Christine Brebes left Kansas City for Argentina in April 2002 with one goal in mind: to immerse herself in tango music and culture.
Brebes had already made a name for herself in Kansas City for helping arouse a tango community. With guitarist Beau Bledsoe, Brebes, a violinist, founded Duo Lorca in 1997, playing regular gigs in restaurants like the Guadalajara Cafe and Shiraz.
Within a year or so, Duo Lorca was hosting milongas, attracting tango dancers from Kansas City. To produce a fuller sound for its dance crowds, the duo expanded to a larger ensemble in 1999, renamed as Tango Lorca.
Brebes returns to her former home regularly to “infuse Kansas City with a dose of Tango Lorca.” She is in the midst of a 30-day visit that will include a Tango Lorca reunion and other performances. She spoke to The Star recently about her life in Argentina and her evolution as a musician.
Q: What inspired you to go to Argentina?
A: I wanted to learn how to play in the different styles of the old tango bands by being in the line of violin players. There would be four or five violin players, and we would have to emulate the lead player. We had older guys from old orchestras come in and each taught us how to play his arrangement and style.
The orchestra that drew me down there was the Orquesta Escuela de Tango. Emilio Balcarce was the maestro leading the orchestra when I moved down there. He had his own orchestra and was an amazing violinist, a composer and an arranger. He developed carpal tunnel or something in his wrist and couldn’t play the violin any more, but he’d learned how to plan the bandoneon at a very young age. So he’d come in and play the tunes he’d arranged for orchestras and he’d play for us on the bandoneon. He was our day-to-day guide on how to play in the styles of different orchestras. It was like having Count Basie come in and teach his arrangements.
It was a great opportunity. (Balcarce) passed away five years ago and a lot of the older guys that came into the orchestra have passed away, too. I moved down there at a really special time when there was this need to keep history going.
Q: How busy is your schedule in Bueno Aires?
A: Sometimes I work a lot; I’ll play three or four gigs a day. That could be anything from a recording session to recording jingles for commercials or playing in string quartets or string orchestras, everything from tango to rock or whatever people want string music on. There’s a big group of string players who dedicate themselves to playing more popular music as opposed to only classical music. I’m in that group.
In 2011, I was playing in 15 different groups. Some of them played a lot, some played once every three months or every Thursday for a month. It’s a hard business: Having to go to work at 1 in the morning and getting home at 4 and having to take my son to school at 8:30 that morning. It was tough doing that as single mother. Sometimes, after paying for child care, I’d be in the hole. I eventually quit all that.
Q: What did you do?
A: For about three years, from 2011 to 2014, I completely dropped out of the tango community because I got a really good gig with a guy named Charly Garcia, who is like the Beatles of South America. That happened right when I was feeling overwhelmed and running off to do this and that and having four gigs in one day. One morning I woke up and couldn’t move my hands they were so tired.
So I got this really good-paying job playing twice a month. I quit all my tango gigs, slowed down and enjoyed time with my kid. I’d take off two weekends a month and feel like a rock star. I had so much fun. It was a really good break. Playing rock is completely different and it gave me a chance to fall in love with another form of Argentinean music.
Q: Did you perform any tango then?
A: I played very little tango. It had to be a good-paying gig or maybe a recording or a friend’s group. I was worn out and trying not to take on too much. So the (Garcia) gig was a complete godsend.
I missed tango, but it was like breaking up with a boyfriend and falling in love with someone else immediately, some really rich guy that took me all over the world. I got to play on Broadway and my mom came to see me. It was her very first time in New York. That was so great.
Q: What happened to that gig?
A: Charly got sick. We haven’t played since 2014. All of a sudden I was without work, freaking out, and all my tango friends were used to not calling anymore. I’d quit everything for three years.
Q: How long did it take to get back in the tango loop?
A: It took awhile, a good year, year and a half. It was stressful. I’m working a lot again, playing a lot of newer music. I’ve been fortunate to get involved in the new music scene down there. A lot of interesting stuff is going on in Argentina. There’s a political and economic crisis and those things tend to squeeze good art out of people.
Q: After 15 years, how much more is there for you to learn about tango and its culture?
A: There is always stuff to learn. There is so much history.
Q: How have 15 years in Argentina changed you as a musician?
A: My flexibility as a musician and being able to follow just about anybody and not stick out like I’m reading music is probably my most redeeming quality as a musician — being a very good sight reader.
A lot of people can’t sight read; they need time with the music. You have to play this music with feeling. You have to capture all of the phrasing, and tango phrasing is difficult. It’s probably the hardest thing. You can play along with a ton of recordings, but until you have to sit in with different groups and mold your sound with theirs and every group is so different — that’s what really strengthened my playing.
Q: What is it like to come back to Kansas City?
A: I love how it keeps changing. The Crossroads District has changed dramatically.
When I left in 2002, the only thing in YJ’s block (19th and Wyandotte) was YJ’s and the Phone Booth Gallery. It seems like there is constantly new stuff: the Sprint Center, the Kauffman Center. Restaurants. They were just putting in the tramline for the rail car the last time I was here, and now it’s going.
I was 20-something when I left; now I’m 40-something. But I go certain places and people remember me after all these years and I feel 20-something again. I’m always amazed at the sense of community here, the sense of homecoming and how I’m received here.
Tango in Kansas City
Christine Brebes has several Kansas City performances scheduled over the next few weeks.
April 30: Duo Brebes performs 7:30 p.m. at Birdie’s, 116 W. 18th St.
May 9: With Gav7d at the Ship, 1217 Union Ave. Show time is 7 p.m.
May 10: Tango Lorca performs at Greenwood Social Hall, 1000 W. 18th St. Show time is 7 p.m.
May 13: With Gav7d at the RecordBar, 1520 Grand Blvd. Show time is 8 p.m.