Do boys from Texas get the keys of the pick-up truck the minute they turn 16? Are they soon after, ceremoniously kicked out of the paternal home to the frat house where binge drinking and pot smoking begins to destroy a great deal of brain cells before graduation time? When it comes to well understood arrogance, has anybody ever heard of any 21 year old Argentine ever wanting to go to Texas in search of exotic adventures to then write a book about it? Argentines have learned all there is to know about Texans from Alan Ladd, John Wayne, and Gary Cooper, by the time they enter high school. At 21, they’re still learning about family bonds while living at home with mom and dad. What a bunch of judgmental malarkey, you may say.
A similar silly joke about how Argentines jump from their egos to commit suicide, before the beginning of the first chapter, should be an early warning that Long after Midnight at the Niño Bien by Brian Winter might be about another arrogant, immature American, a Texan in this case, turned travel writer shortly after graduation at age 21 from the University of Texas at Austin. Don’t judge a book by its cover.
Winter writes very well, and the book is a very entertaining fictional essay framed inside the political and financial crisis that brought Argentina to its knees at the end of 2001. Some of the best pages are found towards the end of the book, where his eyewitness account of the protests, repression and eventually end of the De la Rua presidency takes the reader by the hand into Plaza de Mayo. Along the way, “old ladies, men with canes, teenagers dressed all in black, and young fathers with children perched on their shoulders, banging their pots and pans, seemed to be on their way to a midnight picnic.” In reality, Winter realized that he was witnessing the formation of a lynch mob.
Upon graduation Winter decided “to go somewhere that I could have an adventure, where things still happened. Argentina appealed to me because of where it was on the map, at the very bottom.” So with a suitcase full of tango cliches, comic book stereotypical narrative about sociopolitical events, and a made in America conceptualization of the exotic, the passionate, and the mysterious, he arrives in Buenos Aires in 2000. He is genuinely surprised by the modern metropolis he discovers, the really cool people he meets, and the elegance and beauty of the women he sees. The idea of writing a book comes much later.
After being turned down by a number of publishers, the author following some expert advice turned the original self portrait of a gringo in foreign land travelogue, into a fictional “non-fiction narrative of the best of delusional tango cliches.” The formula seems to have some traction because several authors have ventured into the “forbidden” dimension of the tango with a variety of narratives that share a similar outcome. First world gringo pierces the veil of the mysterious and exotic tango, where he or she becomes somebody else until it’s time to go home and proceed to live a preordained American life. While in Buenos Aires he or she successfully receives profuse praises from the natives for the way they act and talk like a porteño, for the way they fit in, and for the way they contribute to the faltering economy of the country.
The book is listed as Tango (Dance) – History, and Tango (Dance) – Social aspects. Here the word history is loosely used in the same context as in the great majority of tango books currently available. The contents allegedly presented as historical facts all fail to follow a time line, lumping entire dissertations without specifically defining when they happened and in which order.
The formula used by Winter is the holy trinity of improbable chronicles of gauchos, African slaves and bordellos repeated by “historian” after “historian” quoting each other, repeating and perpetuating improbable happenings, unverified events, and lacking any shred of evidence. All that with an obsession for mixing their own fantasias with a clairvoyant gift for “discovering” confusing aspects and periods prior to the nineteen twenties.
The temptation to promote this book as a tango history book, or a Cliff Notes on Argentine sociopolitical history is obvious. Tango has become an intangible patrimony of humanity and the need for creating an aura of mystery around a difficult dance to learn provides a good market for those with a story to tell. After more than 15 years working so hard demystifying the tall tales, myths and misconceptions about the tango, is easy to separate fantasy from reality.
All throughout the book the author uses the word “cabaceo” to add an aura of mischievous mystery to the simple act of discreetely nodding from a distance to ask a lady if she is interested in dancing. This has become an obsession for American males as if repeating the word enough times will transform wood into silk. Winter uses and abuses the word misspelling it every time. The word is “cabeceo,” from the Spanish word for head “cabeza.” Not Cabaceo.
But I can be flogged for focusing on the insignificant detail of a misspelled word. Except for the fact that it’s not just the lack of proper fact and spell checking on a book of this kind, it’s the utter self serving delusion of pretending to know without learning, and hoping that those who know, won’t read. Towards the end, after being given the much expected right of passage by his imaginary “milonguero” mentors (“We’ve been trying to corrupt you,” one says in English. “And from the looks of it, we’ve done a fine job.”), Winter declares to have no problem affecting a “cabaceo” towards the opposite side of the room. “She immediately rose to her feet, smiled, and made her way over to me,” he proudly proclaims.
Really Brian? She got up and walked across the floor over to you? Really? Not in your dreams, at least not in Buenos Aires. That alone would be enough to indict the book for impersonating a book about the social aspects of tango, if it wasn’t for perhaps the most glaring and unforgivable error jumping out of page 232.
“Just a year after the last dictatorship collapsed and democracy returned to Argentina in 1983, a group of old milongueros unveiled the production that many still credit with sparking the tango’s renaissance: a Broadway show named Forever Tango.” Ouch!
Brian Winter was barely four when Claudio Segovia and Hector Orezzoli created the show Tango Argentino for a four day performance at a World Fair outside Paris. Segovia and Orezzoli not even in their dreams imagined that the four day run in France would turn into years of touring Europe and eventually land a US engagement under the management of Mel Howard. The show finally opened in Broadway on October 9, 1985. By then the original cast had been recycled, augmented and refined. One can’t help questioning the depth of real knowledge that went into writing “Long After…” or the number of qualified friends who could have proof read the book. Allowing for the literary license that all writers are entitled to, we need to remind ourselves that the moment in time in which the novel takes place was a critical period for many Argentines, coming in the wake of the Trade Center terrorist attacks on 9/11. We can overlook then the attempts to rewrite history or to even invent it, and enjoy a nice novel that could actually have better luck with Sandra Bullock than Marina Palmer and her “Kiss and Tango” book had.
Overall the book keeps a brisk pace, sometimes is even funny, then nostalgic as the reader is privy to the most intimate thoughts that go through the mind of an immature man in the tough, cruel, adult world of the tango. It’s uncanny when he repeats almost verbatim what many American males in tango have been writing in their blogs and Internet tango list servers for years. As if some magic wand had been waved over his prematurely balding head, he is hustled by a young cutie of a dancer who, like many of her generation believe that feeding the fantasy and delusions of foreigners is a compensated humanitarian act, a very profitable one.
There’s pick-up truck driver Brian Winter suddenly given the keys of a rigged Ferrari name Mariela, who drives herself in auto pilot mode making him believe that “at the slightest shift of my shoulders, she would turn. A bit of pressure on her back, and she’d answer with a giro. Indeed, a few times she seemed to anticipate my lead before I even know where I was going. Our bodies lined up with total symmetry; her waist at the same level as mine, her chest resting comfortably on my sternum. All of my usual nervousness vanished. I started taking confident, sweeping steps, practically flying around the dance floor. Was I suddenly this good?”
Lest the fun be spoiled, we recommend that you buy and read the book to find out the answer.
Perseus Books/Public Affairs
2300 Chesnut Street, Suite 200, Philadelphia, PA 19103
Like a meteor shower on a cloudy night, The History of Obsession, a self published, well written book by self proclaimed septuagenarian Virgina Gift, received warm endorsements from friends of the author in Oregon, California and New York but it failed to gain traction among the majority of subscribers to the tango lists from which a large amount of material was harvested. The book succeeds in chronicling in curious ways how a puritanical society built on individualism and self-reliance deals with the inherent intimacy that the Argentine tango demands from those that heed its call.
The author uses a tried and true method of collecting comments and answers to informal questionnaires circulated at tango events in the US, Europe and Buenos Aires. She candidly admits to scribbling quotes on scraps of notes while eavesdropping on other people’s conversations at milongas, classes, workshops and tango festivals. Thus, both credited and anonymous quotations add some degree of immediacy to what amounts to be the best pages of the book. Descriptions of people’s tango experiences make for good reading. Quotes from an Internet tango list server add a colorful potpourri of opinions about the meaning of tango in the midst of endless metaphors of the “tango is like…” variety. Whether the reader is just curious or someone who has actually been around the floor a few times, the body of information reflecting personal experiences is worth reading because it establishes a moment in time and the circumstances when the global expansion of the tango began to take off in the US and around the world.
