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Tango? Not according to the Latin Academy

By Published: November 10, 2007
On Buenos Aires Tango Standards I assembled a group of Argentine musicians who are equally versed and experienced in tango and jazz. For the repertoire, I chose from among the most traditional instrumental tangos written by Arolas, Bardi, Laurenz, Maffia, Salgan, all part of the tango canon. Drummer Daniel Piazzolla (there is that name again!) and I developed our rhythmic concept from a set of traditional tango rhythms that I transcribed from classic tango bands (Di Sarli, Pugliese, Calo, Pontier, Gobbi). The rhythms that we play are all traditional marcatos, sincopas and milongas—the essence of tango. You just have to know how to hear past the drums, bass and piano rhythm section format and understand this is not swing, not ska, not AfroCuban... it's tango. Pianist Abel Rogantini, a veteran of the famed Orquesta Escuela de Tango and an active tango freelancer in Buenos Aires, is able to bridge both worlds by infusing the music with rich jazzy harmonies using tango rhythms and concepts. And the horn players... Well, if you can get past the lack of bandoneon and violin and hear what these musicians are doing, you realize why I had to go all the way to Buenos Aires to make this recording. Gustavo Bergalli and Jorge Retamoza play their horns as a tango singer, as a bandoneonist would, as Argentine musicians with full knowledge and love of the tango tradition do, regardless of their instruments' traditional value (or percentage thereof). I would not have it any other way.

Who are the gatekeepers of the tango category at LARAS? Who are these experts who passed judgment on my brand of tango and considered it not "tango" enough? What else do they consider not-tango? Recent Latin Grammy nominations of recordings by Pablo Ziegler and Adrian Iaies, artists whom I consider to be very close to my aesthetic and clearly not traditional tango, make it even more confusing to understand where they draw the line.

But we could hardly expect the Latin Academy to subject all submitted nominations to such an intense scrutiny. Take Brazilian music: most artists there make liberal use of jazz instrumentation and harmony and they don't think twice about using reggae or guajira or rock rhythms as part of their palette. I doubt you would exclude Caetano Veloso or Carlinhos Brown from the Brazilian music category. And think of an analogous situation in the jazz category! Well, actually, that has happened before and the results were invariably scandalous.

If the tango experts can't hear what it is that I'm doing with this music, perhaps they should listen closer. Given my trajectory, they may even have to acknowledge that they don't know enough about tango rhythms and forms to pass judgment on this music. And they must understand the tango tradition as a living, breathing thing. Tango is alive, it's not stuck in the past and you should expect it to sound different today than it did in the so-called Golden Era of the '40s. I feel that my work over the past two decades has contributed to the validity of tango as a contemporary, dynamic genre. It's too bad Latin Academy voters will not have a chance to acknowledge this.

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