Tuesday 24 March 2009

The Tango

The tango is one of the world's greatest artistic creations. And I adore just about everything to do with the tango. A simple dance which has transcended its lowly origins and developed into a sensuous art form which now encompasses music, song, ballet, opera, stories and films. More than most dances the tango is a celebration of the sensual pleasure of moving in harmony with not just your partner, but with the music itself.

I first became interested in the tango as a result of reading an article in the Spanish newspaper El Pais. We were on holiday in Sitges and I would often read Spanish language newspapers. On this particular occasion there was an article about a new CD of tango music featuring Daniel Barenboim. I knew Barenboim primarily as a classical pianist and conductor and was intrigued by his appearance on a tango CD. The article of course explained all about Barenboim's Argentinian childhood and his love of the tango and his pleasure at being asked to make this CD. The article also said a little about the significance of tango music. Not that I can remember much now, but I was intrigued and once back in Scotland I proceeded to buy the CD, which I still own and frequently play. I fell in love with the tango as soon as I heard the first track. Since then I have regularly added to my collection.

After my interest in the tango grew, I remembered that my parents had been very keen dancers when they were young and unmarried. In particular my father was deemed to be a great tango dancer. My mother confirmed this, though it is hard for me to imagine this as I never saw them dancing - once married and with children along, dancing seemed to go out of their lives. I have never been much good at dancing and like many males of my generation did not learn any kind of dancing. I can just about manage some of the traditional Scottish country dances under expert guidance, but the waltz, quickstep, never mind the tango were unexplored territory for me. It was not easy to find a class in Dundee, but I did eventually come across a class a few years back. Quite an experience and the setting was about as far removed from its rather seedy Argentinian origins as could be imagined - a cold church hall in a douce part of Dundee. A perfectly soulless place. But fine for just learning the steps and movements. The couple who ran the class were also not Argentinian, she was from Norway and he came from England - not much hot Latin blood there! But they were very good teachers though. The other learners were also a motley bunch. Apart from one other elderly gentleman they were all of course much, much younger than I. A few were local, but most came from various parts of Europe with the odd Latin American. Unfortunately I was only able to attend for a few months, but sufficient to learn two or three of the basic sequences. The tango is not a difficult dance, you move at more or less walking pace and the steps are pretty straightforward. To be good though you need to have a feel and touch for the rhythm and for your partner. Not something that comes easy - at least not for me. Alas the class folded before I could return and there has been no follow-up since. If you don't know the tango and want an idea of what is involved then
here is a depressingly attractive looking young couple showing off the basics and here is a more advanced sequence.

You don't need to experience the tango as a dance - for most people the tango is just wonderful music. I particularly like the songs - tango canción - as it is known. There are some fabulous songs with entrancing lyrics. The words more clearly bring out that the tango is not simply a form of nostalgia but more about longing for something in the past that almost certainly never really existed. One of my favourite examples is from the tango Tres Mil a Dos, by the Uruguayan composer and singer Manuel Picón. This is the final verse:

Y ayer jugó Peňarol
lo vi en un bar por la tele
ó por tres mil a dos
y yo le dije a mi nene
que merecimos ganar, querido,
pero que hubo mala suerte........

And Peňarol played yesterday
I saw them in a bar on the tele
they lost three thousand to two
And I told my little boy
that we deserved to win, son,
but we had some back luck...........

Though there are some interesting new developments in the world of tango, I must admit I prefer the traditional versions, those most in keeping with its origins. Interesting to note that the original tango music was played on the guitar, often accompanied by a flute. I have a CD - histoire du tango - which features this combination and very different it is too, more lively and upbeat. Some of the new developments in tango include a return to this guitar based music - Juango Dominguez and the Trio Gorosito Cataldi De La Vetga among others. The now "traditional" tango sound comes mainly from the bandoneón, which gives the tango its slower and more nostaglic sound. The
bandoneón, which is a relative of the accordion family, was developed in Germany in the 1850s by a Heinrich Band, hence its name. How this instrument got to Argentina and became the sound of the tango is a bit of a mystery. Sur is a great example of this tango sound and features Nestor Marconi on the bandoneón. If you listen on you will hear the fabulous gravelly voice of the magisterial Roberto "Polaco" Goyeneche, my favourite tango singer. Other wonderful tango voices include the aforementioned Manuel Picón, Raúl Juarena, and from the past the great Carlos Gardel. Tango has historically been dominated by men, though women are more and more contributing to its development. Some key women artists include the singers Adriana Varela, Sandra Luna, Dolores Solà and the pianist Sonia Possetti.

For more information about the tango the key site is

In Scotland the main site is probably the Edinburgh Tango Society - edinburghtango

Good dancing and listening to everyone

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