The author offers a comprehensive description of different tango styles based on a collection of Internet subjective descriptions that attempt to quantify different ways to imitate the dancing of others. This is followed by the announcement that the seemingly unclear controversy about the actual existence or not of something called Tango Nuevo, Nuevo Tango, or Neuvo will be put to a rest by one of the alleged parents of the elusive style. “The New Tango has become so predominantly misunderstood that Gustavo Naveira offered to present his thoughts in his own words on the subject, written especially for this book.” What follows is eight pages written in italics where, under the heading New Tango, Gustavo Naveira suggests that it is wrong to define tango nuevo as a style. That it is “everything that has happened with the tango since the 1980’s” without actually describing what happened, and that “people dance to old music because there is nothing better, therefore the emphasis is really in dancing for the sake of dancing.”
Next Naveira launches into an indictment of “mediocre dancers, trapped in a crude and sentimentalized way of dancing who confronted with the logical impossibility of distinguishing themselves, seek prestige by calling their dancing traditional tango. When facing good dancers dedicated to the development of the dance and showing real ability (the casual reader may not be aware of the tall tale about a research group allegedly led by Naveira for the purpose of investigation, thus the reference to good dancers, development and real ability), these mediocre traditional tango dancers will pigeonhole them with the inane label of nuevo dancers.” The focus of the attack seems to be aimed to “milongueros who have been dancing for four or five years but present themselves as old milongueros given their age.” For Naveira this situation is comical and only found in Buenos Aires, and in his opinion, around the world a tango is danced today “with no relation to Argentine culture, with no knowledge of the music, but most important without the presence of any milonguero authorities.”
An opportunity to acknowledge and accept an educated opinion from a recognized figure is missed because the manifesto comes across as slanted and tinted with resentment at not getting recognition by the “mediocre traditional tango dancers.” Instead, it is presented as the oracle with the ultimate declaration that tango nuevo is interesting in itself regardless of where it comes from, Argentina or anywhere else. That reasoning is supposed to back the concept of the existence of a new tango even when nowhere is there a definition as to what it really is.
Quite often the author resorts to platitudes such as “… tango has a specific goal…”“… the early tangos danced between men represented a sort of duel between male dancers…” or “… because of its powerful demands on the mind leave little room for unrelated thought or emotion, the tango offers a refreshing escape from the worrisome world beyond the dance floor,” in lieu of facts. In the section about The City: Buenos Aires she writes, “In Buenos Aires milongas, once a contract is made by ‘locked eyes,’ it is regarded as extremely rude for a woman to refuse the implicit invitation,” revealing a lack of understanding of the codes that apply to the locals who attend these functions on a regular basis. Locking eyes is not a contract or an implicit invitation. The statement is misleading because it implies that a woman is limited in her choices or actions. She may seem to lock eyes but unless she makes it clear with a nod, a bat of her eyelashes, a faint smile or any other clear sign of affirmation, there is no contract, and there is no obligation for the woman to dance just because she may have accidentally wandered into somebody’s gaze. Nowhere is it explained that the codes of the milongas are part of a tradition, originating in a time before there were tango tourists, and that they are part of a sociocultural behavior agreed to and accepted by men and women when attending the milonga.
Most conversations about the tango turn quickly into platitudes mostly because there is a lack of interest in real history but an abundance of, according to Melissa Fitch, editor of the journal Studies in Latin American Popular Culture and associate professor at the University of Arizona, travel writers, tourists traveling either physically or imaginatively into the universe of the tango whose narratives display a desire to escape, a desire to perform, to be different shedding one’s identity and becoming the “exotic” other. They display the neocolonialist impulse to “discover” the Other, and then share the discovery with other compatriots through writing about it in a book or on tango list servers. What is most interesting to Fitch is how each author places Argentine history and sociopolitical reality within their own grid of intelligibility, which is to say, they base it upon certain assumptions and presuppositions, some conscious, some perhaps not, to create texts that are, in turn, intelligible to their readers.
In the opening paragraph of the Introduction, the author states that “few outside Argentina are aware that the tango had its origins over 150 years ago in the slums of Buenos Aires as a partnered dance between men.” That is followed by exotic and forbidden tales of poverty stricken male immigrants dancing a forbidden dance they invented outside the slums of Buenos Aires. Few outside Argentina, including the author, are aware of the existence of an enlightened, wealthy and cultured porteño society in the nineteenth century. There is no explanation as to why after a half a century of men and women being criticized for touching fingers and even holding each other in an open embrace while dancing waltzes, polkas, mazurkas and habaneras, a group of destitute and disenfranchised foreign men decided to “invent” a dance and only danced it among each other. The History of Homosexuality in Argentina by Osvaldo Bazan offers a plausible and accurate explanation of the conundrum of same sex dancing in a logical and historical way.
After a compact section describing technicalities about the dance where the author’s dancing experience comes in handy, the chapter on The City: Buenos Aires that closes Part 1 starts with a wealth of good information of interest for the tourist but turns into an incomprehensible attempt to stereotype the inhabitants of Buenos Aires. Not just what one may expect to read about tango aficionados, but the entire population and their identity crisis. In trying to explain the cosmopolitan nature of the city, and the influence that Spaniards, Italians and other European immigrants have exerted in the manners and customs of the people of Buenos Aires, the author resorts to offensive characterizations, ethnic jokes and cheap shots at things she obviously doesn’t understand.
“What is an Argentine?” she asks. “An Italian, who speaks Spanish, acts French, and wishes he was English.” “Argentines don’t know who they really are,” an unnamed psychiatrist allegedly said to a visitor. “The resurgence of interest in the tango,” he adds, “arose because the tango is one of the few things undisputed as being one hundred percent Argentine… a national icon.” Never mind that there are countless instances of a totally opposite point of view emanating from the ruling class as well as the blue collar ranks. The poor tango has been the target by association of every racist and intolerant figure of authority since the end of the nineteenth century. At the onset of the 21st century, the tango is a magnet for tourist money and as such the city government has taken it over and made it a brand.
“How do you make money off an Argentine man?” she asks, as she continues with her essay on the people of Argentina. “By buying him for what he’s worth and selling him for what he thinks he’s worth.” “Argentine men like to look good and there is no possible way to look good when learning the tango. Argentine men are too macho to appear in public trying to do something new. If they do try to learn the tango, but don’t immediately ‘get it’, they quit dancing.”Rodolfo Dinzel, a teacher who eventually is revealed as the subject of the author’s infatuation and to whom she dedicates almost an entire chapter, is quoted as indicating that “poor people have pride and like to groom themselves and leave the house clean and well coiffed.” Another doctor from California is quoted as saying that “younger men and women deny themselves food to look the best on the dance floor.”
For Ms. Gift Argentines apparently are mostly concerned with appearance. “Argentine men have always dressed up for milongas, partly to conceal their lower class origins.” Many men also deliberately “don’t color their hair in the hope of being taken for a milonguero,” the author continues without giving due credit to the clueless women who judge a milonguero by the color of his hair.
Stereotypes are at times trumped by misconceptions and the use of a tourist lens to explain something with a subjective slant. Take for example the explanation of the cortina. This is a term borrowed from the old radio days where a distinctive musical interlude served to separate segments of a program. In the dance halls of Buenos Aires, a distinctive musical interlude is played between sets of tango music. This is done to clear the floor so the waiters can take orders and serve people at their tables. Also people use the break to go to the bathrooms, or to walk to the bar to get a drink and get a better vantage point. The author offers the following explanation, “The end of a tanda is marked with a cortina which is a minute or two of non-dance music that cues dancers to leave the floor… to await a change of partners for the next tanda.” Changing partners is a foreign concept in the adult settings of a tango dance hall in Buenos Aires. As with many instances in the book, the author confuses her personal experiences or those of list servers contributors, all foreigners as far as Argentina is concerned, with facts she presents as part of a history lesson to further confuse curious readers.
As the book progresses into the actual “history” chapters, the inaccuracies, prejudices and at times glaring lack of fact checking, are so many that their listing in a critical review might end up looking like a revisionist book in itself. Let’s review a few to make sure readers understand the futility of filling pages with alleged tango history with personal prejudices projected into an improbable period from where there is absolutely no evidence of what was called tango, how it was danced and why. Only those who were alive at the time knew.
On page 221 it says, “A popular form of entertainment was to act out tales of men fighting over honor or a woman in a stylized combat performed as competition among neighborhood gangs.” There is no reference as to when this is supposed to have happened. Those who have seen shows like Tango Argentino, Forever Tango and West Side Story will recognize the choreography of men imitating a fight through a dance. “Bar and cafe owners watched the men dancing in the streets and decided it might be good for business if they danced inside their establishments and drank beverages when they became thirsty. They hired musicians to play tango music to lure the men inside. Waitresses were pressed into service as dance partners, many of whom became fascinated with the dance and turned into skilled partners.” It is obvious that the author ignores the nature of so called cafes, the clientele that patronized these places, and the reason why there were night clubs that featured live orchestras. The author makes use of certain assumptions and presuppositions to invent situations that may be intelligible to her readers, but denotes a total lack of veracity regarding Argentine history and its sociopolitical reality. For the author, dancing tango seems to be the main activity of men throughout the history of Argentina. Women are stereotyped as the contemporary females who look at tango from a complete different prism than Argentine women do. The idea of women as waitresses becoming fascinated with the dance of tango is so absurd except that modern American women do become fascinated by stilettos and choreographed passion on stage. Fascination doesn’t result in acquisition of skills. This is another projection of the author’s personal experiences into an alleged moment in history.
