The tone always comes out where you don’t expect it!
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
“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.
In the summer of 2015 I attended a concert in Berkeley, CA, given by a young and fairly unknown tango group from Buenos Aires, Orquesta Victoria. The music they performed that night at Berkeley’s well-known performance venue, Freight and Salvage, struck me as unusual and fascinating. It had a strong message and was delivered with the kind of verve that comes from deep down inside. It was not your usual Argentine tango music. There were a few performances by local professional dancers, but their dancing just underlined the message of the music and was almost a distraction from the band’s performance. The orchestra had just arrived from Argentina on their first tour in the USA to promote an album that they had recorded by San Francisco composer, Debora Simcovich.
Simcovich herself is from Argentina, having barely escaped her home country shortly before the 1976 military coup which lead to a dictatorship that lasted until 1983. Recently she connected with this young group from Buenos Aires which plays the music that people of her generation were either not able to play or not interested in playing. Earlier this summer I became interested in Simcovich’s background and interviewed her. What I learned about her story – of being an Argentinian composer with a Jewish background and now living in San Francisco – was so captivating that we ended up talking for four hours. Needless to say, only a fraction of what I learned that evening made it into my blog: https://andreastangosite.com/2016/06/30/music-with-a-punch/.
She told me that the orchestra was in the middle of recording her second album, El Mundo is the World, and that they would return for another tour on the West Coast to promote this new album in November. When I learned later that the band was actually arriving in New York first, and spending a few days there before the major part of their tour began in California, I innocently asked if they were interested in performing in Upstate New York. Their immediate reply was “Yes!” I quickly discussed the possibility of extra performances with my partner and we agreed to look for some New York venues. The National Museum of Dance in Saratoga Springs was quick to host a concert this coming Friday, November 4. Equally keen was the Bearsville Theater in Woodstock, where the group will perform the following evening, on November 5. Since there is a widespread tango community in the Hudson Valley, we figured there would be enough people interested in the rare opportunity to hear a young and authentic twelve-piece orchestra from Buenos Aires. We certainly hope that enough people with an interest in Argentine tango music delivering a strong social and political message will come and listen to what is going to be predominantly a concert, but which will also offer the opportunity to dance.
It’s been a lot of work getting the word out and organizing the upcoming two concerts. Communicating with the group, which is based in Buenos Aires, hasn’t always been easy. But I finally managed to reach the orchestra’s founder and manager, Ezequiel ‘Cheche’ Ordóñez (who by the way is the grandson of chess grandmaster, Miguel Najdorf), and attempted to conduct an interview with him first by Skype and then by phone. Unfortunately, the connection between Woodstock and Buenos Aires was so bad that we could barely hear each other and we finally gave up, agreeing that I would send him my questions by email— to which he then responded in writing.
Here is what he said:
AB: How did you discover tango for yourself?
EO: Like most young musicians in Argentina I first discovered tango through Astor Piazzolla, and then through Roberto Goyeneche, Ánibal Troilo, and Horacio Salgan.
AB: What is your actual musical background?
EO: As a youth I studied classic piano, then in secondary school I studied conducting, and then began my career working as a tango pianist. About ten years ago I began to teach myself bandoneon.
AB: How did you get the idea to form an orchestra?
EO: Like Alejandro Drago (our pianist and arranger) I had a quartet, and we both needed to find a more orchestral sound, above all with more strings.
AB: How do you select your pieces?
EO: In general it depends on the particular project we’re involved with, but we always try to keep the compositions and arrangements in line with the orchestra’s identity.
AB: What is most challenging about managing a 12-piece orchestra?
EO: Everything, hahaha! Transportation, lodging, hospitality — everything is difficult and expensive, hahaha!
AB: Have the members changed overtime?
EO: Yes, six of us have remained the same since the beginning but the rest have changed.
AB: What kind of tango do you personally prefer (traditional/modern)?
EO: Mmmm, traditional, but with more modern arrangements, but still respecting the basic tango style, above all the rhythm.
AB: Tell me how you met Debora Simcovich and how your relationship has evolved?
EO: She heard us in Bs. As. at our milonga at Café Vinilo and suggested we record her music. We listened to her work and it seemed very interesting. From there we became good friends and now we’re presenting a second album of her music.
AB: Aside from Debora’s compositions, have you recorded other tango music?
