Thursday, March 29, 2007
Ariel Ardit at the Torcuato Tasso
I caught just the last few songs of Ariel Ardit’s show at the Buenos Aires Tango Festival a few weeks back. I didn’t think it was enough to warrant an entry here, but it was enough to leave a big impression. Hundreds of people had turned out to see him, one of the largest crowds I had seen at the festival. As each song came to its conclusion with the gradual tempo downshift typical of tango the crowd erupted into rapturous applause that made it sound like there was a huge thunderstorm going on outside. I had never really seen anything like it, and thought to myself “this guy is a real star.”
Ardit launched his career singing with the Orquesta El Arranque, a kind of younger-generation super-group that has produced several artists now making their way, like Ardit, as soloists. Following his work with this larger ensemble, Ardit has put together a smaller group of two guitar accompanists, an instrumentation that obviously keeps him and his voice front and center. This kind of singer-plus-guitarists set up is typical of sung tango going back to Carlos Gardel (1880-1935), who sang with up to four guitarists backing him up. Comparisons between Ardit and Gardel don’t end there, either. Like Gardel, Ardit is incredibly charming and polished, with a infectious smile and a personality that makes him feel larger than life, his personality filling the room from wall to wall. At the end of the day, however, it is about the voice and the music, and Ardit warrants comparisons to Gardel in those departments too.
Backed up by his regular guitarist Ariel Argañaraz and guest Hernán Reinaudo at this recent show, Ardit pushed and pulled his way through each song, coaxing the last drops of sentiment from each of them. The instrumentation he works with allows for a lot of flexibility, with the ensemble able to follow his particular textual emphases and slight fluctuations in tempo without any hesitation or doubt. His material is drawn mainly from the canon of classic tangos by writers such as Manzi and Expósito, though it consciously emphasizes the lesser-known edges of that repertoire. Because of that, the set sounded fresh throughout, never eliciting the pleasant but sometimes corny feeling that can be brought forth by hearing “El choclo” for the nth time. Instead, Ardit made the typical tango stories of the old barrio and lost loves not only believable but really compelling, which is no small feat. All the while he was helped along by the truly incredible support work of Argañaraz and Reinaudo, which was at once hyper-virtuosic, deeply musical, and completely present with the singer. (They played one instrumental duo that left a lot of jaws dropped in the audience; they are apparently working on a record of duos that I eagerly anticipate.)
Hearing Ardit in a more relaxed, intimate setting such as this was a real treat. I have always been impressed when I have heard him with other groups in other settings, but this was the first time that I really understood just exactly what he is brining to the table as an artist. That is a talent and a sound that is truly special, and needs to be heard.
Tuesday, March 20, 2007
Juan Carlos Caceres at the Centro Cultural Borges
Juan Carlos Caceres is an expatriate Argentine singer and piano player who has been based in Paris since 1968. He has worked not only as a musician and composer, but also a visual artist and a professor of art history, a job from which he has recently retired. Caceres’s musical project is centered on what he calls “tango negro,” or “black tango,” that is, a rather personalized and poetic interpretation of the theory that tango originated in the musical practices of Afro-Argentines who have since been written out of the genre’s history and folklore (not to mention the history of Argentina more broadly).
On the face of it, this is quite an interesting proposition. What role, if any, Afro-Argentines might have had in the historic origins of tango is a topic of some dispute, and a lot of ink has been spilled on the issue. Real evidence from the time period in question is both expansive and limited enough that any number of yarns can easily be spun: etymological conjectures that the word “tango” is derived from West African languages; conclusions made seemingly self-evident by the single famous (and derogatorily caricatured) image of a black couple dancing with the word “tango” printed above it; the fact that tango music does (or does not) feature “black” rhythmic syncopations; etc, etc, etc. The fact is that no one really knows that much about the origins of tango. Moreover, ever since it was canonized as a national genre in Argentina following World War I, tango’s history has been only further entrenched in legend and myth (with serious scrutiny of some topics becoming nearly untouchable in the process). That said, it is undeniable that Afro-Argentines as a whole have been systematically and unjustly excluded from their place in Argentine history, be it musical or otherwise. Therefore I feel that any real effort to reexamine and interrogate those histories should be applauded.
