Sunday, 8 November 2015

Review: Tango Negro - Film Africa Festival 2015

Dom Pedro, director of "Tango Negro - les racines
africaines du Tango"
Warning: this contains lots of spoilers. It's a documentary, it was only a single showing at the Royal African Society's annual film festival, and the chances that you'll get to see it are limited, so I think you might like to know what's in it. If you feel otherwise, stop when you get to the spoilers mark.

"Tango Negro" is directed and written by Angolan director Dom Pedro, who explained in the Q&A session that he was inspired to make this documentary by a football match in the 1990 World Cup between Argentina and Cameroon. Watching this match on TV in Paris, he asked himself why, given the football teams from Uruguay and Brazil, there were no black players for Argentina or Chile. A look at any globe tells you that this is a rather good question, by which I mean a question the answer to which is not obvious and might be very interesting. He decided to explore this question by means of music history.

The main presenter is Juan Carlos Cáceres. It was nice to hear from him, as he is responsible for this danceable tango nuevo track and for Tango Negro which gives its title to this film. We see him playing and interacting with other musicians and musicologists, black and white, in Argentina, Paris, and Uruguay. We also hear contributions from other musicians, an excellent drum band (pictured), instrument makers, cultural and family historians, cultural influencers, and so on. I'm sorry that I can't give you the names of the contributors, as they were only identified very briefly, and the film's website doesn't list them at all.

Excellent drumming band.
This is not, however, a film even mainly about music or dance. In fact, it is a mixture of musical interludes and a fascinating ramble through current cultural events and the social, political and demographic history of Argentina. I would be very interested to see a film about the music and dances of western Africa and their relationships with tango. This is an interesting film, but it's not that one.

-- Spoilers from here on. --

As a whole, the core argument is: there is a common belief among Argentinians and others that Argentina "is a white country" (as evidenced by the lived experience of actual fifth-generation black Argentinians being constantly asked if they are from Uruguay), which is in a sense mistaken, but is explained by history. A secondary argument, presented as evidence for the first, is that tango music could not have happened, and cannot be properly understood, without the African people of Argentina and Uruguay, their music, and the music and dance of the Congo region of West Africa.

The relevant history includes the active white-supremacist policies (my description, not the film's) of 19th and 20th century governments, which seem to have taken effect in three ways: a 19th century war that was pursued in such a way as to kill a disproportionate number of black men; an immigration project of mindboggling scale; and social incentives for the assimilation by marriage of the remaining black population of both sexes into white families over two centuries. The impression that I took away from the film was that these three processes reduced the visible African-ness of the population over about 150 years from perhaps sixty percent, or even more, to a level almost invisible to the eye in urban areas, while it remained clearly audible, along with other influences, in the popular music.

There are quite long sections where musicians of various backgrounds play together and music is allowed to speak for itself. These sections are really where the musical case is made, perhaps in the best way possible. But otherwise, the subject is much broader than music or dance.

The interviews take place in France, Argentina, and Uruguay, and I sometimes lost track of where we were. The camera work in some scenes is unsteady and difficult to watch. There's no linear chronology either to the history or to the discussion, there are a lot of contributors whose descriptions are hard to keep track of, the English subtitles have confusing mistakes, and the historical events aren't very clearly set out. The music for the film is mostly composed by Cáceres and the sound is good in general.

There are very few women in the film, among very numerous contributors. Two black Argentinian women make important contributions. The first speaks very touchingly about tango as a dance and about her parents, especially her father, an excellent dancer who made a living teaching tango: she was the only contributor who gave the impression of a personal attachment to the dance itself. The second was, I think, the president of a cultural association of African-descended Argentinians, and had eloquent, powerful insights about the historical stories illustrated in her own family. They were the most memorable contributors for me. A couple more women speak briefly, and another handful are unspeaking musicians or dancers.