Tales of bordellos, prostitution, women working there as tango dancers when it is well known what the business of a bordello is, abound and for this reviewer eventually offend. The repetition of long debunked tales under the excuse of history is a disservice to anyone wanting to actually to dig a little deeper into what the tango is, where it comes from and what it represents. But nothing is more offensive that the reckless and inaccurate treatment of the period known as the Process of National Reorganization (1976-1983). “The military discouraged tango,” and “To listen to or to dance the tango became even more dangerous,” are just samples of what amounts to lies being repeated without an attempt to use the rigorous verification that history demands.
Journalist Sergio Pujol, author of the book Rock and Dictatorship, was a witness to those hard years and compiled history in the words of the protagonists. On the topic of the dictatorship attitude towards music, he writes, “In music generally, the dictatorship established a regime of tension and harassment favoring some genres over others. It had a cordial attitude towards the tango or some of its representative figures, and a violent rejection of folklore, especially with the so called representatives of the new song book like Cesar Isella or Mercedes Sosa. There was a line of political commitment and many representatives left the country”. The relationship was different with rock and roll. To be a rockero was synonymous of being a rebel. In 2009, the Comfer (Argentine’s FCC) unveiled for the first time a list of songs that were prohibited during the last military dictatorship. There appear works of national musicians like Leon Gieco, Charly García, Horacio Guarany, and of international figures like Eric Clapton or bands such as Pink Floyd and Queen. La bicicleta blanca, a ballad describing the coming of Jesus Christ riding on a bike, with lyrics by Horacio Ferrer and music by Astor Piazzolla is the only song that could remotely be associated with the tango, which is not, among hundreds of banned songs. One thing that was clear is that the dictators had a thing for young people and rock and roll. Something to do with progressive ideas being transmitted genetically from parents to children, which explain why they stole so many children and gave them away to military families for an ideological cleansing. It is a very complex history and the record needs to be set straight about the many lies about the tango during that period.
Enrique Binda and Hugo Lamas write in the first chapter of their book “El tango en la sociedad porteña 1880-1920,” that “the bibliography on tango history is not based in verifiable documentation. It describes improbable events which each writer repeats to their heart’s content thanks to the lack of rigorous and methodical investigation about the topic.”
In the world of tango books there has always been an obsession for advancing reasons and arguments to defend or to persuade what is false. Those who can write the most comprehensive collection of arguments that seem reasonable but are actually false and misleading, fall under two distinctive categories, the innocents and the deliberates.
The innocents deceive themselves, and their fault is logical but non-moral. The deliberates know that they are deceiving, not to themselves because they know the distinction between the truth and the false, but to others. They are not ignorant, they are manipulators. Their fault is not logical but moral.
The History of Obsession, definitely falls right under the innocent category, applying to the history of a foreign country, i.e Argentina, and a foreign cultural manifestation, i.e the Argentine tango, a seemingly similar methodology of collecting opinions, comments and answers to informal questionnaires, scribbling quotes on scraps of notes while eavesdropping on other people’s conversations. That worked very well in Part 1 titled Argentine Tango and divided into four chapters, The Obsession, The Attraction, The Dance, and The City: Buenos Aires.
The book lacks rigorous fact checking, however calling the Malvinas Islands the Maldives is not as bad as bringing them in the first place into a book about tango. As it seems to be the case with a surprising number of tango books that venture into so called history, events and circumstances are presented out of context without any temporal reference to establish when, if ever, they happened. For a historian, time is not only essential, but it is the umbilical cord that ties events to specific moments in time.
The judge tells all Gabriela Elia, was one of of the judges at the Finals of the salon tango competition recently held in Buenos Aires. She is an educator, and together with Eduardo Perez they are the principal dancers and directors of the Mariano Mores’s company ballet. She is also the organizer of the milonga La Baldosa in association with Eduardo Perez, Horacio and Alba Fiorentino.
In an interview that appeared on the September issue of Punto Tango she comments on a variety of issues concerning the salon tango competition.
How is salon tango evaluated?
In salon tango one looks for the presence of tango in the dance. What does that mean? Musical quality, the embrace, the cadence, walking, the elegance, the style and the technique.
How did you see the competition?
I believe that today there is a unified style in what’s considered salon tango. That’s why I want to recognize the milongueros who danced together in an exhibition the day of the finals, there you could see the diversity. This year only young couples reached the finals. That’s wonderful, but they all danced the same way. It is not their fault, it is the style that is being awarded. Everybody who danced different, something that is also authentic and valuable, did not advanced to the finals. Then there was a final with identical tango styles and is therefore very difficult to evaluate.
Is there anything that needs improving?
The salon tango and the stage tango cannot be evaluated from the same distance. The judges were very far. We should have been 10 feet from the dancers, and not to 60 feet. The salon tango is a reflection of the milonga, and as such it has to be appreciated form a close distance. Imagine if they could set up the Luna Park as a real milonga with the dance floor in the center like a boxing ring with all the people sitting around. It can’t be that complicated and it’d preserve the characteristics and the essence of what’s being this evaluated.
Weren’t the rounds too crowded?
There were too many people in each round, 11 couples dancing three tangos is too much. In my opinion they should limit the number of couples per round to eight.
There were some complains about the music used for the finals
If we agree that the salon tango is a representation of the music that’s played at the milongas, then the music selection for the finals left much to be desired.
Tango notation for steps collectors
The purpose of dance notation is to document a choreography for preservation. As such, dance notation may include stage blocking, specific movements for the dancers, and references to the music used and its composer. Pertinent information concerning where and when the piece was performed, and who the dancers were, is also found in dance notations. It could be said that dance notation is like a script with notes for dance historians and choreographers. Another purpose of dance notation is the documentation and analysis of dance in dance ethnology. In Rasche Notation, the book which is the subject of this review, the notation is not used to plan a new choreography but to document an existing dance.The primary use of dance notation is the preservation of classic dance documentation, and the analysis and reconstruction of any kind of body movement. It is used to document choreography and technical exercises in dance forms. Many different forms of dance notation have been created but the two main systems used in Western culture are Labanotation (also known as Kinetography Laban) and Benesh Movement Notation. Labanotation grew from Rudolf von Laban (1879-1958)’s interest in movement, which stemmed from his early travels. He studied architecture and philosophy in Paris and worked as an illustrator before becoming involved in the performing arts. His architectural interests led to his analysis of the spatial structure of movement itself. After publishing a shorthand system for his theories (Choreographie, 1926), he developed a more detailed and more widely applicable notation—one that spelled out the elements that produce movement patterns—and published it in the book Schrifttanz (“Written Dance”) in 1928.The Laban system is an “alphabet” system in which symbols represent movement components through which each pattern is “spelled out.” In standard labanotation a vertical three-line staff represents the performer. The center line divides the staff into right and left columns, which represent the main body parts. The staff, read from bottom to top, is written from the performer’s point of view. Each direction symbol is based on a rectangle and indicates four movement factors. Its shape shows the direction of the movement. Its shading indicates level. Its length represents duration of the movement (the shorter, the quicker; the longer, the more extended in time). And its placement on the staff indicates the part of the body that is in action. Families of signs represent the minor body parts, and additional signs such as pins and hooks denote details modifying the main action.
When it comes to the Argentine tango, the improvisational dance par excellence, memorizing steps has always been the domain of those who approach the tango as the eleventh dance of the ballroom circuit. Even though teaching steps by way of memorization is an inauthentic way to help a student learn to dance the Argentine tango, it is a good source of repeat business. The effect of memorizing the way two feet move, without any context with relation to body alignments and sense of direction, lasts a day or two before all is forgotten. As early as the mid 1990’s many people carried notebooks around the room trying to write down the steps shown by the traveling teachers. Filming videos was not an option. The scribbled notes tried to capture as much as possible of the subjective elements of the dance regarding music, affectations, mannerisms, feelings, as well as the actual steps.
The modern teaching of Argentine tango has evolved into a logical, three dimensional structure based on the concept of the woman dancing around the man in the man’s embrace, and the man dancing around the room while embracing the woman. As the couple progresses on the dance floor the relative position of their bodies has one leg moving inside the embrace and the other one outside. As a result of that, there are only six fundamental movements: a) two openings, one with each leg opening away from the other leg to any point in front, to the side or behind without crossing the line where the standing foot holds an axis, b) two forwards, one with the inside leg stepping on the outside of the partner and one with the outside leg used as steering wheel, and c) two backwards, one straight back step with the outside leg and one diagonal back step with the inside leg.
