Friday, 27 February 2009

D'Agostino: film

I always enjoyed the clear, spare sound of the Angel D'Agostino orchestra without wondering how it was created. This clip shows how: it wasn't an 'orquesta'. It was a quartet, the leanest possible tango group; piano (D'Agostino), bandoneon, violin, bass. The individual lines sing and the singer, Angel Vargas, is the fifth line.

And this clip from a 40s film has subtitles, so the whole little story is clear, as is the sense of the song, Barrio de tres esquinas, one of the classics of tango. The local kid comes back from the big city, contemptuous of the barrios of Buenos Aires: his childhood friend, the singer Angel Vargas, reminds him that the barrio is a place of affection and friendship. & then there's a second song, a comic interlude, in which everyone moves back 50 years.

An 'orquesta tipica' would have at least two more bandoneons and violins. It would have a more dramatic impact, but I still value the intimacy of the D'Agostino sound. & I wonder how many other Argentine films there are (preferably subtitled) with the musicians and dancers of the period.

Monday, 23 February 2009

Histoire[s] du cinéma

M. Godard could never make anything simple because he's too aware of complexity. These six 1/2-hour videos are stories and history, but hardly a detailed chronological history. Cinema was born in the 19th century against a background of narrative painting and literature, and blossomed in the 20th. The films are a study of cinema, to be studied, but they are great to watch as montage of film, painting and photography. Visions, memories of stories, of films, flicker in front of our eyes in strange complex collages: glimpses of Renoir's French Cancan, Demy's Parapluies de Cherbourg, Eisensteins' Alexander Nevsky, the dialogue of Last Year at Marienbad... After all, Godard must have seen (and remembered) more films than anyone else alive.

Beyond that the films feature big characters from the world of film, Howard Hughes (sarcastically), Hitchcock (with great praise: 'Hitchcock succeeded where Alexander the Great, Napoleon and Hitler failed: he controlled the universe'.) & there's a long and very central discussion between Godard and his producer about the project.

Apart from that there are endless shots of Godard + cigar and typewriter, proclaiming things like 'Solitude de cinéma: cinéma de la solitude', all overlaid with the inevitable typographic word-plays. But on the whole, very fascinating. Similar in style to his episode, Dans le Noir du Temps in 10 Minutes Older: the Cello, which condenses the 20th century into 10 minutes of image, using newsreel and scenes from his own films.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

At the Royal Ballet

The Seven Deadly Sins by Bertold Brecht and Kurt Weil (1933) a ballet chanté from the start, first choreographed by Balanchine and sung by (who else?) Lotte Lenya. Good to see it onstage at Covent Garden. A new choreography by Will Tuckett, sung by Martha Wainwright and danced by Zenaida Yanowsky. The music stands out, great singing and dancing. The Wainwright voice is excellent, rich in the lower register, clear and bright higher up. She might not be used to singing the longer lines of Brecht/Weil, but it's a great performance. Carmen, Mats Ek choreography, great fun. Inventive with steps and moves as with whole scenes. Synchronised smoking to March of the Toreodores then, having amused and played around with illusion, he can suddenly produce real pathos. Tamara Rojo in red, you (I) watch every moment. In fact Ek makes colour sing too. DGV: Wheeldon choreography to Nyman music. Wheeldon makes great modern classical choreography, but this didn't show me much more than great modern classical choreography, fast, Danse à Grande Vitesse. Enjoyable, and a good evening out.

Friday, 20 February 2009

Eating and dancing: noches bravas en El Nino Bien

Checking out 'El Flaco' Dany clips I came across this one of a night out at El Nino Bien. Not much of El Flaco, but a good record of what a tango night at one of the main Buenos Aires milongas looks like. & if you like slow jive, and Fever, check out 'El Flaco Dany boogies with Silvina Valz' -- Munich again.

