Friday, 23 September 2011

A golden-age milonga

We may have our own images of milongas of the golden age. There are a few scraps of film versions on YouTube which may or may not be true to life, and the popular view is of some elegance and plenty of champagne, of well-dressed men in suits, and fashionable ladies. But to judge by the accounts of those who danced at the time there was quite a bit of variation, and recently I came across a short story, The Gates of Heaven, by the Argentine author Julio Cortázar describing a milonga from the 1940s. I can't find a date, but Cortázar left Buenos Aires for Paris in 1951, where he died in 1984.

The wife of a friend has died, and he takes his friend out to a dancehall for the evening. He describes it as '...just plain chaos, confusion dissolving itself into a false order; hell and its circles.' There are three covered patios; in the first is a regular tango 'orquesta', in the second a group playing country music and in the third a folk group from the north; as you enter you hear all three. It's hot. The women are mainly taxi-dancers, 50 centavos a tanda. He describes the smell: barely-washed bodies plastered with lotions, hairspray, powder, brilliantine. He describes one partner, '...the sweat oozing from the roots of her hair and running down the back of her neck where a roll of fat made a tiny whiter rivulet'. Added to all this, there's an asado (charcoal grill) outside, and everyone's smoking. 'The smoke was so thick that the faces on the other half of the floor were blurred...' They drink spirits. Suddenly, in this confusion, both men see a woman who looks exactly like the dead woman, dancing '...her face enraptured and stupid in her paradise finally gained'. At the end of the tanda the husband drunkenly goes looking for her; but the author knows he'll come back '...not having found the gates of heaven among all that smoke and all those people'. Cortázar mentions Dante's inferno, but the story of Orpheus and Euridyce seems to be in there too.

Not that all golden age milongas were like that: I can't imagine milongas at La Ideal or La Molina being quite as chaotic.

The story is from a book of Cortázar's short stories, called Blow Up after the title of Antonioni's film which was adapted from one of the stories. According to Wikipedia, the story is called Las Babas del Diablo in Spanish, literally, 'The Droolings of the Devil', ' Argentine expression for the long threads some spiders and insects leave hanging between the trees'. There's no real or imagined murder in Cortázar's story; just an observed encounter between an adolescent and a rather older woman which the author interrupts with his camera, to the annoyance of the woman and her accomplice, a man sitting watching in a car, as the youth is startled into leaving. The author enlarges and enlarges his image and looks and looks at it. As always, the story is in the telling.

(Blow-up and other stories by Julio Cortázar, tr. Paul Blackburn, publ. Pantheon Books, New York, 1985.)

Excuse me...?

'More than 22,000 marine animals a year are caught and killed to check species are not being harmed by discharges from the nuclear site in Caithness.'

(News from the BBC website a few days ago.)

Saturday, 10 September 2011

¡Felices 100 años!

I never realised that Nelly Omar was still alive, and today, September 10, El Tanguata is wishing her Happy Birthday for her 100th birthday! Amazing, and wonderful. Even more amazing and wonderful that she's worked until recently: here is the El Tangauta article, with a track by her from her 2007 album, La Criolla, great music and a voice that is still very strong and clear. It was followed by albums in 2008 and 2009 too (which are on Spotify). She first met Gardel in 1918 when his career was just beginning, and as a teenager went to Gardel gigs in cinemas... I thought Alberto Podestá was the great old survivor, but he's only 87. Here's a biography.

Here's her Desde el Alma recording from 2008. What a voice! (I've just noticed that Jantango has a post on her with a video recording of the same track.)

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

& finally...

Sunny last morning packing and cleaning out the apartment. Sunday; I walk out through the park, past 40 people taking a ta'i chi class from an elderly Chinese gentleman, past the stall where volunteers offer hot drinks to rough sleepers, to the bottle bank. Like any European city. & a last coffee with a glass of sparkling water and a couple of heart-shaped biscuits. BsAs might not top my list of cities I'd choose to live in, but it's a great city with heart, and a lot of affection. I hand back the keys, drag my bag into the street and hail a cab to the airport...

Pedro 3

Time for one last session with Pedro at Alesandro's guest house. For this session he finds me a partner, who he introduces as a very fine milonguera, with a lot of experience of the milongas here. I recognise her from El Beso where I'd never be likely to get a dance with her, so to dance with her today is like a gift from Pedro. Essentially, I get a class with the two of them: I get feedback from her, and she reinforces what Pedro says. She's observant and offers advice too; she knows when it's going well, and is encouraging.

Like Ana Maria last night, Pedro talks about the flexing of the knee, the leader lifting the leg slightly from the knee before stepping. I've received so much similar advice from different people that it's as if they've been in touch by phone: Ana Maria said this last night, and Silvia talked about the feet making straightforward contact with the floor. &, like Cacho Dante, Pedro insists that the foot must point forwards if you are walking forwards: turn your foot to the left or the right and your partner can feel this as a lead to change direction.