The man learns to carry the woman, marking one of the six leg motions available to her, and to move, using one of the six leg motions available to him to travel in an orderly fashion around the floor. The woman learns to hold her axis on one leg, allowing the other leg to follow her body which is traveling in the embrace, and to acquire a new axis when the movement is completed . There are no leading steps, or following steps. By nature of the embrace the dancers move together in unison on one beat of the music.
Unfortunately the good teaching of tango is underrated. It has to compete with the urge for instant gratification: to run before crawling, and also with the eye candy temptations that sexy and voluptuous bodies provoke when dancing a choreography for the pleasure of an audience. The “show me the steps” binge leads to the “I forgot/I don’t remember the steps” morning after hangover, and the “toxic” cycle seems to go around like the common cold, with no cure in sight.
Enter German dancer and teacher Thomas Rasche and his new tango notation system ‘Rasche Notation’, which has just been published in a new book. Rasche Notation is a sophisticated dance notation for Argentine tango that makes it easy for step collectors to write dance steps. Steps are written for two dancers. Although it is not specifically expressed, it is assumed that both dancers are fluent in the high level notation language which uses familiar text symbols to describe the destinations of each step, so that they can then be written by hand or computer. This remarkable book closely resembles the tutorials that computer programmers use to learn new high level languages, like Visual Basics or Pascal.
The first chapter covers the basics of Rasche notation: the philosophy of RaNote (how much better it would be if there was a simple way of writing all the steps people learn), what RaNote looks like (four rows with a dividing line, two rows above for music and comments, and two rows below for detailed man and woman steps notation), and understanding RaNote (movement is described as destinations with symbols that represent abbreviated words, using assumptions and notating only unusual elements).
In the second chapter the four lines within RaNote are defined in detail.
The Compass line is used to notate and describe the music with three elements, a) form, the way a piece of music is constructed in various sections labeled A, B, C…, b) phrase, the equivalent of a spoken sentence, identifies one row of notation, and c) audible count, the timing of each step within a phrase.
The Description line contains notes and symbols that relate to the whole dance. For example, the name of steps and musical terms may be included to describe a feeling (vigourous/soft/strong/smooth/accented/sad/joking). A fundamental misconception of the tango (that the shape of the embrace is the origin of various styles) is nevertheless described at the start in terms of open, closed, or milonguero, with additional details about the nature of the lean, and the position of the head. A step sequence or dance phrase also goes into the description line. A summary of symbols used on the description line provides a blueprint for the faithful choreographic imitation of the way somebody else dances, or the perception by the step collector of what s/he thinks s/he is watching and understanding.
The Man and Woman lines carry the step symbols, describing the destination of each step taken by the dancers. Essential symbols are M(an), W(oman), L(eft), R(ight), 1… 12 (directions on a clock face as if drawn on the ground around the dancers), # (close feet), % (step between partner’s feet), C+ (clockwise pivot), C- (Counterclockwise pivot). Complex symbols condense information that contains many movements, such as the steps of a turn. The geometric component phases of each step, collect/balance/projection (including placement of foot)/partial and full weight transfer, are symbols written in lower case.
The third chapter contains a detailed and comprehensive list of diagrams and examples that include, close directions; close steps; giro steps; phases of a step; step symbols; walking geometries; step sequences, and a full transcription of a tango. Here, the complexity with which a simple closing of the feet with or without weight change and the dreaded eight-count-basic with back step are annotated, is akin to explaining how to find the location of the toilet using the logarithm of pi and the coordinates of the polar star. Yet, the considerable time and effort that has gone into quantifying a large collection of steps is remarkable and for many will be a good excuse to add mystery and complexity to the relatively simple concept of tango dancing within a clear structure.
Consider the familiar tango resolution which usually but not always follows a simple salida. The man advances straight forward with his left leg while marking a back diagonal to his left for the right leg of the woman. This clears the path for the man to take a second forward step to the woman’s left provoking a turn to the left, which converts his forward step into an opening to his right, and the woman’s step into an opening in the same direction. They both close with weight change, left to right for the man and right to left for the woman. Finally, the man takes a short back diagonal with his right bringing the woman forward with her left into the original home position from which a new salida or base can be initiated. Let’s see that simple count of four sequence in RaNote,
Man’s left forward
Man’s step right
Man’s left closes
The information on the Description line is repeated on the Man and Woman lines, so it can be removed. Instead a description of the step can take its place. The Compas and Description can be reduced to C and D.
A further reduction into a smaller space leaves a neat and easy-to-read note,
This clever, ingenious and elaborate system for tango steps annotation follows the perceived illusion that the dancers move shopping cart style (man pushing or pulling the woman while keeping her straight in front of him). For example, the second step of the resolution is described as a side step towards 3 o’clock without change in front (R3). Notice that the resolution ends at the closing of the feet rather than with a fourth step to bring the dancers to the home position. This approach makes no distinction between the unique characteristics of each tango step. Forward steps with the right or the left leg are rendered the same. Back steps with the right or left legs are the same. In this system there are no inside or outside legs, straight or diagonal steps. In other words, everything is geometry, with men leading and women following agreed choreography. Thus the annotations. The use of the obsolete eight-count-basic as an accepted sequence of steps betrays a lack of understanding of the fundamental structure of the tango, and it caters to a subset of dancers who collect steps but don’t want to pay for them at a ballroom studio.
The dichotomy of this book is that while it presents a system with a degree of complexity that requires a great deal of thinking and reasoning, this complexity is simultaneously what thwarts most people’s efforts to learn the tango as a dance of improvisation. If people can’t grasp the notion of a simple structure of six distinctive and unique steps used for the purpose of circulation, with the woman dancing around the man and thus executing the code that calls for the trailing leg to alternate crossing inside and outside the embrace, how can they be expected to read, write and memorize a mnemonic language of symbols and descriptions devoid of a logical structure? By the same token, if a person can become fluent in a sophisticated notation language to describe steps they see others do, why can’t they accept and learn the simple foundation upon which the structure of the tango is based?
The Rasche Notation’s attempt to encode many steps collected in group lessons from teacher to teacher, fails to show an accurate understanding of the structure of Argentine tango. It is then almost useless even for historians and choreographers, and is certainly of little value to the social dancer, or to someone wanting to teach the dance.
This being said, Thomas Rasche must be commended for his attempt, and the tremendous amount of work it must have taken to produce this book.
12 Tangos and three sappy stories
Two years after its celebrated release in German and Japanese cinemas, Arne Birkenstock‘s documentary feature “12 Tangos – Adios Buenos Aires” has been finally released for the international audiences in a DVD-edition with a Spanish, German and an English versions and many extras on it. The film is directly distributed via its website www.12tangos.com. This novel approach to film distribution deserves praise for leading the way into new forms of bringing art film to the masses bypassing the profit centers of corporate conglomerates. Through a very aggressive direct email approach requesting help in promoting the documentary the director and producer asked, among other things, for articles and critical reviews.
The film tracks the personal tribulations of two families as they deal with the 2001 economic crisis and the perils of emigration. Daily life scenes acted out by the people in question are interlaced with dance and music scenes filmed at a dance venue called “La Catedral” where an orchestra featuring Jose Libertella, Luis Borda and Pablo Mainetti provide the dozen tangos that serve as bookmarks for the documentary . Singers Lidia Borda, Jorge Sobral and Maria de la Fuente provide some of the best musical moments of film, which includes some of the last moving images taken as well from Jose Libertella and Jorge Sobral.
My expectations were high. The kind of expectations you get when invited to dine at Commander’s Palace‘s kitchen. In paper, 12 Tangos, Adios Buenos Aires promised to be a great documentary. It does have superb photography, the music is very good showing that being modern doesn’t mean straying from the roots. But the main course was just way off the expected culinary feat.
The late Roberto Tonet, a.k.a. El aleman plays a veteran show dancer turned teacher of a young girl preparing to emigrate to France. Along the way Tonet is shown talking to the camera while sucking mate through a silver metal straw. His personal loss of his retirement savings during the 2001 financial crisis is his main story line. He’s also cast as a sort of Jack La Lane, wondering out loud in a lesson on tango fitness if today’s young dancers can twist their bodies and touch the ground with one knee. Yes, they can.
The pitfall of trying to tackle politics in a foreign country is acting foolishly and sounding foreigner. Resorting to outdated cliches is a turn off, and focusing on a handful of stereotypes out of millions inhabitants provides a sappy interlude to a dozen musical video clips.
