They Take ‘New’ To Tango
By Nick OlleJuly 5, 2012
Tango, new tango, tango fusion — call it what you will, it’s back with a vengeance and the kids love it.
Tucked away from the street in a converted garage, about 200 music lovers, safe from the wintry chill outside, remove their excess layers and crowd the bar.
They yell their orders above the rock music blaring from the sound system before, drinks in hand, weaving between the occupied tables in search of a good vantage point for the imminent spectacle. It's a motley bunch, mostly funky 20 and 30-somethings, a spattering of older folks, and a few surprises. I'm sharing a table with a visiting Brazilian pastor, his wife and their opera-singing son. They're as eager for the show as everyone else — "I hear they're great," the son enthuses.
They Take 'New' to Tango
With every fade-out there's a collective, expectant look up to the stage before the speakers kick back in with a new tune. I make my way backstage — through the bar and upstairs — to meet El Ministro ("The Minister"), one of the musicians. We shake hands and he adjusts his dreadlocks and takes a seat below the solitary light bulb that barely illuminates the room.
It could be a rock concert anywhere in the world, but this is tango, in its birthplace Buenos Aires.
El Ministro is one of four bandoneon players in the Orquesta Típica Fernández Fierro (OTFF), a leading band in the contemporary tango scene. His instrument, the bandoneon, which he's played for "I can't remember how long", is a squeeze box — an accordion-like instrument on which buttons, rather than keys, select the notes. At its best it generates everything from melancholy sighs to a maelstrom of passionate sound — like tango, it's complicated. "I think whoever invented this was looking for a good excuse to spend time at home," El Ministro offers.
As the band roars into life on the smoke-filled stage, and the bandoneons rip through rock-like passages, they seem to drag their writhing masters behind them. Charismatic singer Walter "Chino" Laborde (unsurprisingly, he's also an actor) works his way through a wardrobe of outfits (ties, shirts, jackets, football jerseys) and props (umbrella, sunglasses) as he relates brooding porteño tales — tales of this port city, Buenos Aires.
Orquesta típica. It's a joke, right? There's nothing typical about this ensemble. The name does refer to the standard tango-orchestra formation, which embraces a minimum of one bandoneon, a piano and a violin. But OTFF ups the ante, and the volume, with 12 members: six string players, a pianist and a singer as well as the four whispering, sighing, shrieking, duelling bandoneons.
Highly accomplished musicians, these players are also renowned for their rocking stage presence. El Ministro, for example, is sporting jeans, sneakers, a black T-shirt and sunglasses.
"You could say that we're all freaks." El Ministro suggests. "We started as a kind of tango 'roots' band, we were influenced by [composer and pianist Osvaldo] Pugliese basically, and some [composer and bandoneon player Astor] Piazzolla.
"Then we started to write our own tangos and incorporate lyrics, so it was not just interpretation but creating music as well. You'll notice there are some elements that are perhaps a bit strange."
Still a roots band in many respects, it's generally the bandoneons that 'bring the strange', sporadically breaking into riffs that would fit snugly in most rock guitarists' lockers.
The band's experimentation, El Ministro says, is more about "deepening" the musical possibilities within the orquesta típica context. And this can include allowing influences from other genres, such as rock, into the mix.
FORMED SHORTLY AFTER the turn of the century, at a time when economic collapse had brought Argentina to its knees, OTFF operates as a cooperative. For years they played shows in the streets of Buenos Aires. Yes, busking to collect money to reinvest into the band and, specifically, into acquiring their own venue.
In 2004 the band opened the Club Atlético Fernández Fierro (CAFF — Fernández Fierro Sports Club) in Abasto, the famous tanguero zone where arguably tango's most famous figure — the singer and composer Carlos Gardel — was raised.
The band recently returned from a tour of neighbouring Chile and is about to embark on a tour of the European festival circuit, where they'll be sharing a stage with artists such as Björk, The Cure and Bruce Springsteen. When they are home in Buenos Aires, they play weekly packed-house gigs at the CAFF, like tonight.
OTFF is one of a handful of new, young bands responsible for a resurgence in the popularity of tango. They even launched a 24-hour-a-day internet radio station devoted entirely to "new" tango.
It's a loaded term, this "new" tango. Tinkering with the genre's established musical norms has traditionally been frowned upon in tango circles. Indeed, the great innovator Piazzolla was rejected by many as "not tango" for having supposedly strayed too far from the path.
So, what is new tango?
"We ask ourselves the same question — what is new in tango?" El Ministro says. "With the radio station there is one prerequisite — we only play groups that you can look up and go and see live."