The problem then becomes, of course, how you define “real effort.” Unfortunately, I don’t think Caceres’s project would meet that standard by any definition. While apparently based on some kind of research and investigation (the program notes state that Caceres is a “studious researcher of tango”), tonight “black tango” seemed to mean little more than adding several percussion instruments to the more standard tango instrumentation of piano and bandoneón. These included cajón, a wooden box percussion instrument of Peruvian origin, the “bombo porteño,” which is the bass drum and cymbal combination heard in Argentine murga (a genre associated with neighborhood carnival organizations not unlike Brazilian samba schools but with a different rhythmic vocabulary), and a general percussionist who played a set of snare drum, hanging cymbal, djimbe, and an Uruguayan candombe drum.
It was an interesting combination, to be sure, and there were moments when the band really had everyone’s head bobbing, but does just adding some drums make this “black” music? Earlier this very evening I had gone to hear the ultra-establishment tango singer Susana Rinaldi perform for the inaugural event of the 2007 “bares notables” music series, and she had a cajón-playing percussionist in her band too. Was she therefore playing “tango negro?” Are all the many bands that feature percussionists playing it? They don’t seem to think so, or at least don’t make a point of it. The real story, as even Caceres announced from stage, is that the cajón, which has a long history in Peru and elsewhere, became a fashionable “world music” instrument in Paris the 1990s, and found its way into current groups through that route rather than through any historical connection to tango. Caceres just chooses to be precious about it.
As the night went on it became clear to me that the narrative being performed by Caceres and his band was not one of a new historic revisionism vis-à-vis the black contribution to tango music but the tired (but still very much alive) trope of the insatiable European thirst for the exotic. The banality of Caceres’s lyrics, over and above the idea that simply putting a drum on stage makes the music “black,” very much brought this point home to me. Lines that translate into something like “Drums, drums, the black people play the drums. They play tango on the drums, the black people play the drums” were typical. Despite the overly reverent and at times condescending attitude regarding the whole “tango negro” matter that Caceres projected from the stage, with lyrics like these the show began to border on minstrelsy. I might be accused of bringing an overly American viewpoint to this topic, but judging by this concert, it seems like the black contribution to tango, at least as seen from Caceres’s perch in Paris, has not really changed all that much between 1911 and 2007.
Monday, March 05, 2007
Sexteto Mayor at the IX Buenos Aires Tango Festival
Ok, what I said in the last entry about the outdoor milonga being cancelled due to rain turned out to not be entirely true. At the last minute it was moved to the massive indoor performance space at La Rural. I heard about this change only after the Fernández Fierro concert, where the news was announced on hand-written signs pasted to the windows of the box office. Since the bus we needed to get back to our neighborhood went directly to La Rural, we decided to go check it out.
We missed the first band entirely, the Orquesta Típica Cerda Negra, and caught only the last two songs of the second, the Orquesta Típica Sans Souci. This second band was noteworthy for, among other things, having the same singer as the Orquesta Típica Fernández Fierro, the fantastic Walter “Chino” Laborde, whom we had just seen performing on the other side of town not more than an hour ago. (And in Buenos Aires the other side of town means the other side of town: it took us more than 45 minutes on a dangerously fast bus to get from one show to the other.) With Fernández Fierro, Laborde sang wearing a black kimono and an opaque face mask with an electric blue wig gathered in pigtails. With Sans Souci, which is a much, much, much more traditional kind of orquesta, Laborde wore a three piece beige suit cut in a 1930s style and black wing tips with his hair slicked back like Carlos Gardel. And the band was finishing their set when we showed up!
