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Seven years ago, if you were lucky, you might have caught an awkward scene unfolding in South Beach: five longhaired guys walking down the city's streets, clad in Che Guevara T-shirts and looking distinctly out of place.
"We played a small club in Miami as part of a tour that began in Mexico, opening for El Tri," says bassist Gabriel "Tete" Iglesias over the phone from Buenos Aires. Back then, aside from feeling like fish out of their bowl, the Argentine blues-rock quintet known as La Renga (The Limp) was quietly trying not to live up to its name, an in-joke about how the band often looked like lame men who had difficulty negotiating their way through the music industry.
Since then, La Renga have blossomed into one of Argentina's biggest and most politically outspoken outfits. They are capable of playing sold-out stadiums with limited support from radio stations, without the benefit of an array of flashy promotional video clips, and without risking their integrity. Instead, they are building an ever-growing audience through word of mouth among thousands of fans who flock to their shows. This success has a lot to do with the free will culture they celebrate, the general sense of freedom people feel at their gatherings, and, most important, a love for good ol' rock and roll.
To date, La Renga has put out six studio albums, two live discs, and an EP. Their last two studio recordings, 2002's Documentico EP and 2003's Detonador de Sueños (Dreams Detonator), were released through their own label, La Renga Discos. Inspired by their heroes Patricio Rey y sus Redonditos de Ricota, a great rock quintet whose run in the Eighties and Nineties drew a cult-like following that mirrored The Grateful Dead frenzy in the States, La Renga pay special attention to every little detail. (To offer a crystal clear comparison: La Renga is to the great Redonditos what Phish was to The Dead.) The band members organize their own shows and hire a security team to protect the audience. Fiercely independent, La Renga do not allow anybody to tell them what to do.
Tete put the band together with two close partners, his brother and drummer Jorge "Tanque" Iglesias and guitarist/singer Gustavo "Chizzo" Napoli, in 1989. Two years later, they added saxophonist Gabriel "Chiflo" Sanchez, who was giving saxophone lessons to make a living at the time. One of Chiflo's students, Manuel "Manu" Varela, grabbed the harmonica in 1992, completing this lineup of neighborhood friends.
Factory workers and plumbers in their past life, La Renga's members often associate themselves with blue collar audiences, and proudly claim that they will always remain true to the same values. Even though they have to admit that their "family" of fans has grown huge, they joke that their core audience is the same 30 people who have always supported the group.
La Renga have been playing all over Argentina, as well as neighboring countries such as Chile and Uruguay, in support of Detonador de Sueños. Now, the band is coming here to perform during Rock En Miami III at the peak of their creative powers, just as Los Piojos did when they visited Miami for the Argentine Festival in 2002. But to write off La Renga as just another band trying to conquer the difficult U.S. market in the post-Latin explosion would be a mistake, because they couldn't care less.
"We do not agree with U.S. politics, but to play there for us is a way to bring our music to people that like it, and it is also a way to bring our ideals and philosophy to a different country," explains Tete. He does feel committed, however, to the wave of legal and illegal immigrants from Argentina who have become part of this city's cultural collage. "That's what gave us the crave for playing [here]," he says.
But Tete acknowledges that there's a downside, too, to these impromptu reunions with his Argentine fans. "Everybody's eyes are filled with nostalgia, that's what I can tell after talking to them. You can't feel other than depressed after listening to them tell you why they had to leave Argentina, and why they cannot go back," says Tete, who adds he can't imagine walking in some of his fans' shoes. "I can't think of being in another place besides Argentina, so when someone tells me that, I can't believe it!"
Not that he sees Argentina as a paradise, either. Since 2001, the band has been actively supporting several social movements, including the piqueteros (picketers), who are requesting jobs, government support, and welfare plans for the increasing number of people who are losing their jobs daily as a result of the country's crumbling economy. Those who have jobs in Argentina tend to complain about the picketers' methods, because one of their tactics for getting heard by the government is to interrupt traffic everywhere. "Poverty in the stomachs/Even more poverty in the heads/Nothing is safe from this big mistake," sings Chizzo on "A Tu Lado" ("On Your Side") from Detonador de Sueños.
"We are anti-individuality, we're down with friendship and unity, and we believe that the only way to secure a common goal in society is by gathering and working for these goals together," says Tete. "If we show up unannounced in a picketers' act, it is because we believe our country needs the help of each one of us. We are supporting every movement that we feel is fighting for a good cause."
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