Contributions to a Critique of Tango
Tango is once again occupying a fundamental place in the world’s cultural offerings. The interest goes back a couple of decades when Astor Piazolla’s music drew interpreters of classical music and jazz. In Argentina, tango now has a privileged position in the tourist market, where from time to time it goes hand in hand with such attractions as the bife de chorizo, the star of Argentine barbecue.
This outburst of passion for tango, this paroxysm, influences forms of cultural production, as well as consumption. Today, tango takes diverse forms of expression. It’s not just the tourists who are flocking to tango. The younger generation listens to tango and plays it, as seen by the proliferation of new orchestras. And women are also filling the ranks of traditionally masculine bandoneones of the new Orquesta Escuela (School Orchestra), conducted by old-timer Emilio Balcarce.
This resurgence of tango has been strongly impeded by dance, the purely conservative force within tango; since the 40s, dance has been an obstacle to innovations. Historically, each orchestra had its own dance followers. Today, tango has reconciled with the distant past, leaving behind sad post-Piazzollian cliché-saturated path.
Post-Piazzolla, tango began to return to the older orchestral arrangements and idioms—not only those of the orchestra típica, but also of small groups of homey criollo duets of bandoneón and guitar. A certain archaic style has also influenced like the later Roberto Goyeneche, taken up by women tango artists such as Adriana Varela. The archaic style has left its mark, but new singers are faced with the problem of the lack of a school, a geneology. The historicist perspective in this case finds an insurmountable obstacle in the vocal genre, since in the past song was so linked to the orchestras. Conductors Anibal Troilo and Carlos Di Sarli told their vocalists how they had to sing, confirmed in recordings of rehearsals in which Troilo pushed Alberto Marino to his highest register: “Come on, Marinito, you can do better.”
But it is not only Troilo and his orchestra who have disappeared. So has their public. One needs to ask for whom the singers are performing: dance floors do not preserve much of a historical truth; also lost is the decisive role of radio, where orchestras performed live. Tango composition is not on the rise either; Piazzolla was undoubtedly tango’s last great composer. The tango has its “standards,” a wide-ranging list with examples of extraordinary quality, but the richness and perhaps the historical progress of the genre is centered more on interpretation than composition. This is one of the existential differences between tango and folklore, in which the technical demands of interpretation are less decisive. Perhaps at a particular point in time, a form with such uniform characteristics as the tango simply stopped admitting innovations; all progress in composition had to assume the form of a rupture, which is what Piazzolla attempted in diverse ways and with diverse results.
The De Caro Legacy
Piazzolla developed the orchestra model inherited from Julio De Caro, the matrix of modern tango. De Caro is to orchestra what Carlos Gardel is to the sung tango. But perhaps in De Caro this stamp is even stronger because of the rupture and the division in camps that he produces. The music coincides chronologically with Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five in 1925, with trumpet, clarinet, trombone, piano and banjo, or the Hot Seven, in 1927, which added tuba and drums, forming a parallel between the vital cycles of jazz and of tango that ought to be taken into consideration.
The tango decade of the 40s, the gilded age of tango, was mounted on De Caro’s legacy, with different orchestras complementing each other, rather than standing out individually. The orchestras of Gobbi, Pugliese Troilo, Salgán and Di Sarli all included formations that fundamentally defined the idiom and syntax of tango in the late 30s and 40s. The arranger might change, but the sound of each orchestra remains particular and differential thanks to the conductor. Henceforth, the art of tango interpretation develops on two fronts: musical arrangement and its execution, the written and the unwritten. Generally, arrangements correspond to an orchestra’s style and that of its conductor, although not always. Argentino Galván’s 1946 arrangement of“Recuerdos de Bohemia” for Troilo’s orchestra is a clear example; its vanguardism must have stretched the orchestra’s limits. Galván turns the structure of tango on its head and develops an open arrangement in the pure style of chamber music, with strings dominating. Thus, his arrangement evokes not only bohemian life, but also the Central-European landscape of Moldavian Bohemia, with the introduction of the cello and its exquisite tonal ambiguity. The final part of the piece is reserved for the entrance of singer Alberto Marino. You can’t help wondering what Troilo and especially poor Marino thought, since the latter was relegated to a little more than half a minute in the second part of the tango. Already, the singer is beginning to be expelled from the tango, a trend that would later become explicit with Piazzolla.
Galván’s radical formulation highlights how tango composition since the 40s has become a veritable laboratory in musical arrangement. True tango composition takes place, not so much in the pieces themselves, but in the instance of the arrangement. Frequently, these arrangements are stylized pieces that expressively transform elements from the original piece. There’s the example of Tito Gobbi’s marvelous tango, “Orlando Goñi,” performed by the Pugliese orchestra in 1965, in which the trio section is developed in a totally lyrical form, with the intervention of the violin and the silencing of the bandoneones.
Horacio Salgán is an entirely separate case. In his work, the written and the unwritten are unified, not only because Salgán writes all his own material and is the supreme codifier of the genre, but also because here the musical arranger is the orchestra’s principal instrument. For example, his arrangement of “Recuerdo,” Pugliese’s tango, makes extraordinary use of the effect of variation. He takes Pugliese’s use of bandoneón, just as he wrote it, and adds another layer of accompanying syncopated piano, an instrumental tango that contains one piece within the other. Salgán’s orchestra has layers, which are also historical layers, as seen in the lyrical counter-melody that he imposed on the very old tango rhythm of Mendizábal’s “El entrerriano.”
Salgán diversifies the orchestra without sacrificing the color of the tango, with percussive effects added through the unusual use of traditional instruments such as the noise of sandpaper on a violin or thumping on piano keys, that is, percussion without drums. He also incorporates the bass clarinet to fuse with the sound of the bandoneones, thickening the line of basses. For Salgán, tango has a limit to its form and also its sound.
