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

Piazzolla

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

 

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

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

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

Simon Collier

Simon Collier

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

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

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

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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.

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An Argentine Tango Orchestra in Upstate New York

An Argentine Tango Orchestra in Upstate New York

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:

https://www.evensi.us/orquesta-victoria-at-the-national-museum-of-dance-national/187993126

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

Music with a punch

Music with a punch

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.

 

debora-grammys

Composer Débora Simcovich

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.

 

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Buenos Aires-based Orquesta Victoria: on tour in the US again with new music by Débora Simcovich in November 2016

 

 

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

 

Playing it Right

Playing it Right

 

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!

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