A New Era for the Tango
by Elisa Veini
A musical genre with an unknown origin, played all over the world, balancing, as if on a wire between tradition and innovation: the tango is intriguing even if you can’t tell why. At least, that is my case with the tango and other forms of world music. Don’t ask me why a certain piece of music sticks to my ear, while another is easily forgotten. Perhaps for the first time in my life, I came to think of the reason when researching for music for the documentary film Café Bostella that my partner Paul van der Stap and I will launch this month.
I have to admit, the tango was no evident musical choice for a film about a Belgian pub. One would rather expect to hear schlagers or chansons, exactly what we tried to do, but somehow they did not fit in, or perhaps they fitted just too well. So we searched for more; music that not only illustrates the feeling of the pub but as if talks back.
A dinner with friends helped us out of the dilemma. Among the friends present was one of the rare Dutch bandoneon players, Gerard van Duinen. He understood our idea intuitively and jumped into the film project, which meant for him a further extension of his broad repertoire. He would arrange the music for Café Bostella.
While we were working, we came to discuss what a pity it is that the tango is so little known in the Netherlands. This was enough to awaken my curiosity. I went on research, and the more I learned, the deeper I got involved in the manifold history and the vivid present of the tango.
“Many attempts have been made to trace the history of Tango”, writes Murray Pfeffer in his overview of the tango, “but nobody has ever found the exact root of its origins.” What is certain is that its origins are plural: the tango combines influences from various countries and continents. Pfeffer mentions the candombe of African slaves, the dance music from the Argentinian pampa, milonga, Indian rhythms and the music of early Spanish colonists, plus the waltz and other salon dances. “Early immigrants and social outcasts” brought all the influences together to what became known as the tango. It was the transmission of their loneliness, longing, pain and homesickness.
The tango has thus travelled far. The origins may as well remain a mystery, for isn’t it exactly the travel what it is all about? That makes me think of what cultural anthropologist James Clifford wrote in his book Routes (1997) about travel and displacement as apt metaphors of culture and cultural processes. He describes cultural changes as routes along which new meanings come up and old meanings take new forms. What is more, Clifford sees displacement, or travel, as the core of culture, or of cultural phenomena.
The tango started off with European immigrants in Buenos Aires around 1900. They played melancholic tunes to enlighten and express their heartache. From there on, the history of the tango has been one of a continuous metamorphose and displacement. And the travel goes on.
From the immigrants’ quarters, the tango found its way to the salons of high society. It became enormously popular among the Porteño elite, until the coup of Videla cut the trend. In the 1960s, during Videla’s dictatorship, the tango was a forbidden fruit. Videla wanted his country to manifest as a modern, western society with citizens dancing on the newest imported rock songs. The tango was a sign of times past, and people belonging to that bygone era disappeared in prisons, unless they embraced the new values, or fled out of the country. The latter was the case with many tango musicians.
So, the tango found itself a new home in Paris, where Astor Piazzolla would lead it to its next metamorphosis – a musical coup received with enthusiasm by fellow Argentinians in exile, but also by Parisians. The tango was in Paris to stay. It was not before towards the end of 1980s – after the end of Videla’s dictatorship – that the tango returned to Buenos Aires and started there its next renaissance that lasts until today.
From Paris, the tango travelled also northwards. As a Finn, I remember how the tango became a true rage in Finland a couple of decennia ago. This was not the tango of Piazzolla, but a genuinely Finnish variation with an unmistakable influence of Finnish folk music. This tango, played on the accordion, shares not more than only the very basic rhythm with its Argentinian origin. In Finland today, the tango is not seen as strange or exotic, but as an integral part of the Finnish musical and dance canon. The tango can take surprising routes indeed.
In the Netherlands, on the contrary, the tango is a niche of its own, says Gerard van Duinen. It is being danced and played, yes, but it does not reach a wide audience. Paradoxically, the tango is world-known–according to Pfeffer, it is played “in every country in the world, including Zambia”–but people have no clue of its variation and range. They know even less that there is renewal going on in the tango world. Gerard says: ‘The moment has come to start developing our own arrangements and visions, and write new compositions, here in Europe as well as in Buenos Aires.”
This, in fact, is Gerard’s mission. He “came to the tango” through the dance some twenty years ago. He studied it at the Conservatorium in Rotterdam and commuted between The Hague, where he lives, and Paris, where he, fanatically, took private lessons with Juan José Mosalini, one of the greatest tango musicians on earth according to Gerard. He set up a number of ensembles and orchestras, made CDs, performed where people would come together for tango dancing – and is still doing all that. His latest CD called Sencillo (‘simplicity’) was published this spring.
I spoke to Gerard about it, starting from the beginning.
How did it happen that the tango had such a compelling effect on you right away? You studied Mathematics and Japanese, played the guitar and the piano, and worked at a bank. Becoming a bandoneon player was not exactly the most evident thing to do, was it?
