Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Joaquín Amenábar on Modern Tango

This was a very educational class and I'm just going to summarise what I remember, because it's so interesting I can't shut up. To make sense of it all, you really need example recordings. I don't think this topic is directly covered in the book, so I can only suggest taking the class if you have the opportunity.

The topic was “modern tango”, with special reference to the musical relationships between Pugilese, Piazzolla and what is called nuevo tango. Modern, then, meant broadly “after 1945”.


During the period of dictatorship where there was no tango dancing in Argentina at all, Pugilese's band played concert tango, for people to listen to, not dance. Passages of strong rhythm are contrasted with passages where the melody stretches and wanders and does its own thing, abandoning the rhythm, which disappears completely. You can dance to the melody when the rhythm goes missing, but you can't rely on your internal clock to predict where melodic accents will come, and you won't be in time when the accompaniment returns. If you want to improvise to this stuff, and represent it exactly with your body, you really have to know the recording by heart. Or you can use it for choreography. (Non-concert Pugilese, however, is fully danceable — I think that means pre-1945).

At this point I think we practiced hearing and understanding the different rhythms and melodies, and walking to them, especially not mechanically. That meant not stepping if the accent isn't sounded. Surprisingly difficult, and an interesting thing to try at home.


Piazzolla took a different direction. Contrasts are provided not between rhythm and melody, but by different melodies and their accompanying rhythms, arranged in an overall structure characteristic of tango (the structure was explained in the class I missed, but is in the book). The melody is in charge, just as it is with Pugilese, but it respects whatever rhythm was chosen to suit it, and you don't need to know the piece to dance to it. If the rhythmic accompaniment disappears and you only hear melody, the melody accents you are dancing to will still be in time. You can use your internal clock, and you will be in time when the accompaniment returns.

I may have confused two classes, but I think it was at this point that we spent quite a lot of time learning to recognise and move to the 3-3-2 rhythm used in a lot of later Piazzola, the one that goes namanamabanamanamaba. We looked at its structure in relation to the underlying four beats, and Joaqín's ingenious visual aids involving the velcro spots with little shoes on them were very helpful here. He mentioned that because Piazzolla uses the 3-3-2 a lot, some people suppose he invented it. In fact, it is ancient and universal and can be heard in the earliest tango recordings. [Another rhythm from the repertoire of the Ur-Busker — examples from flamenco and Arabian music are on the DVD. And in the café where I have my lunch and the Iranian Kurdish family play their favourite music.]

In dancing to either of the above, he said, your challenge as a dancer is to adapt and choose from your vocabulary to represent a rich, varying rhythm or melody or combination of the two. In both cases, the music is giving you lots of lead and lots of different things to do. If you know how to hear these things, and dance to what is there (not mechancially to a beat that may or may not actually be sounded), you're dancing in a way that is very satisfying to the couple. For this kind of dancing you need a vocabulary of fairly simple units, not longer than four to eight steps, the length of a musical phrase. And you need to understand them in rhythmic terms, so you can use them.

I'll note just there that the chapter in the book on teaching explains in detail one possible way that they might be taught in rhythmic terms. It assumes access to a reasonably good multimedia computer and moderate skill in using it, some sort of percussion instrument like a claves, and some equivalent of a box of Velcro Spots.


It's really too early, in Joaquín's opinion, to make any broad musicological statements about the Nuevo tango. There are only a few groups and it hasn't been around long, so there's hardly any material to look at. Asking us to put aside our personal tastes, and promising to do the same himself*, he played an example (I think it was Gotan) and asked us to listen carefully and consider what was happening musically, in the light of what we'd learned so far.

What was going on, he said, appears to be this: An extremely steady, unvarying and continuous rhythm all the way through the recording, with passages of melody and various sounds whose function is not thematic, but ornamental. They're not in charge.

He remarked that this makes a lot of sense in terms of the history of tango and the kind of dance done by younger dancers in Argentina.

‘Nuevo Tango’ the dance, he said, usually refers to the kind of thing developed by Gustavo Naveira and Giselle Anne, and pupils, since the 80s. At this point, [“and people will kill me for saying this, but it's true,” he added] tango had been entirely dead in Argentina for many years, effectively killed off by a determined government that regarded it as a threat. But it survived abroad, with foreigners who prized it, and with performers who toured mostly abroad**. And with the end of the military dictatorship, people in Argentina wanted to recreate it at home. Naturally, the people best placed to do the spadework on this were professional dancers who came to it with artistic and technical interests in dance for itself, not just as a means to a social or musical end.

For this, such music is ideal. It gives you unlimited scope to experiment and develop the technique, pushing it as far as it can go to see what you can do with it in terms of dance. You have total freedom to improvise whatever*** your imagination suggests and your body can deliver, with highly creative and complex variations, and the music isn't going to stop you. Here the music is artistically subordinate to the dance, not the other way around. The music is not dictating what you do.