EO: Yes, a lot. The orchestra already has three other albums of traditional material as well as our own works.
AB: What is it like to perform for a concert audience versus a dance audience?
EO: It’s very different. For a concert we choose a repertoire suitable for the room, for a milonga we pay more attention to rhythm and danceable numbers.
AB: What are your expectations for the upcoming US tour?
EO: The truth is that fortunately this is already the second time we’re coming. Last year everything was marvelous: the theaters, the production, the people, everything. We’re hoping this year will be the same and we’ll be able to return many more times. I hope it works out.
Orquesta Victoria performs at the National Museum of Dance in Saratoga Springs this coming Friday, November 4, at 7:30 pm. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased in advance at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2667881
More information about the event at the Dance Museum can be found at:
Orquesta Victoria performs at the Bearsville Theater in Woodstock the following evening, Saturday, November 5, at 8 pm. Tickets are $20 in advance and $25 at the door. Advance tickets can be purchased at http://www.ticketmaster.com/event/000051354C12D993
More information about the concert at the Bearsville Theater can be found here: http://www.bearsvilletheater.com/events-calendar/orquesta-victoria
Most people associate tango music with a form of dance. That’s not necessarily so. Tango music can be a pure musical pleasure, an exciting listening experience, but hard to dance to.
Take for example Débora Simcovich’s compositions. If you happened to catch one of her concerts last summer in the Bay Area, performed by the acclaimed Orquesta Victoria from Buenos Aires, you will have noticed that a lot of her songs were not very danceable. They do not speak of love and broken hearts — in contrast to most of the popular tango music that we hear at dance halls and clubs, usually from a male perspective and delivered by a male singer. In her music she speaks of her own reflections on life, and she addresses issues of social or political nature. “My music has content,” she says. Her focus is on the message and she delivers it with a punch — a skill which she learned in her younger years by writing jingles for ad agencies — and she delivers the punch regardless of whether the music is danceable or not. So it’s not surprising that Simcovich’s tango music is more popular among classical concert audiences than in the world of dancers.
In Se te va la costumbre, one of her early compositions and the opening song of her 2015 album, La media cuadra inmortal, for instance, she talks about how people are getting used to being oppressed without realizing it. The song is basically a reflection of her own observations during the military dictatorship in Argentina when superficially life seemed to remain the same while political oppression and injustice destroyed the country and its people’s lives with Nazi-like methods.
The song was written more than three decades ago, but ever since she has continued to address political issues in her tango music. Listen for example to one of her latest compositions, Alberto, in which she tackles yet another controversial topic. The song is dedicated to Alberto Nisman, the Argentinian federal prosecutor who was killed in January 2015 while investigating the bombing case of the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina, the equivalent of the Jewish Federation in the US and umbrella organization of all the Jewish institutions in Argentina, back in 1994. The topic is highly controversial not just in Argentina. Simcovich dedicated her piece only later to Nisman, when she realized it was really about him, and then added the lyrics. Her musical composition was praised by its own merits by Orquesta Victoria, who recently recorded Alberto at a studio in Buenos Aires as part of Simcovich’s new album, El Mundo is the World. They felt it was a very powerful composition which stands by itself musically and conveys the tragedy that inspired it – so powerful that the musicians even preferred to leave out the lyrics. The tango with the lyrics, however, will be performed during the upcoming tour in November in the United States on a promotional tour for the album. Aside from ten of her original compositions, the new album also contains two classics from the 1930es which Simcovich completely recreated; she even translated the lyrics into English.
This will be the second time that Orquesta Victoria releases an album with tango music written by Débora Simcovich. This group of twelve young, energetic, and classically trained musicians seems to have a magical connection with the Buenos Aires-born composer. She discovered the orchestra by chance one night a few years ago when helping a stranger to find her way on a visit to her native city. “There I stood suddenly,” she recalls, “listening to these young people playing tango! They were the same age that I was when I had to leave Argentina. And now they could play the music that at the time we didn’t play because people my age just were not interested in it.” It was an emotional moment for her.
But even deeper connections came to light during the following days: The orchestra’s leader, Ezequiel “Cheche” Ordoñez, turned out to be the nephew of one of Simcovich’s childhood friends — a daughter of celebrated chess grandmaster Miguel Najdorf. As a child, Débora frequently went to the Najdorf house to do her homework and to play with both daughters. On these occasions her father would see the famous chess player. Both men shared the same roots: both were Jewish and both had left their Polish home country.
