One might wonder how a coherent blog can be written at 4 in the morning after 3 hours of tango class in the afternoon and then dancing from 11 to 3 am. Well, it wasn’t. I’m still working on it, just past midnight now, about 20 hours and another tango class later. We were at La Milonga del Morán, in the Villa Urquiza barrio. How can a dirty, grungy basketball gym be transformed into a sublime Tango experience? The lighting was what you’d expect in an auto repair shop, same goes for the sound system. Sawhorses with recycled formica countertops for tables are, well, reminiscent of 4th of July picnics and Rizzotti’s, a beer garden on Alpine Road in Portola Valley. (We used to ride our horses over there on Saturdays, tie them to the hitch racks under the eucalyptus trees by the creek.) No one was wearing a suit and tie except Ben, who ditched the tie as soon as we sat down (and still the sharpest-looking guy there!). Everybody seemed to know each other. All ages were present, lots of young people. The dance floor was packed, meaning it took about four songs (10 minutes or so) to make a complete circuit around. The phenomenal sound of Sexteto Milonguero, followed by a Tango performance by Gabriel Missé and Analía Centurion, added to the amazing wabi-sabi atmosphere. I mean, how can you not have a great time, despite the dismal decayed environment, while watching two of the most highly acclaimed tango dancers in the world?
Wabi-sabi is a Japanese word that describes an experience of beauty that is imperfect, transient, and incomplete. Wabi-sabi is all about authenticity. “Wabi… (according to Wikipedia) “may be interpreted as the imperfect quality of any object, due to inevitable limitations in design and construction and/or manufacture, especially with respect to unpredictable or changing usage conditions. Wabi-sabi acknowledges three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.” Yikes, it’s starting to sound like my evolving tango experience! Or is it a definition of my existence?
I think I like wabi-sabi. (I like wasabi too, just like I love sushi.) I think what made the difference, the other night, was the PEOPLE. The milonga was filled with friendly, happy, enthusiastic, dancing people. Negative environment meets positive people: the yin/yang of it all, the good vibes. A fantastic wabi-sabi experience! This delightful concept also applies to the highs and lows, the polish and the grunge, the glitz and glam of the World Tango Festival!
The Buenos Aires Tango Festival and World Cup runs from August 16 – 30. Billboards and ads on TV are all over town and down in the subte too.
Here’s how it looked the first time we went over to the Expo Center for a free concert:
UNESCO has declared Tango to be part of the world’s Cultural Heritage. Every year, porteños have the opportunity to remember, reimagine, and recreate the traditions of Tango which came out of a mixing of raíces, culturas y identidades (roots, cultures, identities). Every day for 14 days there are dance classes, dance performances, concerts, jam sessions, milongas, exhibits, documentary films, workshops and conferences, not to mention the rounds of competitions down to the semi-finals and finals in two categories: Tango Salón (the social dancing of ordinary people at milongas, very useful for dancing in small spaces) and Tango Escenario (stage tango, also known as show tango or Hollywood tango, wonderful for dancing in big open spaces). All of the events at the Mundial are free, and it’s not over yet…. tonight (monday) is the Salon Tango Finals, and we HAVE TICKETS!! (Note: Just cause it’s free doesn’t mean you don’t have to stand in line for hours to get your ration of 2 tickets to high-ranking events.)
The first Expo event we attended was an awesome orchestra at the Horacio Ferrer theatre, Orquesta Típica la Andariega. They were fabulous! Three girl bandoneon players, a pianist – orchestra leader (Pauline Nogues), a female violinist, two male violinists, a male bass fiddle, and a female singer. I feel really sexist just mentioning their respective genders. Should I call them girls? chicks? chicas? femmes? donne? How could I describe this group differently? If I don’t mention their genders at all, then my readers don’t realize how unusual it is to see women musicians in Tango orchestras. Even the singers are almost always men. Well, please send me your comments on this dilemma, and I will move on. Their music was definitely fabulous and in the tango nuevo category… definitely tango, but kind of jazzy. Here’s a photo with their singer Andrea Peñaloza:
That same evening we watched several rounds of eliminations for the Salon Tango competition. Six or seven couples at a time were announced and danced three tangos on the main stage. The panel of judges (el jurado) you can see off to the left, and behind the dancers, a huge live screen view of the dancing. I liked the couple in the middle of this one:
Here is another shot during the same round. This is definitely not Dancing With the Stars. This is the real McCoy. Which dancers do you like best?
We didn’t get to watch the Stage Tango finals. I wanted to, of course, but we can’t do it all! And they were only handing out tickets to one or the other show, so whichever ones you got, you got. But it didn’t matter, because quite a few of the performers turned up at the tango school last week, crashing Raúl Bravos’s tango classes to get last minute tune-ups and new moves from the maestro who’s taught just about everybody who teaches dance in Buenos Aires. And he’s still got it!
At the Expo Center they have an entire room dedicated to the worship of Carlos Gardel. It is pretty amazing. Gardel was born in France, and came with his mother to Buenos Aires when he was three years old, around the turn of the last century. He died in a plane crash near Bogotá, Colombia in 1935 or thereabouts, pobrecito. Gardel had a beautiful voice, a great stage and screen presence, and was a self-admitted womanizer. So many beautiful women, so little time!
