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Seduction By Dance.

Astor Pizzolla and Tango

Maxwell Chandler

Although one of its several comebacks is not that old, true Tango is quickly being usurped, not by another musical form or even an artistic evolution, but by a few mere components of its form. A few elements of Tango are being used to convey that Tango feel which is usually a by-word for exotic or erotic. This is mainly occurring in movies, television and on Tango compilations. The music, to the laymen may have “that feel,” but it is often overblown, over simplified, the strings taking on an almost synth like cadence as can be found in a Las Vegas show or bad karoke bar.

Real Tango is never merely background music. Real Tango is a rich tapestry woven of improvisation, tradition and the intellectual souvenir of an emotional landscape traversed at the moment of any given time during a piece’s performance.

The word Tango itself refers both to the music and dance, some would say the lifestyle too. This, it shares with its equally alluring cousin Flamenco.

Tango has often been said to have started in bordellos. This overly simplified origin is to some extent, inaccurate.

The folk dances such as “La Contre Dance”(France), “La Zarzuela” (Spanish) and “Di Tarantella” (Italy) were all dances and musical styles which often were done at festivals and celebrations in which people of all classes could participate. All possessed elements and aspects of forbidden emotions and intent, forbidden, yet temporarily allowed at these specific musical moments.

Like these musical counterparts, Tango provided a soundtrack for moments of permissible eroticism and longing. It offered the lower classes a fleeting distraction from life’s monotony and hardships.

As a coherent art form, Tango’s birth can be traced back to around the 1890’s, and the working class neighborhoods of Buenos Aires and Montevideo.

In the early days of Tango, most of the instruments were portable and played in smaller ensembles than what was to come. The readily available aspect combined with the music’s celebratory festival aspect which, over time has morphed into the simplified bordello origin.

The exact measure of each of Tango’s base elements is not easy to define. Within are components of European classical, South American Milonga and African poly-rhythms. This combined with even more infectious rhythms and some aspects of salon chamber music

Once Tango again applied a thin veneer of respectability over its more revelry origins, there came an established instrumental line up. Most commonly it was a sextet which had violins, double bass and two bandoneons. Occasionally too, there would be flutes and guitars. The complete portability began to be lost even as indoor concerts and dances adopted this new music.

One of the key sounds associated with Tango is that of the Bandoneon. This instrument which looks like an accordion, is actually a free reed instrument utilizing buttons instead of keys, invented in Germany by Heinrich Band. Initially it was meant to be used in lieu of an organ for religious ceremonies by German settlers. In the early part of the 20th century it was brought to Argentina.

Originally Tango was sometimes referred to as Criollo Tango. Like jazz today, there are now many sub-genres, each with its own rules and rituals. Argetine Tango is the one most directly descended from the first, original Tango form.

Tango and its various styles are said to have had several “ages.”

La Guardia Vieja (The Old Guard 1900-1920): This music includes sung and instrumental songs. The bands were of the earlier instrumental configurations, few of them utilizing the bandoneon. The first Tango recorded happened in 1920, played by Angel Villoldo in Paris. Argentina at this time had no proper recording studio. World wide, Tango was introduced this same year when silent film star Rudolph Valentino danced it in one of his films, tantalizing the rest of the world with its poetic portrayal of desire as executed by both music and dance steps.

La Guardia Nueva (The New Guard 1920-1940): Formal dance moves are first established here. The poetics of both desire and passion are established. Instrumental pieces are pushed to the forefront of popularity. Composers and musicians begin to split into two main camps flouting the importance of Traditionalism or Evolutionism. The artisitic evolutionist sought to add a more current vernacular to the art and Astor Pizzolla was one of their main proponents.

La Post-Guardia Nueva(The New Post Guard 1940-1960): Sometimes referred to as “The Generation of 40’s.” This is Tango as it is most often still heard today. This is where many of the standards entered Tango’s lexicon.