She calls it intuition. “Everything in my life is intuition,” she says. “I’ve always followed my intuitions, in my compositions as well as in my life.”
She recalls how she started composing music when she was only six or seven years old and how, at the time, being too young to read or notate music, she intuitively composed in her head and then played it on her guitar and sang. That’s pretty much the way she has been doing it ever since: “I’ve always been an intuitive composer.” Then poetry entered her life. During her high school years she enrolled in playwright classes and began writing poems. But it was not until one of her early mentors, a producer at RCA records, encouraged her to ‘put music into her poetry’, that she actually started to compose her own music for her poems. Now when she composes, she says: “The music and the lyrics come together at once.”
In doing so, Débora Simcovich faces several major issues: Firstly, she is a female composer in a macho world where women traditionally don’t have a voice; they are being talked about, sung about, and they are the subject of almost every song in Argentine tango. Women dance and sing tango, but women, at least in the early days, did not write tango — and this stigma still prevails. Secondly, Simcovich is a Jewish woman in a society where anti-Semitism is still widely predominant (see the above-mentioned bombing of the AMIA), which is quite bizarre especially in the world of tango where many of the early tango musicians were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. They had received their classical musical training in countries like Russia and Poland and had a great influence on the tango music of their new home country, Argentina. And finally: “People want to listen to the music that they already know,” says Simcovich. Meaning that people are not really open to new forms of Argentine tango, such as her own compositions.
Still, that doesn’t stop her from doing what she feels is her responsibility as an artist. She recalls her humble beginnings as a ‘cultural ambassador’ of Argentina, touring US colleges and universities with her own tango compositions. She had saved about fifty pieces of her own work and took them with her when she left Argentina hastily on a military plane, two weeks before the military officially took over. The bizarre story of her narrow escape was a result of yet another intuitive action of hers: she had claimed to be the niece of a high-ranking officer with a mission to tour Latin America with her tango compositions. It worked. They flew her to El Salvador the following day and she gave her first concert at the Argentinian Embassy. Then she indeed was on a tango tour through several countries, sponsored by university and other cultural programs, and eventually ended up in the United States. But she soon got bored and felt misunderstood by her audiences: “People outside Argentina didn’t really understand tango,” she says. She stopped and turned towards a different career. But when, a few years later, she was asked to perform one of her songs with Dr. Loco* at a Peña, a gathering of musicians in San Francisco’s Mission District, she received such an overwhelming response that she knew: “People need it and you have to give it to them! Their lives are enhanced by my music!” It may not be as much for dancing as some of the songs of the Golden Age, but it’s certainly great tango.
*Dr. Loco’s Rockin’ Jalapeno Band is a local San Francisco band whose mission is to keep Chicano music alive.
All photos by Paula Abramovich
The other night as I drove home after what had felt like a lukewarm milonga I kept wondering why the spark had been missing. I had arrived eager to dance, had immediately spotted some of my favorite dance partners and, after chatting with some long-time acquaintances, had positioned myself strategically so that I could be seen easily and, hopefully, asked to dance. But scanning the dance floor, I could tell that the energy was low. Most couples were sitting at their tables looking bored and seemed not inclined to get up. The ones that actually did dance somehow appeared a bit strained. My favorite partners didn’t seem to be eager to make a move, and when I was finally asked for a tanda, we didn’t really connect and enjoy the dancing. Then it finally dawned on me: it was the music! The music didn’t feel right. The songs were a mismatched mix of different styles, vocals and instrumentals, Nuevo and Golden Age, no highs, no lows, and didn’t inspire me to dance. I gazed over at the DJ, a popular local teacher who frequently spins the music, but that night he seemed to be paying more attention to his peers than to what was happening on the dance floor. He just seemed to be running down his playlist without observing the dancers.
After an hour and a half or so I gave up. On my drive home I thought wistfully of one of my favorite DJs whose milongas I always enjoy. As if by magic, she gets everybody (including myself) up and has us dancing all night, providing good energy with her music. People both on and off the dance floor usually seem to have a good time. Wherever she plays the music, whether it’s at some of New York’s popular milongas, other venues outside the Big Apple, or at intimate tango festivals, her milongas guarantee a great dance experience. So when we recently met, I decided to ask her: “What is your secret to a crowded dance floor? How do you get people to dance?”
