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TANGO CLUB, the new CD by the CT Tango Ensemble, includes a performance of Payadora, one of the most famous tangos written by Julian Plaza. The drama and rhythmic drive of this work is irresistible, and we have had a wonderful time performing it live on many occasions. It never fails to attract dancers to the dance-floor.

The music of Argentinean composer Julian Plaza (1928-2003) has a special place in the history of Tango.  Plaza was an all-round musician. He was bandoneon-player and pianist for some of Argentina’s top orchestras in the late 1940’s including the legendary ensembles of Carlos di Sarli and Osvaldo Pugliese. As arranger of existing tangos, he honed his craft in the 1950’s, working with the tango giants such as Anibal Troilo and Osvaldo Pugliese. Plaza left a canon of very fine and original tangos. He was influenced by Piazzolla and the Tango Nuevo. Which tanguero was not? But Plaza was not drawn into the heady world of Tango Nuevo. Instead, Plaza  was determined that the Tango should not stray too far from its roots as “dance music”. During his association with the music of Pugliese – a composer who more than hinted at the avant-garde that would be unleashed on the tango in the 1950s – he undoubtedly absorbed a taste for jarring harmonies and aggressive cross-rhythms. His music is spicy with cross rhythms and dissonance, but remains dance music per excellence.

Payadora is a delightful mixture of old and new. This uninhibited milonga has an obsessive rhythm that only abates for a moment, before it is off for another whirl around the dance-floor. The sharp accents in the rhythm and the spicy chords, both depict and inspire sharp stabs of the shoe, and those delightful moves where the leader “blocks” the foot of the follower in a sharp and percussive movement.

In our recording on TANGO CLUB we recreate the atmosphere of the dance-hall. We do not use a drummer on this track, as the style does not seem to call for that kind of groove. We all hit and tap the basic rhythm of this fast Milonga on various parts of our instrument. This serves to announce the type of dance to the audience, they can instantly decide if they are in the mood for a fast whirl around the floor, and the man can spot the woman of his choice. The music starts with an optimistic run up the scale, immediately dissolving into a short little oasis where there is hardly any definable rhythm. Here, the dancers take up their position, clasp hands and “tune in” to one another in the close embrace of the Argentinean Tango. The leader “tests” the balance of his follower, making sure he or she is prepared for which foot the leader will be stepping from.

Suddenly the focus shifts from the intimacy of a couple connecting intimately, to the larger view of the entire room. With a two-beat flourish, the Milonga takes off. The leader chooses his direction, and off we go on a whirl around the floor. In the space of a few bars of music, a very complex set of social structures have fallen into place. Decisions were made. Body language was read. Partners were chosen, accepted and whisked away.  All in the magnificent language of the music, the body, the tango.

You can read more about how the milonga is danced, and watch video examples of this, in a delightful “Tango Jargon” blog by “Scott and Niki”.

Where does the Milonga come from?

The term Milonga can refer to a style of South American music (Argentina, Uruguay and Southern Brazil in particular). It is also the name of the dance that preceded the tango. Places or events at which the tango or Milonga are danced can also be called milongas.

The term milonga comes from a similar expression that means “lyrics”. The Milonga is also derived from singing and originated in the Río de la Plata area of Argentina and Uruguay. A Payadora is an “itinerant singer” or wandering minstrel”, so the title of Plaza’s tango refers also to its vocal history.

Forms of European dance-music such as the Polka, made their way to Argentina with emigrants and was extremely popular in the 1870s. The song was set to a lively 2/4 tempo, and often included musical improvisation. Over time, dance steps and other musical influences were added, eventually giving rise to the tango.

Macho Milonga

A Buenos Aires street corner c1910

In the first decade of the 20th Century, men outnumbered women in Buenos Aires by 8 to 1. Both licensed and unlicensed prostitution was rife in the port city. Women with whom to experience the pleasures of the body (dancing included) were at a premium. When some of the more respected members of society visited the brothels – viewed as a necessary evil given the circumstances – musicians were sometimes asked to blindfold themselves, to protect the identity, if not the “dignity” of the customer. I suspect that this practice of playing sightless, might also have influenced the musical development of the Milonga style. The phrases and chords make physical sense in a way that many other tango styles do not. Even the trickier milongas have a physical character in the basic material that leans itself to small movements on the piano. This somehow encourages one to invent little variants on the themes.

Mark Hoeben & Ina Wichterich

To illustrate exactly this part of the Tango’s history, the CT TANGO ENSEMBLE have in fact performed a Milonga blindfolded at the Klein Karoo Nationale Kunstefees. All You ever Wanted To Know About Tango But Were Too Afraid To Ask, scripted and directed by Mark Hoeben, ran to sold out houses at the KKNK and the “Blindfolded Tango” was one of the highlights of the show. It was quite a showpiece for our ensemble, in which our group – of four men – realized that while we were showing off in the best possible way, we also “danced” with each other in the way we make music together.

Marthinus Basson won a Fleur du Cap Best Director award in 2002 for the show, Tango Del Fuego – “a boundary-defying history of tango filled with the form’s founding impetus of rapine colonialism, forced removal and slavery.” (Darryl Accone – Artslink.co.za)

Starring the cream of South African Theatre such as Nicole Holm and the magnificent ensemble of Antoinette Kellermann and David Minnaar, it ran at all the major arts festivals in South Africa. The music – the glue which unified the show, was provided by the CT Tango Ensemble. The multi-talented Maxwell Xolani-Rani paid homage to the slave-roots of the Tango by dancing a Milonga with a drum. The energy of that dance by a solo black male – dancing with and occasionally playing on the drum – was one of the highlights of the show. This work also exploited the same-sex tango duo. Again choreography and improvisation mingled in the work of Mark Hoeben and Jaco Bouwer to create a riveting tension. Aggressive sexuality, violence, testosterone, crimes of passion. These primal energies certainly float around the psyche of male tango dancers – if not males in general.

Two men practising their steps

The Milonga then became the calling card of the macho male: only the best (male) dancers were “allowed” to dance with women, both socially, and as part of the formal procedures in the brothels. (Only in 1936 was legal prostitution abolished in Argentina). There is a well accepted tradition of same-sex tango Men practiced furiously with other men. And in the brothels, ladies were taught to dance by the other more experienced ladies. In Tango Del Fuego, the scene in which Ina Wichterich, taking the role of the older and wiser woman, teaches the rules of tango to inexperienced youth played by Nicole Holm, was poignant and touching.

Other useful links:

Watch Tanguero Anton Gazenbeek dance a magnificent solo tango with two sticks at a Milonga in New York.

Watch New York Tangueros Anton Gazenbeek and Sergio Segura dance an all-male duo tango at the same Milonga in New York.

Free Sheet Music of Julian Plaza can be downloaded at www.todotango.com.

Read more about West Hollywood dancer Steve Valentine’s same-sex ballroom dancing programme HERE.

All-male tango energy: Steve Valentine and Partner

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Morgann Rose, Jared Nelson and Laura Urgellés in Piazzolla Caldera -© Carol Pratt

My Blog has moved to www.albertcombrink.com

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.

Astor Piazzolla

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 2003 CD Release "El Tango en Africa"

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:

Addios Nonino

Oblivion

Milonga del Anunciacion from the “Tango Operita” Maria de Buenos Aires

Chiquilin de Bachin

Libertango

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

Cafe 1930

Anos de Soledad – Years of Solitude

Verano Porteno – Summer in Buenos Aires

Milonga del AngelDance 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

Mark Hoeben and Ina Wichterich performing at "The Valve"