The general absence of women otherwise - together with the absence of any discussion of characteristic instruments, melody, or social dance practices, and a reeled-off list of Uruguayan contributors to tango that didn't include Canaro - added to my feeling that the dance itself, with its history and development, was in no way a subject of the film and wasn't of much interest to the director. That's not a bad thing; you could fairly say the film is about much more important subjects; but you should bear it in mind if your personal interest is as a dancer.

As a dancer, I would have liked to hear more from the African and European musicologists who appeared only at the beginning. I wanted to know more about the Angolan and other West African partner dances that were mentioned but not shown. I wanted to know more about the word "tango" and it's meanings in various West African contexts and languages, which were mentioned, but not gone into. It's an odd sort of word, that anyone might wonder about. I wanted to hear more about candombe, the music and the dance and the events related to it; a "candombe ceremony" was mentioned as having been practiced annually and later replaced by a carnival, but it wasn't explained. It's possible that the expected audience didn't need that explanation, I don't know. The Kizomba part turned out to be only at the afterparty, which I wasn't still awake for.

This was not that film. This film addressed the question about the football match, the answer being partly "there actually are, in a sense" and partly "because policies sometimes achieve their aims". It told me a lot of things I didn't know, was touching and funny in places, and includes a lot of very enjoyable music. It wasn't a film mainly about dance, or entirely about music. But it inspired me with a lot of questions about those subjects, and if someone would like to go and make that film, I'd be happy to make a modest Patreon contribution.

Playlist and exercise for the interested reader

While waiting for my friends to arrive before the showing, I spent about thirty minutes going through the modest collection of tango music on my 'device' and making a playlist of those tracks whose titles or lyrics unambiguously say they are in some way or other about the the lives, music or culture of black people. Only half of them are milongas. All of them make some kind of musical reference beyond the lyrics, and someone who knows their music and lyrics better than me could certainly follow those musical threads to a much broader playlist. Here is what I got in half an hour, as a YouTube playlist. I'm sure many of my readers can do better, and even make tandas, so go ahead and post playlists in the comments, using any way of choosing you think is interesting, if you feel like it.

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Leading and photos

I have noticed this year that the number of photos people take of me leading seems out of all proportion to the amount of time I spend leading, compared to following. I might lead only five or six tandas in a three-day festival where I hardly sat down, but four of them get photographed. At home I might lead half my tandas, but I'm still much more likely to get photographed leading. So if you looked at my facebook feed, you would have the impression that I lead much more of the time than I actually do. Why?

Obviously, almost every photograph of someone leading necessarily includes their partner as well, so I don't think it's possible that leaders as a group are more likely to be photographed than followers as a group. Nearly every picture clearly shows both. Yet, my personal chances of appearing in the pictures from a given event seem to go up suprisingly if I lead.

It's possible that I look better leading (my face is more visible and more animated), and I am therefore a more tempting subject. I certainly tend to like the pictures of me leading. If so, then, a photographer who is not trying to photograph everyone is more likely to choose me, rather than someone else, when I am leading as opposed to when I am following.

It's possible that everyone, considered as an individual, is a more tempting subject when they're leading, just because the follower's face is often hidden and the face is the most visually interesting and expressive part of any human. So that anyone who dances both roles is more likely to be photographed when leading. I think, if so, this means there should also be more multiple shots of the same leader with different partners than there are of the same follower with different partners, becaues the photographer is selecting leaders rather than followers.

It's possible that the whole thing is an illusion because I don't see all the photos of me following; some of those that don't show my face don't get identified as me, even though from the photographer's point of view they are photographs of the couple as a whole. Although nearly all the photos that show me will be seen and tagged by someone who knows me, Facebook, which is the primary tool used to communicate these things, intermittently makes it difficult to tag the back of someone's head, and people may not think it worthwhile to try.

It's possible that a woman leading seems worth photographing in itself because it's unusual. I wouldn't assume this, as it's not actually very unusual. But I would be interested to know if a man's chances of being photographed go up even more dramatically if he follows, that being so much less usual and therefore more interesting.