El Nuevo Tango (The New Tango 1960-now). This is Tango as it observes more outside influences besides those already diverse ingredients which initially contributed to its make up.

Twice in its history Tango largely disappeared, and both times it was due to a depression combined with political upheaval.

In 1929 a depression hit along with a regime change from then leader Hipolito Yrigoyen. Then again, in the 1950’s another depression and a post-Peron government which banned Tango as too easy a way for the working class to congregate. It did not start its second cultural comeback until the 1980’s.

The different ages and instrumental line-ups may seem overwhelming to someone interested in delving into the world of Tango. Really, it is no different than becoming a jazz fan. Jazz has all its many genres and sub genres and jazz is far more fluidic, each of it’s schools or movements lasting for far less time than Tango’s various ages.

Like jazz too, there are recordings from the art’s start. The music is interesting, shows where the music had been and in some cases offers up compelling moments, but much like listening to Satchmo’s Hot Fives recordings, there is a degree of separation between artist and audience. The music has its moments, but very much sounds and feels like it is coming to us from another time and thus another world. Early Tango recordings can posses similar properties.

A picture of Anibal Troilo and his band

The best place to start on your Tango journey would be with Anibal “Pichuco” Troilo (1914-1975). He was the definitive bandoneon player of his generation. He first started to play when he was only ten years old. He bought his first bandoneon for 140 pesos on an installment plan (14 installments). After the fourth installment, the shop keeper died and no one ever kept up the collection. He used this same instrument for most of the rest of his life.

Originally he had an orchestra which was highly in demand and emphasized the dance aspects of the music. By the 1950’s he moved into a more pure art phase.

He often played, eyes shut, bent forward. There is now a style of playing or “school” named after him. He could play suspended notes then quickly switch to a staccato attack never loosing articulation. There is often something lush and melancholy in his music.

He wrote many modern Tango standards. In his lifetime he made some 486 recordings including the still popular Tango standard Toda Mi Vida.

Composing and playing aside, he also had genius for picking his musicians one of whom was Astor Piazzolla. There are not many bad moments to be found in his recorded oeuvre, mainly because he always refused to allow record companies to dictate program.

Astor Piazzolla and his bandoleon

Astor Piazzolla was born in Mardel Plata on 1921. (d 1992). As a child he was moved to the Bronx, New York. At 15 he was asked by Carlos Gardel, known as “The Song Bird of Buenos Aires,” to appear in a film with him playing bandoneon. It worked out so well that he then asked Astor to tour South America with him, which Astor declined. On that tour, the plane carrying Carlos crashed killing all aboard. Astor returned to his native land. He played with various bands there until 1939 when he joins Pichuco’s orchestra. He was one of the arrangers for this band, and his work was considered “too advance” always being altered to allow for people to dance.

He left Pichuco and played for two years with a singer. He then had his own ensemble but shortly breaks that up too, as he obsesses with creating a new sound to go with the nascent ideas of a mélange made up of extended suite-like pieces, tango and 20th centaury classical. In his quest, he contemplated forsaking the bandoneon and devoured jazz records and those of Stravinsky.(1954) His three piece symphonic work “Buenos Aires” is performed and wins him a prize, part of which was a scholarship to formally study in France with Nadia Boulanger. Her encouragement allowed him to finally find his way, merging the Tango with all that he had been absorbing, in an organic way.

This is the start of a life long aesthetic. From here on, Astor would mix all that excited him, always making it his own. He would write symphonies, tone poems, Tangos and even an opera. Over the course of his career he would collaborate with singers, poets and jazz musicians (Gerry Mulligan, Chic Corea, Gary Burton). To mirror his varied output he would change the make up of his many ensembles too, using various configurations which embraced traditional instrumentation with newer possibilities, such as electric guitar.

Astor Piazzolla is probably the best known composer/musician now associated with the Tango. Besides talent and a varied catalog, he benefited from being around at the time of quicker, easier travel and also the age of multi-media. His works still sound new, not just because of their artistic complexity, but because many were written and recorded well into our lifetime.

