A Strand in the Fabric of the Tango
Now that I’ve gotten my feet on the ground here, settled into an apartment, somewhat adjusted to the late Argentine eating schedule, and bulls-eyed all the best bookstores, cafés, and music shops (not to mention a California burrito joint) I figure it’s high time to get my hands dirty with some tango. After all, that’s the reason I’m here.
Many local musicians will tell you there are many similarities between tango music and culture in Argentina and jazz music and culture in America. Both are popular native forms that grew out of rural musical traditions, both require a high level of musicianship and dexterity, both are associated with specific dance forms, and now that they’ve bled into the mainstream and spawned mutant strains and fusion genres (i.e., smooth jazz and electro-tango) both are obsessed with the question of authenticity. And it is as a student of the tango in Buenos Aires that I find myself regularly confronted with this last aspect.
One significant difference I’ve found between tango and jazz culture is this: whereas the jazz world can oftentimes feel like an exclusive clubhouse where membership is subject to a variety of criteria from one’s race to one’s chops, in Buenos Aires, the local tangueros are almost unanimously appreciative that you want to learn their music, and are thus almost always willing to teach even foreigners. The primary criteria are that you are eager to learn, and that you know someone in common. Not only is it socially much easier to be referred to a teacher by a known musician, but in the tango tradition, it is absolutely critical to the authenticity aspect of the form.
The tango world is essentially a huge ball of yarn, and there is a clear lineage within the art form. The Golden Age maestros are dying out, and the “true” tango is once again in the fragile and precarious state of being passed from one generation to the next. (One of the greatest living legends, the pianist, composer, and arranger Horacio Salgán only recently published a definitive text on the music, Curso de Tango, in 2001. I had to ask for it at Zival’s, the one-stop tango music shop on Callao, and it was brought out from under the desk and carefully folded in Saran Wrap like an ancient relic, costing by Argentine standards, a small fortune ($30USD).) Therefore, to ensure a proper passing of the tradition, the question of with whom one studies is of the utmost importance. I was lucky enough to have a mutual connection from Brooklyn with the renown tango and jazz pianist Pablo Ziegler, and when I met him it was in this vein that he warned me: “Only study with friends of friends.” (Not a bad prospect from someone who learned the form himself by playing in Astor Piazzolla’s Quintet for a decade. Think playing with Miles Davis in the 60’s or being on the starting five with Michael Jordan – when he played for the Bulls, not the Wizards.) Ziegler (all tangueros are referred to by their last name) then proceeded to empty out his cell phone to me, virtually opening, to some degree, every door in the tango music world in Buenos Aires. It was not lost on me that I was at that moment becoming a living part of the tradition, and by studying with the true maestros, would take on the responsibility as a part of the yarn: to learn and be equipped pass on the “true” tango to another.
So what about the music? Though I’m reluctant to admit it to my teachers, I love electrotango like Gotan Project and Bajofondo as much as anyone, and my truest affections lie with modernists like Piazzolla and Dino Saluzzi. Yet watching a good traditional tango ensemble live is like nothing you’ve seen in the States, that is unless you’ve seen a good tango ensemble live there, but chances are it was more likely a tango spectacular, or what they call here literally “tango for export” rather than a traditional orquesta típica, which is a very different thing. Part of the experience is watching the front row of four bandoneonists ply their trade (the bandoneon, the quintessential tango instrument, is basically an accordion with no keys, but buttons on both sides). I’ve been granted observer status at the Orquesta Escuela de Tango in Almagro, an orchestra school under the famous bandoneonist and composer Nestor Marconi, dedicated to the preservation of the art form, and am studying piano with their resident pianist, Germán Martinez. To underscore their openness, there are three members from Japan, and one from Australia. (It is important to note that while they provide me with certain scores, many I must return because the arrangements and/or bandoneon solos are to be protected and not distributed by any means.) And though many tangos are not particularly harmonically challenging to the ear, the form is complex, and when played correctly, thrills. There is no irony in the tango. There is melancholy, there is sadness. There is nostalgia, there is playfulness, and naturally, a great deal of fiery passion.
And there is also rocking out. This week I attended my first (of what I’m sure will be many returns) performance of a group called the Orquesta Típica Fernandez Fierro, a group of ten terminally hip young musicians, complete with dreadlocks, sunglasses, grunge tees, and loads of attitude. While these impressive tangueros played beautifully, this is not your momma’s tango. In the Club Atletico Fernando Fierro, a dark and hard to find warehouse space in a non-touristed part of town (Sanchez de Bustamante 764 in Abasto for any visitors), outfitted with a full bar, gym bleachers, and a surreal “bathroom” themed stage (there is an enormous plastic roll of toilet paper hanging from the ceiling and huge plastic flies perched on the wall), the OTFF played as hard as any rock band I’ve seen, throwing their heads back and forth, bodies undulating under the strobe light (yes, strobe light) and disco ball. Occasionally, vocalist Walter “El Chino” Laborde, would emerge in various states of dress to serenade the audience, at one point appearing in a motorcycle helmet and a skirt. The sardine-packed crowd was mostly young Argentine hipsters who screamed their brava’s at the end of each number with religious zeal. When it comes to charisma, Gotan Project has nothing on these guys:
(And of course, I’ve taken a free tango dancing class, as well, and when I wasn’t stepping on my partner’s sneakers (she would cry, “yepa!” but assured me I wasn’t doing any permanent damage) found myself entranced by its rhythms.)
I had my first musical ‘a-ha’ moment as I was wrestling with a big dramatic piece on the piano by Osvaldo Pugliese amidst a gloomy and drizzling afternoon. In the empty cafeteria I was playing in, against the backdrop of pouring rain and thunder, something clicked in, and felt right. In stark contrast to the flashy tourist-aimed tango spectacles with women in six inch heels and black leather, and men that look like Wayne Newton fifty years ago, the true tango is a dark and dirty thing, beautifully crumbling and best enjoyed without its makeup, lest it betray its roots as a dance brought over from sailors in whorehouses. I never thought I’d say this about a tradition born in the brothels, but it’s quite an honor to be able to be in some tiny, infinitesimal way, a part of it.