The music of the tango (part two)

by Ted Gioia

Below is part two of Ted Gioia's survey of tango music. For part one click here. See also Gioia's related Dozens feature on "Twelve Essential Tango Recordings," and Karen Kucharski's gallery of tango-inspired art.

                      Jeweled Walk, artwork by Karen Kucharski

The movie industry had a love affair with the tango even during the silent film era. Just the sight of the tango radiated sensuality, both elegant and slightly disreputable. Over the decades, Hollywood directors have relied on the tango's stylized eroticism, with everyone from Rudolf Valentino, a carnation clutched between his teeth, to Gloria Swanson and William Holden dancing to "La Cumparsita" in Sunset Boulevard, getting in on the fun. In True Lies, Arnold Schwarzenegger, partnered with Jamie Lee Curtis and Tia Carrere (in separate scenes) to the strains of "Por Una Cabeza," demonstrating unexpected tango dancing acumen on screen. Al Pacino relied on the same Gardel song for his famous dance scene in Scent of a Woman. The contemporary tango band Gotan Project provides music for a key romantic encounter between Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez in Shall We Dance. Even Jack Lemmon danced the tango in drag in Some Like it Hot, parodying the stylized macho intensity of the music for comic effect.

Given this natural affinity between film and tango, the great Carlos Gardel might have developed into a major motion picture star. Circumstances prevented this from happening. The Great Depression was leading Paramount to re-trench just at the time Gardel began working for the studio. He managed to appear in features and a short film for Paramount, but Gardel wanted to do more. When he came to New York at the close of 1933, Gardel entered into negotiations with Fox over his appearance in two films. Fox offered $15,000, but Gardel held out for $50,000, and the deal fell through. Finally, he convinced Paramount to give him $25,000 plus a share of the profits for two movies, with an option for four more.

Gardel's film work is far from memorable outside of his contributions as a singer, yet one could sense his growing confidence as an actor. A brief appearance in The Big Broadcast of 1936 demonstrated the studio's commitment to bringing Gardel to the attention of the U.S. mass market. Here the tango singer was co-starring with big acts such as Bing Crosby, George Burns, Gracie Allen, Ethel Merman, even the Nicholas Brothers and Bill Robinson. Gardel knew that he needed to improve his mastery of spoken English before embarking on a full-fledged Hollywood career, but he was aware of Maurice Chevalier's success is crossing international cinematic boundaries, and aspired to match this accomplishment. When he embarked on a tour of the Caribbean, Gardel brought an English-language tutor with him on the trip. The conquest of Hollywood would need to wait, but only for a brief spell.

Gardel was never able to follow up on these dreams of cinematic success. His Caribbean tour was followed by South American performances which confirmed the tremendous fame which Gardel now enjoyed in the Spanish-speaking world. His films and recordings had built his following even in cities where he had never gone before. Gardel's financial situation had turned around by now, and he looked with greater confidence than ever on his prospects for the future. But these were cut short, by his sudden, tragic death in a plane crash. On June 24, 1935, the F31 plane carrying Gardel from Medellín to Cali lost control only a few seconds after departure, and crashed into a second plane waiting for take-off.

The mourning in the aftermath of Gardel's death even out-stripped that accorded to royalty. In the case of this celebrated singer, several countries competed in paying their respects, and his body was brought from Colombia to Panama, from Panama to New York, from New York to Brazil, from Brazil to Uruguay, and finally to Buenos Aires, where tens of thousands of admirers waited on the dock for its arrival. Gardel's lying-in-state took place at Luna Park in the largest indoor stadium in Argentina. Later a crowd, estimated at between thirty and forty thousand people, descended on the cemetery. Nor did the grieving stop with Gardel's burial. One photo lab in Buenos Aires is said to have printed and distributed 350,000 photos of the tango singer during the two decades following his death. An almost religious passion attached itself to this artist. To a certain extent, the mourning has never stopped.

