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!