Monday, 29 May 2017

Developments in Live Tango

I've been wishing for a long time that there were actually-good, live tango bands. The ones I heard until recently were always either too classical in style and giving me no reason to dance, or too singer-led, and consequently boring.

But recently there have been developments. One is that there are now quite a lot of tango bands that are trying things and get booked for festivals and performances. This is important because - I think - you need this, before you can get noticeable differences of standard, and you need that before good ones can develop.

At some point in that process, we probably need things like a rather sugary stage version of Invierno from Solo Tango. I think the performance and the playing in that video work very well together artistically as a unit, but the interpretation of the piece itself - especially from 01:00 onwards, where the violin melody starts maundering around the general area of the beat - does not sit well beside the Canaro/Maida recording of 1937 with its perfect union between melody and rhythm.

In Alma de Bohemio, Podestá may hold the note for nine seconds and float down alone like autumn's first leaf, but when he does come down, he and the orchestra land together on the beat, with timing as perfect as this. The beat, even silent, is always the heart of it, and the singer doesn't fight it, because he's good and doesn't need to, and because, at that moment, it's not about him. I say this to explain what I mean by danceable tango.

So, the second development is that there are some live bands now who set out to play for dancers,  and understand what that means, and from time to time I can actually go and dance to their music. Dancing to live music is a special experience.

La Juan D'Arienzo, who visited Liverpool and London last week, are a substantial outfit who delivered what it says on the tin; their four bandoneons, four violins, piano and bass gave us a beat, and plenty of excitement. They felt perfectly danceable to me, even if I wasn't that motivated personally. I wondered if they could have got more emotional scope and heft by using more of their dynamic range, but it's hard to know.

I really bought my ticket to hear the opening act, Los Milonguitas. They are tiny - only a trio - but when I saw their performance of Silueta porteña on YouTube it seemed to me that they were playing it the way they felt it should be played. They weren't just trying to imitate a particular band of the Golden Age; they were experimenting with a variety of styles in imitation of different bands, and, in the milongas at least, sometimes daring to be themselves.

They were entertaining to dance to and would work for a real social dance event. They played tandas in different styles, they played valses and milongas in the usual proportion and place, and they rather charmingly played their own cortinas (Beatles, obvs) - none of which the larger band attempted. I really enjoyed dancing to their music, especially what they did with the bass, perhaps inspired by the lack of a violin.

There are other bands I'd be happy to try dancing to. Los Herederos del Compás also bill themselves "al estilo Juan D'Arienzo", which is a good place to start. At least they're not trying to be Pugliese. I love Pugliese, but I don't think it's such a good place to start.

Orquesta Romantica Milonguera, with three violins, three bandoneons, piano, bass and male and female voices, also seem to be pretty much being themselves, and danceable, although they do often sound a lot like Fulvio Salamanca (nothing wrong with that). I like the singing in this.

So, the next step, which seems to be maybe happening, would be for bands to have the ambition and confidence to be consistently and openly themselves, however humble.

The one after that (and I suppose tightly connected by the process of developing arrangements) would be, not only to play, tour, and record for dancers, but also to compose, arrange, and perform new tangos for dancing. That's when it gets real.

That would sound something like this:

That's Orquesta Típica Misteriosa Buenos Aires, with a new instrumental tango called "7 de enero", composed by their director, Javier Arias. And I think it's great. I love it. I totally want to dance to it right now; I think it's got something to say. I want to make a tanda with it. It starts well, it's got a delicious melody, it's got fun stuff without getting complicated, and it carries a slow, suspenseful energy right through to a satisfying conclusion.

Let's go!

Unfortunately, I find the rest of the album on YouTube disappointing. The singer is not a success; she doesn't stay with the beat, she's much too dominant, and the result is dull. There's another original composition; I would love someone to arrange and record the rather good milonga that's hiding inside it. The opening of 7 de enero also sounds much weaker than in the video, so the Youtube sound quality may have some problems; I'd be interested to hear the instrumentals on CD.

Their other two albums are not obviously better, but they're also earlier. On the other hand - this outfit have been around since 2008, and it's now 2017. If they haven't really delivered yet, will they ever?  I'd be so pleased if they did - if they delivered even one tanda of sharp, sensual, danceable tangos as good as the video above, where the violins are allowed to sing. What will it take to deliver that? Competition? Criticism? Ambition? Encouragement? A Patreon setup? They only posted that video two weeks ago. Could they continue in the same direction?

Will there ever be a Postmodern Jukebox for tango? (Other than the actual Postmodern Jukebox, who are all over cortinas everywhere).

Either way, I'd like to thank my DJ friends Karin Betz and Trud Antzee for drawing that video to my attention.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Following and information

Having the opportunity to learn to follow before attempting to lead - which women do by social right, and men once did for practical reasons - is not only a matter of having better information than someone who comes to it 'cold'.

It also allows you to solve about 90% of the big physical problems of posture, axis, embrace, balance, coordination, control of momentum, cognition and proprioception, before you start worrying about any of the much smaller number of problems that are specific to leading. 

For me, leading is mostly just one quite challenging problem, which is training my brain to perceive and command a lot of quite complex and unexpected movements that my body can already easily do. And solving that one problem gets slowly but steadily easier with practice. 

Most of the other problems are relatively straightforward, when taken in isolation from the problems that are common to both leading and following. You can focus properly on the specific problems and solve them without confusion.