                          Night Tango, artwork by Karen Kucharski

Gardel's death not only ended one great tango career, but might very well have prevented another one. Astor Piazzolla, whose reworking of the tango in the post-war years would bring him even greater international fame than Gardel, had been asked by the singer to join him on this tour. Piazzolla, then in his early teens, had met Gardel in New York, and had played a small role in the tango singer's 1935 film El Dia Que Me Quieras. Only the objections of Piazzolla's parents prevented the youngster from accompanying the singer on the fateful journey.

The next step in Piazzolla's tango education would come at the hands of the renowned musician, leader and composer Anibal "Pichucho" Troilo, whose band served as an important training ground for dozens of important tango musicians. A huge man—his other nickname was "El Gordo," the "Fat Man"—Troilo was the finest bandoneón player of his generation and, in the opinion of many, of all time. His birthday, July 11, is still celebrated as Bandoneón Day by the tango-loving Argentines. Troilo had an experimental, progressive side, and he would sometimes irk the purists, as when he unveiled a "theme and variations" arrangement of "La Cumparsita." Yet Troilo enjoyed tremendous commercial success, and was a longtime fixture of Argentine nightlife. After his band made its debut at the Marabu cabaret in 1937, it moved on to the Tibidabo, where he would perform frequently until the early 1950s. At his death, Troilo's funeral procession stopped all traffic, with one half million people taking to the streets.

Perhaps Troilo's greatest rival for tango supremacy during the middle decades of the century came from Osvaldo Pugliese, whose work combined the edgy toughness of the streets with a concert hall aplomb. This pianist infused his music with insistent rhythms, even at slow to medium tempos -- Wynton Marsalis once aptly called him the Count Basie of tango -- and relied heavily on syncopation. His songs are still much loved by dancers, especially since their well-defined rhythmic accents make them well-suited for dramatic effects. Works such as "Recuerdo," "Chique," "La Yumba" remain classics of 20th century tango. Yet Pugliese's career was hurt by his outspoken political views, and for a time he was blacklisted and even put in jail -- during this period his orchestra continued to perform without their leader and placed a red rose on the piano to call attention to his absence. Hard feelings still linger over this artist: in 2007, Pugliese's statue in Buenos Aires was vandalized on the anniversary of his death.

Astor Piazzolla would come to experience both the adulation that Troilo enjoyed, but (perhaps more often) the hostility Pugliese faced -- although for his music rather than his politics. Indeed Piazzolla infuriated the purists more than any of the other innovators in the history of tango. When he began incorporating modern elements into his performances, he not only found himself panned by the critics, but even received death threats. The musicians themselves were no more receptive: the elder Troilo even went so far as to chastise the young Piazzolla, telling him "No, pibe, eso no es tango" (No, my boy, that is not tango.). Many agreed with Troilo. Look at what the young up-start had done! Piazzolla had introduced dissonance into the tango. He sprinkled his music with advanced harmonies, resisting the simple diatonic melodies loved by the masses. He adopted a wider range of rhythms, some of which seemed foreign to the tango tradition. He played with musicians with backgrounds far outside the tango tradition—not just jazz players, but modern jazz musicians such as Gary Burton and Gerry Mulligan.

Even Piazzolla's appearance on stage was a departure from the past. Whereas Troilo would play the bandoneón while sitting, as was the traditional manner, Piazzolla stood and performed with the instrument propped on his right leg. Perhaps most daring of all: Piazzolla was indifferent about performing tango for dancers, and they showed little affection in return. "For me," he remarked, "tango was always for the ears rather than for the feet." But if he alienated the traditionalists, Piazzolla did more than any other artist of his generation to expand the audience for tango music, drawing fans from classical and jazz backgrounds who had little previous exposure to it. They wanted to learn about the future of tango, not its past, and for that they came to Astor Piazzolla.

