Sunday, 18 January 2009

Joaquín Amenábar on why tango music is like it is

Here's a point in last week's classes that was a revelation to me, and might interest you as well. I was vaguely aware that tango music was like this, but because I've never personally learned any other dance, or had any education about dance in general, I didn't understand why it was important.

The factual content of this is what Joaquín said, but the way of putting it is mostly mine. He's much more dignified and didn't mention buckets or buskers. It's all in the book as well, so you can check there. Anyway, here it is.

Music that is dance music has a consistent, fixed rhythm: a basic count, and then a rhythmic pattern that divides the beats up in a fixed way. The accents are always in the same place. The pattern continues all the way through, and it's the distinctive element of each dance. That's what allows you to hear a piece of music and say it is a waltz, or a salsa, or a rhumba, or whatever it is.

This is true of milonga, which is the ancestor of tango. Milonga has a rhythm called habañera, which goes POM pa-pom pom, POM pa-pom pom. It's very old - you'll find it in the middle east and Africa. It came to Argentina directly from medieval Spain. If you hear that rhythm, you can say it's a milonga and dance milonga to it.

A digression: I hadn't noticed until he named it habañera that this is the same rhythm over which Carmen sings L'amour est un oiseau rebelle, que nul ne peut apprivoiser .... Not just reminiscent of it, but the same. Of course this rhythm, as Joaquín said, is old. I listened for it this week in the café where I have my lunch, and the family play middle-eastern pop songs - they're Iranian Kurds, I think. And sure enough, there it was. You'd probably have heard it from the buskers of Ur.

Tango isn't like this. It varies.

Traditional tango music developed by taking milonga and throwing it in a giant bucket of Late-Romantic-Classical mostly-Italian immigrant musicians. Think Puccini meets the Ur-busker and they start jamming while they compete for the girls. You can't play Neapolitan folk songs or bel canto or German or French art songs to a habañera rhythm without very distressing results, so if these musicians wanted to dance to their own kind of music, the rhythms had to change to fit the melody. It so happened that the dance technique could accommodate this.

Consequently, in traditional tango there's no rule about how the beats are divided up, no rule about where the accents are, so no fixed rule about which beat you step on. It frequently changes within the same piece. The melody leads - the rhythms are chosen for the melody, the leader has to follow both, and the follower has to follow all of them. That gives you an extremely rich and satisfying dance.

On the other hand, [this is partly me, now] there's no need for much imagination in the figures. Anything longer than four to eight normal-time steps has a very good chance of being torpedoed by a change in the rhythm, so there's not much point. So if you're going to improvise well to this music, you want simple little modular bits of dance that you can adapt whether it's POM pom POM pom, or POM pom-ty pom pom, or POM pom pom-ty pom, or PánamaPánamaba, or POMPOM pom POM pom, or even pom POM pom POM or whatever they throw at you. Whether you dance well or not is entirely about how well you manage to stick with the music. And that means [said Joaquín], it's best to teach figures rhythmically, with the rhythm as a starting point, so that dancers understand where they can use them and where they won't work. (The chapter at the end of the book, on teaching, sets out one way that might be done.)

The next part of the classes covered the larger-scale structure of tango music, and how you can tell that a change in the rhythm is coming, and when. For that bit, buy the book. The exercises and examples take you through it, and you can go through them in lessons with Jill. (One of her assistants is Audrey Pattison, whose YouTube debut I posted here).

A second class discussed the later history of tango music and what's going on, musically, in 'Nuevo'. I thought that was really interesting too and deserves a post to itself, so I'll come back to that.

8 comments:

Tango commuter said...

Habañera = from Havana. It's also claimed that it was originally from Europe. It was brought from Cuba to Spain in the 19th century, and thence to Bizet -- and also Argentina. Tango has very mixed roots: you can hear klezmer, you can hear polka. Immigrants brought music from all over.

I think early tango is regular: wasn't it called 'The 2x4' because you stepped on two, the first and third, of the four beats? As the melody developed the beat became more elusive. In later tango, Pugliese in particular, you can think you are stepping with the beat and find that the beat you should be following is somewhere else...

msHedgehog said...

