Luchtan, 40, is in the Masters of Arts in Appalachian Studies program at ETSU, where he studies the Appalachian region, culture and history. He is a Georgia native but now lives in Johnson City. Guridi, 32, is a sophomore and viola performance major. He came to ETSU in 2016 on a music scholarship. Núñez, 27, is a freshman violin performance major who obtained a scholarship in 2017.
“They’re both quite advanced players,” said David Kováč, assistant professor in the ETSU Department of Music, about Guridi and Núñez. “I think for them being international students and coming here just to improve, learn and get a degree to probably go home and share with younger students—it’s a pretty big comment on their work.”
Guridi and Núñez say their transition to Northeast Tennessee has been rewarding but difficult. They believe their undergraduate program has relieved some of the pressure because it requires less English than some majors at the university.
“We got lucky because we are studying music, and that is a common language,” Guridi said. “Once you are playing music, you have nothing to understand but that.”
However, they have to take courses outside of the music department to complete their degrees.
“Diego was telling me it’s a little bit difficult just because everything is in English,” Kováč said. “You know, you have to take all the general education classes, but I think they’re both working very hard. Rodrigo did very well last year.”
Luchtan and Guridi became friends at the beginning of 2017. The two were participating in an event on campus for international students to meet American students when Luchtan revealed he had played tango music. Not only did Luchtan enjoy the music Núñez had grown up playing, he knew Spanish from his experience studying in Mexico and could communicate that way with Guridi.
“I found singing in another language to be the best way that I could learn because I already know how to sing, and I already know how to express those sorts of emotions,” Luchtan said. “So I could identify with the song that resonated with me and sometimes even know what the words were—what the translation was—before I’d even know what it was because I’d piece it together from the emotions in singing.”
Luchtan had been living in and playing tango in Asheville, North Carolina, since his return from Mexico.
“I was trying to figure out ways that you could bridge cultures with music, and I was thinking about what to do next,” he said.
He started the Asheville Tango Orchestra and then began playing for a tango-dancing gathering called a “milonga.” He later brought Guridi to play in a group that had formed from some of the orchestra's players.
Tango originated in Montevideo, Uruguay, and Buenos Aires, Argentina, among lower classes, according to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage website. It was influenced by European immigrants, African slaves and South American natives who were in Uruguay and Argentina near the middle of the 1800s. For this reason, it has tones of other music genres, but it mixes them together for its unique sound.
“I think that it is something that people are not used to listening to here, so I think they find an interest in it,” Guridi said. “It has its own language.”
Since Núñez came to Tennessee, the men have performed as a trio in their current home of Johnson City as well as in Asheville. They hope to start performing more to share their music and culture.
Guridi and Núñez grew up together in Maldonado, Uruguay, which has about 182,504 residents according to U.N. Data statistics. They feel at home in Johnson City because of the similar community feel and population size. The Tri-Cities are home to about 146,592 people, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
Their mothers were friends, and they played in the same children’s orchestras since Guridi was 14 and Núñez was 9. They joined a quartet for fun, and it eventually turned into their jobs before they began studying at ETSU.
Guridi calls Núñez his “musical brother.” This was part of the reason Núñez followed him to ETSU to continue studying music together.
Núñez and Guridi are on scholarships through the university that cover part of their tuition. Participating in groups like the ETSU orchestra and choir and the Johnson City Symphony makes living in another country and attending school financially possible.
"I thought when I came here, I was going to feel apart from my country, but with this group, it’s like a portion of Uruguay here."
Luchtan says he understands the struggle his friends face while being in a new place.
“When you leave a place, you leave your entire social network and how to get gigs and stuff,” Luchtan said. “To come to this place, it’s like your source of income is kind of cut off, and it’s hard to figure out how to get gigs.”
Guridi is thankful Luchtan knows several local musicians and can make connections for the trio.
“That was something I missed … because when I came here, I had to start everything from zero,” Guridi said. “All of life that you can imagine. … All the relationships and connections that I had to get a job and get gigs. Suddenly, you have nothing.”
Despite the adjustments, Núñez and Guridi said they have found a community that resembles home. Luchtan makes them feel like they still have the friendships they left behind in Uruguay.
“I thought when I came here, I was going to feel apart from my country, but with this group, it’s like a portion of Uruguay here,” Guridi said.
The men plan to keep performing and work toward their various long-term music goals. Guridi and Núñez say they will probably return to Uruguay after graduating to share what they learned at ETSU. Luchtan says he wants to continue using music to bridge cultural divides.
“As internationals here, we want to work, but we want to do something we want to do,” Guridi said. “It’s about fellowship, and it’s about projects, and it’s about what is coming. We are very excited about it.”
Above right: Michael Luchtan performs on ETSU's campus during the Fall 2017 Multicultural Expo. Bottom left: Rodrigo Guridi and Diego Núñez pose before performing in the Carnegie Hotel (Photos: Raina Wiseman).