What interested me in the tango was the mysterious balance between energy and melancholy. I was fascinated by the music during a concert by [the Dutch tango ensemble – EV] Sexteto Canyengue, but I didn’t understand anything of it. When I realised that there would be dancing during the second set, I started to take tango lessons with my wife. After a couple of years it started to tickle. With a couple of other musically talented dancers we did a couple of songs, myself on the piano by the way. As I couldn’t find anyone for the bandoneon, I took it up myself. In the beginning, I only wanted to play for dancers, but then things took their own lead. I became aware of the broader context and wanted to really understand tango music. But I still respect the basic values of the danceable tango. When I started to write arrangements, I realised that I had grasped the essence of the tango already on the dance floor. The arrangement is indispensable in the tango – just like improvisation is in the jazz. The combination of writing and playing music fits me perfectly.
Gerard van Duinen
Let’s go back. You are saying that energy and melancholy are the two core ingredients of the tango. Somewhere I read about the tango of early twentieth century as ‘melancholy wailing of a bandoneon’. Does melancholy necessarily belong to the tango, or do contemporary variations differ from that?
Melancholy is inextricably bound up with the soul of the tango. Often it is an unfounded nostalgia for assumingly better times.
That makes me think of the Portuguese-Brazilian concept of ‘saudade’; it is described as something inexplicably nostalgic void of definition. Do you recognize that also in the melancholy of the tango, or does is always have to do with the past?
The two concepts are close, but they are not identical. Tango texts are often about emerging love and longing for Buenos Aires. In the music, melancholy may address the mind, or even ham it up. The result is often still beautiful because the feeling expressed remains authentic. This is not very different in the contemporary tango. But in the dance and the music the Golden Era of the tango is often idealised. You can see it in the strict codes to which the salon is subjected, or in the exact recaps of old recordings. In its most exaggerated form it results in a heavy conservatism. Believe it or not, but there are tango DJs who would play only recordings from 1942 and before…
That resonates with what you said earlier about epigonism: musicians who are fixed on certain hits from the Golden Era. Am I right, is there frustration shimmering behind your words? Do the epigonists dominate the image of the tango?
Oh no, it is not frustration. What irritates me is the lazy attitude of some musicians. And you are right, the dominating image is too often defined by the most common particle: songs like ‘Adios Nonino’, Danny Malando, a dancing couple caught in their tango fever… There is always resistance against innovation, and the argument often goes: ‘This is not tango’. But what is the tango? You can answer that question on many different ways, and you can keep on arguing about the answers. That does not make the question less important. I write music that stylistically fits in the 40s and 50s but is autonomous in content. I think that I have succeeded in my job when two dancers get up and are taken with the music.
Perhaps that is where the dancer in you awakes. But are you always writing and playing with dancers in the back of you mind? Or, in other words, am I touching on forbidden ground if I ask if it is possible to separate the tango as music from the tango as dance? I love to listen to the tango, but I have no call for dancing it.
No, I don’t always play or write with dancers in my mind. But I believe that I always want to have a rhythmic development that is possible to anticipate in my arrangements. That is necessary in dance music, but I think that it is to be found in the more arty forms of the tango. The tango makes you move, but it doesn’t always need to involve your feet.
What about the musical innovation since the ’80s when dancing tango became popular again? How would you characterize the contemporary tango in Buenos Aires?
The tango is a strong label. There is an industry of clichés with sweeping couples and brillantine that attracts daytrippers and tourists. But there is also a strong artistic undercurrent of making really new music. It goes sometimes with unbelievable aggression and machismo, sometimes with a virtuous exposure of subtleness. In Buenos Aires there is more search for new forms than in Europe. To give just a few examples: groups such as Astillero, the quintet of Ramiro Gallo, the songs of Alfredo ‘el Tape’ Rubin. But also the Argentinians in Paris are really innovative. Tómas Gubitsch is one of them. As for historical examples, Osvaldo Ruggiero took up unbelievably articulated accents, whereas Ciriaco Ortíz had an enormous freedom in his music. Orchestras, I listen a lot to Pugliese, Troilo and Di Sarli. The contemporary componist Julián Peralta inspires me continuously. As teacher, Mosalini is my great example.
And in the Netherlands…
There are relatively few people here who understand the tango and can play it. There is also little demand. For the Dutch, the tango remains exotic. Even if its origins are linked with a European tradition, it is not our traditional culture. That makes the tango in my view a niche in the Netherlands. I try not to limit my artistic work to that niche. I also like to participate in crossover projects.
Your most prominent crossover project until now is the ensemble La Tabú. In this ensemble you play improvised tango. Have you ever thought of contacting with the innovators in Buenos Aires, for taking La Tabú there?
I receive a lot of enthusiastic reactions, also from tango DJs. But if you like it or not, the tango world loves tradition. It will take time to reach people, and to convince them. I do have contact with a couple of innovators, my limited knowledge of Spanish notwithstanding. I would love to perform in Buenos Aires with my orchestra Mala Pinta, or with La Tabú, but that is costly business.
I feel some ambivalence here. The tango is bound to tradition but is at the same time thirsty for renewal. Your music is based on the tango from the Golden Era, but you claim autonomy as for the content. You teach also a lot. What is your most important message to your students?
The same that I try to practise myself: that the way you play a note is many times more important than which note you play.
About the Author:
Elisa Veini is a documentary maker, writer and communication specialist with an academic background in Cultural Anthropology. Her essays and short stories have been published in magazines in the Netherlands, United Kingdom, Germany and Canada. Her website is www.titojoe-docs.nl.