Los Ejes de Mi Carreta (“The Axles of My Wagon”) is song written by an Argentine musician/writer born Héctor Roberto Chavero Aranburu but better known the world over as Atahualpa Yupanqui.

Yupanqui is a towering figure in 20th Century Latin music. He was born in 1908 and grew up in northern Argentina spending much of his youth traveling about the highlands of the Altiplano region of the Andes, through Bolivia up into southern Peru, learning the folkloric songs and stories of the farming and ranch communities. He initially would find work delivering mail to these far regions, but as his repertoire and skills grew he became a troubador, a touring musician and storyteller, sharing regional cultures village by village. By the 1930s he had begun a prolific songwriting and recording career, taking a stage name that combined the names of two Incan leaders vanquished by Spanish colonists.

He also had begun a longtime commitment to the Communist Party, and his politics were quite serious. In 1931 Yupanqui participated in a failed uprising against a military coup that had deposed a favored left wing president and was forced into exile for a few years. He later returned to Buenos Aires as his musical fame grew, but he was censored, detained and imprisoned several times over the next couple decades, especially by the administration of president Juan Perón.

He eventually parted with the CP in the 1950s and this helped open doors to better recording contracts and touring opportunities. He actually saw his greatest international commercial success in the 1960s as interest in American folkloric music came in to vogue in Europe. He passed away in 1992 and today he is greatly celebrated as a kind of founding father of Argentine culture, recognized both as a poetic songwriter and a virtuoso solo guitarist.

Here he is in action in the early 1970s:

 

Alfonso, of course, was a huge fan of Yupanqui. The first song he taught me once I had achieved enough of a proficiency in classical guitar music was Yupanqui’s El Coyita a solo guitar piece in the gato (“cat”) rhythm, gaucho dance music, which is still one of my favorites to play (Alfonso’s too - a rare tune that you would almost always hear him play if he was doing sets of solo guitar music).

I would say that Yupanqui was definitely an antecedent to Alfonso’s creative work. Chacon shared Yupanqui’s mission to utilize advanced techniques of classical guitar to fully flower the musical possibilities of regional South American folk styles, as well as to mix in idiosyncratic local guitar rhythmic techniques alongside textbook classical techniques. The cultures of the Altiplano may use a variety of stringed instruments, and Alfonso also shared the mission of creatively finding ways to use the guitar to simulate other instruments (such as harps or charangos) as well as percussion.

For me, a great introduction to Yupanqui’s solo guitar work is a live album called Concierto Instrumental recorded in Germany I’m guessing in the 1960s. Listening to that album was the first time I heard other solo guitar music that sounded like Alfonso. Alfonso, of course, spent a lot of time in Argentina, and being from the north of Chile, also shared a deep love and respect for the cultures of the highlands.

Los Ejes de Mi Carreta is a milonga, a form that started in the late 19th century within gaucho culture and then moved to the coastal cities, where it gained an African influence in the ports and evolved into 20th century tango music.

What’s interesting is that this is a solo guitar arrangement of a vocal song – one might presume that this is one of Yupanqui’s solo guitar instrumentals, but it is not. Listening to the arrangement as I recorded it, you might also think that it’s a romantic song (which is certainly how I experience it when I play it), but the lyrics are actually kind of funny. It’s a lament from a guy who is sick and tired of people complaining about his squeaky wagon wheels and telling him to grease the axles. He prefers the squeak, as it makes life more interesting. You can see it as a kind of anti-bourgeois agitprop, and it was one of his biggest hits.

Not that I reflect much on the original, though. This is definitely another arrangement that I just sink into on its own right, disconnected from contemplating the source. It has just a fantastic moodiness, and the milonga rhythmic figure that opens that tune (and signifies the style) is a beautiful and guitaristically satisfying polyrhythm. It’s the first thing I try to teach any student interested in this music.