Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Joaquín Amenábar workshops

Thanks to the weather, I arrive towards the end of the first workshop on tango melody. I'd always assumed the structure of tangos was A-B-A, but I find out immediately that they are usually much more complicated. Five sections are not uncommon: A-B-A-C-A, for example.

Then the milonga workshop. Different kinds of traspie: a kind of simple basic rock-step, useful for slow intros, then the 'real' traspie, then a simplified version of it, more like a feint, which serves as traspie when dancing fast milonga. Recognising different parts of the milonga: tendency in milonga to use major and minor keys ('happy' and 'sad') alternately in sections. There are sections of a milonga with the traspie beat/rhythm, and there are sections without it when we dance lisse. Occasionally there are sections where we hear the traspie beat, but the melody is so smooth that we would naturally dance lisse. We walk through a milonga several times to get familiar with the sections in the music and rhythms, then dance it in open embrace with a partner, then again, swapping roles. We study and practice three milongas in this way. The method is practical and well-organised.

Finally, a workshop on Troilo. Joaquin objects to the idea of learning to dance 'to Troilo', 'to D'Arienzo', 'to Di Sarli': 'Which D'Arienzo?' he asks. Each orquesta sounded different at different periods, and they all sound remarkably similar to each other at any one period. He plays a track from 1942 and asks us which orquesta it is. We'd been listening to Troilo and just danced a track of Di Sarli: it could well be Di Sarli. But it's D'Arienzo.

He takes us through phrases that have syncopated rhythms and double-times in three Troilo tangos from a 1936 sextet, an orquesta from the 1940s, and another from the 1950s. With time, the sound becomes bigger and more symphonic: at the same time, the bandoneon, Troilo's bandoneon, becomes more and more flexible, almost ignoring the rhythm behind it. Again, we walk through the rhythms, practicing the phrases with double-tempo beats and syncopation. He shows a simple walking step for the double tempo, but he says he's not there to teach us 'steps'; 'Ask your teachers for that'.

He just wants us to be able to pick out and walk correctly through the rhythms, but that's not easy. In fact, these are subtleties in the music that casual listening, or casual dancing, would probably ignore, but if you can pick them out and respond to them then a simple basic dance can become full of interest, even just walking and using the simplest steps. But it isn't easy. For instance, a phrase with four repetitions of a double-time might recur later, but with five repetitions of the double time instead of four. All of this means paying very careful attention to what's in the music.

We learn the melodic structures of the three Troilo tangos, we walk through each of them several times to familiarise ourselves with the different sections, and with the double-time passages within them, and then dance them once or twice as freely as we wish (or can!). For comparison, we dance to a Di Sarli version of Tinta Verde, one of the three Troilo tangos we've been through, so we can see that, although it is a different version and sounds different, it's recognisably the same piece of music. He draws a clear distinction with jazz: as he says, four jazzmen who've never played together can sit down one evening and play together, while in his experience it takes up to two years to get together a tango orquesta with a repertoire of 17 tangos, by the time the arrangements have been worked out and rehearsed. He talks about the background of the tango in European classical music.

Joaquin is very engaging because of his enthusiasm for both music and dancing, and his English is better than excellent: he can really express his enthusiasm and explain things simply and clearly, and he seems to understand the problems people have with the music and the dance. As a tango musician, a bandoneonista, he is aware of the subtleties of rhythm and melody, and of melodic structure, and he wants to bring this awareness to dancing. I can't help thinking that this is how the dance should be taught: the dance is always a response to the music, so we need to learn to listen to the music and to respond to the melodic and rhythmic structures in it. Just learning steps and dancing them against a background of tango music isn't the same thing: it's an unfortunate concentration on a superficial part of the whole, it's putting the cart before the horse.

Tete said, in his open letter, distributed in the milongas on his birthday four years ago, 'Tango is music, and it doesn’t begin with steps. We shouldn’t commit the mistake of not teaching how to walk different musical rhythms to recognize each orchestra'. It seems that Joaquin is one of the few teachers not making that mistake. I think he teaches exactly what Tete calls for: he teaches how to walk different musical rhythms, with the different orchestras, and also with the same orchestra at different periods.

Spending an afternoon listening with that much attention to the music really opened my ears to a lot that I was hardly aware of (if at all) in the music, to things that I would have ignored or registered simply as a problem in dancing, and to which I wouldn't have known the answer. I could do with a lot more classes like this, and I wish his approach could change completely the way tango is taught.

He talks about a number of other things too: in particular, outside the class, he's very scathing about the DJing in Buenos Aires. A pity we can't get him to DJ an evening in London.


jantango said...

If those who teach tango could talk about the music as Joaquin does, there would be many more good tango dancers around the world. I know only a handful of dance teachers with musical training. It's an asset to one's teaching.

Anonymous said...

Jill (who hosts Joaquin) sometimes DJs and those evenings are not to be missed.

Joaquin - what can I say, it was a privilege.

Tangocommuter said...

I always look forward to DJ Jill Barrett!

Anonymous said...

I took workshops with JA a couple of years ago and recommend them to everyone. As you say, he teaches tango as "music leading to dance". The world of tango could stand a hundred times more of this.