I’ve been dancing Argentine Tango for about six years, and all this time the music and the orchestras have remained somewhat of a mystery to me. I do understand what it takes to be a good Tango dancer and what to look for when I watch someone perform. I’m far from perfect myself, but I have learned how to walk, how to follow, how to embrace my partner, and how to look reasonably good on the dance floor. I like to express myself to the music and I do have my favorite composers, Carlos di Sarli and Osvaldo Pugliese among them, but my knowledge of Tango music hardly extends past the standard pieces that are played by DJs at most milongas. I’m embarrassed to say that after all this time my knowledge of Tango music is still very basic. There are pieces that make me want to get up and dance, and there are others that don’t speak to me at all, and that I don’t mind sitting out. At most milongas where the usual standard repertoire of Tango music is played I have to admit that I’m quite happy and content to listen and dance to the same “canned” pieces over and over again.
However, I can’t help but be amazed at how the vibe changes when a live orchestra plays. This is how it should be, I then think to myself. This is how it was in the early days of Tango when there was no recorded music, and instead the orchestras were at the center of things and were the real stars of Tango. If you’ve ever watched the YouTube video of Juan D’Arienzo conducting his orchestra (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Z5qEKxfmm8) you’ll understand what I mean.
There are several accomplished Tango orchestras in the San Francisco Bay Area, which I consider my Tango home base. Some of these local orchestras only started to perform after I began dancing Tango, and I’ve had the pleasure of watching their early performances and then seeing how they’ve come along, how they have progressed, and have become better and better. To start with there is The Redwood Tango Ensemble, a wonderful group of energetic young musicians who I remember from their first gigs at the outdoor Blackhawk Milonga in Danville. They’ve since become one of the most desired groups on the Bay Area’s Tango scene, having made their own recordings and having appeared at many events. Then there is Trio Garufa, a group which has been around for much longer than I have been in Tango. They are known for their remarkably versatile interpretations of Tango. There is also the well-known orchestra Tangonero, and there is the versatile Tango No. 9, whose singer, Zoltan DiBartolo, possesses not just a great voice, but also an impressive stage presence. Unfortunately they seem no longer to exist. And more recently established on the local scene is Orquestra Z, founded by long-time tanguero, Bendrew Jong.
But the one man who stands out for me, and whom I’ve been following a bit more closely over the years, is Seth Asarnow and his Sexteto Tipico. Whenever this six-piece orchestra — consisting of Seth Asarnow and Bryan Alvarez on bandoneons, Cynthia Mei and Brooke Aird on violins, Dan Highman on piano, and Chris Johnson on bass — appears and starts to play, I feel the desire to sit down and listen. Somehow, I find their music so captivating that I want to keep my mind and body totally focused on what I hear. If I get up and dance, I feel distracted from the actual pleasure of letting the music seep through me.
Seth’s vision when he started to play was to form a traditional Tango orchestra that would recapture the sound and feel of the Golden Era of Tango. I’m not sure if such a thing could ever be accomplished since we don’t really know what it was like during that time. In an interview from 2011 which he gave to the San Francisco Tango Marathon he said that “the attitude, tone, phrasing and other subtleties that you hear in the past are unlike the way people play today.” I also think we don’t know how the audience responded to the way the orchestras played and, as a result, how the interaction between the musicians and the dancers unfolded on stage. I believe that dancers in Buenos Aires in the 1940s must have responded quite differently to the music they heard than do we in the United States in the twenty-first century. And similarly, the musicians’ performance was probably quite a bit different from what we think the original orchestras sounded like, despite the efforts of groups like Sexteto to sound authentic.
There is nothing wrong with that though, I think. Each live performance is different, and depends largely on the give-and-take between performers and their audience. Consequently I’m not sure that when I listen to Sexteto that I hear exactly what an orchestra from the Golden Era of Tango sounded like. But it doesn’t matter. It’s a great pleasure to hear a group of highly accomplished musicians play together, all of whom have had musical training and all of whom play for the love of Tango.
With individual milongas being less crowded now than a few years ago, it is certainly not a good way to make a living. “There are so many events going on now in the Bay Area,” says Seth, “that you don’t see as many people at any given milonga as before. People have many more choices. And add that to the fact that after the crash things have never gotten back to where they were before.”
Seth is at this point the only professional full-time musician of the group. He is the one who selects and arranges the pieces. When we recently talked at the Verdi Club I was surprised to learn that they only rehearse together once a month. “Everybody has a daytime job,” he explains, “and it’s difficult to find the time to get together.” He himself, however, has a regular gig every week with Marcelo Puig at The Seahorse in Sausalito. Here he gets a chance to really shine. With him on the bandoneon and Marcelo on guitar, this is probably the most refined and authentic sounding live Tango music that can be heard in the Bay Area. And here again, I just want to sit and listen. I still don’t know that much about the music, the famous composers, or the pieces. But if I’ve learned anything about Tango music, it is to listen with my heart — thanks to musicians like Seth.
The full interview with Seth Asarnow for the ‘San Francisco Tango Marathon’ can be found here: http://www.sftangomarathon.com/#!seth-asarnov-sexteto/clg1
For more information about local Tango orchestras in the San Francisco Bay Area see: http://sflovestango.com/live-tango-music/