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New Tango

About the author
Tony Staveacre is a writer and radio and television producer. His books include Al Bowlly and The Songwriters and Slapstick! – the illustrated story of knockabout comedy. His programmes Irving Berlin – the Voice of the City and FaÃŒ_ade have won awards in the US and Canada. In 2004 he wrote and produced Tango Maestro for BBC Four, which premieres on 8 April 2005. He lives on the Mendip Hills with a wife and a saxophone.

It was an unusual setting for a concert: the garden of the Nationalgalerie in Berlin – Mies van der Rohe’s final architectural flourish in the city which abandoned him in 1933. I felt distinctly under-dressed in an audience of young Berliners sporting the fanciest of fancy waistcoats, exotic headgear, expensive foot-wear. I had just got off the plane from Bristol, no time to change my shirt. This was 1989, only months before Berlin’s Wall of legend came tumbling down.

Tony Staveacre produced the 1989 BBC 2 programme, Tango Nuevo (now available on a BBC/Opus Arte DVD) and Tango Maestro, a new documentary film about Astor Piazzolla. This will be premiered on BBC 4 on 8 April 2005, as part of a dedicated “Tango Night.” The film was the last recorded session Astor Piazzolla ever made.

The band made a discreet entrance. Six elderly gentlemen, uniform black shirts, no smiles. They launched into the first number without preamble. It sounded awful, so they stopped. There was a discussion between the leader of the band and the sound engineer behind the fountain: “more fold-back!” The second attempt was not a lot better, but they persevered. It began to gel. Piano, double-bass and guitar set a bumpy rhythmic figure, over which the two soloists coaxed a swooping, jarring melody from their serpentine squeeze-boxes. They were soon drenched with sweat. This is “New Tango” (tango nuevo) – no compromises, no easy options. Astor Piazzolla takes no prisoners.

 

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I had first heard this music five years before. Piazzolla was booked to tour Europe with his New Tango Sextet, and I was sent a bootleg tape of a concert he’d recorded in Vienna. It was irresistible stuff. Traditional tango is overblown passion, gypsy melodies, an Arthur Murray dance step. Piazzolla had created a new music, full of harmonic and textural innovations, combined with a swinging jazz sensibility. But that planned tour never happened. Something about heart bypass surgery: the man was too sick to travel; he’d retreated to his farm in Uruguay. In 1989 the rejuvenated maestro took on a daunting schedule of concerts in the USA, Canada and Europe.

It was an Irish sailor, with a German squeeze-box, who created the distinctive sound of tango. The bandoneon is an accordion on the grand scale: 78 buttons using all the fingers and thumbs, and a massive three-foot bellows. It was invented by the Germans as a portable organ for churches that couldn’t afford the real thing. Irish sailors used it for their reels and hornpipes; then they introduced it to South America, where the Italian accordion players adopted it for their tango bands. A hybrid instrument for a hybrid music.

Tango derives from Spanish flamenco, from the Cuban contradanza, and from the tango brasileiro. All have in common a syncopated, two-in-the-bar rhythmic pattern. The early tango was an aggressive, often violent dance, with movements suggestive of knife fights and sexual stimulation: the corte (sudden halt), quebrada (twist) and refalada (glide).

In the 1920s it became a popular song form and was romanticised. The singer Carlos Gardel was particularly influential in making the tango fashionable in Europe and the USA. In New York, Gardel was introduced to a 13-year-old bandoneon player, who had taught himself to play Bach preludes on this beast of an instrument. This was Piazzolla. He played in Gardel’s orchestra and appeared in films with him, notably on the soundtrack for El Dia Que Me Quiere.

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The beginnings of Tango Nuevo

Astor Piazzolla’s life in music synchronises with the history of tango. Born in Mar del Planta in 1921, his grandfather was an Italian sailor, who emigrated to Argentina after a calamitous shipwreck. Tango came to Argentina from Italy via Spain, with a German squeeze-box as its instrumental vehicle. Astor lived with his father in New York in the 1930s. His father bought him a bandoneon in an East Side pawnshop. He hung about the Cotton Club, studying Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington. In 1937, he returned to Buenos Aires, where he studied with the composer Alberto Ginastera. He also worked as an arranger for Anibal Troilo. In 1944 Troilo threw him out, for refusing to play tango within its traditional restrictive format. Piazzolla recruited his own band.