Piazzolla's training prepared him splendidly to play this role of progressive and seer. Indeed, he boasted a deep and wide-ranging musical education, unprecedented for a tango bandleader. For the longest time, he envisioned a career as a classical composer, and pursued studies with the noted Argentine modernist composer Alberto Ginastera as well as in Paris under the tutelage of legendary teacher Nadia Boulanger—whose other students, over the years, included Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, Elliott Carter, Roger Sessions and Roy Harris. In New York, Piazzolla was also captivated by the jazz music of Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Cab Calloway and other big band leaders. But at home in the evening, he would watch his father play, over and over, the prized tango 78s of Carlos Gardel, which he had brought with him from his native Argentina. While this music revolved on the turntable, with its hypnotic combination of machismo arrogance and fatalism, the elder Piazzolla would weep. "Papa, why are you crying?" "Because I am listening to my country's music." Years later, Astor Piazzolla would talk about the masochism of his music, of his love of sadness, and of the melancholy of the tango. The Brazilian sense of music, he would explain, is extroverted, and finds his fullest expression in the samba, a communal music in which self-awareness and introspection are banished. The Argentine, in contrast, is introverted, and probes the depths of emotions, both of joy and suffering.

Despite this home-grown appreciation for the tango, and his experiences with Gardel and Troilo, Piazzolla was slow to realize that this idiom could provide him with a means of serious artistic expression. Boulanger urged him to use the tango as the basis for his compositions, and though he took her advice, he also resisted the idea that he could not be a "serious" composer. He determined that tango, for him, would become art music. He called his music tango nuevo (new tango) to make his progressive leanings clear to all. Toward the end of his life, he wanted to push even further ahead, and suggested that his music should now be called nuevo tango nuevo—a sort of post-modernism of tango music.

                          The Embrace, artwork by Karen Kucharski

Piazzolla eventually found a place for his compositions in the classical music section of your local CD store—but this enshrinement did not take place in earnest until after his death, and even then it relied on the efforts of others who wrote arrangements of this music suitable for the concert hall. Pianists, cellists, violinist, string quartets, yea the whole highbrow establishment eventually tried to grab hold of Piazzolla's tango, capture its elusive rhythmic stutter. Even music conservatory icons—cellists Yo-Yo Ma and Mstislav Rostropovich, pianist Emanuel Ax, Kronos and other string quartets—would offer their personal tributes to tango. As we have seen, the motion picture industry has done the same; indeed, it was trying to co-opt the tango even before Gardel was enticed in front of the cameras. On Broadway, the tango has been the inspiration for various box office successes. Everyone, it seems, wants to export a bit of the Buenos Aires mystique for their own projects.

The tango has conquered the world. Yet much of its charm remains fraught with controversy. No, we no longer hear religious leaders condemn the moral depravity of the music. However, the symbolic power and gender roles of the music continue to raise debate and concern. As Julie Taylor writes in her book Paper Tangos: "Both men and women, inside and outside of the dance halls, tell me that in their eyes, the tango dances around relations between men and women, relations that dancers and observers alike question. And many Argentine dancers and observers imply that, especially in the wake of decades of political violence, they also feel the tango bears the weight of other forms of authoritarianism." We have thus moved from one end of the spectrum to another during the history of this music: once criticized for being too progressive and daring, the tango is now attacked for being reactionary and overly traditional.

Yet even in the earliest days of the music, women did not limit their role to passive acquiescence. Sometimes they even demanded their rightful place on the bandstand, a move which men found both upsetting and enticing. In 1921, Paquita Bernardo caused a sensation when her all female tango sextet performed on the balcony of a bar on Corrientes Street. The crowd that gathered below was so huge that traffic was stopped. Yet even the compliments which Paquita received indicated how far women still had to go in the world of tango: the great Gardel praised her as "the only woman who has mastered the macho character of the bandoneón." Other female tango orchestras were formed in the 1920s and early 1930s, although record companies showed little interest in promoting their music. But as singers, women played an important role in the tango idiom almost from the start, as reflected in the popularity of Falcon, Maizani, Simone and others.

