On the march with Che Malambo

Che Malambo. Photo: Em Watson

The cowboy is an iconic figure of the great plains of North America. In South America, on the pampas that runs north to south from Brazil to the tip of  Argentina, the gaucho is equally iconic. They are part of legend, folklore and literature and an important part of regional culture.

These men were also pretty famous for being somewhat unruly and combative  in their behaviour and full of machismo. That is where the malambo comes in. 

In a way it’s the gaucho version of the dance battle in which these guys face off and strut their stuff. 

For the French dancer and choreographer, Gilles Brinas, malambo has become a passion, one that drives his artistic interest. As a dancer, Brinas has performed with several important dance companies in in Europe including the Ballet de l’Opéra de Lyon, at La Scala in Milan, Italy and the Grand Ballet of France. He founded the Ballet DEA in 1979. And then, when he was researching traditional folk dances he came upon malambo and was captivated so much so that he headed to Argentina to learn more. 

The result of this journey was his company Che Malambo.

Gilles Brinas

For 20 years, I was a dancer. Then I taught for 20 years. Now, I am a choreographer. I am always inspired by the common denominator of these three careers, the dancer,” he told ARTSFILE in an email. 

Che Malambo was created in 2007, he said, “to bring happiness through its exceptional performances with its magnificent and percussive dancers.”

Malambo’s origins are somewhat”uncertain,” he says.

“The African slave district of a city in Peru was called Malambo. It is assumed that this name was given because of the drums that resounded after the efforts of their sad days. In Argentina, the dance that has followed from this rhythm, has influences that are undeniably European, including from Russia. Argentina has given its own style to this rhythm that has become a dance.

“Malambo,” he said, “comes from folklore and from the light of people” unlike another Argentinian dance form the tango which has its origins in the bordellos of Buenos Aires.

A key part of a performance of malambo are the drums that the dozen dancers of Che Malambo carry and use.

“Bombos are hollowed out drums,” he said, “with goat skins laid across. The sound it makes is ‘leguero’ which serves as communication.” The idea is that the sound these drums make can be heard for miles — a league — away.

Malambo is believed to have begun in the 17th century as competitive duels between gauchos featuring a combat of agility, strength, and dexterity. The fast-paced footwork employed by dancers is called zapeteo is said to be inspired by the rhythm of galloping horses.

Another thing used in these dance battles are boleadoras which are “weapons used for war and hunting. They are comprised of three strands of leather joined together and weighted at the ends with stones.” These weapons are slammed to the floor used as percussive instruments. 

The program in Ottawa will feature a reimagined form of malambo built upon precise footwork, rhythmic stomping, drumming, singing and featuring the whirling boleadoras.

Brinas has told Vancouver’s Georgia Strait that a gaucho “was nomadic and went wherever he wanted, working when it suited him. When he got hungry he just killed a cow. He liked to keep things simple, and wore two ponchos, one over his upper body, and one over his lower body.

“He lived, worked, and even slept in the saddle. When a gaucho needed money he sold some hides at one of the small bars at the crossroads in the Pampas. It’s then that the gaucho danced — after drinking, of course.”

The company has become a bit of a worldwide phenomenon touring 11 countries in Europe, Asia and the Middle East starting in 2016.

Brinas has taken traditional malambo movements and adapted them for modern day. He has said in other interviews that purists don’t like his changes. He’s not too worried about that telling interviewers that “in Buenos Aires lots of people dance like us. … The young people love it. “
The first part of the show features more traditional forms of malambo and the second half, which Brinas calls the fiesta, is updated and modernized. “We bring a smile to it,” he has said. He has also noted that he believes Che Malambo’s dance is “a living organism, a beating heart.”
Che Malambo
Where: Southam Hall, NAC
When: Feb. 8 at 8 p.m.
Tickets and information: nac-cna.ca
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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.