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On a July evening four years ago in Cleveland, I went to see a middle-aged tool-and-die worker of Polish extraction demonstrate the miracle of the tango. That summer, Tim Pogros held a weekly tango class at Belinda’s Bar, an old converted dancehall in the heart of Cleveland’s largest Hispanic neighborhood. While Belinda’s regular Puerto Rican patrons enjoyed salsa on the jukebox in the elegantly restored front room, Pogros instructed a half-dozen upper-middle-class gringos in the run-down ballroom, leading them through slow, hyper-stylized moves as an ancient Argentinian ballad played softly on a boombox. The scene was oddly beautiful, but also dreamily dissociated, æthereal. At the evening’s end, Pogros announced that, for the last number, everyone would dance free-form tango to a merengue record. As soon as he put on this contemporary Caribbean confection, the dancing turned brisk and light and alert. It was as if the back room had awakened and rejoined the front.
I got that same feeling when I first put on the debut album by Gotan Project, La Revancha del Tango (XL/Beggars Group), a disc whose warm buoyancy has reminded Europe of its passion for Argentinian dance. "I think it was important just to say that tango is not dead," says Gotan Project founder Philippe Cohen Solal from Rome. The Eternal City is just the latest bus stop in the trio’s unexpected success story. It started with a one-shot vinyl single, and now they’ve sold 600,000 albums and made 200 stops on a global tour that has been running for two years. "That’s why we called this album La Revancha del Tango — ‘The Revenge of the Tango’ — because a lot of people thought that tango was an old music for old people. And that’s not the truth, you know."
Based in Paris, the trio comprises French composer Solal, his long-time Swiss collaborator Christoph Müller, and an Argentinian expatriate who gave them a crash course in tango, guitarist Eduardo Makaroff. When he met Makaroff, the 41-year-old Solal was already deep into a successful composing career — he’d worked on filmmaker Lars von Trier’s Europa — and was experimenting with Brazilian samba on the side. At first, he was tentative about the possibilities tango could offer. "I remember when I was working on this project, a lot of friends in Paris and London — DJs and producers — when I told them, they were making big eyes. Because for them it was, like, European tango is very rigid. And Argentinian tango is not rigid at all. They were ignorant about that. And I was ignorant before working on this project also. With Eduardo, I was introduced to all the amazing composers and arrangers that you can find in tango music in the ’30s, the ’40s, the ’50s — it’s a very groovy music. It’s a dance music originally, so let’s bring it back to what it was."
In part, that works because Gotan Project makes tango sound the way it never has. As Solal acknowledges, only a few of the tracks retain the music’s trademark long downbeats and dramatic stop breaks. Instead, the mix of instrumental and vocal tracks coast on smooth dance grooves culled everywhere from hip-hop to dub reggae. In a way, that returns tango to the roots many scholars claim run back to Buenos Aires’ sizable African community in the 19th century. But more important, every track still honors the "mood and emotion that you have in tango." Of course, that mood suffuses the update of Astor Piazzolla’s classic "Vuelvo al Sur," which closes the album with a meltingly melancholy vocal by Cristina Villalonga. But it can even be heard in the eight-and-a-half-minute jazz-house violin workout "Tríptico," the single that first broke the group in European dance clubs.
And for all that — not to mention covers of Frank Zappa’s "Chunga’s Revenge" and Gato Barbieri’s theme from Last Tango in Paris — the disc never stoops to mere novelty exotica, a testament perhaps to Solal’s subtle political instincts. The opener is called "Queremos Paz" — "We Want Peace"— and the spoken phrases interspersed in the lovely bandoneón melody turn out to be samples from Che Guevara. "El Capitalismo Foráneo" samples a famous Eva Perón speech that could have been delivered at a contemporary rally against the IMF (it’s amplified in the remix by Antipop Consortium on the US-only bonus disc).
Slyly, then, Solal has asked not what dance music can do for tango, but what tango — and Argentinian culture and history — can do for dance music. "It’s not a political album at all, but we are just people who are concerned about our world and we wanted to bring this message in our music. You know, if we continue to dance without thinking, it could be a sort of lobotomy — you know what I mean, lobotomy?"
In this day and age, who doesn’t?
Issue Date: August 15 - 21, 2003
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