Nothing much to do with tango

Deadline met, by a few hours. The show is in Canary Wharf.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

El Flaco Dany and Silvina Vals

I'm still not really at home in milonga so I love watching people who dance it easily. Here's a couple of them:

The video calls him 'El Falco', but he's El Flaco Dany. I recognise him from Porteno y Bailarin although I didn't notice him dance there, and in any case there's not room to dance like this. She was always there too, dancing. Great the way they go straight from some quick walking steps into a series of breathtaking turns. There are a few more videos of them on YouTube; one from Munich, just to remind us that top dancers do come to Europe but don't often get invited to the UK.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Strange days in Antigua

Working 12-hour days to meet a deadline means the radio tends to be on more than usual. & this time there was a test match in Antigua to help me through the hours. It began at the new Viv Richards stadium and ended after 11 balls, as the pitch was judged unusable and the match called a draw. With a huge effort the old Antigua stadium pitch was brought back into play, and a new match started.

With hindsight there were a number of odd circumstances. Commentators kept praising the effort involved in getting a pitch ready for a cricket test: it normally takes two weeks and the ground staff had succeeded in two days. So if it took two weeks to prepare the original pitch, how come it was unusable? The question wasn't really asked: after all, a match was ongoing, the main thing. Then, although they'd just decisively beaten England at Kingston, the West Indian team were said to be very reluctant to start another game in Antigua. & then very few local supporters turned up to the new match. Cricket legend Sir Viv Richards was asked about this by the commentator. “Oh, I guess they are in church” he replied easily. A slight pause. At 4pm? “Oh it goes on all day here.” With all due respect this sounded slightly more than absurd. Since when did Antiguans spend a whole day singing hymns when there was a test match on? Even if it was Sunday.

Monday morning, this morning, dawned brilliant and hot in Antigua – and still there were very few Antiguans on the ground. What was on their minds? The bombshell, the breaking news, came around 4pm. "Texan billionaire Sir Allen Stanford and three of his companies have been charged over a $8bn investment fraud, US financial regulators say. The Securities and Exchange Commission said the businessman had orchestrated 'a fraudulent, multi-billion dollar investment scheme'."

Stanford is huge in Antigua, one of the island's biggest employers, a massive investor in cricket. The Antiguans must have heard rumours, and were anticipating a terrible crash: Sir Viv must have been in the know. & according to a local commentator a number of players had invested their match earnings in Stanford's schemes: the money would now be frozen, probably lost, which makes it more dreadful. The players... and who else?

A Ponzi scheme is fraudulent because payments are financed by taking on new capital. I guess it differs slightly from standard capitalist practice where, at least in theory, the money is used to finance money-making business. But if the money-making business fails, doesn't standard capitalist practice become a Ponzi scheme? But for the world banking crash, would the Standfords, the Madoffs, the Cosmos, be normal successful investors? I'd really like to know.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Polka, candombe and milonga

One evening recently at 33 a friend alarmed a few people: a milonga was playing and she suddenly started to jump up and down, saying 'One two three hop... It's a polka! One two three hop!' Calm down dear, someone said. But she was insistent, and I was intrigued. The music was some kind of milonga, and the rhythm she was dancing fitted it well. & I believed she knew what a polka was.

So I was delighted to read that the polka was very popular in Buenos Aires at the end of the 19th century, and that it may well have played a part in developing the slow habanera rhythm of the candombe, a dance with strong African roots, into... the milonga. Was milonga a cross between polka and a candombe on speed? & is the Brazilian samba an Africanised polka?

Somebody thinks so. Robert Farris Thompson, Professor of the History of Art at Yale wrote TANGO: the art history of love (Vintage Books, 2006) to demonstrate the profound, but now almost invisible, influence of Africa on the music and dance of Argentina.

