Although one of its several comebacks is not that old, true
Tango is quickly being usurped, not by another musical form or even an artistic
evolution, but by a few mere components of its form. A few elements of Tango
are being used to convey that Tango feel which is usually a by-word for exotic
or erotic. This is mainly occurring in movies, television and on Tango
compilations. The music, to the laymen may have that feel, but it
is often overblown, over simplified, the strings taking on an almost synth like
cadence as can be found in a Las Vegas show or bad karoke bar.
Real Tango is never merely background music. Real Tango is a
rich tapestry woven of improvisation, tradition and the intellectual souvenir
of an emotional landscape traversed at the moment of any given time during a
The word Tango itself refers both to the music and dance, some
would say the lifestyle too. This, it shares with its equally alluring cousin
Tango has often been said to have started in bordellos. This
overly simplified origin is to some extent, inaccurate.
The folk dances such as La Contre Dance(France),
La Zarzuela (Spanish) and Di Tarantella (Italy) were
all dances and musical styles which often were done at festivals and
celebrations in which people of all classes could participate. All possessed
elements and aspects of forbidden emotions and intent, forbidden, yet
temporarily allowed at these specific musical moments.
Like these musical counterparts, Tango provided a soundtrack for
moments of permissible eroticism and longing. It offered the lower classes a
fleeting distraction from lifes monotony and hardships.
As a coherent art form, Tangos birth can be traced back to
around the 1890s, and the working class neighborhoods of Buenos Aires and
In the early days of Tango, most of the instruments were
portable and played in smaller ensembles than what was to come. The readily
available aspect combined with the musics celebratory festival aspect
which, over time has morphed into the simplified bordello origin.
The exact measure of each of Tangos base elements is not
easy to define. Within are components of European classical, South American
Milonga and African poly-rhythms. This combined with even more infectious
rhythms and some aspects of salon chamber music
Once Tango again applied a thin veneer of respectability over
its more revelry origins, there came an established instrumental line up. Most
commonly it was a sextet which had violins, double bass and two bandoneons.
Occasionally too, there would be flutes and guitars. The complete portability
began to be lost even as indoor concerts and dances adopted this new music.
One of the key sounds associated with Tango is that of the
Bandoneon. This instrument which looks like an accordion, is actually a free
reed instrument utilizing buttons instead of keys, invented in Germany by
Heinrich Band. Initially it was meant to be used in lieu of an organ for
religious ceremonies by German settlers. In the early part of the 20th century
it was brought to Argentina.
Originally Tango was sometimes referred to as Criollo Tango.
Like jazz today, there are now many sub-genres, each with its own rules and
rituals. Argetine Tango is the one most directly descended from the first,
original Tango form.
Tango and its various styles are said to have had several
La Guardia Vieja (The Old Guard 1900-1920): This music includes
sung and instrumental songs. The bands were of the earlier instrumental
configurations, few of them utilizing the bandoneon. The first Tango recorded
happened in 1920, played by Angel Villoldo in Paris. Argentina at this time had
no proper recording studio. World wide, Tango was introduced this same year
when silent film star Rudolph Valentino danced it in one of his films,
tantalizing the rest of the world with its poetic portrayal of desire as
executed by both music and dance steps.
La Guardia Nueva (The New Guard 1920-1940): Formal dance moves
are first established here. The poetics of both desire and passion are
established. Instrumental pieces are pushed to the forefront of popularity.
Composers and musicians begin to split into two main camps flouting the
importance of Traditionalism or Evolutionism. The artisitic evolutionist sought
to add a more current vernacular to the art and Astor Pizzolla was one of their
La Post-Guardia Nueva(The New Post Guard 1940-1960): Sometimes
referred to as The Generation of 40s. This is Tango as it is
most often still heard today. This is where many of the standards entered
El Nuevo Tango (The New Tango 1960-now). This is Tango as it
observes more outside influences besides those already diverse ingredients
which initially contributed to its make up.
