Saturday, April 11, 2009


I'm not devout, but I will say a little prayer to somebody on Easter Monday. I usually watch University Challenge on Mondays, but lately I have been learning to tango instead. Each class lasts three hours. and the whole business is thoroughly regrettable for all concerned. My feet aren' usually fleet, and I tend to walk down stairs like a hunchback, even though I am less than 5'10". My coordination is deplorable, and my hiccupping movements lack any semblance of purpose.

Nevertheless, DV is rather good and we all agree that, while she does not take direction well, she moves beautifully. After three lessons my ocho cortado is beginning to pass muster, and though there was nobody around to see them, my pivots across the linoleum floor today weren't bad. I'd be lying if I said these lessons were fun (on the contrary, they are often hellish), but I think we're making progress. Still, thank God there's no class on Easter Monday.

The Old Guard style of tango brings me out in a rash at the moment, but Astor Piazzolla's tango nuevo is something else. It's impossible to overstate Piazzolla's contribution to twentieth century music: his popularity comes from his embrace of the avant-garde, and from his inscription of Modernism (influenced by his heroes Stravinsky and Bartok) into tango, which had until the 1950s been steeped in tradition and orthodoxy. Before he wrote "Adios Nonino," Piazzolla had been playing his bandoneon to Argentine cabaret audiences, which is only one step up from playing Widow Twanky at Great Yarmouth.

When I met [Nadia Boulanger], I showed her my kilos of symphonies and sonatas. She started to read them and suddenly came out with a horrible sentence: "It's very well written." And stopped, with a big period, round like a soccer ball. After a long while, she said: "Here you are like Stravinsky, like Bartók, like Ravel, but you know what happens? I can't find Piazzolla in this." And she began to investigate my private life: what I did, what I did and did not play, if I was single, married, or living with someone, she was like an FBI agent! And I was very ashamed to tell her that I was a tango musician. Finally I said, "I play in a night club." I didn't want to say cabaret. And she answered, "Night club, mais oui, but that is a cabaret, isn't it?" "Yes," I answered, and thought, "I'll hit this woman in the head with a radio...." It wasn't easy to lie to her.

She kept asking: "You say that you are not pianist. What instrument do you play, then?" And I didn't want to tell her that I was a bandoneon player, because I thought, "Then she will throw me from the fourth floor." Finally, I confessed and she asked me to play some bars of a tango of my own. She suddenly opened her eyes, took my hand and told me: "You idiot, that's Piazzolla!" And I took all the music I composed, ten years of my life, and sent it to hell in two seconds.

—Astor Piazzolla, A Memoir

This mini-symphony for the bandoneon is about as far from Gardel as it is possible to get while remaining true to tango.

Héctor Roberto Chavero Aramburo, better known as Atahualpa Yupanqui, was Argentina's most important folk singer and musical ethnographer. He died a mere six weeks before Piazzolla in 1992, but Atahualpa was an important musical and political figure by the 1930s, actively promoting Latin American unity and supporting Yrigoyen against right-wing terror groups. Atahualpa starred in the classic Argentine rockumentary Argentinisima, and this no-holds-barred warning about the dangers of writing fine words about parsnips which have not been buttered ("Vive junto con el pueblo; no lo mires desde afuera, que lo primero es el hombre, y lo segundo, poeta") is from that film:

Skipping forward half a decade in time and several lifetimes in style, Vox Dei were one of the biggest rock bands in Argentina in the early 1970s, and in 1971 they released the country's first homegrown concept album, modestly titled La Biblia. The album's Wikipedia entry describes it as "hard-psycho" - the whole LP is available on Youtube, and it is indeed a thumping concoction. My Spanish isn't quite up to translating the lyrics, and with song-titles like "Genesis," "Cristo y Nacimiento," and "Cristo Muerte y Resurreccion," that's probably just as well. But fans of hard, offhand proggish-rock should seek out La Biblia immediately - it's the equal of anything Purple or Sabbath or Floyd produced in this period - seriously ("Moises," in particular, is a dream of a track). This is "Las guerras" - it rocks like a bastard and the video has footage of a moderner-than-now Buenos Aires from the 70s:

More Argentine psych here.


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