Invisible if you don't know where to look. Old documents, artwork and photos, and people's memories, contradict the quite striking absence of Africans from the streets, public transport and milongas of Buenos Aires. I was stunned to read that the milonguero Facundo Posada recalls as a child being warned not to bother people who had fallen into a trance while dancing to the cadombe rhythm at the Shimmy Club in Buenos Aires around 1945. Upstairs at the Shimmy Club tango and jazz were danced: the basement was blacks-only, and at night the drums would start up and the spirits of Africa would manifest themselves.

In 1810 Buenos Aires was 34% black but by 1887, after years of immigration, it was 2%, around 8,000. By the mid-20th century the black community numbered about 2,000. Thompson charts the significance of African roots in tango. Black musicians were prominent, including several early bandoneon players who helped define the use of the instrument in tango. There were black lyricists: Gabino Ezeiza wrote over 500 songs. And the rich African tradition of dance fed into tango. A short film, Tango Argentino, featuring a dancer called El Negro Agapito was made around 1904, but sadly it no longer exists. Three great 20th century dancers, El Cachafez, Todaro and Petroleo acknowledged black teachers, partners, influences. Copes' first teacher was black.

Thompson writes to show black influence, but doesn't mention social tango. He calls dances 'choreographies', and the line of dance he follows to Copes leads rather to the stage, to tango fantasia, than to the milongas. & sometimes the comparisons are a bit forced: the distant facial expressions and lack of conversation in tango shows African origin. He clearly has no idea how much attention it takes for most of us to follow the music and navigate a crowded floor! & that we choose to enter a world of conversation without words. With music and without words we can fly; it's not a style copied from anywhere. But he has unearthed a rich background and a lot of detailed information about the music and dance: I just wished the book had at least a CD.

He claims that the habanera was Afro-Cuban: others have traced it to the European contredanza which came to Cuba from French Haiti with refugees from the 1791 Haiti revolution. He himself talks about how rhythms and dance moves traveled up and down the South American coast. Realistically, where does any good tune or rhythm come from? Tunes and rhythms travel easier than viruses because people, musicians especially, seek them out, and they take no storage space. I can't help remembering the story about the record company in the late 50s/early 60s that sent a team of recording engineers far up the Amazon to record the purest, unadulterated tribal music. When they listened to it again in the studio they were horrified to realise they were listening to a version of... Jailhouse Rock. The missionaries must have given the tribals a transistor tuned to edifying matter and told them not to touch that dial... Music travels instantly now, but even two centuries ago it traveled fast. A mariner whistles a tune he heard in a port, a local boatman hears it and it's copied from him far up-country by a merchant who crosses the mountains to...

Saturday, 7 February 2009

Being grounded

Dancing after visiting BsAs: a few recent comments from friends made me look back at the post I wrote after the first milonga back in London (Sunday 11 January). The entire post was about what I saw that evening compared with what I'd seen. Time to revisit the experience.

One comment: I was asked if I felt that my dancing had been deconstructed. That puzzled me a moment or two: it was the passive I found confusing. Nobody deconstructed my dancing. But I did spend the middle weeks of my stay being rather cautious. My first instinct was to get on the floor. Then I started to wonder if I was doing the right thing, doing it well enough. At least I was prepared for the style of dance there, but you become aware that there are people around you who have danced on and off for 60 years, whose experience of milongas goes back to the 40s and 50s. I thought I should regard dancing there as a privilege, not a right: to be on the floor at Canning certainly feels like a privilege! I started to tune in to the Spanish-language classes and to dance with local partners. I also started to sit and watch. You see amazing dance: not amazing in the 'tango fantasia' sense of high kicks and choreographed sizzling sensuality, just people moving beautifully, effortlessly, simply for their own pleasure. Watching became quite important for a few weeks. Some of those dancers, some of that experience, won't be around much longer.

