Reinventing ‘Misa Criolla’: Popular composition returns with new life

Famed Argentinean composer Ariel Ramirez performed Misa Criolla here five years ago, and he says is looking forward to his return.

 PIANIST FACUNDO Ramirez: I am united by the greatness of [my father’s] music since it is the great work of Argentine music (photo credit: YAIR DORY PRODUCTIONS)
PIANIST FACUNDO Ramirez: I am united by the greatness of [my father’s] music since it is the great work of Argentine music
(photo credit: YAIR DORY PRODUCTIONS)

As watershed moments go, in the world of Christian music, the sanctioning of vernacular mass settings in 1962 by the Second Vatican Council was nothing short of a veritable earthquake. The papal decision opened the way for composers, around the globe, to come up with far more street-level liturgical vehicles.

Ariel Ramirez took full advantage of the liberating turn of events and set to work to create one of the most enduringly popular compositions of the 20th century, Misa Criolla. And it is still doing brisk business, in concert halls all over the world, including over here.

The next set of local renditions of the fabulous work by the venerated late Argentinean composer is set for January 14-16 when Ramirez’s son Facundo oversees concerts in Ashdod, Tel Aviv and Kiryat Motzkin, also featuring the 50-strong Union Choir conducted by Ronen Borshevsky. 

The lineup also includes a powerful Argentinean contingent of folk singer Maria “La Bruja” Salguero and vocalist Rodolfo Coya Ruiz, supported by an instrumental foursome of guitarist Leonardo Andersen, bassist Lucas Rosenwasser and percussionist Ulises Lescano with Federico Moya on accordion. 

Ramirez says he has admired his father’s work for many years, on several levels. “I am united by the greatness of his music since it is the great work of Argentine music. But as the pianist and composer that I am, it was always interesting for me to discover how composers manage to capture the ideas that work as an engine to write their works. 

 DAZZLING: CHARLES Bronfman Auditorium, Tel Aviv.  (credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90) DAZZLING: CHARLES Bronfman Auditorium, Tel Aviv. (credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)

In this case, the idea of writing a religious musical work was present in my father, continuing the tradition of the great European religious works of all times, fusing it with the musical forms of Argentina and the rest of the Latin American continent.”

Therein, perhaps, lies the charm and wealth of Misa Criolla, and serves as an intergenerational bond. “It is impossible to refrain from the spirituality that the work breathes. Even if you are not a religious person,” Ramirez continues. “The way I feel linked to my father no longer has so much to do with this or any of his works – which I know very well, without a doubt – but with the fact that I am a performer of popular music. My love for Argentine music I owe it to him, and being a performer of that music is what keeps us together in some way.”

Ramirez Sr. spent several years in post-World War II Europe, and it was while he was in Würzburg, Germany that he met Elisabeth and Regina Brückner, sisters who had risked their lives on a daily basis to smuggle food to inmates at a nearby concentration camp. The encounter had a profound effect on the late composer and, eventually, inspired the celebrated folkloric mass. 

“That story impacted my father forever,” says Ramirez. “When he returned to Buenos Aires, he wanted to conceive a musical work of gratitude in homage to those two women and to all the people who helped him with their music. I suppose that the fact that this story transcended made the work continue to move the hearts of all good men and women.” 

Ariel Ramirez's stirring tale?

THAT STIRRING tale, and the sounds he imbibed during his European sojourn, infused Misa Criolla with a sumptuous blend of the music of his formative years, with works steeped in European history. Ramirez attributes the success of his father’s masterpiece to “the beauty of its melodies,” but also points to the intercultural synthesis. He cites “the surprising sound mix produced by traditional European instruments, such as the harpsichord, with Andean instruments.”

There were other experiences and people Ramirez Sr. came across in Europe that left a lasting impression on him, and his oeuvre. “I think that the meeting he had with the great composer Atahualpa Yupanqui was decisive for his music,” says Ramirez, referencing the Argentinean-born singer, songwriter and guitarist who is widely viewed as the most important Argentine folk musician of the 20th century. 

“My father played the piano for Yupanqui when he was very young, interpreting the music of the Argentine coast that he knew very well, because it was the region where he was born, and the musical forms of the province of Buenos Aires.” 

Yupanqui provided the then-young pianist with the incentive and wherewithal to immerse himself in multifarious strands of folk music across the country. “Atahualpa encouraged him so that my father traveled to the rest of the country to discover the rest of the musical wealth of other regions,” Ramirez explains. “But, since my father had no economic resources, Atahualpa helped him with money so that he could cover the expenses of such a journey.”

The adventure was to leave its mark on the late composer’s creative direction for the rest of his life. “That trip through the interior of Argentina was decisive for his music,” says his son. “He was able to study the musical forms of the indigenous communities in the Chaco [the province of northeast Argentina], get to know northern rhythms in depth, share his musical life with musicians from other regions of the country and even from abroad, since my father also lived in Peru for a year. That period in his life really influenced him in a powerful way.”

That odyssey not only added rich seasoning to Ramirez Sr.’s compositional endeavors, it also made him determined to make sure the rest of the world or, at least, as many people as possible, could hear melodies and stories that had percolated through local cultures for generations. 

“The idea of preserving and disseminating a South American cultural identity has always kept him awake,” says Ramirez, adding that his father got the word out by every channel available to him. 

He initiated school programs to make sure primary school children had access to indigenous musical instruments, to be able to hear the sounds that lie at the core of their nation’s cultural identity. It was also a matter of repelling extraneous influences. 

“He was always very aware that foreign cultural penetration was very strong and that the condition of our music in the face of the power of the large multinationals in the music industry offered us a very unequal battle. That is why he was also a fighter in terms of composers’ copyrights,” he notes.

RAMIREZ FEELS his father was a trailblazer in religious ritual quarters too. “It was a period context that he undoubtedly knew how to take advantage of before anyone else. After the Creole Mass, other similar examples began to multiply.”

He says he is looking forward to reuniting with Salguero here. “We met when I recorded a song by Atahualpa Yupanqui as a guest artist on his album. Sometime later, I invited her to be the soloist of my father’s work ‘Argentine Women’ since, in 2019, it was 50 years since its creation.” 

Ramirez says Salguero offers added value to the forthcoming reading of his father’s magnum opus, in the role of the witch. “Her singing is powerful, but very sweet at the same time. Perhaps that sweetness is what makes the difference when she interprets the Creole Mass.”

Ramirez last performed Misa Criolla here five years ago, and he says is looking forward to his return. “In Israel, my piano, my arrangements, my way of approaching Argentine popular music were received with a lot of love, with a lot of joy and a lot of respect. I am very grateful for that. Those two concerts I did were a party!” 

He admits to harboring something of an “ulterior motive” for wanting to come back here. “In the case of the Charles Bronfman Auditorium in Tel Aviv, there is a plus. On the stage of that wonderful concert hall is the piano of Maestro Zubin Mehta, a piano that I played during my performance there. For me to be able to play that piano was moving. I even took a souvenir photo of it!”

There’s more to Ramirez’s admiration for this country. “Also in Israel lives a great musician that I admire and love very much, [internationally celebrated 86-year-old Argentinean-born clarinetist] Maestro Giora Feidman. He took me on a tour of Germany, Austria and Hungary 20 years ago. Unfortunately, we didn’t meet when I was in Tel Aviv. Hopefully, I can meet him this next time.”

Social engagements notwithstanding, a rich musical and cultural experience is well and truly on the cards.

Tickets are available at: *2207 and https://2207.kupat.co.il