Mr. Birkenstock lost me the first time the voice over narrator said, “You can find the history of Buenos Aires in the telephone book.” Whatever point he wanted to get across is still a mystery to me, but that didn’t stop him from having the phrase repeated several times during the film. Those who’ll be watching and thinking they are being educated in the socioeconomic strata of Argentine society be aware, immigrants didn’t invent the tango.
The film leaves the impression that Buenos Aires is a collage of shanty towns with elementary school kids well versed in economics. The choreographed milonga setting is fake with music that is never heard at a real milonga. Argentinos have emigrated in masses at various periods in the history of the country, for political and social reasons but never because they have Italians grandparents. And those who stay, thanks God, don’t all dance the tango.
Even in times of crisis, Buenos Aires is an amazing city vibrant and alive with incredible architecture and enormous amount of cultural activities available to everyone at no charge. The people of Buenos Aires don’t consider teaching tango to be a job and those who have a college degree in classical or modern dance have only moved into the tango after the city government took over the business of tango for export.
Realizing that most people wouldn’t understand the disappointment of being served Popeye‘s chicken tenders at Commander’s Palace‘s kitchen, let me say that 12 Tangos, Adios Buenos Aires is a narrow look at a period of real crisis that uses as a background to good musical numbers the sappy story of an obscure tango dancer’s ordeal trying to emigrate to Paris, the non related story of a mother who leaves her whole family behind to go work as a domestic in Spain, and the sad circumstances of Roberto Tonet, having lost his life savings and his home, passing shortly after the film was released. The voice over and the subtitles have softened the stereotypes voiced by the characters in the original language.
Get a copy of 12 Tangos, Adios Buenos Aires and enjoy the music segments, even if you at first don’t get the historical relevance of Maria de la Fuente and Jorge Sobral and the significance of seeing Jose Libertella squeezing and stretching the bellows of his bandoneon. If you can resist the temptation to stereotype Argentines or go off the mouth repeating “tango history factoids” from this film, the tango and those in the stands will thank you.
“It was fashionable at the time after playing a concert to have a question and answer session with the audience. In those days, the early 1960s, the musicians did not look at their watches so much. They were looser. After we played, the coordinator of the event introduced me, I talked about what I thought about tango at the time, and I then asked for questions. In truth, I was unlucky right from the start because I gave the microphone to this guy who looked like a weasel and kept staring at me. The guy stood up and put it to me without blinking: Maestro, now that the concert is over, are you going to play a tango? It was not the last time it happened. Maestro, can you play a tango followed me like a curse.” – Astor Piazzolla
A few months after a stroke rendered Astor Piazzolla unable to recover from a slow and irreversible transition to his death, which finally occurred on July 4, 1992, the sixty-nine year old controversial musical genius told Argentine sportswriter Natalio Gorin a retrospective tale of his life. They met for three consecutive days, early in 1990, in the resort city of Punta del Este in Uruguay. Just before Gorin turned on his tape recorder, he produced an old letter with a very personal line, in Piazzolla‘s own handwriting that read, “Never believe what I tell journalists.” This reminder was a way of making Piazzolla cognizant of a commitment to tell the true story. Piazzolla, who had a tendency, in the style of Jorge Luis Borges, to say certain things for the fun of it, to provoke, accepted the rules. Amadeus Press of Portland, Oregon, has published Gorin’s book, translated, annotated, and expanded by Fernando Gonzalez, a regular contributor to The Washington Post, Down Beat magazine, and National Public Radio, under the title, Astor Piazzolla, A Memoir. Piazzolla‘s untimely stroke before meeting Gorin again to review the material, suddenly left Gorin alone with the work, moved by this blow of fate and with a huge sense of responsibility.
The first version of Astor Piazzolla: A Manera de Memorias (By way of memories) arrived in bookstores in March 1991. People who read it, let Gorin know their opinions in many different ways. After Piazzolla’s death, the book went through a revision, to complete the portrayal of his life, and because it was possible for the author to enrich the memoir with testimonies that are key to the story.
Bringing forth personal memories, experiences, and ideas explored over hundreds of hours of conversations with Piazzolla’s friends, his acquaintances, his enemies, and most of his musicians, Gorin also added a poignant chapter of his own to say good-bye to his idol. Of such treasures, he held back nothing, and it’s devastating.
There can be no doubt about the genius of Astor Piazzolla, the Mozart and Gershwin player of the bandoneon, insatiable composer, trail blazing arranger and demanding orchestra conductor. His work is well known and available all over the world. He continues to be a cult figure for classical and jazz lovers worldwide.
Piazzolla “knew” that his music would be heard in the year 2020, as well as in the year 3000. He knew that his music was different. He believed that he was going to bequeath to history, like Carlos Gardel. He knew that he would endure, because like Gardel, he didn’t consider himself a mediocrity. He made sure to tell Gorin all this, so we wouldn’t forget, “I am a tango man, but my music makes people think, people who love tango and people who love good music. All ballet companies in the world are dancing my works. The jazz people love and enjoy what I do. Chamber groups that play classical repertoire are asking me to write for them.”
In Europe his music has always been respected; not so in Argentina. He was criticized for decades, and he defended himself, he fought, he argued, but, as he tells Gorin, “I had fun. Without realizing it, they (his detractors) helped create Astor Piazzolla’s reputation.”
Astor Piazzolla, A Memoir is the definitive version. It is a great document. It is a must read for everybody who is not afraid to be confronted with the realities of human life and the struggles for survival and recognition.
The book has fourteen chapters plus a postscript, Gorin’s own essay, and a revealing collection of commentaries by Horacio Ferrer (president of the Academia Nacional del Tango, and lyricist for some of Piazzolla‘s most successful ballads), (jazz musician) Gary Burton, Atilio Talin (Piazzolla’s friend, manager and agent for twenty years), and Leopoldo Federico (one of the most forgotten geniuses of the bandoneon, who played along with Piazzolla, and today heads one of the government sponsored tango music schools). A chronological listing of Piazzolla’s musicians and singers precede the most comprehensive discography of recordings by Astor Piazzolla to date.
In this book, the words of Astor Piazzolla, the man, talk to and touch people in many different ways, depending on which side of the love/hate/who cares equation the reader happens to be. Many questions about his music being tango or not, or whether he “killed” the tango or sired a “new” tango, will be answered while, perhaps, an entire new set of controversies will begin, as Piazzolla relates his unique life story and analyzes the factors that contributed to forge his personality, his view of the world, and his destiny.
Natalio Gorin made his fame as a well known and respected sports journalist. He “discovered” Piazzolla on a television show in the early 1960s and heard him live for the first time in 1962 at a dive, in downtown Buenos Aires, with a room capacity of about forty people. By then Piazzolla had “renounced” tango; shelved the bandoneon; gone to Paris on a grant to study classical music; been told by Nadia Boulanger to stick to “his” native music; resumed writing music like mad; heard the Gerry Mulligan Octet, and decided to imitate him, but featuring the best tango musicians he could find in Buenos Aires; founded the Octeto Buenos Aires; gone back to New York; written his most famous piece, Adios Nonino; and returned to Buenos Aires to form his most famous group, the Quinteto.
The 1960’s were traumatic for the inhabitants of Buenos Aires with the aftermath of the dismantling of the Peronist political machine and the subsequent series of military coups and short lived flirtatious attempts to establish democratic governments unraveled. The invasion of rock and roll, and the Beatles served as a catalyst for the changes in the way many began to see the world. Gorin, part of a generation bent on rescuing native intellectualism, saw Piazzolla’s music as a natural evolution towards some elusive respectability for the proletarian, disorderly and morally offensive origins of the tango. Gorin became part of a small group of about one hundred fans who devotedly followed Piazzolla’s career and his presentations in small cafe concerts in Buenos Aires.
In 1971, while vacationing in Europe with his wife, Gorin read about Piazzolla living in Paris. He showed up at Piazzolla’s quarters, rang the bell, identified himself as a compatriot big fan of him, and was invited in. Thus began a friendship that continued until Piazzolla’s death, with an eight year interruption between 1978 and 1986. After a concert in 1978, Piazzolla became angry when he perceived Gorin’s slight of Laura Piazzolla, his third wife. Gorin later admitted that he was wrong, but it was an ugly reaction that banished him from Piazzolla’s life. Piazzolla brought a lot of suffering to many who became a target of his uncontrolled temperament.
That is why, Argentinians, who have often times “offered their lives” for Peron, Evita and Maradona, have never voiced such a generous sacrifice for Piazzolla. Some have gone as far as to “give” their lives for the music of Piazzolla, which is a very different thing. Perhaps the most graphic and bold quote is one by Aldo Pagani at the beginning of Gorin‘s own The Penultimate Goodbye chapter, “Who is Piazzolla? Onstage he is God, offstage he’s a son of a bitch.” Pagani is the man who had so much to do with the crowning of Astor Piazzolla‘s music, first in Europe and later throughout the world.
