Monday, May 28, 2007
La Chicana at the Torcuato Tasso
This was the last of four shows that La Chicana played at the Torcuato Tasso over the past two weekends, and the place was more crowded than I have ever seen it. They even had extra tables set up in the back hallway by the bathrooms, and every seat was taken. For good reason, too: while La Chicana is well known and liked in Argentina, you would probably be more likely to see them play live in London or Madrid, where they tour regularly, than you would here in Buenos Aires, where they play only a few times a year. Maybe it was the size of the crowd or the rarity of the occasion—or maybe it was the simple excitement of it being Saturday night in Buenos Aires again—but there was a real charge in the air before the music got started. That energy made for a great temporary adieu to the Tasso itself, which is going to be closed for at least the next month while the building is renovated.
The cosmopolitanism of La Chicana’s performance schedule is reflected in their music, making them sound like much more than a tango band, though their songs, style, and attitude are clearly rooted in the genre. Or, I should say, in the genre’s roots. Centered around the core duo of singer Dolores Solá and songwriter/guitarist Acho Estol, La Chicana draws their inspiration from tango’s formative moment in the early 20th century, when the genre was just beginning to emerge from the social and musical mix of immigrant Buenos Aires. So while they are one of the few contemporary groups to write and perform original tangos—no small feat in the highly critical and nostalgic atmosphere that surrounds the genre today—the group positions themselves more as time traveling participants in early tango history than some kind of contemporary vanguard. Which is not to say that their music sounds old. Indeed, their poppy mix of guitar, electric bass, violin, bandoneón, and percussion would probably go over as well if not better in international world music venues like Joe’s Pub in New York than it would in some Buenos Aires tango clubs.
At the same time, they are not a world music band: while La Chicana’s overall style and instrumentation are clearly influenced by international pop music of all sorts, at the musical level Estol’s original songs adhere quite strictly to the general characteristics of tango and its two related sub-genres, milonga and vals. In other words, when they play tango they play tango, they just also happen to play cumbias, chacarreras, fados, and Tom Waits covers (translated into Spanish, of course). They even do a funky rendition of the first movement from J.S. Bach’s concerto for two violins, BWV 1043! Violinist Osiris Rodríguez—who along with being the hardest working man in tango, playing not only with La Chicana but also other key groups such as El Arranque and Astillero, is also an accomplished classical musician—knocked out the Bach piece from memory. Meanwhile bandoneonist Patricio “Tripa” Bonfiglio, who played the second violin part and whose experience in baroque chamber music is probably a bit more limited, was glued to his music, sweating away.
Aside from these and other instrumental acrobatics, the real star of the show was singer Dolores Solá, a woman who has more glamour in her French-manicured pinky finger than all the rest of the tango musicians in town combined. On stage Solá comes off as larger than life, like a move star on the screen (she in fact did appear in the recent Argentine film Ciudad en Celo (City in Heat), whose soundtrack was done by Estol). Her stage presence is backed up by her voice, which is at once powerful and delicate, both serious and playful. She brings little to none of the “grasa” tear-jerking so standard among mainstream tango singers with her to the stage, instead relying on an expressive nimbleness that can have her sounding like a seductive lover in one phrase and a scolding mother in the next, all the while keeping firmly at the helm of the party that is La Chicana’s live show.
Combined with Estol’s highly original, varied, and memorable songs, Solá and the band come across as quirky and irreverent without being ironic or distanced, rooted in the tango tradition without loosing themselves in devotion to it. It is a refreshing combination, and I am ready to wait it out for my next chance to hear them live, however long that might be.
La Chicana, Lejos (Acqua Records) 2006.
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