He composed symphonic pieces for the Buenos Aires Philharmonic. In 1954 he won a scholarship to study composition with Nadia Boulanger in Paris (Daniel Barenboim was a fellow-student at the time). “I was writing symphonies, chamber music, string quartets,” says Piazzolla,

“but when Nadia analysed my music, she complained that she couldn’t find my own voice in there. She said that she could find Ravel, Stravinsky, or maybe Béla Bartók or Hindemith, but never Piazzolla. The truth is that I was ashamed to tell her that I was a tango musician, that I had played in the whorehouses and cabarets of Buenos Aires. ‘Tango musician’ was then a dirty word in Argentina. It was the underworld. But Nadia made me play a tango for her on the piano, and then she said ‘You idiot, don’t you know? – this is the real Piazzolla, not the other one. You can throw all of that other music away.’ So I threw away ten years’ work and started with my New Tango in 1954.”

In the years that followed, he reached far beyond tango’s traditional borders, to redefine the form. This caused a furore in Buenos Aires:

 

“They said I was out of my mind, they said I was a Martian – anything but a man of tango. A man gave me a beating in the street once, because I was changing the music! I suppose it was a sentimental problem. But traditional tango is so boring. It’s repetitive – the same old tunes, the same cheap harmonies. You play it like some kind of robot. I wanted to make a change, it was in my blood. My music has all the primitive tango from the bordello – you can hear that underneath. But on top of that, you can hear contemporary sounds. It is a new way of composing, and a new way of playing, a new expression. Young people who like rock ‘n’ roll also like my music because it is exciting, aggressive, new and romantic.”

Three days after I saw him in Berlin, a minibus brought the New Tango Sextet from Heathrow to Whiteladies Road in Bristol to do a recording for the BBC programme I was producing and directing. Eyebrows were raised at the elaborate bandstand that designer Edward Lipscombe had created for the TV studio, with fancy metalwork, hanging baskets and fairy lights.

I proposed that the musicians should play in a circle, facing inwards, backs to the studio audience. This eccentricity was the subject of a lengthy debate in Spanish with gesticulations. But they did it and enjoyed it. They played for an hour and held an audience and studio crew spellbound. When he left, Piazzolla said: “Sometimes music can make what the diplomats never will – love between Britain and Argentina.”

Sadly, the BBC Bristol session was to be the last recording of that great Sextet. The following year, the composer suffered a stroke in Paris that ended his life in music. He died in 1992.

Piazzolla’s legacy

In tribute, the then Argentinean president, Carlos Menem, said: “all great men are controversial: even Jesus Christ was controversial.” Piazzolla was fiery, uncompromising, demanding. He had fist fights with concert promoters and taxi drivers. He spoke “without hairs on his tongue”. His family suffered. His son Daniel was brought up in poverty in a New York loft, and struggled to make a career as a dental technician, farmer, shark fisherman and fast food restauranteur. When Astor left his wife to live with the singer Amelita Baltar, Daniel didn’t speak to his father for sixteen years. Only later when Astor returned to Buenos Aires in a coma was a new relationship forged between father and son, although his father never recognized the bearded man who came to his hospital bedside every day for eighteen months. Daniel played him sounds on a Walkman that he seemed not to recognise – yet Astor had written every note. He came to respond to his own music by beating complex rhythms on the bed. But he never spoke, never showed recognition, or any awareness of his predicament.

Only in death did he receive the newspaper headlines in Argentina that he’d craved in his life. Now, CDs of his music are in the window displays of the record shops on Corrientes: the new interpretations of his music by jazz and classical stars, alongside the many pirate recordings of his last European concerts.

His music, reviled during his lifetime as a travesty of tango, can be heard nightly in the cafes, nightclubs and touristic show-bars, often played imperfectly by musicians from Korea and Japan. Ute Lemper, Pat Metheny, Sting, Charles Aznavour, Gil Evans, Al di Meola have all fallen under Piazzolla’s spell. In 2001, The Gotan Project brought tango into the modern world of dance, dub and hip hop, combining live music with sampling in a sound that is pure Piazzolla – explosive bandoneon, chunking piano, sliding cellos. Their CD – ‘La Revancha del Tango’ – has sold a quarter of a million copies.

There is an old saying in Argentina: el tango puede esperar – “tango can wait”. It was the success of tango theatre shows and concerts in Europe and America that made audiences in Buenos Aires sit up and take notice. And the trail-blazer was Piazzolla, in extended European tours that took their toll on his health and bank balance. The distinctive sound that he created through his bandoneon has had a worldwide impact in the years since his death, on a scale comparable with Strauss waltzes, ragtime piano or Glenn Miller’s saxophone ensemble. A great composer, exploited then as now by unscrupulous promoters, producers and distributors, Astor Piazzolla opened new doors into music wherever in the world he travelled.

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