by Carlos Suarez
I am asked quite often – and I don’t like it – since I am Argentinian and apparently such coincidence makes me an expert, “Yeah, but… They don’t play the real thing. Do they, Carlos?”
Apparently, the real thing is some kind of special elusive thing culturally bonded to our “hearts.” Some sort of solid and unyielding thing, monolithic and impervious to evolutionary or transcultural bugs. Such conservatism kept Piazzolla away from us during my youth. The people and the new tango were in different gene pools… Like management and labor? Traditions, some call it.
I think that in these days of a globalism so many of us despise enthusiastically, instead of asking or expecting what is “the real thing” in our cultures, we could do better by letting our definition of reality stretch a bit. Here and in Buenos Aires… the name of all our nostalgia.
Jazz and Tango? But of course! Both had the uncertain origins of any other cultural hero; historically vague, suspicious, perhaps with very few recorded concrete and hard facts about it… Born of dubious or suspicious parentage, a hidden identity, persecuted and barely saved from extinction, a reluctant leader… Tango and Jazz were created in discredited places; colonies, ghettos, among the humble, the outcast and the marginalized.
It happened near Congo Square in New Orleans – which later became a parking lot and now is an atrocious apartment building – and in the poor suburbs of Buenos Aires – still there – among the poor immigrants from Europe or the children of people kidnapped from Africa. In a world of whorehouses and little bars, of delinquency and poverty… perfect places for miracles.
Both stories are one and the same. Only some details are different… Instruments sold very cheap after the bands of the Confederate regiments were dissembled, or the bandoneon that some hypothetical and drunk German sailor exchanged for drinks in some bar near Buenos Aires harbor… Who knows? The fog of the beginning is thick and somehow we are grateful for it because of those uncertainties we nurture our fantasies and dreams.
Both were forbidden in their birthplaces. Both had to go underground. Jazz migrated North. Tango was finally accepted because the slumming upper crust liked it, in spite of being “cosa de negros”…”Nigger’s stuff”. And both have men and women of mythological statures whose names are safe-conducts, words of salutation and welcome, identifying a certain lifestyle, a specific group, a nation, a flagless empire of sounds and feelings, a language, a culture.
From the harbor and the southern suburbs of muddy streets and tin roof houses to the heart of Buenos Aires; from the damp and sweaty nights of New Orleans to Chicago our music migrated and in the process changed, dropped some of its instrumental luggage and acquired a new one.
Jazz lost its tuba and the banjo and Tango let go of the flute and the drums that somehow started the whole thing in the “candombe” that begot the “milonga” that mixed with immigrant sounds begot the tango… and both music, jazz and tango, got acquainted with the temporary immortality of the first recordings. The firsts “race records” and that Original Dixieland Jazz Band and the music of a man who gave his nickname to the operation of buying a tango recording: “A kilo of sirloin, a bottle of house red, French bread and two Pachos.” … The tangos of Juan Maglio, nicknamed “Pacho” in old 78rpm discs.