Tango wins a Grammy!


Grammy winners Héctor Del Curto, Pablo Ziegler and Claudio Ragazzi (Photo: STOWE TANGO MUSIC FESTIVAL)


On January 28 the tango world was rocked by a major event: the Pablo Ziegler Trio’s album, Jazz Tango, won the 2018 Grammy Award as best Latin Jazz Album. It was the first time that tango was awarded a prize by the Recording Academy — and the first time the larger music world became aware of the importance of a genre it had previously regarded as marginal. I spoke with bandoneonist Héctor Del Curto — who, together with pianist Claudio Ragazzi and founder Pablo Ziegler, completes the Pablo Ziegler Trio — about winning the Grammy Award. Héctor is one of the most sought-after bandoneonists, having played with Osvaldo Pugliese and Astor Piazzolla among others. Héctor and his wife Jisoo Ok are also the founders of the Stowe Tango Music Festival.



AB: First of all, congratulations! That’s quite a big deal, winning the Latin Grammy!

HDC: Thank you! It’s not the Latin Grammy, by the way.

AB: I saw it referred to as Latin Grammy?

HDC: No, it’s the ‘Latin Jazz’ category. But it’s the Grammy.

AB: Okay, thank you! Can you tell me how the procedure works? Did you submit your album?

HDC: This album is with the Pablo Ziegler Trio. It was recorded live. And they submitted the album. And there is a long submission period of time. It think it’s probably six months or something like that. And if you get nominated, then you go to the Grammys. So we got nominated. And that was sort of the first time that I became aware of what’s going on. Because getting nominated is really very difficult. They have at the Grammys about 20,000 entries. So to get nominated is really a big deal. There are five nominations in every category.

AB: Has there ever been a similar group nominated for the Grammys?

HDCC: For the Grammys, no! This is the first time that tango got nominated for the Grammys.

AB: That’s quite surprising, don’t you think so? Is this a sign that tango is becoming more widely recognized?

HDC: Yes, that’s one thing. The other thing is that the music of Pablo Ziegler has a lot of improvisation and it is more fusion with jazz. And that’s what made it possible for tango to be considered. And the other thing is that from all these thousands of entries, the first step is to get noticed. And tango, since it’s probably a different music, even though people hear it all over the world, is not something that is as familiar as jazz. So you already get something that is different to get the attention, and then the bandoneon.  And once you get the attention, they will listen to the CD and decide who the people are they want to choose. And the fact that the CD is live, that adds another layer of interest because recording at the studio these days is something that everybody does. But a live performance is what you hear at that moment, it is what you get on [our] CD.

AB: Where and when was the CD recorded?

HDC: At the Stowe Tango Music Festival in 2015.

AB: Who do you think is your main audience for this kind of music and especially this album? It seems like there is a lot of resistance in the tango community towards Nuevo Tango and Jazz Tango?

HDC: I would disagree with that. I don’t consider that as an audience. They will actually not consider this music to dance. But yes, the people from the tango community come every time to listen to performances, every time we do a concert in New York, we have the tango community come to our concerts. And yes, it is not the music you will choose to dance to because people are used to the old recordings and that’s kind of hard to get over. But yes, there will be an audience to listen to it. And beyond the tango community there is classical and there is jazz and other kinds of music or musicians, and audiences for all these kinds of music listen to tango music. They don’t have as many opportunities, but every time they have the opportunity they do. You have people like Yo-Yo Ma, Gidon Kramer, and many, many famous people performing tango. It’s a music that has become very popular among musicians of all genres.



Héctor Del Curto with his bandonéon (Photo by Sergio R. Reyes)


AB: It is still kind of a selected audience, right?

HDC: You don’t have as much exposure as other kinds of music. At the Grammys, the winner of the album of the year was Bruno Mars. We cannot consider tango in the same category as Bruno Mars. It’s for young people and I have to recognize that they do an amazing job whether you’re free with the music or not. But it’s a different kind of audience. If you like music, then you like tango.

AB: What significance do you think the winning of this award has for yourself, for your quintet, for the Pablo Ziegler Trio, and for tango?

HDC: I think it has a huge significance in all of the areas that you’ve mentioned. For me, it has opened doors to many, many things: to more audiences, to more performance venues, to more press. The repercussion that we’ve had was incredible. We have been in all the newspapers in Argentina. I haven’t been in the newspapers in Argentina for thirty years [laughs], and so that’s great. For my group also, it’s a big thing for tango. And I’m the leader of the group, it’s also something that will open doors for my group and my project. And for Pablo Ziegler it has many repercussions for his trio and for his music as well. His music is recognized. Besides, having won the Grammy has opened the doors for people to listen more closely to his music. And next year, when somebody else submits the awards for tango for the Grammys, we will have already opened the doors. So it’s a lot of things. The first thing that the Grammy is, is you win the best Latin Jazz album, whether you’re doing tango with improvisation or whether you’re doing jazz. But that’s something that lasts as long as it’s mentioned. After that you have to start working and you have to make something better for the next time or for the next year or for the next concert. So it’s great, but it’s a motivation to keep growing. And I think tango will grow a lot! Not only because of the Grammys, but because more people will perform it and we will perform with more people. There are many things happening. I have been getting many calls about performing at many great, amazing places and to do collaborations with great, well-known musicians. So there is a lot of repercussion.

AB: Coming back to what you just said about not having been in the papers in Argentina for thirty years, I’d like to ask you something more personal. Why did you stay in New York? Don’t you sometimes wonder if it would be better to move back to Argentina and be closer to your roots and to the roots of tango?

HDC: Well, you’re always close to your roots. That doesn’t go away whether you’re in the place or whether you’re away from the place. When I came to New York, I came with the show Forever Tango. At that moment I was with my wife and she wanted to stay in New York and we decided to stay in New York. I had a career in Argentina and when I came here, I built my career from scratch again. It went well and now I would like to keep it. And also, the fact that I can spread the word and that I can show people what tango is about in a different country and move from there to different places, is a great thing. Apparently, with this Grammy, we will go back to the roots because there is a demand in Argentina to go back and perform. This is what I call home: I have my family here, my wife Jisoo Ok, who is a cellist, and my son Santiago, who is a clarinetist. So that’s what you call home: where you have your family. Of course, I have teachers and other people in Argentina, but this is now the family that I form and this is where I perform. My son was born in Brooklyn, so this is home right now.

AB: How do you feel about being an Argentine tango musician in a foreign country, playing a relatively obscure instrument that most people haven’t even heard of? Do you feel like an outsider — or a missionary?

HDC: You could say that it’s more like a missionary because you have the mission of making your music known and you have the mission of making your instrument known. And at the same time it feels special because it’s not something that they will play, or I perform in concert and people will say: “Oh, that was an awful weird instrument.” People love it. People think that it’s the greatest instrument in the world when they hear it! Because it’s an amazing instrument! It’s crazy, but it’s an amazing instrument. And so it makes you feel very special, because you give the opportunity to people to listen to this music and to this instrument. And at the same time, you are spreading the word about the culture of your country — the roots that you mentioned before, you’re just spreading the roots. So you can do it in different ways. One of the things that helps feeling confident about what you’re doing is when you have this kind of recognition or you have the recognition of the kind of people who are going to your concert and appreciating your music and your instrument.

AB: What is actually involved in winning the Grammy?

HDC: There is no money involved or even a statue. There is the award itself, which is nice. It’s a nice thing to put in your house and be proud of. And you get all these things that we were talking about, all the recognition and all the doors that open. So it’s a huge, huge, huge award. It’s something that we’ll become accustomed to. It’s not the first Grammy that I have been involved with, but it’s the first Grammy with the trio, with the three of us very involved in it. I have Grammys with Paquito de Rivera, and CDs that I collaborated on with Arturo Farro. But this is the first one where your name, your face, everything is on it, all over the place. And I think it’s amazing. It’s much more than any money can ever pay for.

AB: Has it also reflected upon the Stowe Tango Music Festival?

HDC: Well, I have to tell you that we were amazed at the fast speed that the tickets went. We don’t know if it has to do with the Grammys or not. But it was pretty amazing and we sold thirty-six tickets within one hour and a half after the registration opened, and now we have much more. It’s all over the news in Stowe, Vermont. So that’s huge for the festival as well. Yes, I think the repercussion for the festival is huge. We are doing a lot of work with schools. We are now working with the High School and the Elementary School. We are working closely with Juilliard. The Associate Dean of Juilliard is on our Advisory Board. We are also working with my son’s school, which is called Special Music School. That’s what we are trying to accomplish now. There is no way to get kids to be interested in something unless you go to the schools, because they don’t have time. My son comes out of school, does his homework, eats, does practice, takes a shower, and goes to sleep. That’s what kids in the US are doing these days. So we’re giving them the opportunity to listen to this music and explore. We are going to perform with the band of the High School in Stowe. That’s a great opportunity to see how many of them like it and how many of them will pursue tango or be influenced by what the music has to offer. It’s going to be fun to see what happens in Stowe.

AB: Sounds exciting! Congratulations again and thanks for talking to me!


‘Life on the road’ with María Volonté and Kevin Carrel Footer

María, the singer, and María, the van

María, the singer, with María, the van


‘María De Buenos Aires’ it says in black letters on the van. It’s an older model, but well cared for and trust inspiring. All the important parts, such as its shiny wheels and fenders, look new and expensive. White, compact, and sturdy, it has been converted into some kind of multi-purpose mobile home/trailer. The initial passenger space now serves as a tiny stage dressing room or, if needed, as a bedroom. There is a clothes rack with stage costumes, a vanity, and everything the artist needs to transform herself for a grand appearance. This past year there were thirty-three of them in five months.

The driver climbs out of the cabin, stretches his legs after the long drive, and opens the rear doors to reveal a compactly packed, neatly organized system: suitcases in different sizes, duffel bags, guitar cases, a complete sound system, and even camping gear — just in case. Only he knows how to stack properly all these items which have become essential for life on the road. Everything from dishes to towels, from CDs to laptops, from extension cords to repair tools has to fit into that tight space.

‘María’ is a 1991 GMC Vandura and she has seen quite a bit of the world. As have her two passengers, María Volonté and Kevin Carrel Footer. The couple has been touring the American West Coast, the East Coast, and most states in between in this vehicle for about a decade. They make a remarkable pair, she being a well-known, striking Argentine tango singer-songwriter and guitarist whose talent was discovered by her late husband. Surprised, when he found out one day that it was his young wife singing in the kitchen and not, as he had assumed, someone on the radio, he urged her to train to become a singer. Encouraged by his confidence in her talent, she took his advice and has since risen to become one of the most critically acclaimed performers and innovators of Argentine tango.

Her partner on the other hand seems at first glance like the casual guy from next door, but is in fact the singer’s strong creative counterpart and at the same time acts as the duo’s super-efficient manager. He organizes and controls every aspect of the business down to the last detail. This journalist-turned-harmonica player, originally from Oakland, California, ended up by chance in Buenos Aires in the early nineties, trying to piece his life together after a failed marriage back home in the States. By coincidence he stumbled into the world of Argentine tango where he eventually found himself, the multi-facetted world of tango becoming his life.

When their paths crossed, they each had built a respectable career for themselves. María’s had already stretched over more than two decades, both as a solo artist as well as with her own trio. She had won the prestigious Carlos Gardel Award, had been nominated for a Latin Grammy Award, and had been inducted into the Tango Hall of Fame. She had performed across Latin America, the United States, and Europe — where she most memorably sang the title role in the Piazzolla opera ‘María de Buenos Aires’ for a stage production in Munich.

Kevin was a writer and photographer whose pictures of people in tango appeared in international magazines and on the covers of award-winning CDs. And he played the harmonica, an instrument he had learned to master on his own journey to the birthplace of the blues, the Mississippi delta. This small wind instrument had long been considered just a kid’s instrument in Argentina. But thanks to innovative artists like harmonica-player and composer Hugo Díaz it had been accepted as a lead instrument in modern tango, equal to the bandoneon.


María and Kevin before a show in Charlotte, NC

blues and Argentine tango — these two musical genres began to merge when María Volonté and Kevin Carrel Footer joined forces. They labeled their new fusion Blue Tango Project. It is a work in progress: as they state on their website, a very personal and unique way of exploring and interpreting “the emotional and musical crossroads where tango and the blues embrace”. They consider their musical project a “road-centric approach to life”. This statement can be taken quite literally since, after starting their creative union at the 2008 San Francisco Jazz Festival, the couple spends the better part of every year on the road.Their new lifestyle began when they gave up their permanent home in a quaint neighborhood of Oakland. “We threw everything out!” recalls María with a sweeping arm movement. After which they prepared for their life on wheels by converting the white van into a well-equipped mobile home. From then on they would stay during the first six months of the year at their home in Buenos Aires and then spend the second half of the year in North America, with occasional engagements in Europe. The white Vandura remains parked at a safe location in Oakland after each tour and gets pulled out again in mid-summer for a thorough inspection and overhaul before it hits the road again.

The couple’s two lives couldn’t be more different. In Argentina’s buzzing capital “we live a typical urban life,” says Kevin. “We go to cafés, bookstores, milongas, we have dinner with friends.” It is where their creative work comes into being and where they compose and record new pieces, many of which have been inspired by their adventures on the road. Once the Argentine fall turns into winter, around July, they set out to the now summerly Northern hemisphere, touring the United States and Canada in their van, to perform at many different venues across both countries, from outdoor festivals and big stages to eclectic little bars and coffee shops in remote places. Many of their fans whom they have met on the road have become friends over the years, and commonly ask them to play at their private house-milongas, regularly inviting them to stay for a few days at their homes – which hospitality is almost always answered by an impromptu intimate performance in their living room. In fact, adds Kevin: “we almost never stay at a hotel.”

What sounds like the romantic life of two traveling bards is in fact hard work. The tightly packed Vandura can almost be seen as symbolic for the down-to-the-last-detail meticulously organized, daily life of these two musicians. My partner and I got to know them over the past year when we plunged into the adventure of preparing several gigs in upstate New York and Northern California. By becoming a small part of their five-month strenuous tour, we got a glimpse of their tightly organized life and the discipline it takes to pull off such an endeavor.


An impromptu rehearsal during a break in Woodstock, NY

We learned that there is a strict routine at the bottom of this seemingly free lifestyle. Kevin’s meticulous planning typically begins months before the actual start of the tour. When he maps out the tour schedule, it has to follow the basic underlying rule of ‘one day driving, one day resting before a performance.’ On the day of the show, there is the usual unloading of instruments and sound equipment from the van, setting up the stage, tech rehearsal, and some rest before the show. Then a light snack during intermission and after the show, and off to bed as soon as permissible without offending their hosts, and sleeping in the morning as late as possible. This last, however, is not always an option, since their tour schedule is tight and venues are often long stretches apart. At the same time they are often so charged up after a performance that sleep doesn’t come until the early morning hours, as María once admitted to me, adding that yoga exercises before breakfast in the morning whenever possible help her to maintain inner balance. Even under the best of circumstances — meaning no delays on the road, no issues with the van, and a properly prepared team at each venue — they both agree that “the biggest challenge is getting enough sleep.”

It may seem a strenuous lifestyle, but as a look at their websites — https://mariavolonte.com and http://www.bluetangoproject.com makes clear it is a successful and enjoyable lifestyle and one that shows no sign of slowing down.


Photo no. one and two by Blue Tango Project

Teaching Liam Neeson


There will be a special tango scene in the upcoming movie “Mark Felt”. Photo: markfeltmovie.com


“You have to teach Liam Neeson!” the caller urged her. It was nobody less than Marcos Questas. “He does not know one step!” he continued. Well, an urgent request by Maestro Questas from LA means you don’t think twice!

On the receiving end of the line was Karina Romero, a veteran teacher among the New York Argentine tango community. She was trying to grasp what she had just heard: she had been asked to coach one of Hollywood’s biggest stars for an upcoming movie!

Questas, a sought-after choreographer for film and television (he worked on the Latin Grammy Awards), had a problem. He had been signed as the choreographer for a prominent tango scene in a high-profile spy thriller about the Watergate scandal by Peter Landsmann — Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House. He had already started rehearsing the dance scene with Diane Lane, who plays Liam Neeson’s wife in the movie. But he urgently needed an instructor at the other end of the country in New York, where Neeson lives, to train him for his part. Questas knew about Karina Romero through Carlos Copello, the grand master of tango (Forever Tango, The Tango Lesson, Assassination Tango). Being part of Copello’s circle means being part of an exclusive network of tango professionals who can trust one another.

Karina Romero accepted. And Marcos Questas could for now, and until the shooting began, relax. Then he would see if the teacher in New York had been doing a good job.

But back in New York, Karina Romero could not have anticipated what was about to happen once she agreed. The wheels had already begun to spin and she had taken on a big responsibility. How did she prepare for coaching a film star for a big budget movie, I am curious to know? Karina takes a deep breath. Then she bubbles over with excitement about those few weeks this past summer which were for her ‘a dream come true’.

The business aspect, she explains, was the first ‘wow!’ experience. “Everything happened really fast,” she remembers. Without having time to think it all over, she found herself thrown into the Hollywood business. Within minutes after talking to Questas, her phone began ringing nonstop. She received several calls from the film studio, and was sent a lot of paperwork to sign her up as the leading star’s dance coach for the production of Felt. Once that part of the deal was settled, it took just about another five minutes for Liam Neeson’s agent to call and schedule the lessons for his client. As she was about to give directions to her dance studio, the agent politely interrupted and explained that Mr Neeson was a very private person and that the lessons had to take place at his house.

Quickly rearranging her own schedule, she agreed and then ‘spent the rest of the day watching all of Liam Neeson’s movies to see how he moves’. The very next day at eleven in the morning, she found herself sitting in this ‘very big apartment’ where everybody was ‘so very nice’ to her, waiting for her famous student to arrive, a cup of tea in front of her.

“At that moment it hit me,” she tells me with her delightful accent. “I was going to teach Liam Neeson! Oh my God!” But there was no time to be nervous. She heard him approaching through the living room, and listened intently to the sound of his shoes as he moved across the floor. “I hear how strongly he walks,” she remembers, audibly smiling over the phone, “and what a connection his feet have to the floor!” As she quickly took a mental note of his characteristic steps, the door opened and the star himself appeared and greeted her.

Despite his imposing size – he is said to be six foot four — Liam Neeson turned out to be shy indeed. He thanked her politely for coming to his house and introduced himself humbly:  “Sorry, it’s going to be very hard!” Just as Questas had indicated, he had no dance experience.

So Karina started with some basic walking exercises. After the first round of walking with her new student she could feel how her own nervousness fell away. She says she settled into her role as the teacher and ‘stopped thinking about how famous he was’. Her new student on the other hand turned out to be ‘very respectful to learn’. And indeed he had a lot to learn. Not only did he have to master the basics in tango, but he also had to memorize Marcos Questas’ choreography to the piece he had chosen for the movie: Osvaldo Fresedos’ Vida Mia. “Simple,” states Karina, “but difficult for a beginner.”

Another challenge in teaching him was that the actor, whom she came to realize was a sensitive person, was initially afraid to dance. So she decided to take it slowly — “I did not want him to be in shock!” — and not think about the time pressure — she had to get her famous student ready in only fifteen hours over the stretch of three weeks.

“You need to practice!” she told him decidedly at the end of the first lesson. “We meet again tomorrow!” She also suggested that he wear dress pants and a shirt to get a better feeling for the elegant movement of the dance.


Tango talent: Karina Romero teaching Liam Neeson. Photo by Karina Romero

By her return the following day, Mr Neeson had done his homework and practiced a lot. And he continued to be prepared for all the lessons that were to come. “He really wanted to learn,” she explains, impressed by how seriously he took his tango studies. “He was a very smart student and he really wanted to understand.” His sincere interest in learning and his disciplined way of studying were well received by his Argentine teacher. They developed an artistic connection that Karina describes as very special. “This connection on an artistic and human level was the biggest gift for me,” she says.

But she still had to push for fast progress. At some point she provoked the actor in him, inviting him to find his role in tango and act it out on the dance floor: “If you were a singer,” she said, “you’d be Julio Sosa. This is the voice you would be in tango.” That was the magic trick. She had him practice to some Sosa tunes and says she could see how he changed and started to connect more.


Gabriel Missé concidently became an inspiration for Liam Neeson. Photo: Boston Tango

The big breakthrough, however, came when she introduced Mr Neeson to Gabriel Missé, one of the hottest stars of recent years in the world of Argentine tango. Mr Missé happened to be in town for a workshop series that Karina arranges every year in August. She told Mr Neeson about Missé, and he became interested and asked her to bring him along. It was obvious that both men, each one a star in his respective artistic field, clicked immediately.

Mr Neeson asked Karina to dance with Missé — a moment which she describes as ‘being in heaven’ — and noticed how he enjoyed watching their little demonstration. Next, the two men danced together. She put a tango hat on Neeson and said: “Now act!” And then in front of her eyes something magical developed: As Liam Neeson danced with Gabriel Missé, he became Julio Sosa, executing all the steps he had learned: the ‘baldosa’, the ‘cunita’, the ‘box’, and the ‘sandwichito’. “It was a dream come true!” she revels. “And I saw two big persons together!”

When their coaching sessions came to an end and Mr Neeson started to prepare for the shooting of the film in Atlanta, he thanked her profoundly, promising to make her proud. She in return threatened jokingly: “I will kill you, Liam Neeson, if you don’t dance well in the film!” She remembers being quite nervous the day when the scene was shot far away in Atlanta. Finally she received a message saying: ‘Thank you, maestra, you helped me a lot!’

Mark Felt is going to come to theaters next Thursday, September 29, and I wonder if her name is going to be in the credits? “I don’t know,” she replies. “I’m relaxed about this. I believe this experience was a gift of God. There was an artistic connection, a magic, and the magic happened in the human part, in the connection of the soul.”

Did she get invited for the opening night? No, she says, but for sure she is going to be among the first ones to watch it — with a group of her girlfriends, somewhere in New York.


Le Grand Tango – an updated and expanded biography of Astor Piazzolla


Cover of the updated and expanded digital edition published by Astor & Lenox


When Astor Piazzolla died in 1992, he was not much appreciated in his native Argentina. The tango composer, bandoneon player, and arranger, although well-known the world over, had stirred up a great deal of controversy with his music. The traditional tango world was still predominant in his home country at the time of his death twenty-five years ago, and he was a rebel. “He was hated because he broke a paradigm,” says María Susana Azzi, “and he changed that paradigm.”

Mrs Azzi is the co-author of Le Grand Tango: The Life and Music of Astor Piazzolla, a detailed biography that may represent the most comprehensive work about the composer’s life and work to date. Surprisingly, the book first appeared in the year 2000 in English, published as a hardcover edition (it was a few years before e-books became common) by Oxford University Press. It says a lot about Piazzolla’s reputation in Argentina that a Spanish edition was published only later after many translations into other languages had appeared.

The biography is based on a large number of interviews and other books about Piazzolla. Together with the late Simon Collier, Professor of History at Vanderbilt University, it took Mrs Azzi seven years to collect and meticulously reconstruct details and events of Piazzolla’s complex life. It was Mr Collier who, not long after Piazzolla’s death, approached Mrs Azzi with the proposal for a biography. A British-born historian, Simon Collier’s prime academic focus was on Latin American studies and, in particular, Chilean political history. But it was his passion for tango that had led him to write a well-regarded biography of Carlos Gardel in 1986, in which he uncovered the intertwining of tango and the history of the city of Buenos Aires. His knowledge of tango turned him into a contributor to the tango history collection of Harlequin Records, for which he wrote twenty sleeve notes.

Simon Collier

Simon Collier

By the time Mr Collier came forward with his idea for a Piazzolla biography, Mrs Azzi had already established herself as one of the few academic experts on the subject of Argentine tango. She had published a respectable number of research papers and articles, and she had given numerous lectures on the topic. As a cultural anthropologist her main interest in tango lay in its socio-economic aspects. “Tango can be seen as a huge window into the social economics of Argentina,” she told me when I spoke with her earlier this summer.

Not long after she and Mr Collier began their research work for the Piazzolla biography, it became clear that Mrs Azzi would end up conducting the majority of the interviews. She worked with about a thousand informants and consultants on the subject of tango, and conducted two-hundred and thirty of the two-hundred and forty interviews for the book. In the end, the duo’s extensive research had to be condensed to three hundred and sixty pages, but they revealed an astonishing number of facts and little-known details about Piazzolla’s life, all of which contributed significantly to his groundbreaking work.

For a wonderful foreword Mrs Azzi interviewed Yo-Yo Ma, the world-famous cello player, widely known for his admiration of the grand tango master and who has performed and recorded many of his pieces. The book begins with a detailed chronicle of Piazzolla’s family, infused with anecdotes about his early childhood in Mar del Plata in the midst of a closely knit Italian-Argentine community, followed by his rough upbringing on New York’s Lower East Side after his parents had emigrated to the United States. Then there are descriptions of encounters with some of the most influential tango musicians of the Golden Era of Tango — Carlos Gardel among them — many of whom, intentionally or unintentionally, left an impact on young Astor. As a teenager, Piazzolla developed a strong interest in jazz and classical music, at the same time as slowly discovering the soul of tango. Encouraged by his composition teacher in Paris, Nadia Boulanger, his passion for all three genres ultimately led him to develop his own modern tango style, which was demonstrated by three notable groups: the Octet (1955), the first Quintet (1960), and the Nonet (1971). By the mid-fifties he had taken tango to a whole new level and had begun to compose in a unique style. Now, also established as a sought-after bandoneonist in Argentina, he had played with some of the most important tango orchestras of the time, most notably with Anibal Troílo’s Orquesta Típica.


María Susana Azzi

“He was,” says María Susana Azzi, “a musician and a genius who combined classical music and tango, which is difficult. But he didn’t think of himself as a genius.” By the time of his death at age seventy-one he had composed a vast body of three-thousand five-hundred pieces of music, including orchestral works (Concierto Para Bandoneon), pieces for solo classical guitar (Cinco Piezas), song-form compositions (Adíos Nonino), and music for film, and was considered one of the most prolific composers of all time. He was not a political person, but ‘an anti-Peronist’ adds María Susana Azzi.

The Argentine anthropologist seems to have become as intimate with Astor Piazzolla as some of his family and friends who knew him personally and closely during his lifetime. Just like Piazzolla, with whom she shares Italian roots, she considers herself a typical result of Argentine society. “Argentine society has always been a melting pot,” she says. “It is an inclusive and open society without ghettos.” Le Grand Tango, even though not an authorized biography, quickly became a recognized resource for Piazzolla fans. Mrs Azzi, who has during the course of her research, become close to the Piazzolla family, mainly his daughter Diana, says the family appreciates it.

Sadly, only three years after the book’s publication, Simon Collier passed away, leaving the rights to the book with Oxford University Press. When Mrs Azzi regained the rights to her book, a friend asked if she would consider publishing an updated version. This friend — Terence Clarke — happened to be a tango afficionado from San Francisco who had been introduced to Mrs Azzi in 2003 by the acclaimed tango singer and composer María Volonté. Mr Clarke is the co-founder and director of a new and small publishing-house, Astor & Lenox, whose mission is to ‘print and publish ebook editions of remarkable out-of-print books.’

Mrs Azzi agreed to a new version only to find out, as she told me, that “more than seventy people interviewed for the first edition have since died.” As a result, she undertook additional research for the new version. Most interesting about the new edition, now expanded by an additional one hundred pages, is that it reflects events that have contributed to the growth of Piazzolla’s influence since his death. “Piazzolla is greater than ever,” adds publisher Terence Clarke. “He is much more accepted than in 1992, and his popularity keeps growing.”

After a complete re-edit of the republication, Astor & Lenox published the anniversary digital edition last February — just in time for the twenty-fifth anniversary of Piazzolla’s death on July 4. Mr Clarke says that he is considering publishing a print edition. An expanded Spanish edition is also expected to come out soon.

The updated and expanded digital version of Le Grand Tango: The Life and Music of Astor Piazzolla by María Susana Azzi, published by Astor & Lenox is available online.

The El V Story


The last milonga at El Valenciano. Photo by Stanley Wu.


“Where did the time go?” asks Julian Ramil, and as they both shake their heads his wife Claudia repeats: “Yes, where did the time go?” We were talking about El V, one of the best-known milongas in San Francisco and beyond, and which was about to celebrate its 20th anniversary on May 30th at the very same venue where it started in 1996. However, at the time when I was talking to the Ramils in early April, El V was about to close its doors forever. It looked like the much anticipated 20th anniversary celebration was not going to happen. The proprietor of El Valenciano, the restaurant/bar/dance club which had served as the venue of this popular tango social, had decided to sell the business. The Ramils, together with other long-time tenants of the dance club, had received notice about the termination of their lease, that very afternoon of the last milonga. This meant they had to break the news to both the local and the wider tango community — and find a new venue quickly.

“It didn’t exactly come as a surprise,” said the Ramils, who founded the El V milonga in 1996, and who had been hosting it ever since. The building is located at a prime location in San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood. Since real estate prices have been skyrocketing for a number of years, driving less-than-above-average income residents together with smaller dance and music events out of this part of town, the Ramils suspected that their Tuesday night milonga – one of the longest-running Argentine tango events in the Bay Area – would sooner or later come to an end. It was only a matter of time before the restaurant/bar would be put on the market for sale, and force them to look for a new venue, thus becoming yet another victim of gentrification. Many popular tango and dance venues, such as Studio 1924 in Oakland, and numerous other ballroom dance studios in the Bay Area, had suffered the same fate in recent years.

There had been some previous issues: since the passing away of the previous owner a few years ago and the subsequent taking over of the business by another owner (his ex-wife), the venue had not been running as smoothly as patrons had been accustomed to. Neither the dance club, which also hosted salsa and swing events on a regular basis, nor the bar could obtain a liquor license without the operation of the restaurant. So in order for the dance club and the bar to remain open for dance events late at night, the restaurant had to remain open, too. However, the tango dancers who came for the Tuesday night milonga were not so much interested in having a meal as simply enjoying a drink while focusing on having a good time dancing. Consequently, the tango crowd didn’t generate enough income for the business – a common problem with tango events that take place at restaurants or bars.

During my last visit to El Valenciano in the winter, I couldn’t help but notice that the restaurant had lost much of its appeal. The once popular authentic Spanish eatery with its Moorish-style alcoves and colorful murals had long been known for its delicious food and warm hospitality. Now it looked like it was due for a much needed make-over. Nevertheless, the Tuesday night El V milonga in the classy backroom remained as lively as ever. It was still a very popular spot where one could always encounter a particularly large number of professional and other high-level tango dancers. It was still on the ‘A-list’ for visiting Argentine tango dancers from all over the world as it had been for many years. Not surprisingly, I often found myself being asked about El V in San Francisco by dancers in far-away places such as rural New York State as well as cosmopolitan Barcelona – a phenomenon that was not expected in its humble beginnings.

“It really started just as an after-party of Verdi Club in 1996”, recalls Julian Ramil. When San Francisco became the residence of the cast of Forever Tango, people often hosted private tango events at their homes. Verdi Club, Ruvano’s and Broadway Studios were pretty much the only public places in San Francisco to dance tango. El Valenciano in those days was popular with the salsa and swing crowd. It featured a stage and a small dance floor surrounded by a semi-circle of tables and club chairs. When Julian started to hang out with a small group of tango dancers after Thursday night’s milonga at Verdi Club, he tried playing some tango tunes. Since the small tango community liked it and would ask for more, he decided to start a small milonga on Tuesday nights. Inspired by one of his favorite milongas in Buenos Aires at the time, the Almagro, Julian wanted to create a small, intimate place with a pleasant crowd and no security. He succeeded and named his new milonga Ramilonga Del Valenciano. It became the home of a tight community, “…a place where the die-hards would hang out,” he says. Somehow over time people started to refer to it as El Valenciano, then eventually El V, and that’s how it eventually became known.

The setting was certainly part of the success, but so was the music. For the first five years, Julian was the only DJ playing the tunes every Tuesday night. “I love the music and I want to share it,” he explains. Only slowly would he start to approach the idea that perhaps every now and then he needed a break and needed someone to fill in for him. That’s when he asked Glenn Corteza to take turns. Glenn playing the music was an equal success with the dancers. Over time they asked other tango DJs for whom they had high regard, and so Felipe Martinez, Christopher Nassopoulos, Rina Gendelman, and Shorey Myers also became regulars at El V.

In 2003, the popular milonga had to close its doors for a short while. But within less than a year, El V was back. By now the Argentine tango fever had spread widely, and the Bay Area tango community had grown to a substantial size. At the same time, the first local Argentine tango orchestras were founded and started to perform. Julian, a bandoneonist himself, decided it was time to take advantage of the small stage in El Valenciano’s backroom, and he invited the newly formed local orchestra, The San Francisco Tango Orchestra directed by Roman Rosso to play. In later years local orchestras such as Trio Garufa, Pablo Motta, and Seth Asarnow with his Sexteto Tipico all performed at El V, to the delight of the tango crowd. Both Julian and Claudia Ramil, being full-time professional teachers and performers, managed to keep El V on the cutting edge of Argentine tango during all those years. “It was like going to an art event,” as they described it.


The new Ramilonga Balançoire

When they had to leave the beloved venue, and the tango community fell into mourning over the loss of the place, the Ramils seemed to be the only ones who didn’t appear distraught. They had already been looking ahead, well-prepared for a change. Within days of the announcement that this time El V was closing its doors for good, they had signed a new lease with Balancoire Restaurant and Club on Mission Street, only a few blocks from the old venue. Seamlessly, they opened their new milonga at a bigger, newer venue. Their loyal tango community followed without missing a beat. For a few weeks now the Tuesday night tango crowd can be found on 2565 Mission Street, and that’s where El V’s 20th anniversary will take place – but now under the name Ramilonga Balancoire.


Fort Bragg — Buenos Aires del Norte

Beach by Fort Bragg

For some quiet time after tango: the beaches by Fort Bragg.

On a recent flight from the East Coast to California I was sitting next to a top commander of the Coast Guard West Coast. He engaged me in a long and lively conversation about assignments that have taken him around the world, and how he and his wife — a modern and tap dancer — enjoy traveling and exploring. When I told him how my tango dancing has taken me to various places, a surprised look came over his face and he told me how they had just stumbled upon a ‘tango house’ in the middle of nowhere, on a trip up the Pacific coast to Fort — he couldn’t remember the rest of the name, so I finished it for him — Fort Bragg, the Weller House Inn.

He looked even more surprised. Most of my tango friends in the Bay Area have been to the Weller House, I explained. Indeed, I might be the only member of the entire tango community between Portland and Los Angeles who has not been to a tango event at this historic mansion. The tango world is small, I went on coolly, news spreads quickly and tango people travel far to explore exotic and fun places.

But inwardly I cringed, scolding myself for still not having been there. The Weller House Inn and its special tango events had long been on my list of destinations to visit. Somehow it had been easier for me to travel cross-country, and even beyond, than to take a three-hour drive from my Bay Area home up the coast. And now a stranger, completely unfamiliar with tango, had told me, almost in passing, that he had been there!

A few days later I repacked my bags and set out on the scenic drive north on the Pacific Coast Highway. The stately, multi-storied Victorian mansion stands out like a monument in the otherwise unremarkable little town of Fort Bragg, and is hard to miss. I arrived in time for the Tuesday night tango lesson and practica which takes place in the house’s big ballroom. Vivien LaMothe, the owner, happened to be in the kitchen and welcomed me, immediately offering to take me on a tour. My lucky day, I thought!

But less than half an hour into our private tour, Vivien broke some unexpected and sad news. We had barely covered the mansion’s ground floor, and I was still admiring the original woodwork and Victorian-style furniture of the guest rooms and the library, when she stopped in front of some historic photographs in the hall and looked me straight in the eye. “You know, it’s for sale,” she said gravely. I was flabbergasted. For sale? How could that be? A unique place like this? A most romantic inn with an historic ballroom? How can you let go of that? For a moment I thought she was pulling my leg.

As we climbed the stairs to the impressive Virgin Redwood Ballroom on the top floor, she explained. But I had already begun to suspect the reasons for her decision to step away from this place — and my guess was right. The huge task of managing a nine-guestroom inn with another three guestrooms in the adjacent Water Tower, maintaining a historic building, and at the same time running a busy ballroom with different dance events six nights of the week had simply become too overwhelming for her alone. “Ideally,” she summarized, “there should be two couples running this place.” Meaning two couples who would split the responsibilities of the hospitality business downstairs and the dance studio upstairs.

Virgin Redwood Ballroom

Felipe Martinez and Ayano Yoneda dancing in the famous Virgin Redwood Ballroom.

Vivien has been successfully juggling all this ever since she took over ownership in 2011. During this time she also unexpectedly become the caregiver of her 93-year old mother, who had stepped in as her business partner until passing away in 2015. Understandably, she feels a bit burned out.

Things looked a lot easier when she first became acquainted with the Weller House Inn and became its manager. She was bursting with ideas on how to tie the ballroom into the inn’s hospitality business.

When she was hired, she proposed bringing back the glory of the unique Virgin Redwood Ballroom. It takes up the entire top floor, and was originally intended by its first owner, H. A. Weller in 1886, as a meeting hall for the local Baptist community before there was a church in town. It is built entirely of local redwood, with acoustics that are so superb that, to quote Vivien, ‘it has recording-studio qualities’. It has a dance floor that sweeps every dancer away. Vivien’s idea to host tango and other social dance events met the immediate approval of the previous managers, a couple of musicians who were open enough to let her try out new ideas. As Vivien says: “When I became the manager of the Weller House Inn, I had a short leash — and a big opportunity.”

“On my first day at work,” she remembers proudly, “I already started a practica!” Hosting tango events at the Weller House Inn became a priority of her managing duties. Soon she established the regular Tuesday night tango lesson, taught by local teachers from the Mendocino tango community, followed by a practica. Then she went for bigger events, holding special tango weekends once a month with visiting teachers from all over the country and abroad. “I brought world-class dance teachers almost every month for a few years,” she recalls. The year 2011 was the peak when she printed and distributed 10,000 postcards.

Looking at some of these postcards and flyers from the past eight years, I recognize many familiar names: Eduardo Saucedo, Melinda Sedo and Detlef Engel, Ney Melo and Jennifer Bratt, Murat Edemsel and Michelle Lamb, Facundo Posada and Christy Cote, and Chris Peake and Michelle Laughlin. Many of the nearby Bay Area instructors such as Felipe Martinez and Ayano Yoneda, David Orly-Thompson and Mariana Ancarola, Lisette Perelle, Glenn Corteza, and Nora Dinzelbacher have also been here to teach and perform, some of them several times.

“Then Seth [Asarnow] came,” she recalls. He discovered Fort Bragg while playing with his group, Sexteto Tipico, at the nearby Mendocino Music Festival, and was impressed by the local tango community. “And after he started coming, everybody started coming.” She would often find him sitting on the porch by himself, playing his bandoneon. One year, Seth brought along Pablo Motta, the famous tango double-bass player. Vivien is particularly proud of having hosted both these acclaimed musician. (Note: Seth and Guillermo Garcia are scheduled to perform again at this year’s Dancing Fools TangoFest 8 which runs from March 30 through April 2.)

What else has made this remote location so attractive for teachers? She smiles, “The lure for the teachers is a nice double-room with a jacuzzi — and that it’s close to the ballroom!” Having just admired the guestrooms with their adjacent private bathrooms — some of them with hand-painted tiles and claw-foot bathtubs — I completely understand.

When the opportunity came to buy the mansion in 2011, Vivien went for it. But then her focus shifted, and a major part of her time went into the maintenance and improvement of the house, the occupancy of the inn, and caring for her mother. And all this not to mention that she still has a teenage son. Her mother’s death at the age of 97 was a turning point. But even though she is now ready to let go and move on, she is still attached to various projects related to the house such as an extension of the dining room and finishing a guest suite in the Water Tower that has sweeping views. At the same time she wants to make sure to keep the Weller House’s role for tango and a broader social dance community alive.

Weller House

The Weller House Inn and Water Tower.

The events and ongoing activities at the Weller House Inn (affectionately called ‘Buenos Aires del Norte’ on its former website) have certainly contributed to the strengthening of the local Mendocino tango community. Vivien points to people’s active support in promoting and helping all sorts of events. As a result, Fort Bragg, commonly regarded as the ugly little sister of Mendocino, has turned into a surprising hot spot for tangueros. “We recently had new dancers coming from Chico,” she says proudly. “They got set up with local instructors and liked it so much that they come back in May.” And the number of regular dancers from the local community has grown. “We have more dancers per capita than Buenos Aires!” she laughs.

Why, apart from the flashy events with big names, does she think the tango program has been so successful? “Because I was striving for quality, with the focus on technique,” she answers. “The social tango was more important than flashy steps.”

She would still like to continue being a tango host, but at a different place and under different terms. Meanwhile, her focus is on finding a suitable buyer who is ‘dancer-friendly’ and willing to continue this new tradition.

“I have tried to be a good steward of the house,” she says, “and I would like the house to be in the hands of someone who can also be a good steward.”

Photos courtesy of Weller House Inn

Tango with an Ice Champion


Evelyn Meier as a young ice skater

Since getting into Argentine tango I’ve met some pretty interesting people. People whom I wouldn’t have met otherwise, and whose fascinating stories I would have never known. And I don’t even mean the professionals — the teachers and performers who stand out anyway, and whose lives seem to be so much more interesting than those of us ‘regular folks’ with jobs and families and mortgages and so on. No, I’ve met some really interesting people among the social dancing crowd. People who one day trust you enough so they begin to reveal their own personal history, which is sometimes permeated with deep personal tragedy — or, quite the opposite, with some really thrilling life experiences — so that you inadvertently shout out ‘Wow!’ in the middle of the dance floor. People who, through their own unique experiences, have gained a particular perspective on life which reflects on how they perceive tango.

One of these is a resolute petite lady called Evelina by her tango friends, but whose real name is Evelyn Meier (which already reveals her background: Swiss-German). I picked her out of this group of special characters whom I’ve gotten to know over time because with her eighty-something years she never ceases to surprise me, often makes me chuckle, and has become a kind of a role model for me as a furiously independent lady, an astonishingly versatile and technically proficient tango and ballroom dancer, and as a meticulous observer and instructor. I also admire her creative mind and great crafting skills, which she uses artfully to provide the décor for more tango events than you can imagine.

I met her in Woodstock, NY, where she moved more than ten years ago after having spent most of her life in New York City. She has been a fixture of the New York tango scene for many years, both as a social dancer as well as a driving force behind countless tango events. These days, when asked, she might even still teach privately in her spacious living room (which has been a bit challenging of late after she crashed through the ceiling while cleaning up her attic, leaving the space underneath, where she teaches tango, in shambles for a couple of weeks). However, students who are not accustomed to the drill of learning basic technique and who might expect Evelyn to turn them into exquisite dancers overnight, should know about her strict credo: “I teach people according to what they can do, what their bodies can do, not what they should do.” As she formulates it: “You can’t change the limitations of your body, but you can change your attitude.”

Evelyn can often be seen sitting next to the dance floor, watching the scene intensely, following the dancers with her bright eyes in a highly interested and curious manner. Every now and then someone captures her special attention. Then, during a cortina, she approaches them with a determined, yet well-meaning and encouraging attitude. I’ve overheard her making little remarks like: “You dance beautifully! If it’s not too uncomfortable for you, I’d really like to dance with you later — if and when you feel like it!” If she gets a positive response and dances with that person, she may even make small a suggestion: “I’ve watched your dancing and I love it, but I think you would look even better if you’d …”

I’ve often wondered where she gets the guts to approach people in such a direct way. Her observations are always spot-on. Whether or not somebody has a foot pronation, falls into a step or is not on axis, has little or no flexion in the extended back leg — in her opinion, a mistake most followers make — nothing escapes Evelyn’s sharp and trained eye.

When I found out that she had been a long-time ice- and roller-skater who won four national titles in competitive free-skating, I finally understood: her early hard training has shaped her approach to dancing. Everything she learnt in these disciplines from a young age on, she rightfully applies to dancing.

‘You do not step into a movement’ is one of her basic rules in Argentine tango that she took from ice-skating. ‘You move into a movement’. It has left many social tango dancers puzzled or disagreeing with her. “But all pros agree with me and understand!” she points out. Whenever she has this discussion with a professional like Junior Cervila or Jorge Torres regarding bodyweight transference, foot placement, and its correlation to other forms of dance, they reply with an unquestionable ‘of course!’ “The way you move into a move and out of a move is similar in tango and in skating,” she continues. “Just look at a molinette, or an ocho — the figure eight in tango comes from the loops in ice skating. Just look at the loops of the ocho and how they come together — it’s the same movement!”

Evelyn dancing tango

A picture from more recent days: Evelyn dancing tango with Anton Person-Gazenbeek

Evelyn first began ice-skating at age four when her mother took her to the lake in Central Park, close to their home, “not the wealthy neighborhood back then that is has become now!” she remarks. Her Swiss-born mother, like a lot of women of her generation, was a fan of the legendary Norwegian Olympic figure skater and Hollywood star Sonja Henie. She wanted her young daughter, who at the time was still so little that her dog pulled her over the ice, to be like this famous champion. She signed Evelyn up for her first classes with Pierre Brunet who also taught Olympic Champion Carol Heiss. He became Evelyn’s first instructor when she was ten. (“These days they get them started at age two!” she says, looking doubtful.) At the same time she was put in tap-dance and ballet classes where, as she says, she began to understand movement. But ice-skating was not much of a recognized sport in the 1930s, and it was expensive. Her mother took a job to pay for her classes. “Then came the war and more important things went on,” she recalls. She stopped ice-skating at age fourteen, only to discover roller-skating a year later. “It was similar to ice-skating, and there were only slight changes of movement,” she explains. She trained hard to reach a higher level as a roller-skate-dancer; by age nineteen she had become a State Champion and a Regional Champion, and had taken very close second places in the American Championship.

With so many titles under her belt as a roller-skate-dancer, she went back to her first love — the ice —only to find out that she was already too old for free-skating. But her passion for the ice prevailed and instead of giving up, she transitioned into ice-dance and tracing figures which required sharp and clean edges and transitions of body weight from one foot to the other.

“What was different from free-skating,” she remembers, drawing circles in the air with her fingers, “were the jumps and leaps.” She not only had to learn to do the figures, but also to find her center, axis, and balance. “If one of those things was not in place, the whole thing was not working!” (Just as in Argentine tango, she reminds me again!) To the surprise of her teachers, she jumped higher than others “— because I was used to the weight of the rollers!” She learnt when the body had to shift, before and after a jump, together with something else very important: “The first thing you have to know in ice-skating is how to fall.” Was she ever afraid of the leaps and jumps, I want to know? She replies with what she calls her ‘Axel experience’: “When fear sets in in any kind of sport, it’s real. You can’t just ignore it. When you fight it, you fall.”

Nevertheless, the most rewarding experience in ice- and roller-skating was completing fully-rotated jumps with speed and height, and “being paired with a partner in dance to enjoy the perfect harmony of two people doing the same thing with exactness and complete trust in each other”. “In tango, I call it ‘Giving and Receiving’ rather than ‘Leading and Following’,” she says. “It’s an equal partnership — the only way to achieve proficiency.”

Evelyn stopped competing at age twenty-one for two reasons: she had to earn a living, and she wanted to move on with life. “I didn’t want to become a rink rat — somebody who does not see what’s outside skating. I was there, as they say. But then I really wanted to be an artist and a teacher.” She became an embroidery designer, one of the last ones of this artful trade, but continued to skate and dance on ice until she was forty. A few years later, she started ballroom dancing and immediately achieved gold-level. She began teacher training class and quickly learned both to lead and to follow.

Evelyn as a leader

Taking the lead

In 1992, however, she broke away from ballroom because of its exclusivity, similar to her earlier experience in ice skating, and stopped dancing completely. It took her a long time and several attempts to get into tango, but when she finally did, she was hooked. Having spent the better part of her childhood and early adult years on skates, her body has definitely absorbed a lot more than most dancers, and again she learnt at an astonishingly fast pace.

She believes, however, that you can start to dance at any age. Her fundamental approach is that ‘a person has to stand straight up from their nose to their toes!’ Nevertheless, she knows all too well how much of an effort this can be for a lot of new dancers. “After thirty-eight years on the drawing board, my body has a natural curve, and it is an effort for me to stand up straight.”

She still participates in classes and workshops, never too tired to learn more. “Never put yourself above your level, but put yourself at the lowest part,” she says. “Learning tango is a very long process — and you have to enjoy the journey.”