It’d been 13 years since singer-songwriter Gina Chavez had explored the bustling Buenos Aires streets as a wide-eyed University of Texas student. Now in her 30s, Chavez strolled down some of those same avenues thinking about how much her life had changed since that transformative trip.
It was there were she first heard the chacarera, a folkloric six-count rhythm from the mountains of Northwest Argentina. The rhythm planted the seed for the kinds of music she now plays.
Chavez never imagined she’d be back in Argentina, but earlier this year she returned, and this time with much to offer.
In 2015, the Gina Chavez Trio (a small but mighty version of her full band) became one of 10 acts across the United States selected as cultural ambassadors as part of the U.S. State Department’s American Music Abroad program. The Gina Chavez Trio — which includes musicians Michael Romero and Sammy Foster — joined an elite group of musicians who aim to connect cultures through the power of music.
“It was really beautiful to see the universality of music and how you can use that as a common language,” Chavez says.
As ambassadors, they set off on a monthlong tour this spring throughout five Latin American countries, including Argentina as well as Guatemala, Venezuela, Mexico and the Dominican Republic. There they led music-focused educational workshops for youth, taught master classes, performed with local musicians and opened the doors to meaningful cross-cultural connections.
American Music Abroad, which is administered by the nonprofit American Voices, initially began as a cultural program for jazz musicians. During the Cold War era, the State Department sent jazz greats such as Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie on global tours that broke international barriers. Since then the program has evolved and expanded to include musicians of all genres, from punk rock to zydeco.
The change opened the door for Chavez’s Latin folk-pop outfit, which took home several Austin Music Awards in 2015, including Latin Band of the Year and Musician of the Year. After submitting proposals for educational workshops, music business plans and performing at a live audition in San Francisco, the group was among those selected, edging out more than 300 other applicants.
“Not only did (the trio) have a strong stage presence, but they also had a desire to make an impact,” says American Voices Director of Communications Jacob Volkmar. “They had an ability to interact with audiences and strong educational workshops such as bucket drumming. They proved they could make music out of anything.”
As a female-fronted band, several countries invited Chavez to speak about female empowerment. In central Mexico, she performed for a group of women in Tlaxcala, where she also facilitated an intimate discussion on violence against women. From mothers and daughters to elected officials and students, Chavez heard the personal stories of women who did not feel valued in their community. “You could see an older woman telling her story of suffering abuse, and then next to her a young woman of about 14 holding back tears,” Chavez says. The session ended with hugs, tears and song.
While driving through Venezuela, Chavez was awestruck by the juxtaposition of the country’s beautiful Andes Mountain views with the long lines of people waiting hours in order to buy groceries at state-run supermarkets. Residents can only shop a couple of days a week and are limited in what they can purchase because of the dire economic crisis that’s led to food shortages.
When the trio tipped a waiter the equivalent of $2 in a restaurant, the young man nearly cried after receiving what Chavez says was about a quarter of a month’s wages. The emotion of it all hit her after her band arrived at a school in Barquisimeto. There, in a hot classroom, she listened as a group of music professors opened for her band. When they began playing, she was taken aback. “They were phenomenal to the point where I was like, ‘Why am I here?’ I don’t play music that’s close to that. These were all masters of their instruments.”
Venezuela’s world-renowned music program, El Sistema, which been life-changing for many of the country’s neediest children, has spread across the globe. Overwhelmed by experiencing such beautiful music “from people who are living such awful circumstances and don’t deserve (to live that way)” moved Chavez to tears on stage. She told the audience that although her band might not play the quality of music they had there, what they did offer was their full hearts.
“Obviously Venezuela and the U.S. have difficult relationships, and it was a time where I was proud to be there as a U.S. citizen and as a Latina to experience the beauty and humility of people who know what it means to fight — to live that daily struggle and to do so with enough joy to bring music to people,” she says.
Volkmar, who also traveled with the trio for the first half of the tour, says it’s that honesty, openness and candor that made people around the world feel comfortable with the band. “Music is the common language that opens the door and breaks down barriers,” he says.
The trio’s cultural ambassador work also led to other touring opportunities abroad that were not connected with the State Department. American Voices sent the band on an independent tour to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain through a separate program the nonprofit manages. She also traveled to Costa Rica at the request of the U.S. Embassy.
“I had no idea what to expect,” Chavez says. “When I go to new places I try to be as open-minded as possible and try to be respectful and learn. At the same time, I want to soak things up like a sponge.”
In Saudi Arabia, all performances were done on U.S. Embassy grounds. Chavez remembers feeling honored to see a line of about 600 to 800 people gather for their show. Guests went through security checks, gave up all their personal items and left their identification with officials before enjoying the concert, she says. Chavez even noticed some young women felt comfortable enough to remove their abayas. “I was hit by the universality of humanity and that we all just want to be loved for who we are,” she says.
Now that Chavez is back in Austin, she’s processing all the stories people shared with her, from the young gay man in Saudi Arabia to the victims of abuse in Mexico. “Those are the moments that I hope to capture in song,” she says.
“Our world is in such need of reasons to celebrate each other, reasons to come together and see that we are the same,” she says. “Let’s strip away the rhetoric and get down to what it really means to be human. That’s what these trips, to me, are all about — connection.”