Charango Serenade, or Please Let Me Practice My English

Last night a friend of mine and I decided to go out for a dinnertime whatsis. I say whatsis because she and I have a long history of never being hungry at the same time, and one often sits and has a snack while the other one eats dinner. And so was last night. And by the way, my electric lemonade? Neither electric nor lemonade. But at least it was on happy hour special.

On our way to Lastarria, a little cobblestoned strip near Bellas Artes that is trendy but not horribly cuico (yuppie, kinda) or annoying (to me), we were treated to a panoply of “I speak English” moments, most notably, when one of the police officers guarding La Moneda (presidential palace) whispered “Bye-bye” in a tone of voice of Marilyn Monroe’s Santa Baby. It gave me the willies, but also made me laugh, because here are these guys charged with protecting some of the most important people in Chilean democracy, and they see a blonde in a skirt (my friend) and me (wearing a t-shirt I may no longer wear downtown) and all sense of decorum is lost, and he must immediately flirt with us using the only English words he has on hand. Which luckily, in this case, were not “I love you.” A girl can only listen to so much of that.

So, we found our way to a cafe with nibbles and a happy hour special, Cafe Utopia. It’s notable because it’s the cheapest place on Lastarria and is fairly unpretentious, and also because we were actually able to get a table. There was much to-ing and fro-ing of buskers, in various stages of practice, volume and performance, and some of them were the kind of people I’d have liked to have paid to please go away. I also saw the tiny chinchinero (one-man-band) kid, but he (mercifully) was not up for giving a concert.

The night wore on, my drink grew more watery and the churrasco my friend was eating was probably growing cold. And up came a busker, a 60-something year old man with hands like a young pianist, fingers long and perfect, in a beige knit sweater with cables down the side and a charango (small 10-string guitar, traditionally made with an armadillo shell) inlaid with mother of pearl in his hands. (Go to this site to hear what a charango sounds like, and to read about it in Spanish or here to read about it in English.

He paced nervously from table to table and sang in what I believe was Aymara (an indigenous language spoken by small numbers of people in the north of Chile, and more commonly in parts of Peru and Bolivia. it could have also been Quechua, but it didn’t have enough k and s sounds by my ear), songs we couldn’t understand, because pretty much nobody down in Santiago speaks Aymara, and I definitely don’t. And then he came up to us and he started singing, and between the lyrics, started muttering what seemed to be grammatical practice in English.

You were,
you are,
you will.

I thought these might be the only words he knew in English, and, like the police officer was merely showing off that he knew we were English speakers. And then I heard clearly:

You will go. And I will cry.

He was singing us a lovesong in Aymara, a man with his mother-of-pearl inlaid charango, his rounded fingernails running over the strings, at a night time job of singing from table to table in a language that nobody within 500 miles speaks. I gave him a tip, and asked him in Spanish how long he’d had the charango for. And he said, I’ve had it since Violeta Parra, since Victor Jara, with what I would guessed to be a Bolivian accent, but the cultural references were all Chilean.

And with his permission, I took a picture, which is flat and colorless, so unlike this experience. Before he left, he looked at the picture and said, if you put it on the internet, my name is Juan (or it might have been Jose, I always get these names confused) Humiri (with an H, he reminded me).

So here’s Senor Humiri and his charango, where ever they’re from.

Sr. Humiri con su charango

Eileen Smith is a former Brooklynite living in Santiago, Chile who reads, writes, translates, edits, photographs, hikes and bikes anywhere and anything she can. Find her blog at Bear Shaped Sphere, read her stories on Matador and other websites, meet her at TBEX ’10, follow her on twitter as @bearshapedspher or invite her for a cup of (good) coffee when she’s in your neighborhood.

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3 thoughts on “Charango Serenade, or Please Let Me Practice My English

  1. Great story Eileen! I love all the hustle and bustle and mostly musical entertainment on Lastarria–what a wealth of very Chilean variety, from charangos and zampoñas in the north to funky cueca chora in the middle to um–what DO they play in the south? But I’m sure if we hang around Lastarria long enough we’ll find out… oh, and BTW–I LOVE the chinchineros!

  2. um, yes, Sarah from Hampshire (modmate, perhaps?). yes, this is Eileen B. Smith. Are you the antarctic dweller I think you are? Find me on my blog… bearshapedsphere (which is not what that B ever stood for). Curiosity offically piqued!

    Sorry Pam for the idle chitchat!

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