CD art

A good recording to start with for those who are wary of taking the Tango trip is The Lausanne Concert ( This is a live recording from 1989 of Astor with an ensemble featuring piano, electric guitar double bass, cello and Astor on bandoneon.

The sound fidelity is very good, not having any of the faults of some live recordings. This Tango is less dance oriented than some of what else one may find in Astor’s catalog, but it is perfect place for anyone who already has a taste for jazz or 20th century classical to start.

All the piece have a complexity and emotional depth which is awe inspiring. When I first got this CD I immediately liked it, but after repeated listening, I now treasure it. Like the best albums or pieces of music, one can discover something new with each listen. Yet this album does not require a silence to fall over the room to be enjoyed.

Some of Astor’s most popular pieces are played here. The nature of the music means that each time Astor has played a piece, it is changed or has a different voice than previous times. Even with his suite pieces, Astor always wanted to keep the complexity but never overly sanitize them, make them “too written out.” A similar attitude was held by Charles Mingus and his extended orchestral pieces. Complexity which still allowed for spontaneous in the moment creations.

The only draw back with this album was lack of any real liner notes. There is a paragraph obituary for Astor and two paragraphs about the richness of his art’s images.

There are no weak musicians or pieces on this album. All the pieces are of generous length. What still continues to amaze me is how within one piece, the mood and sounds can change, drastically but without effort.

One of my current favorites is the first track Tanguedia 3. The piano plays a pattern similar to the bandoneon and to which the guitar joins in echoing the other two instruments. Then the piano switches to a discordance which bubbles up and then drops out giving off a sort of menace. The violin comes in offering an imitation of a siren’s frantic cry.

Not just with the first piece, but throughout the entire album the piano offers up such varied timbers and emotions one would think several players were sharing the bench. Sometimes the piano has a John Lewis chamber (modern jazz quartet) jazz feel and at other times there is a modernist discordance which greatly adds to a piece with its appearance.

The composition Adios Nonino which Astor wrote for his father upon his death is also here. The piano intro has galloping frenzies and swells which could easily belong to some of the solo piano pieces by Franz Liszt. When the bandoneon comes in the drums do an odd beat and the violin quickly does a waspish lick. Then the piece morphs again as a cello sweetly sings over the now steady violin. The piece changes several more times before coming to an end.

What is interesting is this concert had some definite classical elements to it, but it is not like tone poems or programmatic music where you loose or miss something if you do not know “what it is about.”

Also unlike some classical music which I enjoy, Chopin’s Nocturnes, chamber quartets of Debussy, these pieces do not feel out of place to listen to while driving down the road on a sunny day.

This is not straight out Tango as one might see in a movie (scene). Yet, it is. It is Tango, It is jazz, it is classical, it is Astor.

I am away for the long holiday weekend. Myself, among crowds of the well heeled in simple sun dresses and Lacoste, their sandals beating out a rhythm on the cobblestones of the plaza as they make their way to dine on seafood alfresco. I find a hole in the wall bar. The type I like, with no name, full of old timers serious about the art of the tale and the perfect drink with which to accompany it.

The cigar smoke is the silvery hue of a movie screen onto which this scene is projected. The trio of women sitting by the piano, their unrefined beauty and relaxed manner let me wordlessly know they are locals. Not knowing how things work, I order my drink from the counter, the bartender with his bar-towel epaulette nods with approval, my choice of a drink, bourbon, neat.

The place is small so it fills up fast. I share my table, an old man with a case of peeling vinyl. He buys another round, excited to discover I know the difference between and accordion and his bandoneon. A nod from the bartender, he pushes his chair back, someone with a clarinet stands behind him as they begin to play. One of the girls wants to dance with me, I nod “yes.” As I get up the old man leans forward.

“Remember it is the kiss at the end of the dance which is the appetizer.”

The kiss

-Maxwell Chandler-

Maxwell will return soon with more adventures in sound.

© Winamop 2006