The evening’s headlining band was the famed Sexteto Mayor, a group formed in the 1970s that has been one of the major torch bearers of traditional tango since that time. They have toured the world with many of the broadway-style shows such as “Tango Argentino.” These shows are largely responsible for re-igniting international interest in the genre in the 1980s and 1990s, and local events like the tango festival have benefited from their success and are in many ways designed to take advantage of it. The band itself has seen a lot of changes over the years, including the deaths of several of their founding members. Their pianist, Oscar Palermo, passed away just last month and has been replaced by Cristian Zárate, at least for now. Aside from Zárate, the band featured a mix of old guard and new guard performers, including relatively young bandoneonist Pablo Mainetti and very young Horacio Romo, the latter of whom was serving as the group’s musical director. Romo, who (I believe) is only 28, has certainly made it. I saw him play with Rubén Juárez at the opening concert of the festival, and here he was leading the band that was headlining the closing event, and leading it with confidence and poise. His playing, too, is top notch, as was that of the band as a whole, though I don’t know if they exactly get your pulse going. It depends on what you want from tango, I suppose. The Sexteto, like all of the groups that I saw play at La Rural during the festival, seemed to struggle against the acoustics of the massive space, which gobbled up much of the detail in a relentless echo. This was a shame, because many of the most lovely moments centered around delicate interchanges between the group’s two violinists. The band as a whole, while very polished, also seemed to be defeated by the space, with much of their presence and energy falling off the front edge of the stage and onto the ground rather than being projected outward and filling up the room. The city obviously needs to use such a large indoor space for these types of headlining concerts, but I wonder if there is any alternative, more music-friendly space that could be used in future festivals?
After two concerts in one night and a week of other festival-going we were pretty exhausted and ended up leaving as the band was finishing their last encore, hitting a cheap “free fork” Chinese restaurant before heading home. Back at La Rural, dancing to recorded music apparently continued on for many more hours. Some people can never really get enough of el 2x4, and this is where they come to get it.
Orquesta Típica Fernández Fierro at the IX Buenos Aires Tango Festival
This was the night of the “gran milonga al aire libre,” a massive tango dance to live music that is the main closing event of the festival. The city closes one of the main downtown streets for the show—it was to be Diagonal Norte this year—and thousands of people come to dance outside with the famous Buenos Aires obelisk as the atmospheric backdrop. Unfortunately, if it rains the event is cancelled, and, you guessed it, after what was a beautiful if breezy day a thick blanket of dark clouds began to roll in over the city around four pm. By seven it was starting to drizzle. There goes the milonga.
Still having “ganas” to see something that night, I decided to head down to the Teatro de la Ribera in La Boca to see the Orquesta Típica Fernández Fierro, one of several other events planned for that night that was sure not to be rained out. Thanks to the city government, all the events at the tango festival are free, but many require tickets that can be picked up earlier in the day from the venues. Knowing how popular the Fernández Fierro is, I knew I was taking a risk by showing up without a ticket, and sure enough, the concert was sold out. My friend and I mulled around for a while, wondering what we should do, when we heard a rumor that a restaurant down the street from the theater had extra tickets. This sounded strange, but we went to check it out and sure enough, the owner of the place was standing outside with about a dozen tickets in her hand, giving them away first come first served. It turns out that several people from the restaurant had gone to get tickets earlier in the day (they start giving them out at 10 am) but that in the end a lot of them could not go. So despite the rain and our short moment of disappointment upon arrival, things were going our way.
Back at the theater the crowded house was anxiously waiting for the band to take the stage. When they finally did come out the audience erupted with loud applause, which was followed by an awkward moment in which the band took several minutes to tune their instruments in the complete darkness. When they finally launched into their first piece the lights came up to display the group in all their scruffy glory: T-shirts, dreadlocks, ripped pants, etc. Not your grandfather’s tango orchestra (see my earlier piece on the group elsewhere in this blog). After this opening piece the crowd went absolutely wild, and their enthusiasm never diminished throughout the show. These guys are rock stars.
