Fort Bragg — Buenos Aires del Norte

Beach by Fort Bragg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Virgin Redwood Ballroom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weller House

The Weller House Inn and Water Tower.

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

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

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

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

Photos courtesy of Weller House Inn

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