Ferni de Gyldenfeldt, the dissident voice of Argentine folk

A traditional festival changed its gender categories after a complaint from the non-binary trans singer; her story paved the way for other non-traditional artists in the conservative environment of Argentinean folkloric music

Ferni, artista folclórica argentina transgénero
Argentine trans folk artist Ferni, in Buenos Aires.Anita Pouchard Serra

Making history at the Cosquín Folk Festival, one of the most important folk music events in Argentina, is not an easy task: the crowd is notoriously demanding, and its stage is synonymous with prestige and tradition. Since its first edition, in 1961, many great figures of Argentine music have performed there, such as Atahualpa Yupanqui, Ariel Ramírez, Los Chalchaleros, Jorge Cafrune and Mercedes Sosa.

And yet, more than 60 years after that first edition, the non-binary trans singer Ferni de Gyldenfeldt caused a small revolution at the festival, went down in history and served as an inspiration for others who are claiming their space in the more traditional settings. “I am a dissident artist. Sometimes I say cantora, that beautiful term coined by Mercedes Sosa. I think it is important to position myself from a place of activism,” Ferni defines herself, on a gray afternoon in the Saavedra neighborhood of Buenos Aires.

Her name became very relevant in 2021 when she participated in Pre Cosquín, the competition for new talents who then travel to the city of Cosquín to perform at the festival. Ferni signed up for the Female Vocal Soloist category, and her performance was outstanding. “When she appeared, she blew our minds, all three members of the jury. We use forms where we rate voice, stage presence and other aspects of the performance. She had a ten in everything. She surprised us not only because of her impressive technique and talent, but also because of the way she said things,” recalls jury member Marián Farías Gómez, a singer and former member of the legendary group Los Huanca Hua.

Although Ferni was the undisputed winner, the Cosquín organizing committee brought up a “problem”: Ferni had signed up as a female soloist, but she appeared under a male name on her ID. They suggested that she perform in the Male Vocal Soloist category; she refused and filed a complaint with the National Institute against Discrimination, Xenophobia and Racism (INADI). In just a few hours, the organization of the Cosquín Festival had to change its long-standing statute, and both categories fused into one: Vocal Soloist. Ferni was now able to fulfill her dream of singing in Cosquín.

“Argentine folk music, like many other types of popular music, was forged in another century. It was rooted and strongly sustained by a male-female binary system. In our music, the man stomps his feet and the woman wears a skirt. Even today, that happens at the Cosquín Festival. How could a person with a beard, a dress and makeup not be disruptive? We want to respect the legitimate. We are legitimate people, and we can be legitimate as performers of popular music. It is a beautiful thing that our patrimony, our heritage and our legacy can be revised,” said the artist, who studied lyrical singing at the National University of the Arts (UNA) in Buenos Aires.

Her artistic concept goes beyond Argentine folklore. With her twin sister she created Ópera Queer, with arias and chamber duets, zarzuelas and popular music. Through her performance, she gives a voice to poets who dissent from traditional folklore. She participated in Brotecitos, a songbook that compiles works by transvestite, trans and non-binary artists, which can be downloaded for free and is distributed to 300 musical training institutions.

Although she was warmly received in Cosquín, Ferni says she had her fears. “There is an audience that embraces this concept. They did it from the first moment in Cosquín. They listened to me in silence and, after we finished singing a zamba, there was an ovation that I still remember and that makes me shiver. I knew that everything could turn around, and a ‘Fucking faggot!’ could have come from the crowd. But it didn’t happen, and I didn’t let that feeling overwhelm me,” she adds.

Ferni’s triumph in the conquest of rights is not a solitary occurrence. Her struggle is part of a long Argentine tradition of feminist and transfeminist movements, with activists like Diana Sacayán and Lohana Berkins, among many others, working tirelessly to make visible what society wanted to make invisible. Among those silenced, relegated voices, are those of the trans people in the world of folklore. There are many others who cannot afford to dedicate themselves to art, in a country where the estimated average lifespan of trans and transvestite women is 35-40 years.

“Ferni is a great singer, very well-trained, who had the opportunity to be embraced in her family since she was a child. I emphasize this because that first embrace is the only foundation for having enormous possibilities, as opposed to being adrift with no rights. I also had that embrace, and that made it possible for us to delve into art at an age in which others have to use their bodies to survive,” said Susy Shock, a poet, singer and pioneering trans activist who shares a show with Ferni on the Radio Nacional Folklorica station.

A shared path

Last year, a few months after Ferni’s incursion into Cosquín, Colectiva Folk PluriDiversa was formed. This organization of cultural creators who seek to bring to light the diversities in folklore includes Nahuel Quipildor, Susy Shock, Valen, Lorena Carpanchay, LeGon Queen, Bigsofty and Ferni herself, along with other artists that seek their space and promote the creation of a new poetics in folk music.

Argentine trans folk artist Ferni poses in Buenos Aires.
Argentine trans folk artist Ferni poses in Buenos Aires.Anita Pouchard Serra

“At one time, Nuevo Cancionero was a folklore movement that focused on the lives of men and women, when before they only talked about the landscape. Just like that was a great change, now we want to talk about diversities and dissidence. Put everything into words. We are forging a new poetics of folklore. And I feel like a singer of that movement. I hope more and more people find out about it and our art is spread,” says Ferni.

Singer Mónica Abraham, a member of the jury that judged the performance of the non-binary artist, believes that her story “mobilized concepts” and helped break some paradigms of traditional folklore. “New generations are coming, and they have different ways of seeing life. If we don’t accept that, we will become obsolete in our thinking and in our philosophy. Even I, at times, found myself being a traditionalist and repeating some cultural mandates that were ingrained in me. Ferni came to wake us all up with her attitude. And I thank her.”

It is an overcast, rainy, late afternoon in Saavedra. Ferni is in a bar, having a drink. She moves her hands. She moves her body when she wants to explain something and words are not enough. It is the last stretch of an intense year that led her to perform in La Rioja, La Plata, Salta and many venues in Buenos Aires. She dreams of an international tour. Everything is self-managed, her audience is organic, her work is silent. “The exercise of conceiving a folklore that encompasses diversities,” she likes to say.

She talks about gaining recognition for her work and receiving fair compensation; about battles won and those to come, following the triumph of far-right Javier Milei in the presidential elections. “People voted for an option that is linked to the denialism of the last dictatorship, violence and the idea of exterminating those who think differently. Imagine how scared we are. Government jobs, job quotas for transvestite-trans people and our identities are at risk. Resistance remains as an air of hope,” she analyzes, regarding the liberal economist’s rise to power.

Lastly, she concludes with a phrase that sounds like a banner: “Nothing comes to us without a fight. I want to live and live up to the freedom of this century.”

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