And they play like rock stars: aside from their look, their music has, over the years, become very hard edged and loud, to the point of lacking any real nuance and at times bordering on sloppiness. Like some noisy tango engine they were either on or off, at zero or at eleven with no in-between. While this extremity makes for an exciting show, especially the first time you see them and are expecting something much more square from a tango band like this, it works against them in the long run. What was exciting the first time becomes interesting the second, predictable the third, and then monotonous later, at least for me. That this show was song for song and even banter for banter almost exactly same as the show I saw a few months ago makes me think that, also like rock stars, the group must depend on die hard fans and/or a constant circulation of first timers to pull it off. In the Buenos Aires tango scene, that means playing mostly for tourists. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but it does make me think that the band’s once key position within the city’s popular culture, especially among younger people, must have eroded over time.
That said, the theater was packed, and the audience was going wild. Can all those people be wrong? No, of course not: the band is great and should be heard. But when, between songs, the band asked how many people were seeing their first tango concert that night about half the hands in the audience went up.
Saturday, March 03, 2007
Orquesta Escuela de Tango at the IX Buenos Aires Tango Festival
The Orquesta Escuela de Tango is exactly what its name implies, a tango orchestra that operates as a school in which young musicians can learn the principle styles of the classic tango orchestras. Supported by the city government of Buenos Aires, the orquesta escuela offers a two year program to Argentine and international musicians and has, in the years since its founding in 2000, trained literally hundreds of players. (There is an interesting semi-documentary film about the founding and development of the orquesta escuela called “Si sos brujo: a tango story.” Made by American filmmaker Caroline Neal, who is married to the founder of the school, Ignacio Varchausky, it was released in 2005 and is very much worth seeing.) The main idea behind the school was to bring musicians who were active in the golden age of tango music (roughly between 1925-1960) who are still alive and willing to teach together with younger musicians who are eager to learn these styles but have had little aside from old recordings to model themselves on.
While the escuela has brought several such “maestros” on board over the years, the main figure for the school has been Emilio Balcarce, a musician and composer who has served as the orchestra’s director since its inception. Time has apparently caught up with the now 89 year old Balcarce, who is retiring from the orchestra and passing the baton of its directorship to bandoneonist Nestor Marconi. Tonight was Balcarce’s farewell concert, and as such was full of not only music but highly emotional pomp and circumstance. Balcarce was presented with awards from SADAIC (the Argentine equivalent of ASCAP), from friends and colleagues; a letter from the mayor of Buenos Aires marking the occasion was read, and the city’s minister of culture gave a short speech, announcing that the band, as of that night, would be renamed the Orquesta Escuela “Emilio Balcarce.” An older woman from the audience spontaneously took the stage mid-concert to give the director a gift and some flowers, hugging him and kissing him before being escorted back to her seat by the stagehands. At the end of the evening Balcarce was presented with a huge bouquet of flowers that he had immediately passed back to his wife, who was watching from about the fifth row of the audience. It was all very emotional, and many people were in tears. Even I had a hard time holding them back.
And then there was the music. Crisp and clean renditions of tango classics in a variety of styles for which the orchestra is famous: “La yumba” a la Pugliese, “El choclo” a la D’Arrienzo, etc. I have heard the group play many times before, and have always been impressed by their technical execution and stylistic fluidity. The musical highlight of this night was when a huge group of the orquesta’s alumni took the stage for the evening’s final song, a rendition of Balcarce’s own “La bordona.” With nearly fifty musicians on stage, the performance pushed the audience over the edge. The standing ovation that followed the piece was such that the group came out and played it over again. A real encore.
Though bittersweet, the whole evening was very special, and I feel lucky to have been there. (Despite the torrential rains earlier that day, the free tickets for the concert had been quickly gobbled up, leaving a ticket-less crowd mulling outside the concert hall beforehand hoping to catch a lucky break and be let in.) Talking with some of the musicians outside afterwards, they seemed both elated and melancholic, with many believing that Balcarce, in one way or another, would be back. “He has talked about retiring for years,” I was told. “He has always said ‘My ears are getting too bad, I can’t hear anymore: I need to retire,’ and then would be back the next week with a new arrangement or composition for the orchestra. We will be hearing from him again.”
