Argentina’s number one musical export has helped sell everything from soft drinks to software. Electronic takes on it have suavely soundtracked numberless TV ads and interludes. The quirky music and dance known as tango has been in and out of fashion at home and abroad several times since it came strutting out of the slums and brothels of early 20th-century Buenos Aires.
The roots of tango lie in Cuban habanera, Afro-Argentinean candombe and folk dances such as the waltz, polka and mazurka, which European immigrants brought to Argentina in the late 19th century. It was one of the first world-music crazes, taking the dance floors of Paris and London by storm, and reaching its zenith in the 1940s and early 1950s, when a much wider and wealthier audience embraced it in Argentina, taking the music far beyond its working-class roots. This “golden age” saw tango orquestas of increasing size and sophistication packing out the cabarets and nightclubs of Buenos Aires, led by the stars of the day, such as Juan D’Arienzo, Anibal Troilo and Horacio Salgan.
Eventually, however, a combination of political turmoil and a change of musical fashion in favour of folk, swing and rock’n’roll eroded its popularity.
The relatively recent arrival of “tango electronica” pioneers Gotan Project and Bajofondo has sparked renewed interest in the traditional forms of tango. “It’s only been in the past 10 years that tango has become more relevant in terms of popularity, not only in Argentina but worldwide,” says Gustavo Santaolalla, Bajofondo’s stocky, goateed, fiftysomething guitarist. “There’s more milongas [tango dance halls] now than ever, and there’s more young people now in Argentina learning to play the bandoneon [the melancholic accordion that gives tango its distinctive sound] and being part of orquestas and groups than ever.”
Santaolalla is also the driving force behind the ambitious Cafe de los Maestros project, which brought together veterans of that mid-century golden era to record a double album of vintage material in the city where tango took its first lurching steps. The album showcases both vocal and instrumental tango, from familiar gems to obscure delights. Santaolalla has strived to present the music in its purest form — as it was heard in its era.
“It’s such a popular music and it’s danceable, but at the same time it’s extremely sophisticated,” Santaolalla says, in strongly accented English, down the phone line from his home in LA. “It’s very difficult music to play, write and arrange, but it’s always fascinated me.” Santaolalla fled Argentina and its “dirty war” in 1978, but returned to Buenos Aires for the chance to work with the surviving luminaries of tango’s glory days. He began the Cafe de los Maestros project five years ago, and the recordings were finished by September 2004, with the album gaining a local release the following year. International release was delayed, though, until a documentary about the making of the album could be completed.
“The intention of the movie is to have the audience peek into this fascinating music that is tango, into these great characters,” Santaolalla says.
Though it is the first time he has appeared in a movie himself, film work is nothing new to Santaolalla: his soundtracks for Brokeback Mountain and Babel both won Oscars. Producing albums by Latin rockers such as Juanes and Cafe Tacuba is another string to his bow, and he has just finished work on a new Morrissey single. But he insists that it was teething problems in the post-production work on the movie, rather than his own hectic schedule, that delayed the album’s international release. And even if the film teeters between glorious failure and qualified success, it certainly whets your appetite for the triumphant album.
Cafe de los Maestros is nothing if not diverse. The instrumentals range from delicate, reflective solo pieces on piano and bandoneon through elegant quartets to the swooning orchestras of Horacio Salgan, Leopoldo Federico and Mariano Mores. As well as tangos, there are swinging creole waltzes and folky milongas that hark back to the genesis of the style.
Santaolalla has coaxed some wonderful performances from a large cast of distinctive singers, with the help of engineer Jorge Portugues Da Silva; the rapport Da Silva enjoyed with the singers was often based on decades of previous experience with them. The oldest was the singer Nelly Omar, born in 1911. Inevitably, some of these maestros have passed away since the project began, including Lagrima Rios, Uruguay’s “black pearl of tango”.
Santaolalla sees both this and Cafe de los Maestros as part of a larger quest for identity, which has always informed his work, and has been a recurrent theme throughout Argentina’s cultural history. After all, as the sleeve notes of the new album observe, “tango is the one thing we [Argentinians] don’t consult Europe about”. —