Casting the net this wide inevitably catches some groups that are not tango exponents per se, but rather musicians who fuse tango with other styles such as jazz and even electronic music. Indeed, probably the biggest "tango" phenomenon of the past decade is Paris-based The Gotan Project, an "electrotango" band that has achieved worldwide success.
These new tango streams and hybrids are quite a lot to swallow for purists. For some, it's less a question of what type of tango these bands represent, than whether they are tango acts at all.
It's a question that Max Masri, bandleader of Argentine electrotango group Tanghetto, is asked regularly. He's well placed to answer it too, having studied under one of the tango greats, Virgilio Expósito, who wrote one of the all time tango classics, Naranjo en Flor.
"Tango is what the public decides tango is," he says. "Tango itself is the product of a fusion of different types of music. For many years people said that Piazzolla wasn't tango but now throughout the world, and here in Buenos Aires, Piazzolla is tango.
"I understand the codes of tango, [but] I don't consider myself a tango musician as such. I like music in general and my idea was to do something different, not to form a tango orchestra.
"Our first record [Emigrante] was so crazy for the time that we thought we'd never fit into the world of tango, but the tango world took to it and people started dancing to it and the music spread within the tango world," Masri says.
With two double platinum discs, five gold discs and 250,000 records sold in Argentina, Masri could be forgiven for shrugging the question off entirely. But it's a topic that interests him, perhaps because of his tango grounding or maybe because his favourite tango musician — "if we consider him tango" — is Piazzolla.
And what would the maestro Expósito think of Tanghetto?
"He passed away a few years before [Tanghetto formed] but I think he would like it," Masri says, "because I remember him saying that if tango doesn't renew itself it will die. He admired Piazzolla too, so with that in mind I think he'd like it."
TANGO WAS BORN in the port of Buenos Aires in the second half of the 19th century amid a confluence of different immigrant cultures. It grew among the poorer, less educated classes and without the instrument that would come to define it. The bandoneon didn't arrive in Argentina from Germany until the 1880s. Argentine slang — known as lunfardo— developed in tandem with the tango in the city's factories and brothels. Only later, after the turn of the twentieth century, would tango bridge the social gap and come to represent the cultural identity of Buenos Aires and neighbouring Montevideo. In 2009, The United Nations officially recognised tango in its list of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity.
Tango historian Dr Emilio Santabaya is anything but shy when it comes to sharing his opinions on tango. By way of example, early on in our two-hour, all-encompassing interview, he proffered: "It's not that Piazzolla isn't tango, he simply became confused."
And Pugliese? "Great pianist, but he got heavily involved in drink and drugs and his music also lost its way."
These days Dr Santabaya dedicates more time to his other profession, epidemiology, but tango remains his enduring passion. A very proficient dancer "many years ago", he once danced with the legendary tango dancer Carmencita Calderón. Now he's worried that tango is losing its "essence", both musically and as a dance.
"After the second world war, tango almost disappeared," he says. "There were scarcely any maestros and rock music and the hippie movement had arrived.
"Very few orchestras remained, few danced and less sang. Then with Piazzolla in the '80s and '90s there was more tango outside of Argentina than here."
Dr Santabaya says the resurgence of tango in Argentine society came first with dance, which began to be incorporated into contemporary dance. And the majority of these dancers, he adds, were and are women. This in itself has driven changes to tango's traditional form.
"Of course there are still figures from old tango, but it has lost some of the essence in terms of choreographic structure, that the man leads the woman."
"Now the women fly as if they are classical ballerinas, or prostitutes. I told Mora Godoy [the modern day darling of tango dance] personally," he sniffs.
The loosening of the protagonist role has, however, opened tango to a new market. Since 2002, the Queer Tango, as the name suggests, caters to the homosexual market, removing gender barriers in general. On any given night, Buenos Aires' milongas (tango dance halls) are full of people of all ages, backgrounds and sexual persuasion.
In the face of evolving tango music, Dr Santabaya curbs his distaste, just a little.
"Tango was born with certain time signatures [2/4, 4/4, 4/8] and certain determined harmonies. There are ways to embellish and improve, but with certain limitations," he says.
"There are very few dances in the world that maintain this type of identity — the Viennese waltz, the pasodoble and the tango. You can't dance to things that the music won't allow — a lot of Piazzolla, for example, is not danceable, it is more for listening."
While he enjoys OTFF, the likes of The Gotan Project and Tanghetto fall beyond both his taste and his definition of tango.
"But I understand that they are trying to survive through this and to spread the music and in this sense it is invaluable.
"They've reached a great quantity of young people who didn't know tango at all."
Back at the CAFF, El Ministro and co. finish on a suitably bombastic note, and it's not just the young they've reached. Everybody is out of their seats, but it's the old timers screaming loudest for more.