It could be a combination of all these, or something more complicated and subtle that affects the photographer's choices and their understanding and interpretation of what they see. Most of the people who take photographs at tango events are dancers themselves who understand very well what they are seeing, but some are not, and there may be a difference.

Any data in the comments, please. I have no problem with any of this. I just think it's intriguing.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

I love afterparties (and heels and flats)

I love afterparties - especially when everybody's almost too tired to stand up, but they still want to dance. They just want to dance. They're high as kites on dancing. Somebody DJs. Somebody has a portable speaker. Somehow a room has been found. And it just sort of happens. There's that wonderful no-obligation feeling where everything that was supposed to happen has already either happened, or not, and everything else is a bonus. If only we could bottle that feeling.

It's quite a bit easier, as a follower, to dance close-embrace tango on a bit of a heel, especially at first. To dance well in flat shoes with your feet properly down, you need pretty good posture and technique. Of course, you can do that, and a few women never wear heels at all. Others just don't feel right without heels. Others just see heels in moderation as part of the dressing-up fun, which is where I am most of the time. There are some men I prefer to wear heels for, and it's usually more a matter of dance style than height: if someone throws boleos around my axis then it works more smoothly for me in heels. I'd rather be in flats to lead, but the better the follower, the less it matters. At an afterparty, I'm going to be in flats.

But the point is, I often think flat feet are wonderfully expressive, and these ones are particularly nice, which is why I started videoing them in the first place. Try watching it with the sound off, and notice how much you can hear the music. A minute later I was dancing again.

Friday, 16 October 2015

Dancing with DJs

Dancing with DJs is fascinating. A few experiments over quite a few years:

Dance results ..... DJing results
Always on the beat, but nothing in between the beats, and no concept of the musical phrase...... Strong music, senselessly arranged.
Plain vanilla Salon, sense of emotional  engagement hard to find..... Careful, well-organised, reliable sets, if unexciting
Talented and fun, salted with a few things he can't actually do, but only occasionally..... Enjoyable set, with a couple of interesting failures.
Original, interesting, rather vague, and very difficult to follow..... 20% enchanted, 80% asleep
Good, give or take temporary obsessions with something-or-other, so that you dread it coming.
..... Good, give or take temporary obsessions with second-rank orchestras and omitting the Di Sarli tanda.
Smooth, sensual, salon with a heart, good allrounder, averts eyes from Wonderbra at the perfect moment

..... Strong, unpretentious, disciplined sets with a good connection to the floor
Totally secure in what he does. Total calm, simplicity, self-belief, and feeling.
..... Full range of top tracks, so immensely arranged that everyone present is still dancing in the 24th hour of 24 hours of dancing over three days, or so the icebreaking impetus of an opening set lasts the whole weekend, and I've seen him do this over and over again.


Monday, 12 October 2015

Ohhh what a tanda

Each of these three milongas is rather one-of-a-kind and people arrange them in various tandas with various other things and various results. Only for the first one are there any obvious choices at all. I have an idea of what I normally expect to hear after the first one. This wasn't that - it was so much better.

I think this is my favourite milonga tanda ever. I danced it this weekend. Lampis played it. I'm so glad I was dancing. I'm not saying it would work in every situation. But that day, that time - it was not wasted.

 I'll just make a playlist so you can click the Play button right in the middle, and go away. No spoilers below.

My thought process while this was played:

1. This is a good milonga, a lot of fun. I wanna dance. Ooh, you'll do. And how. Come here. Let's go.
2. What's next? Sure to be another good milonga. Oh, wow! I hadn't thought of that! Even better!
3. Now what? .... oh - my - word. You legend. My car is on fire.

In putting this playlist together, I also realised the tanda's even better if you look up the words.

