[Marxism] A Tango concert

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Feb 15 10:25:41 MST 2004

Last night's "Tango for Valentine's Day" concert featuring Pablo Aslan's 
band Avantango was sponsored by one of NYC's great cultural institutions, 
the World Music Institute. It was my first exposure to a live performance 
of one of the world's great popular music.

Roxana Fontán, who came up from Buenos Aires just for the occasion, was the 
featured vocalist while four dancers performed during about half the 
numbers. It was among the more memorable concerts I have attended in the 
past ten years or so and I invite you to check out Avantango's website 
(listed below), which has some performance clips from other of their concerts.

The tango, like practically all other popular music including jazz, has 
absorbed and digested various influences from the rest of the world. Aslan 
is a disciple of Astor Piazzolla, whose songs constituted over half the 
program. The Piazzolla style, which he called "Tango Nuevo", can best be 
described as a fusion of Tango, classical music and modern jazz. Although 
it can strike me sometimes as being a bit cerebral and hard-edged, "Tango 
Nuevo" proved irresistible last night as Piazzolla songs such as "Milonga 
Loca" provided a bittersweet background for the Tango dancers. (A Milonga 
is a gaucho song.)

I am also very partial to the Tango fusion style of the band Gotan Project, 
which has borrowed from techno and Jamaican Dub. Although it was formed by 
French musicians, it includes Argentine musicians who were living in exile. 
Their album "La Revancha del tango" (The Revenge of the tango) is 
top-notch, although it stretches the boundaries of the art-form to the 
limit. If you go to their website, you can hear a performance of "El 
Capitalismo Foráneo", a departure from traditional themes of jealousy and 
nostalgia but very much in tune with the nation's reality today.

That being said, politics has always been present just below the smoldering 
surface of Tango. As the expression of proletarian sensibilities, the music 
has often interjected itself into the class struggle in Argentina despite 
itself. During the 1930s, the army suppressed Tango because it was seen as 
a potentially subversive force. After Peron's rise to power, the music 
enjoyed a golden age as Buenos Aires could boast of ten to fifteen 
orchestras, either professional or amateur, per barrio. It was also at this 
time that Tango began to detach somewhat from its plebian roots. This gave 
rise to the song "Tango de otros tiempos" (Tango of Other Times):

Tango, you were the king
In one word, a friend
Blossoming from the bandoneon music
Of Arólas
Tango, the rot set in
When you became sophisticated
And with your airs and graces
You quit the suburbs where you were born
Tango, it saddens me to see
How you've deserted the mean dirt-streets
For a carpeted drawing-room
In my soul I carry a small piece
Of that happy past!
But the good old times are over
In Paris you've become Frenchified
And today, thinking of what's happened
A tear mars your song.

The overthrow of Peron coincided with the rise of rock-and-roll, which 
crowded Tango to the margins just as US capital was doing to the local 
economy. It was up to Astor Piazzolla to effect a revival. He received his 
original training as a classical musician and studied with Argentina's 
Albert Ginastera and with Nadia Boulanger in Paris.

He had the idea that tango could be a serious music, not just for dancing. 
The old guard, however, felt threatened in the same fashion that a 
conservatized Peronista labor bureaucrat might have felt threatened by the 
student left in the 1960s. Piazzolla recounts:

"Musicians hated me. I was taking the old tango away from them. The old 
tango, the one they loved, was dying. And they hated me, they threatened my 
life hundreds of times. They waited for hours outside my house, two or 
three of them, and gave me a good beating. They even put a gun at my head 
once. I was in a radio station during an interview, and all of a sudden the 
door opens and in comes this tango singer with a gun. That's how it was."

Tango has had enormous influence worldwide, even though it has often been 
appropriated as a kind of kitsch, like Carmen Miranda. For example, Rudolf 
Valentino stormed Hollywood as a Tango dancing gaucho, even though the 
cowboys of Argentina were not known to have danced this essentially urban 

Tango is also enormously popular in Finland, where the characteristic theme 
of nostalgia, even found in Piazzolla's more refined expressions, resonates 
deeply with the population. A Finnish scholar Pirjo Kukkonen suggests that 
tango lyrics reflect "the personality, mentality and identity of the 
Finnish people in the same way as folk poetry does". There is a yearning 
for the old homestead, or a distant land of happiness, while references to 
autumn rains and dark evenings in Finnish Tangos become symbols of crushed 

To a very great extent, the nostalgia of the Tango evokes the "Ostalgie" of 
former East Germans for a time when things were better. Although it is 
altogether unlikely that the heyday of Peronism and the Tango will return 
any time soon in an unmediated fashion, the popularity of Tango does 
suggest a belief that "a better world is possible".

To do Tango: <http://www.todotango.com/>http://www.todotango.com/
A history of Argentine Tango: 
Astor Piazzolla website: <http://www.piazzolla.org/>http://www.piazzolla.org/
Gotan Project: <http://www.gotanproject.com/>http://www.gotanproject.com/
Avantango: <http://www.avantango.com/>http://www.avantango.com/

Louis Proyect
Marxism list: www.marxmail.org 

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