A Tale of Two Tangos

December 22, 2011 • Pop, Theme • Views: 1425

by Isabel Ortiz:

As the camera zooms in, a pulsing bass beat is suddenly joined by the faraway lilt of a bandoneon. Two dancers stand face-to-face, performing intricate, isolated movements in bizarre hip-hop choreography. The music sounds smooth and confident as the camera shifts from the hip hop dancers to the shadowy specter of a traditional tango milonguero. An eerie breeze lifts his coattails in slow motion as he stares intently into the camera, tipping his hat at the viewer. The video cuts back to the hip hop and zooms in on one of the dancers. A giant tattoo of Carlos Gardel, tango titan of the ‘30s, covers his entire chest.

When I first watched the music video for “La Gloria” by Gotan Project, I was immediately intrigued by this strange new musical phenomenon called electrotango. Growing up in an Argentine family, the tango had always been the unofficial soundtrack of my life. My idea of tango was informed by my grandmother’s constant crooning of tango lyrics and my dad’s enormous collection of old, grainy recordings of the greats. Watching my first electrotango video catapulted me into unfamiliar territory: A world made up of the clashing images, sounds, and times that composed my identity as both a voyeur and an insider in the Argentine cultural landscape.

The Paris-based group Gotan Project and their Argentinean counterparts Bajofondo currently dominate the electrotango scene. Their music targets younger generations by mixing acoustic tango with electronic music—DnB, house, chill out, and trip-hop. Both groups “sample” tango orchestras with traditional violin, bandoneon, bass, and piano instrumentation, overlaying them with electronic beats.

Already, electrotango’s global impact has been quick and definitive. GotanProject released the genre’s first album in 2000, Vuelvo al Sur/El Capitalismo. The album was a huge success, spawning Bajofondo and many other electrotango groups. Since, electrotango has found its way through mainstream cultural narratives, in various television shows, commercials, and motion pictures around the world. Following its debut album, Gotan Project’s music was featured in “Sex and the City,” “Nip/Tuck,” “Chuck,” and “Top Gear,” as well as in the movies “Ocean’s Twelve” and “Knight and Day.” During commercials for Finish Jet Dry dishwashing detergent in the United States, Australia, and Brazil, the languorous track “Epoca” plays as spotless dishes glint and sparkle in slow motion.

***

Electrotango’s popularity marks a recent tango renaissance, after the genre underwent a dormant period both at home and abroad. Following its “Golden Age” in the ‘40s and ‘50s, tango went out of style as rock music took over the Argentine music scene, and the genre had little impact with international youth removed from its cultural context. This changed in the 1990s: Increased tourism to Argentina and the rise of YouTube and music sharing sites created a demand for more global art forms. Removed from its historic time and place, tango was reborn on the international stage.

“In Argentina, the rebirth of tango started when Buenos Aires became a popular place for international tourism,” said Federico Monjeau, music critic for the highest circulating newspaper in Argentina, Clarín. “Tango musicians were getting jobs again and started to come out of their caves. At the same time, in the ‘90s there was a reconciliation between the youth and the tango, two worlds that in Argentina had always been separate,” he said. To Monjeau, the return of tango satisfied commercial needs over aesthetic ones. He added, “[Electrotango is] more the creation of a marketable product than of an art form.”

Monjeau underscores a common concern among Argentine audiences. To many, the push for global consumption threatens to erase the nostalgic fragility of a uniquely Argentine tradition. Since the days of Golden Age Buenos Aires, the warbles of impassioned tango singers and the swoons of violins have pervaded the national culture. Faithfully passed down within families from great grandparents to grandparents, tango has acquired its own brand of fierce nostalgia. Tango lyrics brim with specific names of Buenos Aires streets and embody mannerisms and peculiarities unique to their eras of origin, firmly rooting them in space and time.

Thus, the very nature of the tango links it to its rich cultural context. Esteban Buch, director of studies at the École des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris and an electrotango scholar highlights the obstacles inherent to the genre itself: “[Electrotango] is something new in the history of tango. It has to interpret the history of the genre, which has always had a complicated relationship with the concept of the new.”

***

This summer when I returned to Buenos Aires, I viewed tango as a vestige of a lost epoch, a postcard from another time. In the bustling, modern metropolis, I longed for the beautiful simplicity of the past—for the lilting music, elaborate architecture, and slower pace of a lost way of life. On city blocks, dusty, dilapidated ‘40s era cafes punctuate rows of steel industrial buildings, and elegantly coiffed old ladies walk by in fur coats and black pumps, impervious to the forward motion around them.

Monjeau spoke of the sacrifices that come with trying to translate the inherent contrasts of Buenos Aires into music. “Electronic tango is based on a prerecorded, fixed time,” he explained. “Tango musicians don’t respond well to [electrotango] because the essence of tango is the rubato,” he said, referring to the emotional speeding up and slowing down of tempo. Buch added, “the air of family and of conjoining that serves as the foundation… of tango is completely abandoned in electrotango.”

While electrotango has been successful in Europe and other parts of South America, its role among new generations in Argentina remains unclear. Walking down a Buenos Aires street, I would often hear the recognizable thump of electrotango coming from restaurants or record shops, but at nightclubs most teenagers still dance to American pop or reggaeton.

“You can easily say that in Buenos Aires fans of the first life of tango don’t follow electrotango too much. Evidence is the main tango radio, la dos por cuatro. Rarely will they pass electrotango,” said my Argentine friend Daniel Low. He too is nostalgic for traditional tango. “Electrotango is too damn simplified! Any idiot can play a chord on the bandoleon, but to play a fugue by Astor [Piazolla]? To have the feeling of [Aníbal] Troilo?”

However, some argue the traditionalist stance prevents the genre from advancing. According to Monjeau, “I think that we have to take on the idea of globalization and stop talking about the ‘Argentine tango’… Tango today has its own international network… Electrotango is the expression of this new global tango, as if the global paroxysm of tango has subsumed the tango itself. Techno tango isn’t tango, it’s just international techno tango for global consumption.”

Buch also views electrotango as a completely different animal, citing the importance of cultural dialogue on an international scale. “I think we need to resist the interpretation of electrotango as some imperialism of tango,” he said. “The window of opportunity to circulate the culture on a global scale was there and [Gotan Project and Bajofondo] took it.”

***

Walking in Buenos Aires one morning, I passed a CD store blaring the latest Gotan Project album, only to turn the corner into a deserted neighborhood. At the end of the street, I saw an old gramophone playing one of my favorite tangos, “Yuyo Verde,” as an old couple danced for an imaginary audience in an empty square. I watched them from a distance. Without warning, I was hit by an overpowering wave of nostalgia for a time I hadn’t even experienced, moved by the lonely couple’s rejection of the bustling forward motion around them.

But when I left the square and again walked past the CD store playing Gotan, I reflected on electrotango as yet another dimension of this city’s distinct time warps. Perhaps there was a need to join these two times, a way in which the genres could coexist within a city of so many overlaid realities. Passing the record store, I listened to the lyrics of Gotan’s “Epoca” (of detergent commercial fame), which could only pertain to the relationship between electrotango and tango: “Yes, it disappeared/In me it reappears/They thought it died/But it will be reborn/It was 25 years ago/And you existed, without existing yet.”

Isabel Ortiz ’14 is in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact her at isabel.ortiz@yale.edu.

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