – but also, they say, as their way of saying thank you.

“When we’re performing in concerts or more formal settings now,” says violinist Elizabeth Gordones, “we always have people coming up to us saying, ‘We know you from the subway, thank you for sharing your art with us.’”

The music wafting along the platform of La Plata subway station on a recent springtime Saturday afternoon is so beautiful that people hastening to the exits stop to listen, and some turn back. 

Children down the platform loosen a parent’s grip to approach and get a closer look at the violin and saxophone players.

When the quartet segues into “Por Una Cabeza,” a beloved tango tune, smiles broaden, feet glide and tap. The applause is enthusiastic, and even though Argentina is reeling from a deep recession, a few small bills and coins are dropped into an open violin case.

It was music like this that intrigued Omar Zambrano one day, nearly two years ago, on another Buenos Aires subway platform. Mr. Zambrano, a recently arrived Venezuelan refugee and classically trained pianist, had himself taken to playing small gigs to scrape together a living in his new home.

Something prompted him to approach the French horn player – might he also be Venezuelan?

He was.

This got Mr. Zambrano wondering about all the other public musicians he’d seen in the Argentine capital. What he discovered amazed him: Buenos Aires was now home to dozens of Venezuelan musicians, many of whom had trained at the same world-renowned El Sistema music schools that had once made Caracas an international center of youth musical instruction.

And this discovery gave Mr. Zambrano an idea. Today he is founder and executive director of Latin Vox Machine, an orchestra of 150 musicians – 80% of whom are Venezuelan refugees – that now plays everything from classical music to big band jazz (and of course tango) to thunderous applause in some of Buenos Aires’ top cultural venues.

“We have been so well-received here, the Argentines really are receptive of people and ideas from outside,” says Mr. Zambrano, standing outside the Kirchner Cultural Center in central Buenos Aires – a venue he says “has become one of our homes.”

“People here have demonstrated so many of humanity’s values towards us, like welcome and solidarity,” he adds, “and in return we are giving back our music and our talents as a way of showing our gratitude.”

What the Venezuelans of Latin Vox Machine embody to their new neighbors is the idea – under severe strain, as countries including the United States roll up their welcome mats – that refugees and immigrants enrich the country they settle in beyond any burdens they cause.

Howard LaFranchi/The Christian Science Monitor
Omar Zambrano, executive director and founder of Latin Vox Machine, stands outside Kirchner Cultural Center in central Buenos Aires, where the group of mostly Venezuelan refugee musicians has played.

3,000 miles from home

Like millions of other Venezuelans, the musicians that would become Latin Vox Machine had reached a point where they decided they could no longer survive amid their country’s economic and social collapse. This year, the number of Venezuelan refugees has reached 4.5 million, making the refugee crisis one of the worst in the world today. 

But while most Venezuelans have settled closer to home, many musicians have gone farther south, drawn both by Buenos Aires’ reputation as Latin America’s cultural capital, and by Argentina’s reputation as a country built by immigrants and still largely welcoming them.

The Argentine government estimates that nearly 200,000 Venezuelans have settled here since their home country’s crisis touched off an exodus three years ago.

And in a relatively short time, many of those refugees have begun making contributions to their new home. As one example, they are rejuvenating down-on-their-luck neighborhoods by opening areperas – sandwich shops serving the popular arepa, a corn-flour bun stuffed with typical Venezuelan stewed or barbecued meats – in shuttered storefronts. 

And then there is the music.

“Argentina makes a strong commitment to receiving those who have had to leave their countries as refugees, giving them support as they in return enrich our society,” said Argentina’s deputy foreign minister, Gustavo Zlauvinen, at a Latin Vox Machine concert marking United Nations Day last month.

Appreciative audience

Perhaps more surprising in a country with rising unemployment and faltering living standards is the warmth that Argentines on the whole continue to show towards immigrants and refugees.

Back at La Plata subway station, no one in the impromptu audience that comes and goes around the musicians is telling them to go home.

“As many as need to come, they can come,” says Monica Gatti, a domestic worker who leads what she describes as a “modest life” in the adjacent Boedo neighborhood. “They work hard, they bring us culture, as these young people are, and they are introducing us to foods we didn’t know before – do you know about arepas?” she asks.

Perhaps most important of all for her, Ms. Gatti adds, is that “despite everything that has happened to them, they are happy – that’s a good lesson for us Argentines.”

Across the platform, Homero Portero, a building materials supplier, says Argentina has a tradition of openness, and he is glad it’s alive and well.

“These people are not a burden, no way!” he says, pointing out that he too was once down on his luck, so he knows what it means to receive a helping hand.

“But the truth is, these young people are bringing us a richness, adding to our country with their intellectual capacity,” Mr. Portero says. “That is why I do not agree with the policies of your Mr. Trump, who wants to close America’s door, which after all is a country of immigrants like Argentina,” he adds. “My view is these young people are giving of themselves, so we should give back.”

Gift of music

Many of the musicians of Latin Vox Machine have jobs that have nothing to do with music: as waiters, nannies, shop clerks. The most fortunate ones give private lessons, or work part-time in music schools. Some have been taken on by small orchestras.

But almost all of them spend at least a small part of their week in the subway or in the parks: playing for donations, yes, but also as their way of saying thank you.

“When we’re performing in concerts or more formal settings now we always have people coming up to us saying, ‘We know you from the subway, thank you for sharing your art with us,’” says Elizabeth Gordones, one of the violinists playing at La Plata station and a former music teacher at El Sistema. “Like most of us, I feel like it’s important to continue giving back to the people who have been so generous with us.”

Listening to Ms. Gordones, the rest of the subway quartet nod in agreement.

“Little by little, many of us are finding other jobs or positions that allow us to continue with our music, and I think for all of us, Latin Vox Machine has been a tremendous gift,” says César Pérez, a former teacher of saxophone and bassoon at El Sistema. “When Omar [Zambrano] raises the baton and we’re all together, it’s magic.”

And yet Mr. Pérez, too, makes a point to continue playing in the subway. 

“We like to think we’re breaking up the monotony of the work day for people, or maybe bringing some joy into life for someone who isn’t feeling any,” he says. “It’s our way of making life a little easier for them,” he adds, “the way Argentina has received us at a difficult time and made life better for us.”

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