My rather direct question sparked an hour-long passionate conversation.
The first thing I learned was that making tango music is not simply a question of making a playlist the night before and then going off and playing the music. Setting the right tone for the night seems to be the bottom line. The music should be chosen not just by name or composer, but by listening to it. A good DJ decides what feeling he or she wants, and then picks the songs.
It sounded simple, but it couldn’t be the whole recipe for success. I thought of cooking — a terrain with which I’m more familiar than the spinning of tango tunes. If you just follow the recipe in your cookbook, then your favorite dish probably turns out to be okay. But once you’ve peeked over your mother’s shoulder and watched how she adds her own personal touch of flavors and spices, and how she tweaks it, you know why it has become your favorite dish.
So I tried applying that to playing tango music. I kept prodding for more information: “So how exactly do you do it? What is your recipe for success?” I got a smile and then finally I learned that DJs usually have to play the seven standard composers: di Sarli, d’Arienzo, Pugliese, Troilo, Canaro, Mores, Biagi. I interrupted: “But since these composers are so well-known and have been heard so many times, doesn’t that get lame? What about all the other thousands of tango pieces?”
I was instructed that the secret lies in how to mix them. “Aha!” I thought. “So it is just like cooking!” Apparently, people want to hear music that they know. They want to choose their preferred partner for a certain kind of music. Most DJs play the hits, but their success with the dance crowd depends on how and when they play them and how they build them up. There are different ways to work the crowd, and I have observed that some DJs do it by watching how many people are on the dance floor, watching their faces and their embraces, and noting if there are good dancers on the dance floor. You can also tell by how dancers walk off the floor.
I’m interested about the significance of the cortinas since I’ve noticed that a lot of people actually dance to them. That they are very important because they set the mood is what I learn next. For example, it makes sense to play an emotional cortina after an emotional Pugliese.
A good way to get people into the mood is by starting the night with something upbeat, a tanda that is not too fast. This is also a good time for the DJ to get onto the dance floor and spend the first few tandas dancing to see if the sound works.
One thing is for sure, if you’re a serious DJ, preparing for a milonga is quite a lot of work. My interlocutor, it turns out, prepares for each milonga meticulously, listening to the first minute of each song to get a feeling for it, and knows intuitively the first and the last song of a tanda before she chooses the other pieces. During a milonga, if the mood is cheerful enough, she sometimes mixes up the classic formula, which is tango-tango-tango, followed by tango-tango-waltz, and then tango-tango-milonga. Occasionally, she uses large flipcharts with the names of the composers of the tandas. And at the end of the night she goes back to the music and goes over the playlist to see what worked out.
Argentine tango music speaks to people all over the world, and most of them don’t know the words. The late tango singer Alberto Podestá supposedly said that tango never sounded foreign to him. It’s a feeling, but learning the words adds a whole new dimension. So she has made it a habit on her long drives to events to listen to one piece over and over again to learn the lyrics.
I’m impressed at how organized she appears. Apparently, it hasn’t always been like this. She recollects that in the beginning, she listened to CDs from her first tango teacher. Then she inherited a massive music collection from another big tango star, but still knew little about the music. Gradually, she worked her way into the depths of tango music, first by listening to classic tango, discovering the rhythmic music of d’Arienzo, taking notes. That’s how she discovered for example the thundering bass with di Sarli’s left hand on the piano, and that’s how she learned to identify the sound of each orchestra. And that’s how she put the tandas together — not by the names, but by their sound — for example, high sound, deep vocal, bandoneon.
Discovering tango celebrities like Stephen Brown, Michael Lovocah, and Keith Elshaw, and how they played music has opened the eyes of many DJs. For many, however, the greatest influence comes, not surprisingly, from the DJs in Buenos Aires. One American DJ told me of an experience that happened after having been asked to play the music on a Monday night at Salon Canning. The famous dancer Graziella Gonzales came in, and the DJ understandably became a bit nervous. But at the end of the night, as everybody was leaving, the DJ was introduced to Graziella who said: “So you’re the one who kept me up all night!” Apparently, the music had been played right!