Capturing the spirit of tango

Capturing the spirit of tango

This blog has so far been covering my discoveries of contemporary tango.

It may appear that I only care about the present but it is not so: I am deeply invested in the tango tradition. D'Arienzo's Ansiedad with Alberto Echagüe still moves me tremendously as it did when I first played it seven years ago.

At the same time, I am very keen on finding proof that tango can live on in this century.

There's a certain contradiction here, in that tango can be perceived as as longing for the times long gone, and cannot therefore live in the present, let alone be open to the future.

I'm basing this assertion on the observable fact that traditional milongas rooted in the 1940s represent the vast majority of the action in my corner of Europe. I've danced in Germany, Holland, Portugal, and Latvia, among others, to the pretty much the same playlist.

You could argue that this derives from the vast quantity of repertoire from the 1940s, or that only then was tango really danced the way it's meant to, and I am open to that argument.

Still, it seems to me that a psychological argument is also viable: that some people want to mentally travel back in time and that tango gives them this escapist opportunity.

I will argue that it's a bad idea to promote this feeling, and that we can replace it with a more generic idea, one that is associated with the same emotions but not bound to a specific time and place. We do not live in Buenos Aires in the 1940s.

Canaro's was a contemporary orchestra once. I wonder what his dancers felt when moving along the ronda to his tunes. Were they looking backwards into a (hypothetical) "golden age" of the 1800s, or simply enjoying the present?

We don't know but he is not our contemporary. Today, dancing to "Mi musa campera", recorded Wednesday, October 31, 1934, our emotional response is not based on how we feel in 2019.

The popular music has moved on quite a bit since 1934.

It can, however, represent how we want to feel, which is to say, it can move us to look backwards to the imaginary "golden age" of the past sufficiently distant such that we can romanticize it.

This brings about a conflict when we attempt to re-interpret tango today: with contemporary recording technology, technical skills of musicians, and influences of what's happened in music since, there's no way a new tango recording can strike the same note.

Nor should it.

There has to be some definition of tango that is open to exploration and interpretation again and again, fairly specific in what it seeks but unbounded from its origins.

I bring you Orquesta Típica Andariega with Todo te nombra:

This is a cover of Canaro's tune, respectful yet original in arrangement and execution. Never mind the video: it feels modern on its own and yet provokes similar movements on the dance floor.

Emotionally, it is playful (the staccatos are even sharper than Biagi's!) and it is longing for something. This feeling of want coupled with the occasional joke might be what defines tango emotions. Perhaps a bit of regret or loss but not too much.

I believe that this is the way forward: keeping the tango heart firmy in its place and evolving musically. And when new compositions come to life, even better!

A perfectly valseable vals created in the 21st century.

Finding and defining the unchanging spirit of tango in music from the times past and present is important to keep it alive and prosperous. It's the jobs of DJs, educators, and organizers; the milongueros want to simply have fun. If we fail and keep feeding them the "safe" repertoire, they won't blame us!

Our failure to do so will have a twofold negative impact. It will keep many young people away, since the squeaky scratchy sound of shellacs is a real barrier for newcomers, and it will discourage musicians from creating. And where do we end up then, if not in a walled garden and, ultimately, a retirement home!


This has originally started as an opinion piece in which I wanted to explore the boundaries of tango - what music can still claim to carry the tango spirit, however contemporary it sounds - and I found out that I had to first face the question about what tango is in the first place. I don't know that I have succeeded, and I will keep trying; as for the boundaries, these I will have to mark later.


One of the impulses I had for writing this was reading a post by Thomas Kröter, Lieber lebend. And it reminds me I need to get a blogroll up here!

Read some more