Thursday, June 21, 2012

does the groove have rules?

This ramble has been sparked off by a discussion at the Tawe Tango Taster and Practica Night on 20th June 2012 and is looking for a response from anyone who wants to give one.

The second thing I realised, after first deciding I wanted to share my thoughts on this with the seagulls and the bats, is that absolutes are ill advised in tango discussions. Its easy, as you will find if you haven’t already, to lay down the law when you don’t know much about it. But experience shows that the further you get into this dance culture each fresh piece of knowledge acquired reveals a new question to be dealt with. There might be a right answer somewhere. But I don’t know it, and I haven’t yet met anyone who does. So most of the discussion on what is appropriate music for tango must be subjective.

One could suggest that the dance will work to most styles of music. If the music is a bit funkier it might be more fun. If its a bit more structured it might be a deeper experience. If its something you recognise it might be more reassuring. If its something completely alien that challenge might turn out to be a pathway to greater understanding and a new level of skill. You pays your money and you takes your choice.

I think most people would agree though that the dance itself grew out of, and around, a particular body of work. It has moulded itself to fit a music largely created between the mid 19th century and Astor Piazzolla’s  Tango Nuevo in the mid to late 20th. Therefore I suggest that not to familiarise oneself with the traditional music of tango is a mistake if one is really trying to absorb the dance.

But don’t worry if you’re finding it tricky at the moment. You are not alone. I've heard so many people say 'I like the dance, I just can't get to grips with the music.' I don’t think that this position is difficult to understand. To our contemporary European ears it can be an unfamiliar beast indeed. Its absolutely crammed with melody for one thing. It may be an overstatement, but I'm not sure by how much, to claim that one 3 minute tango song has got more notes in the melody line than a whole Cold Play album.

Yes it is intense stuff. Its got harmonies too - that aren't based on blues. Nothing wrong with blues - but we've had a hell of a lot of it over the last 40 years so maybe it is time for a change. And yes it is sung in a funny language. Well actually not so funny if you happen to be Hispanic. And considering where the music came from that’s not surprising either is it? Also, if you ever do understand any of the words, not necessary for dancing of course, you’ll find it hard not to be impressed by their intense poetry. Oh yeah, its heavy man[i].

Admittedly a lot of the recorded tango music that we have inherited does come lacquered in a hefty layer of treacle. Almost like candied fruit, sugared to the Nth degree to preserve it for posterity, a lot of the recordings are saccharine sweet. Maybe that was the style of the period in which many of the tracks were recorded[ii].

That can be a bit of a crystal barrier to hack through, a bit like the high gloss production and marketing that was once so thickly sprayed over country that it turned off as many listeners as it turned on. Especially in UK. But just like country once you chip away the packing and the schmaltz you've got rock solid music from real people living real lives not the quasi religious product we get from Bono et al. There’s real stuff in that heart.

Then there’s the structure. I know there are people out there much more qualified to comment on this than I am - but a little thing like that is not going to stop me. It seems to me that a lot of the music is perfect for dancing. In the sense that it does its level best to stay meaningful and engaging. Most of the songs have an A and a B music (some have a C music as well). Modulating between F major to F minor for example the mood within that particular dance is continually tweaked. Also with many of the titles, by the time you've played each part twice, or maximum three times, you've hit the magic three minutes - which seems to be a generally accepted good length for a tango - without too much repetition.

Then we get to the issue of delivery. For a dance music from Latin America tango, especially the real hard core grass roots stuff, is particularly notable for its lack of drummers. The big synthesiser bands like Gotan and Otros Aires with all their rigid loops and samples do use them. Otherwise, with all that volume swashing about, how would the guy on one side of the stage keep up with what the guy on the other side of the stage is doing[iii]? As far as the rest of it, especially the more intimate, less technically cluttered stuff is concerned, I have seen a few tango videos which include maybe a Cajon but that’s about it.

As far as I can make out its two or four beats to the bar and I have heard it said, by someone who should know, that often the stress is on the off beat. I'm sure that some of the UK 'tango chamber music' bands stick to this religiously. But maybe the danger is that if one sticks too closely to the rules and ‘play it straight’ that’s how it sounds - ‘straight’. In my limited contact with Argentinean players it’s the groove that they bring to the music that makes it work. There is a particularly brilliant video out there somewhere featuring Uruguayan bandoneonist Eduardo Galean and bassist Samuel Campos. I think they're playing Los Ejes de Mi Carreta. If you do get the chance to hear it please do. The groove  rules here for sure.

Another characteristic of this drummer free music is that, because there is no one laying down the beat, not only the tempo but the rhythm also fluctuate throughout each performance. I recently asked Manuel Ferreyra, a harmonica player from Cordoba, Argentina who I just happened to meet while strolling round the internet, about this. His opinion is that one of the defining characteristics of tango music in performance is that the band and the soloist, or singer, vary their delivery independently of each other, mutually adjusting as they go and allowing the dancers to improvise around the music[iv]. Listen to some of the big names like Hugo Diaz on harmonica or Anibal Troilo on bandoneon and you can hear exactly what he's talking about.

So what can you do eh? Your best is all.

Paz y amor

Patrick Ellis June 2012

[i] Slightly off at a tangent it seems that in Argentina the music is often treated as a separate art form. Not hard to see why.
[ii] And that is without reference to the technical limitations of the equipment it was recorded on.
[iii] Both great bands actually, and great fun to dance to, but their music is only a very small part of the whole picture, which they sort of admit themselves by quoting some of the classics in their own interpretaciones.
[iv] cuando ud. dijo:   ".....Pero no entiendo cuando toca despacio o rápido. Por qué el cambio en este momento especifico? Todas otra cosas aparte, eso es el mayor misterio para mi......"
es porque el TANGO, es el único genero musical, en donde la melodía principal varia su velocidad ósea puede tocar despaco o rápido pero luego tiene que alcanzar al resto de la banda en el tiempo- ( o la banda al cantante, o instrumento solista)
y los que bailan pueden improvisar en el mismo momento también.

No comments: