So what’s with the Bandoneon?

The tone always comes out where you don’t expect it!

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New bandoneon by Belgium maker Harry Geuns.

When I first heard the sound of a dozen bandoneons playing together, I was blown away. It was at the Stowe Tango Music Festival where, at the end of a weeklong bandoneon workshop, the students performed for tango dancers. They played together with the other musicians of a grand tango orchestra: violin, viola, cello, piano and double bass. The bandoneons made the orchestra sound like force of nature. My ears perked up, I stopped my conversation, and leaned towards the stage. I had heard the bandoneon countless times, unwittingly anticipating its characteristic sound in many tango pieces. But this time I was completely unprepared for the gripping sound of twelve bandoneons playing together. It grabbed me from within, sending shivers down my spine on that warm August night. I felt the same excitement that so many tango lovers must have felt before me.

Up to that point I had not paid much attention to this obscure instrument — often disparagingly referred to as ‘squeeze box’ — and I had not known much about it. I knew that it was the lead instrument in Argentine tango, supposedly very difficult to play. And it struck me as odd that bandoneon players would always sit down with a blanket on their knees. Now my curiosity was suddenly awakened, and I wondered what is the bandoneon all about? Where did it come from, and what makes it so powerful? And why has it become the signature voice of Argentine tango?

I started my search by asking my virtual assistant. Our conversation went like this:

Me: “Hey, Siri, what do you know about a bandoneon?”

Siri: “I found something on the web about ‘what is a bundle Nilen’. Check it out”.

Me: “Nope, Siri. It’s called a bandoneon.”

Siri (typing): “It’s called a bundle neon.”

Me: “No, Siri, I’m looking for an instrument in tango that’s called bandoneon.”

Siri: “Ok, I found this on the web for ‘looking for an instrument in Tango it’s called a band one on’”.

This was not going anywhere. I quickly stopped this fruitless conversation and instead turned to real people, trying to obtain some more enlightening information. Disappointed, I found that hardly any of my friends outside tango knew what I was talking about, even the self-declared music experts. ‘You mean an accordion?’ was the closest reply I could get. So I went on to ask some people in tango, but to my astonishment I found that even most seasoned tango dancers weren’t very knowledgeable — or even interested.

Puzzled by so much ignorance, I picked up the phone and called some direct sources.

“Did you know that apparently there are only a few people in the world who know about the bandoneon?” I asked Héctor Del Curto, one of today’s most prominent bandoneon players, nonplussed. “Fewer than you think!” he laughed.

His answer surprised me. Since his bandoneon workshops have a large number of attendees, both participants and listeners, I was expecting him to contradict my conclusion. As a matter of fact, his week-long high-level workshops at the Stowe festival have been so popular that candidates must pass an audition. And the number of prospective candidates applying for a spot keeps growing. On a regular basis even women — still quite a novelty in the traditionally male-dominated tango orchestra — and bandoneonists from as far away as Korea and Japan have become regular participants of these classes, drawing special attention with their outstanding playing.

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Hector Del Curto in action: He’s one of today’s most prominent bandoneonists.

Still, judging by my own experience, the bandoneon remains by and large an unknown instrument. I suspect that there are two reasons for this. Firstly, despite its growing popularity worldwide over the past twenty years, Argentine tango, together with its lead instrument, still represents a marginal phenomenon. And secondly, no other music genre with a broader audience has made use of the bandoneon.

This used to be different during its early days in the 19th century when the bandoneon was widely used for religious and popular music. It started with a clever German by the name of Heinrich Band, a music teacher from the little town of Krefeld, who pursued the idea of a portable and more affordable organ for small churches and chapels. Band worked on developing an extended version of the ‘German concertina’, a free-reed instrument which in turn had evolved from the accordion with bellows and buttons on both ends. He made significant changes to the concertina by extending its keyboard system from 54 to 64 then to 88 tones with 23 keys on the right and 21 on the left. In 1846 Band came out with a 100-tone version of his new instrument and started to sell it in his own shop. He named it after himself: ‘Bandonion’.

How does it work? With a push-and-pull motion the air is forced through bellows and routed through reeds by buttons on either side of the instrument. But unlike the accordion, the buttons of the bandoneon, just like its predecessor the concertina, travel parallel with the bellows. On the so-called ‘bisonoric’ bandoneon each button produces a different note on the push and the pull. Greatly preferred by tango players is the bisonoric bandoneon of a type called ‘Rheinische Lage’. This has 142 or 152 tones and buttons which, to make things even more complicated, are not arranged chromatically. And since the left and the right keyboards have different layouts, a musician must therefore learn four different keyboard layouts. No wonder then that it takes time to learn to play. Or, as someone who just recently started to take lessons, put it: “The tone always comes out where you wouldn’t expect it!”

Heinrich Band had intended his small portable organ for religious music, but folk musicians soon found its portability and affordability very beneficial for their own purposes, mainly in local dances and other social events. Thus the bandoneon became a favorite instrument of the then popular music in Germany.

Around the same time, a German emigration wave hit its peak, and it didn’t take long before the bandoneon made its way to the United States, and from there to Uruguay and Argentina. Here it became a favorite with the immigrants, especially in the harbor bars and bordellos of Buenos Aires, where it eventually became the voice of a new form of popular music known as ‘tango’. In the 20th century the bandoneon would conquer the tango world completely with players like Eduardo Arolas (‘el tigre de bandoneon’), Vicente Greco, Ciriaco Ortiz, Pedro Laurenz, Pedro Maffia and Aníbal Troilo as its leading proponents. They would later be superseded by one bandoneonist whose fame would reach far beyond the tango world by showcasing the bandoneon in ways nobody had imagined before: the great Astor Piazzola.

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That’s how a classic Orquesta Típica would look like. Celebrated Juan D’Arienzo’s orchestra played with five bandoneonists.

But why is it that the bandoneon and not the accordion became the voice of Argentine tango? I put this question to bandoneonist Alex Roitman, who himself started out as an accordion player, but who switched to the bandoneon when he discovered Argentine tango. The founder of San Francisco’s well-respected tango quartet Tangonero, he has also become an enthusiastic student of Héctor Del Curto. Most recently he has also participated in the Stowe festival’s highly selective bandoneon contest, where he placed among the top three.

“You can’t do certain things with the accordion,” Alex explains. “Technically, because the bandoneon is a smaller instrument, and the accordion is big.” That means “…you cannot do sharp accents like a staccato [Ed: a form of musical articulation very typical of tango] with an accordion because it just doesn’t move that fast. You have to give it a lot of air and release it very quickly — a movement that can be accomplished with the smaller and lighter bandoneon.”

Then there are the different mechanics. “With an accordion,” Alex continues, “you can’t really do a ‘marcato’ in the way the bandoneon can. It will never sound like the tango articulation is supposed to sound”. [Ed: Marcato is the marking of the rhythm, the chords that fall on every beat.] Because of the bandoneon size one can play marcato so that it is piercing through the melody without overbearing it.

I drill a little deeper and want to know more about the mechanics. “There is a crucial difference in the way the reed is made,” he continues. “In the accordion, every reed is sitting in its own cell and every little reed box – or cell – is mounted in wax. Each reed is therefore isolated from the other reeds mechanically. In the bandoneon, there are several reeds in one metal plate which produces a metallic sound.”

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Tangonero’s Alex Roitman. He played the accordion and switched to the bandoneon when he discovered Argentine tango.

That metallic sound, together with what founder, composer, arranger, lead singer, and now bandoneonist of Berkeley’s Orquesta Z Bendrew Jong vividly calls the ‘whoosh’ sound (a player’s technique of pushing the knees together and thereby releasing the air quickly and forcefully from the bellows) is what produces the unmistakable and unique sound of Argentine tango. “It’s exactly that imperfection of the old-style bandoneon,” says Ben emphatically, “that makes tango sound authentic.” He calls it an effect that can’t be produced by modern instruments.

I’ve heard the same passionate explanation from Alex Roitman and Héctor Del Curto as to why an old instrument is preferable to a new one. Most sought-after bandoneons, such as the Premiere or the AA, date from as far back as the 1930s. Bandoneon players are willing to go at any lengths to chase down an original AA from the first part of the 20th century when they were in huge demand in South America. Until 1948 the small family-run business of Alfred Arnold (maker of the AA) alone shipped around 30,000 of its handmade bandoneons to Argentina and Uruguay. The factory, in the tiny town of Carlsfeld, in the former Eastern Germany, was expropriated in 1948 and ceased to exist. Attempts to continue the tradition with newer materials and techniques at a new location in what was at the time West Germany didn’t produce the same results. Today there are about a half dozen bandoneon makers, three in Germany and two in Japan, and one in Belgium, but true tango bandoneonists claim that the sound of these new instruments is ‘too clean’ and ‘too perfect’ to their ear, possibly because of the use of electronic tuning.

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Bendrew Jong surrounded by members of his Orquesta Z. He picked up the bandoneon out of necessity.

Speaking of which, the tuning and repair of an old-style bandoneon is no easy task. Says Alex Roitman: “There are some little things that I can fix myself, but for major repairs I have to go to Argentina.” Bandoneon repair experts are very hard to find, and most players go all the way to Buenos Aires to get their instrument fixed or overhauled. The good thing is that a decent bandoneon can last for a long time, “just like a car,” says Alex. But like most professional or frequent bandoneon players, he has two instruments, just in case one breaks – something that has happened only once on stage so far. “But you never know!” he laughs. “The most important way to maintain a precious old bandoneon,” he adds, “is to try to prevent it from getting too dry. If it gets too dry, it might crack because the wood shrinks.”

With more and more younger musicians becoming interested in the instrument, the demand for new and easier-to-maintain bandoneons may well grow in the future. But what is the reason for the increasing number of bandoneon players over the last ten to fifteen years? Héctor Del Curto suspects one reason is the phenomenal success of the show Forever Tango, which has led to the spread of the dance all over the world, and with it an increasing interest in the music and finally also in the bandoneon.

“When I started playing,” says Héctor, “there were about ten serious players.”Today’s tango orchestras in Argentina can now choose from a much larger pool of mainly younger bandoneonists.” Hugo Satorre, bandoneonist of the successful Orquesta Victoria, recently told me that when he started to play less than 15 years ago he was one of only a few, and was consequently highly in demand. Now he has to compete for gigs with younger musicians. But while that might be true in Buenos Aires — the cradle of tango — it doesn’t necessarily apply in other parts of the world. Indeed, when Bendrew Jong’s bandoneon player suddenly died in a car accident no replacement could be found and he had to learn to play the bandoneon himself.

It will be fascinating to see how interest in the bandoneon continues to expand. And indeed, in Germany, its original home, there is now a museum dedicated to the bandoneon: Das Tango- & Bandoneonmuseum in Staufen (https://staufentango.de/tango-bandoneon-museum/).

Maybe in the not too distant future I might even be able to have a more productive conversation about the bandoneon with Siri.

Many thanks to Alex Roitman, Héctor Del Curto, and Bendrew Jong for sharing their knowledge in long conversations with me, not all of which could make it into this article. I’m most grateful for their patience and support in making this article possible.    

Photos: Bandoneon by Harry Geuns, http://bandoneon-maker.com/harry-geuns-bandonions-professional-model/; Héctor Del Curto photographed by Eduardo Milieris; Juan D’Arienzo and his orchestra (photographer unknown); Alex Roitman, photo thanks to Tangonero; Bendrew Jong and Orquesta Z photographed by Frank Tapia. 

The other side of showbiz

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The cast of Love Junkies

 

One rainy evening last January I met with Tiziana Perinotti, a local San Francisco Bay Area artist and tango dancer. She had made a name for herself in the local tango scene in 2014 with an unusual ‘tango musical’ entitled ‘Love Junkies’.

Love Junkies played for three consecutive nights at the American Conservatory Theater’s Costume Shop Theater in downtown San Francisco. All shows were sold out and there was a high demand for more performances. Encouraged by the positive feedback as well as the support of her teachers at the time at the A.C.T., Miss Perinotti was planning to take Love Junkies to more venues. Her goal was for the musical to be performed on Broadway. After its initial success, it looked like Miss Perinotti was well on her way to bigger success. Years of hard work and sacrifice — she had given up her work as an Italian linguist and localization software specialist to pursue her artistic calling — seemed about to pay off. So what happened to Love Junkies after its first successful performances?

As I learned about Miss Perinotti’s unusual artistic path and her tango projects I became curious to find out what had driven her to abandon her daytime job, start an acting career, and produce a costly tango project. But when I tried to arrange an interview, fate intervened — not just once, but repeatedly, and what followed turned into what must now be called Miss Perinotti’s tragedy.

It all began last summer when she was about to renew her efforts to revive her tango musical. She had to rush to Italy to look after her mother who had undergone heart surgery. The recovery did not go as well as she had hoped for, and Miss Perinotti had to extend her stay for another two months. Then disaster struck. The day before she was scheduled to return to California she was run over by a careless bicyclist on a street in Rome. The accident left her severely injured. She recalls losing a lot of blood on the street and being rushed to the emergency room where she was diagnosed with several broken bones and patched up for a fourteen-hour flight back to San Francisco. Not feeling better after her return she went to San Francisco General Hospital, where more fractures were discovered, twelve of them in her face alone. Then, as her fractures began to heal, she found herself struggling with nose bleeding, disabling migraines, and PTSD. Given her state of health and her long absence, acting and modeling jobs were now becoming hard to find, and there was little thought of getting back to her tango musical.

Finally, on that rainy evening in January, we sat facing each other in the lobby of the Sir Francis Drake hotel. Miss Perinotti seemed to have gotten herself together again after her accident a few months before. Her face had regained its natural contours and her skin showed a healthy glow. She was keen and seemed ready to get back to work. She had begun applying for all kinds of jobs to recover from her financial losses in order to pay for her medical bills, and she had also started to pursue her tango project again. In the hope of winning the public’s interest with this story, we concentrated our conversation on the tango musical. So I finally asked her the question that had been on my mind for months: ‘What happened to Love Junkies after its first successful performances? And what drove you to write a so-called ‘tango musical’ in the first place?’

It had started during a visit back home in Italy in the summer of 2008, she recalled. At the time she was fairly new to tango and, like many tango novices, she had become mesmerized by this new world.

“That’s when you have to do things like that, right?” she asked, “— when you’re new to something.” So she wrote down some personal notes on tango, a loose story, just for herself. While writing she had a vision — she confided — about her fellow countrymen a hundred years ago who had gazed over the ocean just like her, dreaming of a better life in Argentina, and who finally travelled to this new promised land where, feeling lonely and longing for their families, they had created a new dance: the tango — the same dance that had captured and consoled her in California. With these parallels in mind, she continued to write.

It was not until a few years later, after she was admitted as a student to San Francisco’s A.C.T., that her acting teacher encouraged her to develop work on her notes and turn them into a play. What had started as a vague idea, a loose draft, eventually turned into a detailed script.

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Tiziana Perinotti with two of her cast members.

Rather than a succession of danced pieces, such as occur in the Broadway extravaganza Forever Tango, Love Junkies has a storyline. It is a complex tale of several ‘love addicts’ each with different backgrounds, who are struggling with their relationships and their purpose in life. They are all looking for a higher calling by plunging into the seemingly more rewarding world of tango, only to find themselves eventually entangled in new twisted situations and relationships which complicate their lives even further. In this intricate plot, set in San Francisco, Buenos Aires, and Rome, real characters and real places are skillfully interwoven with fictional ones. At the center of it all is the story of the last months of a fictional character based on the late tango legend Omar Vega, who passed away in 2008. This character is surrounded by people drawn to tango by Vega’s aura. Vega’s untimely death at age 50 and the sad circumstances surrounding it are just a small part of the musical. In Miss Perinotti’s own words, “Vega is the symbol of all struggling artists who, regardless of their talents and the sacrifices they have made to share their gifts with the rest of the world, are not even given a chance to survive.” The main focus, however, remains on his followers, whose real life issues remain unresolved. As a result Love Junkies does not have a happy ending. It is, rather, a tale of the seductive appeal of tango and the sometimes painful lessons it teaches us.

Miss Perinotti’s story is drawn from the wealth of her own experiences, both as a performer and as a social dancer of tango. In it she addresses many aspects and temptations of this multi-faceted world and describes, very credibly, how it often leads to confusion and misinterpretation. Watching the musical on video recently, it struck me that it was a retelling of a very personal part of her life — as if she had made it her mission to tell everything she had experienced and observed in tango. Not only was she the show’s writer, director, and producer, but she also played one of its lead characters, dancing, singing, and playing the flute on stage — a truly mammoth task. Even the funding for the production of the tango musical, which included renting a rehearsal space week after week as well as the theater for the performances, had come exclusively out of her own pocket. She had selected the cast mainly from the local Bay Area tango community, some of them professional dancers and musicians, others being competitive and high-level dancing amateurs. They did not get paid, but put in a lot of time and effort to make the performance possible.

“So then what happened?” I keep insisting. She shrugged. “Funding dried up.” Having exhausted her own budget at a time when public funding for the arts had become increasingly difficult, she was forced to focus on earning money. For the time being the play had to be put on a backburner.

It must have come as a surprising setback, especially in view of the promising success of another remarkable project she had previously produced. She had made a documentary called T for Tango about the first ever official Argentine Tango Championship in the USA organized by the Cultural Department of the City of Buenos Aires, and held in San Francisco in 2011. Over the course of this unique and much-noticed event she interviewed the contestants during the grueling four-day competition and provided interesting insights of the behind-the-scenes-drama and what drives people to put themselves ‘out there’ and take risks.

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The cover of T4Tango, Miss Perinotti’s successful documentary of the first Argentine Tango USA Championship

This highly acclaimed documentary won the 2012 Award Of Merit from the prestigious Accolade Global Film Competition, and was internationally released with Spanish subtitles upon the request of the Cultural Ministry of the City of Buenos Aires. The Swedish Carina Ari Foundation added it to its library for the preservation of future dance research.

Talking about the success of T for Tango and what she had personally learned from talking to the contestants at the time as well as the people behind the scenes, she stated enthusiastically: ‘Follow your dream and you get somewhere!’

In the meantime, as I was struggling to put on paper a story that had deeply affected me, Miss Perinotti suffered another stroke of fate. Her father passed away in Italy and she found herself in the desperate situation of not being able to fly back home for the funeral. Still paying for substantial medical bills from last year, she fell behind with her rent, but she has managed to keep her apartment by depleting her bank account and starting a successful fundraising campaign. She has been applying and interviewing for steady jobs, but has not received an offer despite her good education and experience.

So why does she remain determined to keep pushing for the success of Love Junkies? “It’s my baby,” she replied defiantly. “I’ve taken it that far.” One can only hope that her determination and strength will eventually pay off.

 

Fotos by Howard Ho, Tiziana Perinotti

Tango wins a Grammy!

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.