The readers would do well in keeping Piazzolla‘s memoirs in perspective by often reminding themselves that the eloquent account of his life is a retrospective view from the mind of a sixty-nine years old man who had gone to hell and back in pursuit of a purpose for an uncontrollable creative musical genius.
Life for Astor Pantaleon Piazzolla begun uneventfully on March 11, 1921, like many other lives of sons of Italian immigrant parents in Mar del Plata, a beach resort city four hundred kilometers south of Buenos Aires. His parents were Asunta Manetti, and Vicente Piazzolla, both born in Mar del Plata also, from Italian parents with blood lines traced to both Puglia in lower Italy, and Tuscany, today, the most chic region in Italy.
Right away life turned a trump card on Astor in the form of a defect caused by infantile paralysis (polio) during his mother’s pregnancy, and he underwent four operations on his right leg before he turned four years old.
The formative years are the period of time early in life when most of the moral, social, and family values are etched into a children’s conscience, forming the foundation that will support for the rest of their lives, the actions they take, the choices they make, and the destiny they get. This is fundamental to understanding how traumatic it must have been for Astor, a short, lame child forced to wear special shoes to conceal the different length of his legs, to be uprooted when he was barely four years old, and transplanted to New York City.
In the 1920’s, violence spawned by neighborhood clashes between gangster gangs that came from ethnic backgrounds as diverse as Italians, Jews and Irish, was a way of life for many residents of New York City.
It is safe to assume that Astor Piazzolla grew up as a red blooded American kid on the streets of Manhattan. In spite of his father’s efforts to keep him out of trouble, to instill a desire for a musical vocation, and to provide him with a religious education, Astor fought to overcome his perceived handicaps, and he set out to excel, to become one youth crusader against the world.
He ran the streets and fought the Jews as a member of a strong gang of sons of Italians. He ran away from home against the wishes of his father. He ignored the doctors advice against playing sports, and jumped into baseball games and ran like everyone else. He won several 100- and 200- meter events in swimming meets. With a right leg two centimeters shorter, he took on tap dancing lessons and even danced in public. He had pals such as Jack La Motta, who later would become middleweight world champion, and Joseph Campanella, who in time became a famous baseball player, but most of the rest of the gang ended up in jail.
Don Vicente, affectionately known as Nonino, played an important role in providing some elements that would be key to Piazzolla‘s future. Astor had gone to the extreme of shoplifting a Honner chromatic harmonic as a teenager, after asking his father for one since he was eight. Instead, his father bought him a bandoneon, that stayed untouched in a closet for several years. But it was his mother, who wanted to have him attend religious schools, and unknowingly brought music for the first time to Piazzolla‘s life. Listening to Brahms and Mozart symphonies, Astor would be tested and was able to recognize the composer of a passage before anyone else.
Music had found him, but he had not discovered it yet, because in an effort to stand out, he was the class buffoon, laughing and making others laugh. This would prove to be a lethal personality trait that later in life would gain him enemies more than his experiments with the tango status quo.
At age nine, there was a short-lived return to Mar del Plata, where he took his first bandoneon lessons from a friend of his father, Homero Pauloni and experienced once again the anguish of those who don’t belong and are made aware of that. He spoke English and he wore the clothes that his mother had bought him in New York. Those who saw him as a foreign child muttering pidgin Spanish made fun of him. His New York chutzpa, and his left jab punches put an end to the laughing in short time, but this again, was an omen of things to come. Piazzolla the fighter would land and take punches for most of his early manhood years in Buenos Aires. The Depression was hitting hard, so shortly afterward his father decided to return to New York.
Graduation day 1934 for Astor, with dad Vicente and mom Asunta Manetti
In the chapter, Self Portrait, Piazzolla indicates that he discovered music when he was eleven, when he heard a piano playing what later he found out to be Bach. The piano player, turned out to be Hungarian born Bela Wilda, a disciple of Rachmaninoff. Bela became his teacher but before that, Piazzolla had gotten his first notion about the bandoneon with an Argentine musician living in New York, before taking lessons during his short first return to Argentina. But it was Bela who made Piazzolla get his bandoneon out of the closet, and taught him how to play Bach on that instrument which was a double rarity in New York.
Although the Latin American community in the city was not too large, young Astor found himself the center of attraction as a child prodigy, which boosted his confidence and fueled his incipient arrogance. Soon, he played on the bandoneon anything from classics, Spanish music, Mexican songs and Argentine folk songs. When Gardel visited New York, his father sent Astor to Gardel‘s hotel with a present as a token of respect from an old tanguero admirer. The Argentine crooner and matinee idol became fond of the streetwise Argentine kid with a command of the English language, and appointed him to be his guide around the city. When Gardel found out that Astor played the bandoneon, he got him a cameo appearance in his film El dia que me quieras, not before making fun of him because he played like a “gallego” and putting him under the supervision of Terig Tucci, who was conducting the orchestra.
Much has been said about the sequence of events that led to the tragic death of Gardel one year later, and the stroke of fate that kept Astor Piazzolla from joining Gardel on his tour and facing the same destiny. The truth is, that Piazzolla‘s parents did not want the child (he was only thirteen) to leave home and the family at such a young age. It is doubtful that Piazzolla then, had any idea of what that experience meant or what influence may have exerted on him. He was too busy committing all kind of acts of aggression to hide his insecurities, and his fears of the unknown behind an image of toughness and transgression.
Although there is no credible evidence that he had any idea who Carlos Gardel was, or what his brief encounter with the Argentine singer in New York meant in the realm of his future career as a musician, there is no doubt that Piazzolla’s relationship with the tango started in New York, “having to listen to my chagrin, to those records that my dad had.”
When the Piazzollas of New York finally decided to move back to Argentina, Astor was a sixteen-year old, streetwise, red blooded New Yorker, a teenager with an penchant for pranks and an irreverent attitude for the new world he was facing. Although his nationality has never been questioned, as it is the case with Gardel, one could safely state that the Piazzolla that the world recognizes as one of the greatest musical genius of the twentieth century, was born in Argentina at the age of seventeen.
Mature as Piazzolla seemed to have been in musical terms, he lacked from a personal point of view the formative years that the musicians he encountered in his initial foray into the world of the tango, already had.
In the late 1930’s, the focal point of the tango night scene was the cabaret, a cosmetic front for the clandestine sex-for-money forays of the rich and powerful.
The period covering 1938-1950 in Piazzolla’s own account of his life shows a man who was bitter and vindictive at times, brutal in his evaluation of other musicians, full of ironies, contradictions, mordancy, self-inflicted denial, and irreverent arrogance.
Although there is plenty of evidence that tango was not what turned Astor Piazzolla on, a fact that he acknowledges at a later age, his own recollection indicates that as a virtuoso of the bandoneon, the world of tango seemed to be the only way to go, after he first came across Elvino Vardaro and Miguel Calo in Mar del Plata.
A new world was unfolding in front of his eyes, and he wanted to shock and impress everyone with his ability to play Mozart and a little Gershwin on an instrument which he was hearing being played in a totally different way by tango musicians.
He moved to Buenos Aires in 1938. Sharing a room in a run down boarding house, Astor soon found out that the city that was not an easy place to be for someone who, having grown up in one of the worst neighborhoods of New York City, had been pampered and protected by caring parents. From the onset, he rejected and despised the environment where bad orchestras played (tango) music he didn’t like, and the men and women who behaved in immoral ways. He showed his contempt by doing many wicked things and having fun at doing that.
Such sophomoric behavior is described in his own account about the time when he loosened the screws on Francisco Lauro’s bandoneon and telling him, before going onstage, that a customer had requested Loca, a tango in E minor in which he had to open out the instrument. “He (Lauro) started playing, and in the middle of the tune the screws went flying and the bandoneon came unhinged.” Piazzolla lasted three months with his first employer. He left because he could not stand that setting, and Lauro couldn’t stand him. Something similar would happen later with (Anibal) Troilo: “three times he wanted to fire me because of things I had done in the cabaret.”
Piazzolla spent five “beautiful” years in Troilo’s orchestra, from 1939 to 1944. It was another tango baptismal premonition that his tormented personality failed to recognize, like meeting Carlos Gardel in New York or discovering the Elvino Vardaro Sextet in Mar del Plata. Troilo was ten years his senior, and at twenty-eight he had earned his stripes growing up as a bandoneon child prodigy much as Piazzolla had, but he had matured under the tutelage of De Caro, Maffia and Vardaro, among many others musicians of the 1930’s generation. Piazzolla paid lip service many times throughout his life to Maffia, Troilo, and even Pugliese, but he never really understood how to respect them.
