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Buenos Aires show offers tourists gaucho culture
By LAUREN SMILEY
26 April 2006

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) - Tourists visiting Buenos Aires have their pick of the tango shows and steak dinners Argentina is famous for. But until recently, one thing was largely missing from this capital city's tourist offerings: Argentina's famous cowboy culture.

"The tourists say, 'Where are the gauchos?'" said Mario Ghersi, a local entertainment producer. "Well, the gauchos are out on the pampa."

That was a problem for tourists popping off a bus or cruise for a few days in the city, where the only gaucho they were apt to see was a stuffed mannequin cowboy down by the port.

Enter Opera Pampa, an outdoor theater on horseback that features more than 20 authentic gauchos, 26 hard-galloping horses and a troupe of dancers.

The production brings rural Argentine traditions into the heart of a sophisticated city where designer heels are more common than cowboy boots, and only the police ride horses.

Ghersi, who is the show's co-executive producer, came up with Opera Pampa after being asked to create a tourist show involving horses for the rodeo ring at La Rural, the city's fairgrounds.

He even recruited young gauchos from pampa farms and ranches for the cast.

The eight-act musical begins with a scene about the Calchaqui people of the Andes, an indigenous tribe that was wiped out by colonization. Later scenes portray Spanish colonizers, independence, and civil wars -- highlighting the role of horses in Argentine history as their thundering hooves combine with folk dancing and cowboy stunts for dramatic effect.

"This is something we can't see in the United States. They don't do this in Vegas," said Ray Kihara of Seattle, who said the show was a highlight of his weeklong visit.

Under a tiered pricing system found throughout Argentina, locals pay about 35 pesos (US$11.50;euro9.34) for admission, while foreigners are charged more for a package that includes food. For 140 pesos (US$46;euro37), tourists get wine and appetizers beforehand; for 220 pesos (US$72;euro58), there's an all-you-can-eat-and-drink barbecue afterward -- plus the opportunity to visit a themed pavilion complete with hay stacks, hitching posts and rustic-looking shops selling pricey handicrafts.

Without the double-pricing -- in place at many parks and other tourist venues here -- few Argentines could afford to attend. In 2001, the country's currency fell by two-thirds against the U.S. dollar, reducing local buying power and making the country a bargain for the ensuing deluge of foreign tourists.

To accommodate the taste buds of those visiting from the U.S., the kitchen staff working around the four open barbecue pits has learned to tweak Argentine food.

Marilina Cano Martinez, head of the food service, doesn't describe the main ingredient of blood sausage unless tourists ask. (Yes, it's made from animal blood.) She also knows that Americans generally like their meat well-done. The kitchen has even stocked ketchup bottles just for them.

"We hope that they feel at home with our culture," Martinez said. "We try to keep it to what's native, but sometimes you have to do things to please the tourists."

While the gaucho show is in Spanish, hosts with U.S. flags on their nametags greet visitors in English, and offer programs in English that explain the scenes. And the booming voice introducing a recent performance with ceremonial pomp ended with: "And, oh, we'd like to give a very warm welcome to Mitchell's group," sparking laughs from visiting U.S. software company employees.

Bringing cowboy culture to the masses isn't a new idea. In 1883, William "Buffalo Bill" Cody debuted his "Wild West Show," featuring horse stunts and sharp-shooting with sensationalized scenes of Indian attacks, buffalo hunts, and battles. The show played for 30 years -- 10 of them in Europe. Rodeos still draw big crowds around the U.S. today.

And while authentic traditions repackaged as entertainment can be unbearably kitschy, Opera Pampa won over U.S. tourists who were skeptical going in.

"It reminds us of something like when you're in Hawaii and they tell you to go to a luau," said Jill Sun, of San Diego. "We thought it was going to be hokey, but it was a pleasant surprise."

There are some casting inaccuracies -- both the indigenous people dancing for the fertility goddess and the African washerwomen in colonial Buenos Aires were played by a largely white Argentine cast. But the show does not shy away from depicting the conflicts between the colonizers and the natives.

At one point, Indians raid a stagecoach of European women and take them captive, sparking a fervid battle between soldiers and Indians in which both lose men. Later, when the soldiers take over the Indian camp, one white woman who's fallen in love with an Indian man refuses to leave.

Pedro Flores, also of San Diego, said the conflict "actually brought tears to my eyes."

Special shows are added during the week for tourist groups, but the regular Thursday- through-Saturday performance is usually attended by about 150 Argentines and 200 foreigners, said Ghersi. He added that tourist revenue is what has made it possible for Argentines to see this high-quality production about their history.

"We like to see the operas from New York. We like to see 'Cats.' We consume operas from Italy and Europe," said Ghersi. "Now, all the Argentine tourism permits the Argentines to come, with the double-pricing, to a show with international quality" about their native culture -- bona fide gauchos included.

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If You Go...

OPERA PAMPA: Running indefinitely at La Rural fairgrounds in Buenos Aires; http://www.operapampa.com.ar . Tickets at the gate or by calling (011) (54-11) 4777-5557. Regular shows are Thursday-Sunday, 8 p.m.; additional performances offered for tourist groups. Call for details.

PRICES: For foreigners, the wine and meat pastry reception and show is 140 pesos (about US$46;euro37). A package that also includes an all-you-can-eat-and-drink dinner afterward is 220 pesos (about US$72;euro58). Children 3 and under are free.

OTHER ATTRACTIONS: The Mataderos street fair is a free bazaar featuring live folk music and dancing, regional food, handicrafts, and gauchos performing acts of horsemanship at full gallop. Now in its 20th season, the fair is located in the outlying Mataderos neighborhood, named for its legendary cattle yards. Many bus lines reach the fair, which runs 11 a.m. to dusk every Sunday, April through December. Consult http://www.feriademataderos.com.ar .
 

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The pampas and the gaúchos are not exclusive of Argentina you know. They also exist in whole Uruguay and part of southern Brazil. The brazilian gaúchos are in fact the ones more responsible for the spread of gaúcho culture around the world. We created the CTGs, Centros de Tradição Gaúcha (Gaucho Tradition Centers), which exist at thousands in southern brazil as well as in other states (for gaúcho emmigrants) and in other countries, even Japan (for gaúcho immigrants).

There are also hundreds of brazilian "churrascarias" in US. Churrascaria is gaúcho barbecue (its a southern brazilian tradition, not whole Brazil´s), and in many of these churrascarias, the waiters are dressed in traditional gaúcho costumes.




CTG (usually built in traditional pampa wood logs)


traditional gaúcho music
 
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