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.
‘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.
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.
When, a few weeks from now in the heat of the South American summer, the lights go up in the Centro Cultural Kirchner in Buenos Aires, one of the most unique music competitions will begin: the first ever International Contest for New Tango Ensembles. Ten out of an initial fifty-five orchestras from nine different countries will enter the stage of the CCK — the biggest cultural center in Latin America — to compete as finalists in a musical genre which, until not too long ago, has been seen as a thing of the past. It will be the grand finale of a week-long gathering of tango musicians who will have participated in a study program called Tango Para Músicos.
Musicians from all over the world are expected to attend six days packed with learning and playing tango. Tango Para Músicos will offer these aficionados a broad variety of classes where they will have a chance to study with some of the masters of modern tango, such as bandoneon instructor Eva Wolff, tango singing-instructor Noelia Moncada, and Exequiel Mantega who teaches orchestration. Participants can choose from eighty modules of instrument classes and fifty modular classes for arrangement, composition, production, musical training, and more. The classes are open to basically all instruments, including vibraphone, clarinet, saxophone, and, of course, all string instruments. In past years even two ukuleles have participated. Drums, on the other hand, have not been part of the course (yet). The public is invited to attend free nightly concerts, milongas, and practicas.
The ‘icing on the cake’, however, is certainly going to be the above-mentioned and much-anticipated International Contest for New Tango Ensembles.
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.
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?”
I’ve been dancing Argentine Tango for about six years, and all this time the music and the orchestras have remained somewhat of a mystery to me. I do understand what it takes to be a good Tango dancer and what to look for when I watch someone perform. I’m far from perfect myself, but I have learned how to walk, how to follow, how to embrace my partner, and how to look reasonably good on the dance floor. I like to express myself to the music and I do have my favorite composers, Carlos di Sarli and Osvaldo Pugliese among them, but my knowledge of Tango music hardly extends past the standard pieces that are played by DJs at most milongas. I’m embarrassed to say that after all this time my knowledge of Tango music is still very basic. There are pieces that make me want to get up and dance, and there are others that don’t speak to me at all, and that I don’t mind sitting out. At most milongas where the usual standard repertoire of Tango music is played I have to admit that I’m quite happy and content to listen and dance to the same “canned” pieces over and over again.
However, I can’t help but be amazed at how the vibe changes when a live orchestra plays. This is how it should be, I then think to myself. This is how it was in the early days of Tango when there was no recorded music, and instead the orchestras were at the center of things and were the real stars of Tango. If you’ve ever watched the YouTube video of Juan D’Arienzo conducting his orchestra (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Z5qEKxfmm8) you’ll understand what I mean.