My experience of dancing the first milonga after I got back was confusing because I was recovering from a serious cold, I was deaf in one ear, my own voice sounded strange. I couldn't dance easily because I felt my partners were expecting some amazing experience: how could I live up to it? Hard to explain that for five weeks I actually hadn't been dancing a lot. My feeling of that evening was that the lesson I'd brought back was to be very grounded. I was aware of the strength of gravity now, of weight, whereas before I'd danced around on tiptoe. This was what I learned (apart from actual steps) from Tete and Silvia. “Tango can be danced in a thousand different ways, but let’s step on the ground in the first place, because that is where we ought to dance to the music... Kids these days tend to dance in the air. You can do many nice things, but please do them on the floor.”

So it was strange and very helpful to be told that the impression from dancing with me that first night back was that my posture was a lot better. I wasn't in the least aware of posture that evening, but I'm wondering if the feeling of being grounded isn't related to a partner's perception of better posture.

Other than that: it's hard to change overnight. But, partly because of all this writing, I've still got a lot in mind, a lot of work still to do.

Monday, 2 February 2009

Facundo and Kely, Candombe and Humberto 1 1462

I just chanced upon this video in the hall of Humberto 1 1462. You get a glimpse of the entire hall after a marvellous candombe by Facundo and Kely Posadas: 50 years dancing together.

I took one class with Facundo, a great milonguero. He was incredibly courteous, and very helpful and attentive. When someone gives that much patience and attention their teaching becomes part of you. He's black, which I mention because that is strikingly unusual in Buenos Aires. He teaches throughout the USA, but hasn't been to London for many years.

Did tango die?

You hear lots of stories. TV and rock swept Argentina in the late 50s and 60s. The Argentine musician Joaquín Amenábar says that tango declined, then died, killed off by the later military rule, and there was a period when there was no tango dancing. Miguel Balbi, a singer and dancer who danced through the 70s, says that as few as 30 couples were still dancing when the military finally lost power in 1983. Well, all you need is a terrace or reasonably-sized room, 20 or so friends, some music, drink and food and you can have your own milonga and who would know about it? So tango may well have continued.

But research here suggests that quite a few milongas stayed open at least some of the time. They were cheap and some even had live music. A picture is worth many words, so here's the picture:

That's a familiar address. Humberto is the street, building no. 1462, first floor, and it's still a tango venue. I've been there. The Nino Bien milonga is held there every Thursday night. It's big enough for several hundred people to dance. 1976 was the grim year in which some 47% of all the “desaparecidos”, perhaps as many as 14,000 people, were seized and last seen.

& more: “...many old-timers credit Copes with keeping the Tango flame alive through the years of the cruel military rule in Argentina when the generals did their best to kill Tango as a popular expression. Many others quit; Copes kept going and mounted the highest of quality shows continually. Even though there was a curfew in Buenos Aires, there was a Copes show, often with Goyeneche, Troilo, even Pugliese making his music. Only the Best. He and his company were "untouchable" by those seeking to hold tango back in the wild Argentina political atmosphere... In the audience, the generals would be on one side of the room; the mafia on the other; the "people" in the middle. Everyone left their politics and rivalries at the door.”

The generals on one side, the mafia on the other, and the people in between: plausible enough. And I read that in 1977 Copes appeared with Nievas in Argentina es asi, a film shot in part on Corrientes Street, although there's no record of it on IMDb.

All of this may be true, or partially true. For what it matters, it seems tango never died out in Buenos Aires. But for sure it was the tours by Copes and his company that created and revived an interest in tango outside Argentina. Leandro Palou remarked to me, “Things become popular in Argentina because they are popular elsewhere. It's sad, but true”.

A postscript: I often wondered what Pugliese did during the 'dirty war': he was openly a communist, hardly the flavour of the decade. I found this in Tango: the art history of love: 'The management of the Michaelangelo, a San Telmo nightclub that staged big tango shows, loved him too: ignoring bomb threats they kept him employed during the grim days of the Proceso, 1976-1983. The junta did not dare "disappear" him: as Copes explains, "he was simply too popular".'

No, tango did not die.