Musically speaking, he saw it as a giant leap backwards, all the way to the 19th century — a return to a dance with a fixed rhythm, just like dance music generally has, as discussed in a previous class. Proto-Tango rather than Nuevo-Tango, musically speaking. [I'm not sure whether he actually said “Proto-Tango” or it's just what I understood and wrote down in my notes.]

People argue about whether it's really ‘tango’ or not, but Joaquín wasn't interested in going there, and nor am I, and I ask you not to go there in the comments, either (This Means You). I also ask you not to meta-comment about the fact that you're not going there.

As well as dancers, I think this class would be a help to DJs who aren't also musicians. I think it was new in the programme this year; and perhaps one day Joaquín might design a class with DJs in mind. And I'd be fascinated to hear whatever he said on that subject.

* His band is called Orquesta Típica de la Guardia Vieja — “Traditional Old Guard Band”.
** I think I remember reading what must have been an interview with one of these in a newspaper on a train in the eighties. I remember a mad woman saying passionately “It is with the legs. There is nothing with the head, nothing! It is the legs!!”.
*** Or indeed whatever else(!).


Anonymous said...

Good Morning MsH

First time poster here. Let me start by saying how much i enjoy both your writing style and the subjects you tackle...bravo and keep it coming please.

As a long time Salsa dancer, used to having to lock into a set beat with lots of percussion to guide me, actually trying to "understand" the music is a bit of a "challenge".

Mind you i am only a baby beginner at tango, and these series of posts are fascinating and helpful.

Any ideas where the book can be found..Amazon seems unhelpful.

Thank you again

msHedgehog said...

Hi Anonymous and thank you!

It's not on Amazon but it should be available from JA's website after some time. Not sorted yet, though. Some means of online payment has to be set up and at the moment, he's still here, so that's unlikely to happen for a few weeks at least.

Assuming you're not in London, you can get it directly from JA if you can get to any of the classes he's teaching anywhere in Britain. He has a reasonable number of copies with him. It's a book/DVD set and it's £33 - cash preferred. Or you could email to enquire.

Anonymous said...

Excellent summary, I especially like the nuevo section, that makes a lot of sense.

Anonymous said...

You say / he says:
"For this, such music is ideal. It gives you unlimited scope to experiment and develop the technique, pushing it as far as it can go to see what you can do with it in terms of dance. "

However I can't see this. With the previous tango you had a rich structure and variety to latch onto, to be prompted by, as a dancer. With the modern music, he explain, and I agree, that there is no such richness. Far from it, there is instead a driving simple rythm which doesn't vary much and the melody is subservient, almost invisible.

So my question is - how does this modern music give unlimited scope to dancers? What is it that that latch on to, what is it that prompts their dance?

If you say its the lack of enforced structures (phrases, parts, beats with emphasis driven by the melody) then how is this different from no music at all?!

I really want to understand!

Anonymous said...

One interesting thing about nuevo music is that it often contains lyrics.

Now granted you don't need lyrics to have moving music eg Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata.

However words do add another level to it, especially in helping both dancers expressing a similar idea (assuming they both understand the language the words are spoken in.) Likewise the words have their own rythyms and structures that you can choose to dance to.

I also personally feel on the whole it's easier for a non-musician to understand emotion in song than in music.

msHedgehog said...

@anon - I suppose in the same ways that normal dance music is different from no music at all. (Of course you can do more with it if you have that kind of imagination - as is also true of ballroom, I suppose).

@ghost - I suppose perhaps a third of traditional tango music has lyrics, maybe the same proportion as nuevo, but less of it tends to be played and of course few British dancers understand them. I've also danced to live tradtional tango music sung in Russian, more than once. I actually prefer lyrics in a language I don't understand, since I find most English song lyrics inane, infelicitous and irritating, but that's very much a personal thing. If they're not in my language I don't take their quality so personally. Also the spanish ones are usually higher quality as poetry, so there's definitely potential there. One of the native-Spanish-speaker US blogs has a lot about this - can't remember which right now.

Anonymous said...

Interesting - any idea why lyrics get more airplay in nuevo than traditional?

Dancing to lyrics in another language always reminds me of listening to elven in LOTR :o)

I did wonder for a while why "Sunrise" came up so often in nuevo and how to interpret it...(now I realise I just have to make the woman smile)

msHedgehog said...

I'm not sure that I do think lyrics get more airplay in nuevo. I don't really have a clue. You'd have to do actual research and find something to measure.

I have been downstairs in the 'nuevo' room at Negracha a couple of times but I have no memory of what the music sounded like, other than a few disconnected noises. It's just not the sort of thing that sticks, for me. I don't know whether there were words or not.

Tangocommuter said...

Almost all tangos start as poems, or at least 'lyrics', although they are often recorded in instrumental versions. Argentine poets wrote for tango, and I think it helps dancing to have some idea of the words. I've heard that Gallo Ciego, the 'blinded cockerel' is one of the few tangos written as a piece of music, without lyrics.