Thinking about it restores me to an (approximately) vertical posture after a weekend total of 24 hours of dancing and 12 hours of sleep. I might even be able to cook a ten-minute dinner without falling down.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Death to toxic inane sexist talk

Here's a quote which my friend Trud related on Facebook (it's not on her blog) from a follower technique class. She said the class was a very good one and during it the teacher said this:

“Don’t make it easy for the leaders! If you do whatever they want, even if they’re being lazy with their lead, you’re spoiling them.”
The reason Trud quoted this is that she approves of women being encouraged to focus on the quality of their own dance in class. I agree that that's a good thing to do. I don't agree that this does it.

No. What the teacher said is sexist and inane. Saying it at all conveys an unambiguous message to the women that quality in their dance exists to serve the man's, and is not worth attention for its own sake. Which is false, and toxic.

Nobody ever says to the men "Don't heave the followers around with your arms, it will stop them learning to follow". People say "Don't heave them around, it doesn't feel nice (which is bad dancing)". They say "Don't heave them around, you might hurt them (which is bad dancing)". But "Don't heave them around, you're spoiling them so they don't have to follow"? No. Nobody thinks they need to encourage a man's efforts in working on his dance by reminding him how they will improve the quality of someone else's. That would be pointless, because quality in his dance justifies the effort by itself, and he's there to work on his own dance. Whereas the women, apparently, are unpaid class assistants, automatically qualified as such because their own dance is so trivial there is no difference between qualified and not.

And then teachers who constantly remind the women how they can help the men "too", telling themselve they're just mentioning it as a kind of icing on the cake, wonder why the women dance like mice. Because you told them to, and you're contradicting yourself when you tell them to dance like tigers. The message you're not conscious of, that tells us what your beliefs are about our place in the world, will always come through more strongly, because unconcious messages are the ones people really believe. Otherwise they wouldn't give them. Because, by definition, they're not giving them on purpose.

By all means, actively and consciously recognise that women are often brought up to believe that they are there to serve and that every goal and effort must be justified and excused in terms of how it serves someone else. By all means bear this in mind, and how it drains effort and quashes ambition. But challenge it, don't affirm and reinforce it.

Tell the women to dance well. Tell them how to dance well. Tell them to make it a personal ambition, and not to betray it. Treat following as dancing. Take it seriously as something difficult and rewarding that can be done well or badly. Take it for granted that dancing well, by definition, serves everyone it is supposed to serve, and principally the dancer. Talk as though you believe that dancing the best you can is a valid, satisfying and worthy goal for anyone, an adequate justification for persistent effort, that can be allowed to stand alone. Do that by allowing it to stand alone. Refrain from talking as though you don't believe it.

People say this sort of thing all the time, it's persistent and pervasive, it has always annoyed me, from day one, and I ... would like to ask that teachers stop it.

When you hear yourself saying "Don't anticipate or guess, because it's bad dancing and it doesn't do the leaders any good either", just stop after the "dancing". Or, if the sentence still feels somehow painfully incomplete, forgive yourself for feeling like that, and then replace the missing part with something useful, and say "Don't anticipate or guess, because it's bad dancing and you are here to improve your dance, so concentrate hard on whatever happens and do exactly what you feel every time. Pay attention to small differences, which will make you get better. If you don't know what to do, ask for help."

Forgive yourself for having the stupid, toxic assumptions culture and society have put on you. Then kill them.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

A very short film of hope and loss

A filmlet by Matthew Cooper, whose work you should no longer be deprived of. Featuring Andreas going "the wrong way", it's one minute and one second of humanity adrift in a Vorticist world.

If you have the privilege of following Matthew on Facebook you will know that stuff just happens in front of him; he quite often films it; and he has a genius for investing it with humour, meaning, and suspense.

The one below is a response to my post "Balloons", where I said:

When I've had a really lovely dance, it seems like the little girl inside, the little girl who didn't have to go to school yet and was full of joy, is smiling and holding a balloon.
I should have posted it before.