Twice in its history Tango largely disappeared, and both times
it was due to a depression combined with political upheaval.
In 1929 a depression hit along with a regime change from then
leader Hipolito Yrigoyen. Then again, in the 1950s another depression and
a post-Peron government which banned Tango as too easy a way for the working
class to congregate. It did not start its second cultural comeback until the
The different ages and instrumental line-ups may seem
overwhelming to someone interested in delving into the world of Tango. Really,
it is no different than becoming a jazz fan. Jazz has all its many genres and
sub genres and jazz is far more fluidic, each of its schools or movements
lasting for far less time than Tangos various ages.
Like jazz too, there are recordings from the arts start.
The music is interesting, shows where the music had been and in some cases
offers up compelling moments, but much like listening to Satchmos Hot
Fives recordings, there is a degree of separation between artist and audience.
The music has its moments, but very much sounds and feels like it is coming to
us from another time and thus another world. Early Tango recordings can posses
The best place to start on your Tango journey would be with
Anibal Pichuco Troilo (1914-1975). He was the definitive bandoneon
player of his generation. He first started to play when he was only ten years
old. He bought his first bandoneon for 140 pesos on an installment plan (14
installments). After the fourth installment, the shop keeper died and no one
ever kept up the collection. He used this same instrument for most of the rest
of his life.
Originally he had an orchestra which was highly in demand and
emphasized the dance aspects of the music. By the 1950s he moved into a
more pure art phase.
He often played, eyes shut, bent forward. There is now a style
of playing or school named after him. He could play suspended notes
then quickly switch to a staccato attack never loosing articulation. There is
often something lush and melancholy in his music.
He wrote many modern Tango standards. In his lifetime he made
some 486 recordings including the still popular Tango standard Toda Mi Vida.
Composing and playing aside, he also had genius for picking his
musicians one of whom was Astor Piazzolla. There are not many bad moments to be
found in his recorded oeuvre, mainly because he always refused to allow record
companies to dictate program.
Astor Piazzolla was born in Mardel Plata on 1921. (d 1992). As a
child he was moved to the Bronx, New York. At 15 he was asked by Carlos Gardel,
known as The Song Bird of Buenos Aires, to appear in a film with
him playing bandoneon. It worked out so well that he then asked Astor to tour
South America with him, which Astor declined. On that tour, the plane carrying
Carlos crashed killing all aboard. Astor returned to his native land. He played
with various bands there until 1939 when he joins Pichucos orchestra. He
was one of the arrangers for this band, and his work was considered too
advance always being altered to allow for people to dance.
He left Pichuco and played for two years with a singer. He then
had his own ensemble but shortly breaks that up too, as he obsesses with
creating a new sound to go with the nascent ideas of a mélange made up
of extended suite-like pieces, tango and 20th centaury classical. In his quest,
he contemplated forsaking the bandoneon and devoured jazz records and those of
Stravinsky.(1954) His three piece symphonic work Buenos Aires is
performed and wins him a prize, part of which was a scholarship to formally
study in France with Nadia Boulanger. Her encouragement allowed him to finally
find his way, merging the Tango with all that he had been absorbing, in an
This is the start of a life long aesthetic. From here on, Astor
would mix all that excited him, always making it his own. He would write
symphonies, tone poems, Tangos and even an opera. Over the course of his career
he would collaborate with singers, poets and jazz musicians (Gerry Mulligan,
Chic Corea, Gary Burton). To mirror his varied output he would change the make
up of his many ensembles too, using various configurations which embraced
traditional instrumentation with newer possibilities, such as electric guitar.
Astor Piazzolla is probably the best known composer/musician now
associated with the Tango. Besides talent and a varied catalog, he benefited
from being around at the time of quicker, easier travel and also the age of
multi-media. His works still sound new, not just because of their artistic
complexity, but because many were written and recorded well into our lifetime.
