Astor Piazzolla: Cobblestone to Dance Floor
January 29, 2010
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The word Tango conjures up many images. The word Tango tells many stories. The word Tango merely hints at the mystery of a music that has run in the bloodstream of generations. A dance of sex and violence born in the bordellos of Buenos Aires. Seduction. Murder. Handsome men in patent leather shoes and white fedoras. Hot blooded women with beautiful thighs and high heels. Two hands clasping together. Tango speaks of the body, and it speaks to the body.
The story that Tango tells is far richer than the one restricting it to the simplistic legend of brothel entertainment – although that certainly is one of it’s tales in a country where, at the start of the 20th century, male immigrants outnumbered females 8 to 1. European immigrants, mainly from Italy and Spain, flooded into Argentina hoping to cash in on the boom in the farming industry. Argentina was enormous by comparison and held promise of land, gold and prosperity – unlike Europe which was sliding into war. The sad reality was, of course, that many were unable to afford to buy the lands that would make them rich, in the first place. Homesick, poor and often unemployed, immigrants settled in working-class neighbourhoods. The colourfulness of the neighbourhoods reflected a poverty of material goods, but not of spirits. Houses were often painted in a variety of colours – left-overs from other projects. Inspired by the colour of local arts and crafts, a vibrant society developed. Along with the port-city’s natives, these people gave expression to their daily struggles. European Polkas intermingled with traditional dances to create a new hybrid. Originally danced on rough and uneven cobblestone, Tango took a long journey before it reached the smooth polished dancefloor.
Unlike the chequered history of the Tango, the story of one of it’s greatest exponents – Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992) – gives up its secrets more willingly. Beginning and ending his life in Argentina, frames periods of study in Paris and New York, and a lifetime of travel as a concert musician. As a child his Italian father insisted that he learn the Bandoneon, the quintessential “Voice of Tango “. His virtuosity was such that already as a teenager he was given a job in Anibal Troilo’s famous Tango orchestra. Troilo is today regarded as one of the fathers of the traditional dance tango and his music is still performed regularly.
Piazzolla was obviously a highly creative teen, and was soon bored by what he considered a genre that had stagnated into formulaic gestures and was in danger of becoming extinct. He went to Paris to study “serious” classical music composition with Nadia Boulanger, probably the world’s most famous composition pedagogue. This encounter was to change the history of the Tango for ever. Boulanger was complimentary about Piazzolla’s well-crafted music, noting as his influences Bartok , Stravinsky and Ravel. At this point in his life he was still ashamed of his passion for his “native tongue” – the Tango, and had kept his arrangements and compositions a secret. Boulanger convinced him to finally play some to her class. Reportedly she took his hands and said: “Astor, this is beautiful. Here is the true Piazzolla – do not ever leave him.” Calling this epiphany the “great revelation of my life” he returned to Argentina brimming with confidence, enthusiasm and energy.
I love Nadia Boulanger and all her stories, but for me this is one of the most touching, as the music that Piazzolla created after their encounter is, to my mind, one of the great bodies of work of the 20th Century. He took the formulas of Tango – the dance rhythms of the various styles from Milonga to the Habanera – and infused them with the pungent harmonies and cross-rhythms of the twentieth century classical masters. His new style of tango – Tango Nuevo – took the tango from the Dance Hall to the Concert Hall.
The Cape Town Tango Ensemble has been performing Piazzolla’s music for a decade, in the Dance Hall as well as the Concert Hall. Performances at Aardklop, Klein Karoo and the Grahamstown Festivals achieved much critical acclaim and excellent CD sales. Along with Mark Hoeben and Ina Wichterich through a strong collaboration with TangoCapeTown they helped create many original stage productions in South Africa. These include Tango del Fuego by Marthinus Basson for Oude Libertas Teater, and All you ever wanted to know about Tango but were too afraid to ask and Tango Experience (scripted and directed by Mark Hoeben) for the Windhoek BankFees as well as the Klein Karoo Nationale Kunstefees. They regularly perform at dance and concert venues from Cape Town to Potchefstroom. Their first CD El Tango En Africa was released in 2003. Guest artists were Mezzo-soprano Violina Angeulov and African Percussion by Dizu Plaatjies.
The Piazzolla tracks recorded on that disc are:
Milonga del Anunciacion from the “Tango Operita” Maria de Buenos Aires
Chiquilin de Bachin
The tracks can be bought in MP3 format at Rhythm Records, who also have samples for you to listen to.
The CD itself can be bought from One World Cyber Music Store or from any of the musicians in the group.
The American site CDBaby also has Mp3’s to hear.
You can also view video extracts from the show El Beso (The Kiss) produced in collaboration with El Cacha Tango Company, directed by Heinrich Riesenhofer. An electrifying “Libertango” is danced here by Nur ‘Latino’ Dreyer and Cherona Reisenhofer-Dreyer.
The Cape Town Tango Ensemble is currently working on their second album Tango Club due for release in March 2010. This CD will again feature a substantial chunk of Piazzolla’s music, as his music is central to this ensemble’s work.
Piazzolla tracks on Tango Club include:
Soledad – Solitude
Anos de Soledad – Years of Solitude
Verano Porteno – Summer in Buenos Aires
Milonga del Angel – Dance of the Angel
La Muerte del Angel – The Death of the Angel
Cierra tus ojos y escucha – Close your eyes and listen
Musicians on the CD include:
Stanislav Angelov – Accordion and Bandoneon
Jacek Domagala – Violin
Albert Combrink – Piano
Charles Lazar – Double Bass
James Grace – Guitar
Willie van Zyl – Saxophone
Kevin Gibson – Drums