An American violinist in Buenos Aires

Former Kansas City musician moves to cradle of tango

— Cradling her violin, Christine Brebes walks awkwardly to center stage in black spike heels. It's Wednesday night in a trendy theater, and nearly a dozen rowdy young musicians surround her.

She is the only American and one of only two female musicians performing this night. Slight and wiry, she is overshadowed by her Spanish-speaking peers -- until the young tango musicians begin to play.

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AP Photo

Former Kansas city musician Christine Brebes, 30, rehearses at her home in Buenos Aires. One and a half years ago, Brebes decided to move to Argentina to play tango with her violin.

When the music starts, Brebes suddenly seems to tower over the others as she sets violin in motion as part of "Tararira," a tango-based variety show.

When Brebes joins guitar and cymbal players for an Osvaldo Pugliese-inspired "yumba" -- a modern tango -- her violin becomes unrelenting, driving the intoxicating piece. People in the audience stomp their feet and shout "Bravo!" long before the music stops.

The tango arose in working-class dance halls in the late 1800s, especially Buenos Aires' La Boca neighborhood beside the muddy River Plate. A fusion of Spanish music and Indian and African rhythms, tango went on to become the rage in Europe, New York and even Japan.

Today, tango's allure draws visitors to Buenos Aires from all around the world. It captured the ear of the 30-year-old Brebes in the American Midwest, where she had settled after a youth in Bakersfield, Calif.

Its appeal has been widened lately by Robert Duvall's film "Assassination Tango," which was shot here and stars Duvall's real-life Argentine girlfriend, Luciana Pedraza. For those who want to learn the dance, tango sessions can be found every night of the week.

Taking a chance

Argentines adore their tango, and it's no small feat for a foreigner, much less a woman, to bring down the house. But Brebes has found success since arriving in 2002.

"She understands that feeling that is the tango," says Graciela Dominguez, one of those in the "Tararira" audience. "She plays like someone from La Boca."

Brebes decided to move to Buenos Aires during a visit in 2000. She had come to the city searching for inspiration for her quartet Tango Lorca back in Kansas City, Mo.

At a party, she met violinist Ramiro Gallo and double bass player Ignacio Varchausky, Argentines who are in the respected tango group El Arranque and also are associated with the government-financed Orchestra School of Tango.

Back in Kansas City, Brebes sent the two musicians a videotaped audition in hopes of winning a place at the orchestra school.

"We saw that she could play really, really well. So we accepted her immediately," Varchausky says.

Brebes, who barely spoke Spanish, left behind a comfortable life in Kansas City, where she played in Duo Lorca, a group named for the Spanish writer Federico Garcia Lorca that she helped start, and with Tango Lorca.

To gain exposure in Buenos Aires at first, she often played for free or for a few pesos.

"Of course, people want her to play with them," Varchausky says. "She loves tango so much, and she's been so serious about learning the music that she's doing really well."

Indeed, Brebes covered Gallo's first violinist position at the tango school when El Arranque recently went on tour. She also has played with several groups in Buenos Aires and will be touring Europe this winter with Miguel Angel Zotto's "Tangos de la Cruz del Sur."

"I've been extremely lucky here," she says.

'A man's world'

Not that she hasn't faced challenges -- like being a female musician in machismo-drenched tango culture.

"It's very much a man's world here," Brebes says. "You have to be tough. Guys joke around and they sit there and make fun of you for being a girl and playing tango, and you're shorter than everybody else, and you don't even understand half of the things they say."

Now she is forming her own quintet, ready to mix tango classics and other genres. She has recruited Belgian accordion player Eva Wolff, Argentine jazz pianist Abel Rogatini, French double bassist Romain Lecuyer and Argentine guitarist Sebastian Zambrana.

Sitting in a rundown apartment she shares with two friends, Brebes sips a spicy Argentine tea known as mate and traces the path that brought her to Buenos Aires.

Growing up in Bakersfield, she began playing the piano at age 5 and by 12 was a paid church organist.

"I loved music," she says. "Anything that my teacher told me (I) had to wait to play because it was too hard, I would take it home and study it."

At 8, she picked up the violin and by 15 was playing with the Bakersfield Philharmonic. Still, Brebes confesses, she liked piano better and wanted to give up the violin.

But after moving to Iowa with her family, she had a strict violin teacher and won a four-year full scholarship to the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls. From there she moved to Kansas City and became enchanted with Latin music -- especially the tangos of Argentine composer Astor Piazolla.

"I had always been searching for something musically," she says. "When I first heard Piazolla, I was addicted -- the emotions, the rhythm. ... I fell in love instantly."

Now Brebes finds it hard to imagine leaving Buenos Aires after just two years.

"There's just something about being in this city," she says. Tango "is everywhere. It's the woman begging for money in the street. It's these small cafes that are everywhere. ... The city has a rhythm like the music."

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