He pointed out the accents on first-and-third as a very common occurrence and an easy example to start with; and a lot of the exercises in the first class were about not stepping on them mechanically when they aren't sounded in the music. I got a lot out of that section personally.

AmpsterTango said...

IMHE, learning to dance tango has been a most challenging, and rewarding experience. This is (as you've written) because of the music.

When you dance salsa, cha-cha, or other social dances, the music stays on one pattern... all night long. You could throw memorized steps at it because you have the beats to guide you (e.g. Cha-cha is always 1-2-3-cha-cha--1-2-3)

Tango, I had a problem with. This was the learning curve I had to contend with. The rhythm changes several times within the same song. Oh, and they don't use percussion.

It was quite the challenge trying to "Read" the music in order to get rhythmical with it... and lead your partner at the same time—decently.

Game Cat said...

I agree with AmpsterT - the variable rhythm sets tango apart and makes it extremely compelling to listen to as well as dance to. One can dance tango all night as the music is always different. In say ballroom (modern and latin american), all you need to function is the beat....the actual song is technically unimportant. That's why DJs have to regularly rotate songs of different dances - so that dancers wouldn't get bored.

Ms H - Thanks for introducing me to Joaquin. Have been discussing among some friends how to improve musicality recently...so your post was as opportunate as it was helpful. Timing is everything!

A digression: It is fascinating that the "habanera" beat is ancient and has travelled the world. TC's observation that etymologically it could have come from Cuba is intriguing. I know that the distinct Jive rhythm employs a similar structure (3/4 + 1/4 + 1 for the chasse). Someone told me this could be traced back to West Africa, and was brought to Latin America by African slaves. This made it's way north and became the Jive. Could this mean the rhythm's path into tango could have been Africa -> Cuba -> Europe -> Argentina??

msHedgehog said...

@Gamecat - well, keep in mind that distinguishing between Spain and North Africa in the medieval period is pretty arbitrary. Ferdinand and Isabella only conquered Granada in 1492.

In the book, JA briefly mentions the much later influence of African slaves, and Candombe. Of course they were already familiar with the rhythm, since it occurred in their own music, but they were inclined to play it on different instruments, and he gives a reference in case you want to read more about it.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Ms Hedgehog for writing this up.I hope it will encourage more folk to attend these workshops which were really fantastic.

I've haven't found much on the web reviewing /discussing them which is a shame. (But maybe I just haven't looked hard enough.)

I only managed to attend one workshop but have been walking around "POM pom POM pom"ing and "PánamaPánamaCúba" ing all weekend.

Next time he's about I'll go to more...The simple exercises opened up the music with such clarity. I could really feel and easily hear the pauses + accents in the music....

I've been watching lots of old school vids this evening with a far deeper appreciation....and with a mucher richer understanding of what "musciality" actually means in tango.

Looking forward to the next post :)

koolricky said...

Consequently, in traditional tango there's no rule about how the beats are divided up, no rule about where the accents are, so no fixed rule about which beat you step on. It frequently changes within the same piece. The melody leads - the rhythms are chosen for the melody, the leader has to follow both, and the follower has to follow all of them. That gives you an extremely rich and satisfying dance.
Hi MsHedgehog, I couldn't be more in agreement with tangocommuter. In fact, early tangos are very rhythmic and that is the legacy that D'Arienzo and Canaro used to make their music sound more rhythmic. De Caro's crowd started putting more emphasis in one of the beats and adorning it with virtuoso instrumental and vocal adornements. But in all of them there is "dos por cuatro" that is indelectable from traditional tango. That's what allow us to dance.
I'm really sorry I missed JA's workshops. I have been meaning to attend them since he went to Edinburgh in 2004 but everytime he comes around there is always something on... Next time, or maybe I'll go to Paris!

tango said...

"I think early tango is regular: wasn't it called 'The 2x4' because you stepped on two, the first and third, of the four beats?"

No. "2x4" is a reference to the music, and has nothing specifically to do with dancing.

It's a representation of the time signature in which tango was at that time most often written. The 2 relates to the way it's played; the 4 only to the way it's read.