I enjoyed looking at the archival photos and documents of Gardel’s childhood and early years:
In front of the main stage is a seating area for several hundred people, and behind that is a big dance floor. We milonga’d for a little while but the intensely bright event lighting was making me see fireballs even with my eyes closed. You can see the big screen on the stage behind the motley crew of dancers enjoying the free music and dancing in a big warm space on a cold evening in Buenos Aires.
Before I go on to the other concert we attended, I know my readers wouldn’t want to miss seeing some of the fabulous stuff for sale at the Expo Center, like….. tango shoes?
So many shoes, so little time! No, I’m not getting a kickback for the free PR. I wish!! And for the guys, great tango shoes and electronic entertainment while you try them on:
Some of the men’s tango shoes are being made now with pop-out, interchangeable soles. The part that pops out is the ball-of-foot area. Each pair comes with 3 pairs of soles, with different finishes so you can mix-and-match to the floor conditions. Not even Ken & Barbie could have dreamed up this type of accessorizing! (well their brain capacity was under the legal limit.)
And if you need some new duds for that special milonga, (no guys, not for you! we’re back to the girls) you’re sure to find something in one of the Expo shops: Ooh la la!
And there’s other cool stuff there, books on Tango and little bandoneon photo and CD holders. Yes, they are so cute, I had to get one.
A few days ago we went to the historic Teatro 25 de Mayo to see Quinteto Nestor Marconi. Here is a photo of the historic hall:
Nestor Marconi is a world famous bandoneon player, one of the few surviving musicians of the generation of 20th century Tango. Marconi played in the orchestras of José Basso and Enrique Mario Francini — Armando Pontier. He was bandoneon soloist with the philarmonics of Oslo, Montreal and Toulouse, partnered with Roberto Goyeneche in the film Sur, and performed with the renowned pianist Martha Argerich, amongst many other notables. Marconi is truly a living legend of Tango.
From left to right, pianist Leonardo Marconi, son of Nestor (he is really amazing!); Esteban Falabella, guitar; Juan Pablo Navarro, contrabajo; Nestor Marconi, bandoneon; Pablo Agri, violin.
These guys are all virtuosos. Like, this was the best live tango music I have ever heard. It doesn’t get any better than this! I sneaked these photos with no flash, Ben was my accomplice (his camera). Here are the best ones of Nestor:
Quinteto Marconi opened with El día que me Quiera, a long version that began with the melody of the Gardel arrangement but then began to weave in strands of Piazzolla-like meanderings. OK, I’m no music critic, so I won’t try to pretend. Just let me say that the quintet played a selection of classic tangos by Piazzolla, Horacio Salgán and Bardi in their fantastic nuevo style, and a selection of Marconi’s compositions. They ended with a hauntingly beautiful version of Adios Nonino, one of my favorite songs. The sound was fabulous, the solos were amazing, it was all perfectly perfect.
Yesterday I had a conversation with Verónica Alegre, a tango teacher, about the many ways that tango impermeates Buenos Aires. Tango is the breath of the city, the air that porteños breathe. She said you can’t really know tango unless you’ve walked the streets, sat in the cafés, danced at the milongas till dawn or your feet just can’t take another step, whichever comes first. If you can’t make it all the way here to see for yourself, I suggest listening to Piazzolla’s Hora Cero (Zero Hour, Astor Piazzolla, 1921-1992). It’s the name of a song as well as the title of one of his CDs. In this tune you hear the heartbeat born of the second half of the twentieth century. His work embodies both gritty urban sounds and polished, heart-breakingly transcendent melodies. I would describe it as a fusion of traditional tango with jazz. You hear traffic, sirens, the subway rumbling through: it’s all part of the rhythm of the city, the rhythm of tango. And not just the noise of the streets, but the movement of the people who inhabit this unique city. Verónica reminded me that the way people sit in a café and chat over coffee is part of the essence of tango. The expressions on people’s faces as they talk, as they joke; the way they walk, the way they kiss (couples here kiss wherever and whenever they feel like it; how cool is that?). It’s all part of the seductive rhythm of the city, the nightlife, the sounds and rhythms of tango. Piazzolla took the tango he’d grown up with in the 30s and 40s, what we think of as the Golden Age of Tango, and morphed it into a new sound. Ben noted that Gershwin’s An American in Paris is a similar reflection on a new landscape. Each generation always reinvents their own expressions, recreates their world view. In Piazzolla’s music there is dissonance, but it works to create the whole. Just like not every street in Buenos Aires is beautiful, not every tree is green, no sidewalk is without a few cracks. A perfect reflection of an imperfect world, our beautiful problematic world, our wabi-sabi world. Some of us want to escape to another era (have you seen Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen’s latest? Great flick!), but at some point one realizes that it is what it is. Piazzolla moved on from that point, and created a new era in tango.
I’m going to end this post with a poster for my friend Roxy, who completed 365 days of tangoing every day; she’s now moved on to 1,000 days of… more tango? I think, and a month or two in Buenos Aires this fall. ¡Felicidades, home girl!
My next post will be about the finals in Salón Tango, including a stunning performance by Juan Carlos Copes. Who will be the world’s best tango dancers in 2011?