Another benefit is that you have already developed an accurate idea of what you might want to do, and why, which makes you unlikely to waste much time on classes that are not useful. I don't bother learning to lead anything I don't personally like to follow.

A third is that you have access to good followers and are in a state where you can avoid annoying them, if you have any trace of sense, and repay their investment in you quickly. 

And a fourth is that, with luck, you may also have found, or even become part of, one or more communities where the leaders behave nicely on the dancefloor rather than some combination of charging about like ants on coke, wrestling and pouting. This will reduce the stressful side, and also give you access to crucial information.

All these are blessings. But if you learn to follow well and then start leading and take it seriously, you damn well ought to be better than average in a couple of years, or you're doing it wrong.

Friday, 3 February 2017

Scenes of Working Life


I have no idea what I'm doing. A minute ago I thought I knew what I was doing, and now I don't.


Oscillation between those two states is the sign of a healthy learning experience. 
Thanks for that.

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Perfect Things

There are things I want to be able lead and that I could go to a class and be told how to lead.

But they're things of the kind to which I have a deep-down awkward attitude that says, if I can't work out from first principles how to do them myself, I ought not to be doing them at all.

Monday, 28 November 2016

A Brief Rant on Poetry

One of the things I like about tango is that when I DO pay attention to the lyrics, which is not always, I normally find that they're not shit.

Sometimes I don't understand them, sometimes my reaction is "yeah, right", sometimes they're kind of routine, sometimes the content is morally or aesthetically objectionable in one way or another, and sometimes they're hard to take in the sense that the writer presumably intended, but I can't think of an occasion when they annoyed me by being badly written. Very often, they're great, like "removiendo fotos en mi corazón" and things like that. Or maybe I just don't notice the bad bits because it's not my native language and even when they are a bit weak, I don't take it personally, so I instantly forget it. If you have an example of badly-written tango lyrics, please put them, with your analysis, in the comments.

Today I encountered a poem by a Poet Laureate, no less (the official state poet!), specifically commissioned and written to be carved in stone at the UK Supreme Court. And it's dire. He starts with a nice idea about the setting; he trips over his scansion in line three by adding an unnecessary word that makes the line more twee and less meaningful; and then what a limp, superficial, witless, smug, plodding, naive, insincere four verses. And this appears on the website far too close to a picture of Lord Denning, who besides being a famous and unusually talented judge, really was a poet, in his own way.

Could we not have got somebody good to do this? There must be so many rap artists who could have done a better job of a thoughtful, historically-informed, engaging and aesthetically vigorous poem about the difficulties and importance of the administration of justice. And it would have scanned, rhymed, and made sense to music.

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Krissy on Kennet Radio: the magic of tango

My friend Krissy King does a wonderful job in this, describing the magic of tango. The whole programme is fun, with chat about sewing, salsa, Strictly Come Dancing and other matters, but Krissy comes on just before 01:10:00 and finishes at about 01:20:00. I think her description, and the reactions in the studio, are worth studying for anyone who might find themselves in the position of trying to describe tango to a friend or stranger.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Night of the Swooshpout

A month or two ago I happenend to be at a practica which, for some reason possibly something to do with some other events on the previous few days, had attracted a slightly bigger than normal, and slightly unusual, crowd. Not in conflict with its usual crowd, but taking the usual theme and extending it well beyond its normal parameters.

It is a peculiar and fascinating experience for a middle-aged woman to lead on a floor where the men - many of them youngish and prettyish - are so wholly and competitively focussed on each other*.

They glare, they pout, they sweep about, in bubbles of anxious pretensions and a fog of masculinity.

Their partners - pencil-skirted, peeled, and vertiginously heeled, fluffed, big-eyed, and glittering (for a practica), are there only to applaud, more or less. They have to work hard for attention, because the boys are focused on each other and who can do the best imitation of a six-foot plastic Carlitos.

A few attempt the plastic Chicho, but he's rather out of fashion, if not quite far enough out of fashion to be retro. Yet.

It reminded me more than anything of the crying-with-laughter moment in the 2012 Olympics when Clare Balding started to relate how the male swimmers allegedly beat their chests before a race "... and the women [pause, during which Clare realises that this sentence has nowhere it can possibly go and Ian Thorpe collapses in giggles] ... do not."

It is most peculiar to feel this atmosphere overwhelming me and demanding that I either fight it, which is hard work and extremely distracting, or be sucked in and try to do the same myself, which is ludicrous. Somehow or other, I have to find a way to float and let it all wash past me. It's not easy and it requires a constant, determined effort at maintaining the connection with my own dance, my own pleasure, my own partner and my own priorities. And also at asserting my right to be there and to occupy my equal share of space, which is in itself a challenge. The answer may be to develop some sort of Somebody Else's Problem field; I will let you know if there is an outcome to my research on this.


* Or, to be fair, about 60% on each other and 30% on Carlitos, with the rest left over for female and other matters. I specifically want to say that I wouldn't want to give Carlitos any shit for this. I know from direct firsthand information that when he was teaching a regular beginners' class in the south of France he produced some of my absolute favourite dancers anywhere, with not only the purest warm-hearted modesty and competency of dance, but the kind of embraces that leave behind a little trail of floating hearts as we dance around the floor, exactly like on Periscope. I saw nothing at the practica that was on the same planet as any of those. That is the way tango should be, and very often is. But not in the fog.