Thanks for not shutting up! Very interesting to read, particularly the section on dancing to Pugliese. But did Joaquín go no further than Gotan? Surely electrotango is dead, and anyway Gotan was as much European as Argentinian. All the new music in Buenos Aires is acoustic, like Joaquín's own band. Sexteto Mayor and Unitango bring a lot of energy to regular milongas, then there's Ciudad Baignon and more extreme new bands like Fernando Fierro and Astillero, also accoustic, who rely on old-fashioned musicianship to create exciting new tango for younger dancers.

The decline of tango began with rock n' roll. A major recording company destroyed its entire stock of masters of artists including Troilo, assuming no one would ever want to listen to that old music again. Then came the military, and public dancing was strangled, slowly. But the music was still alive, just: in 1984, soon after the return of democracy, Pugliese was honoured with a concert in the grandest venue in town, Teatro Colon, the Buenos Aires opera house. By then he'd been prohibited from public performance for years.

msHedgehog said...

I *think* he used the example because he thought it was well made and a neat illustration of what he wanted to explain. Most of the class was about the other two, with lots of exercises about the different rhythms - I think the last bit was maybe rather speculative. I just wrote about the relationship-and-history part because it seemed like such an interesting theory. It probably needs some testing.

I can't swear it was Gotan but it was definitely electronic and it sounded like the Gotan that's on YouTube.

Anonymous said...

I have a strong preference for nuevo which is reflected in where I dance. "Lyrics a third of the time" sounds about right to me. I'm really struggling to think of times when I've danced to traditional music that had lyrics though

Anonymous said...

Yup - the only lyrics I heard in the Upstairs Traditonal room at Negracha last night were during the cortina.

Downstairs in the nuevo room lyrics were about a third of the time, which was with a DJ.

msHedgehog said...

Ahhh - wait a minute. I think what I was thinking was that about a third or perhaps nearer half of the tracks I own on CD probably have lyrics, but that is completely explained by which CDs I happen to own, and I have a very small collection, so it tells us nothing.

And obviously, once you hear the version that includes a singer, you think of that track as having lyrics whether they are actually sung or not.

In fact, the corpus of traditional tango music is absolutely enormous, so whether any broad characteristics are reflected in what's actually played is a totally different matter. It's all about the DJ.

Anonymous said...


Still it makes me wonder about the way music is played, at least in London.

I reckon between us we've danced in most of the venues in London. Lyrics=nuevo definitely holds true for me. Can you remember dancing to traditional music that was played with lyrics?

PS I found JA's advert in Negracha - did he mention plans for a second dvd/book covering the next level of his ideas?

msHedgehog said...

Yes, frequently. Including live singers. But I don't go to that many different places. And as I was saying - this and this are the same song, but only one of them is sung. El dia que me quieras seems to be popular with solo guitarists. And here's Mano a Mano with, and (slower) without a singer.

I don't think sung recordings are usually a high proportion of what's played. Maybe people find it harder to dance to because the singing voice demands attention. Maybe the sung recordings are older and people feel the style and sound quality makes them less accessible. There are lots of possibilities.

Anonymous said...

Food for thought - thanks :o)

Game Cat said...

Ghost - Quite a lot of pre-nuevo tango songs have lyrics. E.g. Tanturi, Di Sarli, D'Agostino. I never thought about it before, but I think DJs at different London milongas play varying mixes music with/ without lyrics. I would hazard that negracha tends towards more lyrics than average.

I think lyrics (more precisely the singer's voice) can sometimes add another layer of melodic rhythm. The voice is just another musical instrument, and the singer becomes the lead violinist. He adds his own accents, syncopations and musical character. He shapes his words long or short, rounded or staccato; and his voice can surge and crackle with emotion. = dancers have more fun, especially leaders since most singers are male.

And I noticed too quite a number of instrumental "remixes" of songs which I had heard with lyrics. Personally, this really bugs me....memories of the singer's voice echo at the back of my mind, which can be unsettling.

Anonymous said...

Are we talking lyrics or predominant lyrics? Tango went through two different treatments of singers. One where there were used the singer as another instrument, which usually cut in mid way through the piece. And another where the singer was placed further forward in the piece.

Anonymous said...

@Gamecat - Admittedly I'm biased towards venues that play nuevo, but I've been to quite a few venues in London and I genuinely can't remember dancing traditional with lyrics. I know I haven't since MsH got me thining about it! So far lyrics = nuevo.

Totally agree with voice = instrument :o)

@Limerick - Speaking personally, by lyrics I just mean someone is singing eg contrast "Whatever Lola Wants" and "Epoca" with "Paris, Texas" and "Santa Maria" all by Gotan.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm. If you search Youtube for tango, be it people practicing their own stuff, clips of milongas, teachers demonstrating the class / workshop, or teachers / guest teachers giving a performance, how often do you find traditional music with lyrics being played?

Just wondering if I'm some kind of statisical anomaly...

Simba said...

I don't know about the UK, but there was a guy at the tangodj mailing list that did a survey of this. He found the average tracks played with vocal to be in the range of 60-65% based on actual playlists from the people that responded.

Anonymous said...

Woo hoo! I have now danced to not one, but two traditional tangos with lyrics.

Mind you at this rate I doubt i'll be doing it very often...