Salgán was fond of saying that while he always wanted to enter tango from outside, Piazzolla had wanted out from from within. In effect, everything in Piazzolla seems to come from tango; one can hear tango exploding from the inside out. He said that when he was first in Paris, he became an avid jazz fan. When he saw Gerry Mulligan’s group performing live, he had been struck by the sheer enthusiasm of the improvisation. The influence of jazz on tango was not so much material as psychological. Piazzolla envied the humor of jazz because to him the tango orchestra always seemed somewhat bitter and regimented; there is evidently a jazz influence in the solos and in the improvised imitations between the bandoneón and Osvaldo Manzi’s piano in the central part of “Revolucionario,” with the 1970 quintet. Yet it is difficult to establish if Piazzolla’s use of the electric guitar also comes from the jazz world or only from the formidable instrumental detail that he introduced into tango in 1955 with the octet. It’s most likely that Piazzolla took a certain rhythmic impulse from jazz, with hints of bebop. However, his principal rhythmic invention involves a displacement of the music’s accent; while the primitive tango (or the habanera) divides the rhythm into two beats, modern tango divides it into four, and Piazzolla divides it into eight. Piazzolla operated a crucial transformation of tango. He composed tangos altering its rhythm; he stripped tango off dancing, one of its fundamental material protocols. The fact that couples stopped dancing and came close to the stage to listen was the point of departure of the Piazzollean revolution, and that’s what brought it closer to the revolution of modern jazz.
Gardel and His Song
Carlos Gardel, the iconic singer, established himself as a model with such a perfect voice that, although it is said that the decadence of sung tango didn’t begin until the end of the 50s, one can think that it really ended in 1935 with his plane crash in Medellín, Colombia. It is just an illusion. Yet Gardel is not the only possible model for sung tango, although most subsequent singers did follow in his tradition. They had abundant voices with a certain imitative quality that remained mindful of lyrics. They were singers of melody, able to sing a little bit above the beat. For the singer from Gardel’s school, expression is a question of musical temperament, of measured dramatic art.
Troilo’s singers are the best indication of the breadth of Gardel’s model, encompassing a wide range of singers and styles, beginning with Fiorentino and Marino, and followed by two distinct lines, one with a popular genealogy and another that privileged vocal clarity and respect for the contents of the lyrics. Raúl Berón, for example, was a high baritone who could easily reach tenor notes, although timbre is only one aspect of style. Tango has given us few pure tenors. A good part of singers up until the 50s were baritones with tenor qualities and that became the typical sound of tango.
Voice register is a point of modulation in the historical development of the tango. With the disappearance of the singer from the orchestra, this type of register (needed by the orchestra as a kind of privileged instrument) also vanishes. And this disappearance implies an important rhythmic question. A traditional expression in the tango is “singing to the beat.” That doesn’t mean that the singer can’t abandon the orchestra’s rhythm, getting ahead or behind it at times to create a feeling of suspense or going against the flow, but at a certain point, the singer needs to catch up with the musicians. Gardel was a master of anticipation, as shown in his version with guitars of “Viejo smoking.” And although the voices should not be thought of as operatic, tango would also have its veristic phase; from the 60s onward, voices such as those of Raúl Lavié and Roberto Yanés display a new sensibility, that of ballad singers. Gesticulation and a dubious idea of good taste begin to substitute for technique. Singers in the style of Gardel no longer have a place, and the very concept of a Gardel school is transformed into a not so veiled critique of post-60s tango ideology. This change in singer style was related to the change in the venue for tango. Performance moved from the dance floor or the cabaret to the café concert—the Latin American version of a dinner theatre, and the loss of the dance venue surely was fatal for the tradition of tango artists singing “to the beat.”
In tango today, the equilibrium has been lost and it is impossible to recuperate. The orchestras don’t exist; the environment is not there; in some cases, only a vague memory remains. Voice seems impossible to reconstruct, perhaps because it is tango’s most emotional instrument, connection or vibration. Tango interpreted by the orchestras of the 40s and 50s, in which 20 to 30 extraordinary singers ranged from the very good to the outstanding, is—along with jazz—the best popular music of the last century. A combination of factors contributed to tango’s progressive decline. With the exception of the efforts of Troilo, Pugliese and Salgán, everything went downhill in the world of tango. Awareness of no longer being center-stage in the cultural industry led to true musical caricatures.
The singer Julio Sosa, nicknamed “el varón del tango”(the tango guy), warrants a mention here, since his singing often leads to considerable misunderstanding. After having sung in several orchestras, Sosa, ensconced in machista and ill-bred character roles, decided at the end of the 50s to create his own orchestra, conducted by the sophisticated musician Leopoldo Federico. The orchestra, featured on television, became a huge success. An illusion was created of the rebirth of tango. Goyeneche joked: “If Sosa hadn’t died [in 1964], I’d still be driving a cab.” The odd thing about this popularity is that a group of intellectuals were the fiercest defenders of a singer so vulgar that, it was once said, he coughed as he sang.
From then on, and until just a few years ago, tango disappeared from the musical horizon. It first emerged again with revived and lasting enthusiasm for its choreography; later, young musicians became enamored of the tango genre in two distinct directions: on one hand, groups that incorporated saxophone and drums in a hybrid and watered down fusion; on the other, new orchestras that play all of Caló’s or Pugliese’s arrangements from the 50s. In the best of cases, tango today is a well-intentioned archeology of a musical genre.
Rafael Filippelli, an Argentine movie director, teaches screenwriting and directing at the FUC film school in Buenos Aires.
Federico Monjeau is a professor of musical aesthetics at the University of Buenos Aires.