Luciano Jungman and Alejandro Schwarz at the IX Buenos Aires Tango Festival
This concert was the one show of the tango festival that was booked specifically to feature “the creators of today and tomorrow,” that is, new tango composers. The whole idea of writing original tangos these days is shrouded in a seemingly never-lifting but light fog of doubt and suspicion. I don’t know how many times I have heard things like “no one today can write a tango worth a damn,” “where are the new lyricists? Nowhere! They don’t exist,” and “tango is doomed because no one can write anything new.” I have heard these kinds severe statements declared with gusto, almost triumphantly, as if those who say them don’t want there to be any new composers, lyricists, etc. From my experience, I think these attitudes constitute a willful deafness on the part of tango listeners to a lot of new, great tango music that is being made right under their noses but completely off their radar screens, to mix metaphors. Looking no further than this year’s festival we can hear, among others: El Arranque, The Ramiro Gallo Quinteto, Malena Muyala, El Yotivenco, and Buenos Aires Negro; the Proyecto Ciudad Oculta (which focuses on new tango lyricists); electrotango groups Ultratango, Sudestada Tango Lounge, and Tanghetto (the last of which wins the award for the worst band name of all time); as well as many of the new Orquestas Típicas, including Imperial, La Furca, Cerda Negra, Fernández Fierro, Fervor de Buenos Aires, and La Brava. Each of these groups play at least some original music, and many of them play entirely original material. Beyond that, many of the artists I consider to be among the most significant compositional voices today were not represented in the festival at all. So, while one can arugue about the enduring value and overall contribution to the tango canon the work of these artists may or may not make over time, basta of the claim that there are no new or original voices out there. That is just not true.
But, you may be asking, if there is so much original music being played at the tango festival, what makes this concert stand apart as the composers concert? As far as I can tell, what made Jungman and Schwarz stand out as “creators” is that they create “serious” tango music, that is, the highly elaborate, through-composed, post-Piazzolla version of tango music that strives towards classicism. Both Jungman and Schwarz are protégées of Gustavo Beytelmann, a top-notch expat Argentine pianist who has lived in Paris for the past thirty years and who has apparently trained a small army of tango musicians over there. I heard Beytelmann give a talk as part of the festival and he came off as an exceptionally knowledgeable, bright and open minded musician and teacher. His students have clearly learned a lot: Jungman’s music was at once dense and crisp, utilizing the expanded forces of clarinet and ‘cello added to the somewhat standard quintet of bandoneón, piano, bass, violin, and guitar to nice effect on his piece “Concierto 3 + 4.” Schwarz, an Argentine guitarist who left the country for Europe after the 2001 economic crisis, also drew upon a somewhat extended instrumentation, featuring a tenor saxophone on his “Continuidad de los parques.” This was a semi-programmatic piece based on the Argentine writer Julio Cortazar’s famous short story of the same name. As a whole Schwarz’s music was more delicate and romantic.
Because of the resistance to new and original tango music mentioned above, I applaud the festival’s producers for booking this show and really forcing the issue. At the same time, a lot of this new music—much of which was having its debut this night—sounded uncannily familiar, as if I had heard it before (mostly on Piazzolla records). Following this concert, I think the real culprit regarding new tango is not the perceived lack of new tango music but how that music is recognized and acknowledged as such. If new tango is defined only as classically minded tango, which seems to be the case here, it seems like something important is lost. I hate to be the one saying this, but tango music is popular music. That does not mean that more “popular” minded groups can not or do not write highly complex and virtuosic original compositions—check out El Arranque, for instance. It means that those kinds of groups have people dancing in the back rows. At least on this night, the music of Jungman and Schwarz was not really moving in that or any other way.