The lives of these great ladies of tango seem inevitably marked by high drama and surprising -- sometimes tragic -- turns of events. Take the case of Libertad Lamarque, who leaves Argentina for Mexico, perhaps due to bad blood between the singer and Eva Perón. Unsubstantiated but oft-repeated rumors describe her slapping the future First Lady while the duo were filming a movie in 1945, thus establishing a lifelong grudge. Other accounts tell of Lamarque attempting suicide in Chile, or of a heated battle with her husband, which involved the abduction of their daughter. For all this turbulence, Lamarque lived to the age of 92, and left behind a huge body of recorded work.

                 Key West Tango, artwork by Karen Kucharski

Or take the case of Ada Falcón, an alluring femme fatale during the 1930s, who started acting on stage at age 11, appeared in her first film at 13, and emerges as a famous tango singer in her twenties. For reasons that still remain unclear—perhaps a reaction to her failed romance with Francisco Canaro - this public figure suddenly becomes reclusive. Accounts tell of Falcón making recordings behind a curtain to stay out of view, and she decides to become a lay sister of the Franciscan order. After 1942, Falcón refuses to let her photo be taken, and covers herself with a white turban and sunglasses when she appears in public. The woman who made hundreds of records eventually relocates to a convent in Cordoba, where she lives a mystical, ascetic life. Her final years were marked by mental instability, and she dies in 2002, more than half her life spent fleeing from the glamour and celebrity of her early days.

But on a deeper level, women have always played a virtually co-equal role in the popularity of the dance—it taking two after all, as the expression goes, to tango. And one suspects that the sharply delineated gender roles of the tango play no small role in making the dance appealing to men and women. Who knows what to do, to wear, to say, in these days in which so many traditions and time-honored practices have been tossed out the window? The tango is like a salve for this social ambiguity. When we walk into the ballroom, we leave behind the mish-mash of conflicting norms and expectations, and enter a realm of reassuring certainty. The music itself demands psychological strength, demands self-assurance and power—both from men and women. If anything, the feminist ethos has made the tango even richer in its overtones. This is a music which, after all, both worships and subverts gender roles; and in modern society, which is obsessed with these roles, and their subtleties and permutations, the tango provides a rich canvas for their exploration, a playful setting for their realization. As Piazzolla showed, the tango can be both traditional and progressive at the same time.

The tango continues to morph and evolve in the new millennium. Bands such as Gotan Project and Narcotango bring in all the trappings and tools of today's commercial music: sampling, programming, electronics, whatever ingredients they can find that might add a different twist to an old musical style. Looking at the current state of tango, one can hardly imagine what all the fuss was about when Piazzolla offered us his tango nuevo. The legacy of Piazzolla is now the tradition that others move beyond. Yet the venerable heritage of Buenos Aires' greatest musical contribution to the world is still ever present in contemporary tango, and even the most radical transformations of this idiom pay constant homage to the masters of the past. With tango, what is new is old, and what is old is new.

So we are back at where we began. The tango is a music unafraid of contradiction. It even thrives on it. When Hegel spoke of his concept of dialectic, with its ability to merge opposites, he may very well have been talking about a great metaphysical tango, an intimate dance of yin-and-yang. Perhaps this strange quality, so evident throughout the music's history, explains why it continues to touch us so deeply. More than any other branch of so-called World Music, tango imparts all the certainty of the past, and all of the openness of the future. Everything in tango is defined, but also open to re-definition. Everything is structured, but has proven over time to be highly flexible and adaptable as well. It is local and particular, but also global and universal. In essence, tango is much like our modern life. And for as long as we deal with the flux and fury of modern life, drawing energy from it, but also crave the comforting solidity of the time-honored—and when will we not want both?—the tango will continue to attract us with its paradoxical, dialectical charm.


August 07, 2008 · 1 comment

  • 1 Sergio Lpez // Aug 07, 2008 at 11:50 PM
    Your opinions about tango in general and Piazzolla in particular, are one of the best and more intelligent ones I've read in english. I congratulate you going beyond the vulgar concept of tango as a primitive and passionate music from slums and whorehouses, understanding it as a subtle expression of contemporary culture.