A good recording to start with for those who are wary of taking
the Tango trip is The Lausanne Concert (milanrecords.com). This is a live
recording from 1989 of Astor with an ensemble featuring piano, electric guitar
double bass, cello and Astor on bandoneon.
The sound fidelity is very good, not having any of the faults of
some live recordings. This Tango is less dance oriented than some of what else
one may find in Astors catalog, but it is perfect place for anyone who
already has a taste for jazz or 20th century classical to start.
All the piece have a complexity and emotional depth which is awe
inspiring. When I first got this CD I immediately liked it, but after repeated
listening, I now treasure it. Like the best albums or pieces of music, one can
discover something new with each listen. Yet this album does not require a
silence to fall over the room to be enjoyed.
Some of Astors most popular pieces are played here. The
nature of the music means that each time Astor has played a piece, it is
changed or has a different voice than previous times. Even with his suite
pieces, Astor always wanted to keep the complexity but never overly sanitize
them, make them too written out. A similar attitude was held by
Charles Mingus and his extended orchestral pieces. Complexity which still
allowed for spontaneous in the moment creations.
The only draw back with this album was lack of any real liner
notes. There is a paragraph obituary for Astor and two paragraphs about the
richness of his arts images.
There are no weak musicians or pieces on this album. All the
pieces are of generous length. What still continues to amaze me is how within
one piece, the mood and sounds can change, drastically but without effort.
One of my current favorites is the first track Tanguedia 3. The
piano plays a pattern similar to the bandoneon and to which the guitar joins in
echoing the other two instruments. Then the piano switches to a discordance
which bubbles up and then drops out giving off a sort of menace. The violin
comes in offering an imitation of a sirens frantic cry.
Not just with the first piece, but throughout the entire album
the piano offers up such varied timbers and emotions one would think several
players were sharing the bench. Sometimes the piano has a John Lewis chamber
(modern jazz quartet) jazz feel and at other times there is a modernist
discordance which greatly adds to a piece with its appearance.
The composition Adios Nonino which Astor wrote for his father
upon his death is also here. The piano intro has galloping frenzies and swells
which could easily belong to some of the solo piano pieces by Franz Liszt. When
the bandoneon comes in the drums do an odd beat and the violin quickly does a
waspish lick. Then the piece morphs again as a cello sweetly sings over the now
steady violin. The piece changes several more times before coming to an end.
What is interesting is this concert had some definite classical
elements to it, but it is not like tone poems or programmatic music where you
loose or miss something if you do not know what it is about.
Also unlike some classical music which I enjoy, Chopins
Nocturnes, chamber quartets of Debussy, these pieces do not feel out of place
to listen to while driving down the road on a sunny day.
This is not straight out Tango as one might see in a movie
(scene). Yet, it is. It is Tango, It is jazz, it is classical, it is Astor.
I am away for the long holiday weekend. Myself, among crowds of
the well heeled in simple sun dresses and Lacoste, their sandals beating out a
rhythm on the cobblestones of the plaza as they make their way to dine on
seafood alfresco. I find a hole in the wall bar. The type I like, with no name,
full of old timers serious about the art of the tale and the perfect drink with
which to accompany it.
The cigar smoke is the silvery hue of a movie screen onto which
this scene is projected. The trio of women sitting by the piano, their
unrefined beauty and relaxed manner let me wordlessly know they are locals. Not
knowing how things work, I order my drink from the counter, the bartender with
his bar-towel epaulette nods with approval, my choice of a drink, bourbon,
The place is small so it fills up fast. I share my table, an old
man with a case of peeling vinyl. He buys another round, excited to discover I
know the difference between and accordion and his bandoneon. A nod from the
bartender, he pushes his chair back, someone with a clarinet stands behind him
as they begin to play. One of the girls wants to dance with me, I nod
yes. As I get up the old man leans forward.
Remember it is the kiss at the end of the dance which is