Playing with Troilo he made good money (approximately $240 a month. D’Arienzo, by comparison was paying the most, $300, but Piazzolla would have never joined that orchestra. He already had his personality and well-defined musical taste). That allowed him to get married to plastic art student Dede Wolf, rent an apartment, and continue his “serious” musical studies on the side. About these times, he recalls, “Between the anger that the cabaret world produced in me and the problems I had with certain musicians, my enthusiasm began to wane… Playing with Troilo did not seem to me the ultimate goal.”
It was during these times that Piazzolla had started studying with Alberto Ginastera and he would do his homework in dressing rooms, rehearsing with Hugo Baralis, Kicho and David Diaz, and sometimes when a piano was available, with Orlando Goñi. Troilo was not happy with the situation because “if I took my ideas to the orchestra it might undermine his style.” Gradually Piazzolla began to make arrangements for the orchestra, trying everything he was learning with Ginastera. Troilo became the censor of all his arrangements. Piazzolla would write down two hundred notes and Troilo would erase half of them. To make him mad, Piazzolla sometimes would use complicated chords.
Life in the orchestra was getting harder and harder and the practical jokes got out of hand. Piazzolla would find his bandoneon filled with garbage, his homework messed up. He would retaliate in kind. Cabarets were real whorehouses and what upset Piazzolla the most, was being dumped on. So, in 1944, being only twenty-three and fed up with Troilo’s crossing out his arrangements and the cabaret life, he quit the orchestra. The tango world was shocked. People said it was a betrayal. Troilo got very mad. In truth, Piazzolla just wanted to play his own music.
In retrospective, Piazzolla, listening to his early recordings, recognizes that there was an intention to change, but at the time it was not clear what he actually wanted. He found his true seam in 1951 when he wrote Para lucirse (To show off). But before that, he went to hell and back. Having left Troilo, he directed the orchestra of Francisco Fiorentino, who coincidentally, also had left Anibal Troilo. The attacks continued, the lack of understanding was greater, not just from the public who rejected Piazzolla’s audacity in tinkering with the tango, but also from Piazzolla himself, who couldn’t see that the rejection to his alien ideas tainted with foreign music concepts, was partially because jazz, for example, was a four letter word for the tango musicians at the time.
In 1946 he formed his first orchestra. It was a very modern orchestra for its time, but it had little commercial appeal. He introduced counterpoints, fugues, and new harmonic forms into the music. He had a small following of people who prefered to have a cup of coffee and listen. Because he wasn’t getting any offers from the radio, like every other orchestra director, he realized that things weren’t working out. In 1949 he put the bandoneon away, dissolved the orchestra, and quit the tango forever.
Although the memoirs are not exactly related in a chronological form, it is possible to rescue some insights in trying to explain the unexplainable about Astor Piazzolla and his tormented love affair with the tango. He acknowledges for example, that the people of Buenos Aires loved “that music” played by the older generation by the likes of Julio and Francisco De Caro, Juan Carlos Cobian, Pedro Maffia and Pedro Laurenz. He underscores Buenos Aires because “the tango scent exists right up to the city limits, perhaps a little beyond, but that’s where it ends. (Folklore pianist) Ariel Ramirez can play an irreproachable version of Comme Il Faut. (Folk singer) Mercedes Sosa can sing Los mareados very well. But they always said that although tango and folk music are two very authentic Argentine expressions, they cannot be played at the same time. You have to pick one or the other. The man from Buenos Aires is different from the one from (provinces) Salta, Tucuman, or Mendoza. I don’t say better or worse. I say different.” Perhaps as different as a man from New York?
A second reincarnation of Astor Piazzolla began in 1953. Since the demise of his first and only tango orchestra, he had kept busy writing several scores for films. With the premiere of his Buenos Aires Symphony in Buenos Aires, he won a cash award and a scholarship to study in France. He settled in Montmartre with his wife Dede and with little money, in a beautiful and unforgettable bohemian life. Tired and frustrated of his recent experiences with Troilo, the cabaret and his own orchestra, Piazzolla thought that his future was in classical music as a pianist and composer. At first he hid his past from teacher Nadia Boulanger, but as she failed to find any spirit in the works he had brought along, Piazzolla fessed up about his work with Troilo, his own orchestra, and the bandoneon hidden in a closet. Listening to Piazzolla play on the piano some of his vanguard tango compositions, Nadia Boulanger might have changed the history of the tango by declaring, “Here is the true Piazzolla – do not ever leave him.” That seemed to have been a great revelation in Piazzolla‘s musical life.
In 1955 Piazzolla heard the Gerry Mulligan Octet in Paris, and as it had happened almost twenty years earlier with Vardaro in Mar del Plata, he felt an urge to imitate Mulligan‘s concept, but featuring the best tango musicians in Buenos Aires.
A military coup had just ended Peron‘s regime, broken the constitutional order and in the name of freedom had sent many innocent lives before the firing squad. The influence of the Golden Years was still omnipresent on the radio and in the movies. The Octeto Buenos Aires, the most revolutionary group in tango history made its appearance into that landscape. They were, Piazzolla and Leopoldo Federico (bandoneon), Atilio Stampone (piano), Enrique Mario Francini and Hugo Baralis (violin), Jose Bragato (cello), Juan Vasallo (bass), Horacio Malvicino (guitar). A star studded alignment which broke with conventional forms with such a shocking boldness that provoked reactions in perhaps the most disgraceful moment in the history of tango.
In The Penultimate Goodbye chapter, author Natalio Gorin describes it with a chilling impact, “(The Octeto) featured new rhythmic and sound effects, string counterpoint, a violin that sounded like a drum, the cello and the bass as low drums, formidable soloists, and an aggressive electric guitar improvising in most of the pieces… Some arrangements suggested disrespect… The hundred fans of the Octeto howled with pleasure wherever the group played… The Octeto Buenos Aires lasted only a year and a half… The rejection was to be expected, partially because of natural tendencies against anything new and because of traditional tango’s deep roots in the community.”
The real fraud was committed by the radio personalities who wouldn’t play the Octeto’s records, and by those who controlled the business of tango. In order to record, Piazzolla, who was already paying the musicians out of his own pocket, had to sign away all royalties. This is an area which Piazzolla acknowledges to Gorin, “The truth after many years, is that there was a dummy, me, who took the money out of my own pocket to pay most of the musicians while someone else made the profits. We are still in litigation… I made similar mistakes regarding (publishing) rights later on, I was duped many times, and in other instances I was naive.”
Impulsive and daring, in his mid-thirties, Piazzolla let his music be defined by a narrow minded generation of self-appointed protectors of the genre. His formative years in New York City perhaps played a role in his failure to grasp the deep rooted major social changes that were taking place in front of his own eyes. Rather than staying and fighting, he, who at the time of the recording of his memoirs “owned up to his own atrocities,” opted for yet another flight of fancy.
Like Nonino Piazzolla had done some thirty years earlier, Astor returned to New York City in 1958. He was practically broke, although the recordings of the Octeto were filling the pockets of the producers who had allowed him to record in exchange for giving away the royalties. He had the ambition of working as a film music composer in Hollywood because of a contact he had made in Buenos Aires. The deal fell through.
He even considered applying for a job as a translator in a bank, but the opportunity to back up a singer allowed him to put together The Jazz Tango Quintet. For those who drool at Piazzolla‘s tinkering with musical genres (and even have the audacity of describing their grotesque parodies to that music as tango dancing), read what Astor had to say about that, “It was a monstrosity featuring bandoneon, electric guitar, vibraphone, piano, and bass. It had a certain success, but I still consider it a sin… In the music there was a kernel of Piazzolla, but there were certain things that went against my principles. I did it to eat.”
“With that in mind,” he continues, “I agreed to do a show with Juan Carlos Copes, Maria Nieves and a ballet directed by Ana Itelman. What they did have was class, but I was not very happy with the music.”
It was during a performance with Copes in Puerto Rico in 1959 that Astor received the devastating news of his father’s death.
Pressed by Gorin, Piazzolla names Adios Nonino as his number one composition piece. He has challenged himself to write a better one but he couldn’t. The composition has universal recognition because of a melody which plays off a very strong rhythmic foundation; then it changes key and ends with glorious and sad resolution. Piazzolla recounts that he wrote Adios Nonino in less than an hour secluded in a room of his New York apartment. “On the trip from the airport to the house on 92nd Street, the image of Nonino appeared to me on every wall in New York. In that piece I left all the memories I had of my dad.”
This masterpiece performance of ADIOS NONINO is from the first recording of the Quintet in 1961, PIAZZOLLA PLAYS PIAZZOLLA. Simon Bajour, violin, Jaime Goss, piano, Horacio Malvicino, electric guitar and Kicho Diaz, counterbass join Astor Piazzolla, bandoneon
If Adios Nonino was his best composition according to Piazzolla, the last thing that the Quinteto Buenos Aires recorded, La camorra, was the best recording in Piazzolla‘s history.
In spite of his condemnation of the Jazz Tango Quintet,Piazzolla returned to Buenos Aires and in 1960 he formed his quintessential Quinteto. Not being able to find a suitable vibraphone player, he added a violin, and an extraordinary period of bohemia ensued. Playing at small dives in front of a few dozen coffee drinking fans, Piazzolla (bandoneon, Osvaldo Manzi (piano), Antonio Agri (violin), Kicho Diaz (bass) and Oscar Lopez Ruiz (electric guitar), sometimes got paid, sometimes they didn’t.
From a whorehouse in the Northern province of Tucuman to Philharmonic Hall in New York, the celebrated Quinteto received ovations and rejections, playing everywhere, out of conviction, and without too many choices.
Anger and happiness filled Piazzolla‘s days in the decade of the 1960’s, but a major chapter in the music of Buenos Aires was being recorded in a body of work that many to this day have not realized its existence, refuse to recognize its existence, or prefer to continue using Piazzolla‘s later incursions into classical music as a pretext for not understanding what is tango and what is not.
Whether Astor Piazzolla was a New Yorker who felt at home in Argentina, or an Argentinian who felt at home in New York, the fact is that intellectually he towered like King Kong over the Empire State of the Buenos Aires tango establishment. Pugliese acknowledged that Piazzolla forced all of them to study. Jorge Luis Borges at first considered Piazzolla‘s cultural sophistication worthy of a partnership which would soon short circuit when Borges would claim that Piazzolla did not understand tango, and Piazzolla responded that Borges was deaf.
The final reincarnation of Astor Piazzolla seems to begin with the Concierto en el Philharmonic Hall de New York in 1965. Not willing to take anymore slights from critics everywhere, Piazzolla gradually stopped playing music written by others.
In the same year, he recorded El Tango: Jorge Luis Borges – Astor Piazzolla, for the label Polydor. With poems by Borges and original music by Piazzolla, this is considered the best record in the history of popular song in Argentina. Polydor also released La historia del tango: La guardia vieja, and La historia del tango: Epoca romantica, in 1967. Listening to these recordings today still requires some tango maturity, which at the time of its release did not exist in a troubled and confused Buenos Aires.
The sociopolitical reasons for the state of mind of Argentina in the 1960’s are beyond the scope of this review, but the partnership of Astor Piazzolla with poet Horacio Ferrer offers a poignant testimony in Maria de Buenos Aires, 1968 and Balada para un loco, 1969.
Throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s, Piazzolla begun to get critical acclaim around the world, and an overdue recognition in Argentina as new generations heard him for the first time.
Astor Piazzolla, A Memoir by Natalio Gorin is a post mortem beacon that shines a warm light of fairness over Astor Piazzola‘s definitive truth. The only one that counts: his own. Natalio Gorin personifies the best attributes of a friend. He tells the story from his heart and from his mind providing a historical perspective of a great artist from a human point of view.
Amadeus Press/Timber Press, Inc. – The Haseltine Building – 133 SW Second Avenue, Suite 450 – Portland, OR 97204
The Tango Chose Me
by Valorie Hart
Copyright (c) 2000, Planet Tango. All Rights Reserved
Every relationship, whether personal or professional, goes through the “honeymoon” phase, that special window of time where everything is new and fresh and interesting, filtered through the warmth of enthusiasm and a willingness to share and to receive. In the first part of the film “The Tango Lesson” Pablo Veron and Sally Potter are having a wonderful honeymoon period.
After a picture perfect cinematic dance in Paris along the banks of the Seine, they are caught in the afterglow and the dialogue goes something along the lines of Sally: “How did you choose the Tango Pablo?” Pablo: “The Tango chose me.”
The word “me” reverberates throughout this vanity piece of a valentine to Argentine tango in general, and Pablo Veron in particular. For a minute I felt like I was watching an old Bugs Bunny cartoon when Bugs decided to make a movie, and the credits roll: Starring Bugs Bunny; Written by Bugs Bunny; Music by Bugs Bunny; Idea by Bugs; Directed by Bugs Bunny in a fabulous story all about Bugs Bunny. Just insert the name Sally Potter for Bugs Bunny.
Now there’s nothing wrong with vanity or with valentines. But both are kind of skin deep and a little flimsy.
As another person that tango has chosen, I long for and embrace any attention that promotes Argentine tango. Sally Potter’s film is a first rate product. I like many things about it starting with the black and white photography, the story (that unfortunately never develops with any depth – but how deep are the sentiments written on valentines anyway?), the players, the locations, the music (Argentine tangos and the soundtrack written by Sally), the cinematography, the dancing. In fact I was excited to palpable emotion the first time I saw the film.
It was exciting to see Pablo Veron on the screen. The camera loves him, and he loves the camera. He’s a natural. His acting is creditable, even though his (and the other) character(s) are one dimensional. His dancing scenes are flawless. A glimmer of what he might do with his acting ability surfaced briefly in the backstage scene after his professional dance performance with Sally. His anger had the inner monologue intensity of other method actors well known to movie goers (Brando, Clift, De Niro, Pacino, Walken, Spacey). I hope other film offers come his way.
Sally Potter fared less well as an actor. Although in both cases Pablo and Sally are playing themselves, Pablo was playing a part, and Sally was being herself for the camera. Madonna did it more dynamically in her film debut “Desperately Seeking Susan”, (and never recaptured the success of that film performance again, until possibly in “Evita”). Sally’s serenity and Mona Lisa smile are at first charming, but ultimately lack energy and become stilted and self conscious. I think she was going for something more natural, and became confused in the process.
Her character seems interesting: successful; older woman; attractive (thin, interesting looking, Hepburn like style); an artist. The premise seemed interesting too: non -Argentine woman discovers the tango and it changes her life. The older woman/younger man love interest seemed equally promising. However, nothing ever happens with any of these interesting ideas. They simply don’t go anywhere.
A surreal scene happens when Pablo stands up Sally on New Year’s Eve, and later turns up at her hotel room, where they decide (at his suggestion) to “sublimate” their sexual feelings into their dancing. Right! Cut to the next scene where Pablo and Sally are rehearsing for their upcoming performance. Of course she’s hurt by his rejection of her as a woman, so she can’t give herself to him in the dance. He becomes frustrated with her for withholding herself as a dancer and feels guilty for rejecting her as a woman who he cares for and who cares for him. Perhaps if his character could really have been a scoundrel of complex and mythic proportions (think Michael Caine in “Alfie”) or a man fully in love with Sally something might have happened between these characters.
The real star of the film is the city of Buenos Aires (co starring a lovely Paris), looking breathtaking in the black and white cinematography used in this film. The real dancers of the milongas fare exceptionally well as actors too. Notable are Carlos Copello and Alicia Monti. Gustavo Naveira and Olga Bessio, and Fabian Salas do well too. Talented dancers Cacho Dante, David Derman, Omar Vega and Chicho all look great on film.
As for the dancing, Pablo Veron is a dancer of incredible and memorable talent. We of the tango world already know this. It’s wonderful that the rest of the world can appreciate this. Gustavo and Fabian and Pablo make up a good team that personifies the vanguard of the new tango dancers. It’s great to watch them dance and horse around. It’s a shame that Sally has to be in every scene of this movie (except for the fantasy scenes about her failed screenplay), so that we can’t see these characters let their hair down without their benefactress in tow. Pablo’s partner, Carolina Iotti is first rate, and it’s a shame we don’t get to see her dance more. As for Sally Potter’s dancing, it’s pleasant enough. Any of the men she dances with could make a paper bag move and look good. If you saw her at a milonga (or danced with her at a milonga) she would be classified as a good dancer. To carry a two hour film about the tango is another thing. I am sympathetic up to a point about her character’s daunting and exhilarating dilemma of learning to dance with the “big boys” of the tango world, and ultimately having to share the stage with the serious talent of Pablo Veron. To say she’s out of her element is an understatement, but I give her credit for even being able to perform any of his choreographic demands. As we all know learning and dancing Argentine tango ain’t easy. I wonder how easy it was for the vanity that propelled Sally to present herself as Pablo Veron’s dancing co-star.
“The Tango Lesson” won the first prize at the Mar de Plata Film Festival, and has gotten it’s fair share of respectable reviews. It is a good product for the tango, but the definitive film about the deep myriad of images, the elements that conjure up strong opinions and provoke emotions that everyone of us who the tango has chosen knows well, has yet to find it’s place on the screen.