But they shake their heads: Oh dear, in the UK he learned to dance with his feet instead of with his body. Relax! Listen to the music! Always the same refrain. It's what I've been realising over the past couple of years, but still have bad habits to get rid of: 'listening to the music' means dancing every single step with complete, relaxed attention to the partner and to the music and to the other dancers around in a milonga. One reason why London tango doesn't look like Buenos Aires tango, and doesn't feel like it either, is the lack of this kind of attention.

& 'tango is a feeling' – that mysterious porteño phrase, which Monica repeats, as if it is the closest she can get to expressing what tango is for her. To me it suggests a concentrated feeling of tenderness: something I've felt in every milonga I've been to in BsAs, but really never in London. I'm going to miss that tenderness.

I film them dancing in the studio:

As we part in the street, Pedro tells me to go back to the UK and dance like this. 'No need to be a teacher' he says (never my ambition). 'Just go back and dance like this: your partners will know the difference. They'll learn from dancing what BsAs tango is like'. But as I walk back I wonder: I can dance like this with Monica under Pedro's eye, but London is a different place. For a start, in London it's rare to feel an embrace quite as immediate and trusting as the 'abrazo' of Buenos Aires. Then partners in BsAs understand from experience where this kind of dancing is coming from: by and large they're much more familiar with the music and the kind of phrasing in the music. & without the support of a room full of people dancing like this, the feel of tango starts to get lost. Going back suddenly becomes an unwelcome prospect.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Canning once again

Ana Maria's class at Canning; I always enjoy these classes. Two hours with a break, it's relaxed, nothing difficult. There's a lot of initial emphasis on walking, and it's valuable practice, as it's easier to notice and correct bad habits in class than while dancing in a milonga. Part class, part practica. In particular, this evening I pick up on what Ana Maria says about flexing the knee before stepping, a slight lift of the flexed knee which results in the foot coming down firmly without the hardness of the heel hitting the floor as in normal walking. I think this is clearly visible in any clip of Ricardo Vidort's walk, and I think also in El Flaco's walk in the video of Muma above. Like stamping, but a lot more gentle; putting the foot down firmly perhaps. I think it's something all the older dancers do, and to some extent the younger ones too. I've been aware of it for a long time and I find that in walking it results in a clearer lead, but the problem is getting it to feed through into social dancing, making a new habit. It completely eradicates that old bad habit of stepping forward with a bent knee; something Cacho Dante pointed out to me last time I was here.

My last evening at Canning; and it's a really good evening when the castellano, the cabeceo and the tango all work well, good memories of meeting a succession of friendly local partners on the floor. There's no experience quite like this: the moment of agreement in a look at a distance, the embrace between strangers, the dance, the brief conversations. In general, I've never found the people of any city quite as welcoming as BsAs, and these brief encounters, and the embrace, and the dance make evenings that are worth coming back here for. But it's taken a few weeks to get this far.

I know Canning only from Mondays and Fridays and both evenings are a good mix of young and old, mainly local people and some visitors as well. It feels like a powerhouse of meeting. Unfortunately it's also turned into a bit of a photo opportunity, and on Fridays there's at least some poor dancing. But most evenings at El Beso can feel just a bit unforgiving by comparison.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Lujos 4

My last night out at Lujos in El Beso for a while. Lucia and Oskar who run it are very friendly. Alberto and Paulina are always at their milongas, and Alberto always makes a point of telling them to give his friend, me, a good seat, but I've no doubt they would anyway. Alberto says it's a great night here tonight, making that characteristic little porteño gesture with the right hand twisting to the side of the mouth, combined with a clicking of the tongue; I've never seen it anywhere else.

& the atmosphere is especially warm and good-natured. I enjoy the mix of ages at the El Beso milongas. Some milongas seem to be exclusively for older-generation dancers, but in all the El Beso milongas I've been to I've seen a great mix of ages. I know some people don't like this but I've no problem with it. There are wonderful young dancers enjoying themselves, dancing with each other and with the great older generation too, and all in the best close-embrace tango. There are young women here, perhaps hardly into their twenties, dancing as enthusiastically with old tangueros like Chiche Ruberto, and with Ricardo Suarez too (who might even be old enough to be their great-grandfather) as with young guys of their own generation, who themselves are dancing with women who have their own tango histories. I think this is great because within a decade or so what they are experiencing here, night after night, will remain a living link to the tango of the past. This is the future of tango, this is how the past will continue into the future. If young people don't get to dance with the older generation in milongas, the continuity of tango is broken. & the presence of young people brings a lively energy to the evening, too. However, I think there are many more older men than older women here.

& the older generation strikes me as a bit special: they had to be tough and smart to survive a difficult period of Argentine history, and they lived through it together. They grew up to the great 1945-1955 tango party, and now tango, the love of their childhood and youth, has come back to them in their old age, as strong and clear as ever, with friends all over the world. These kids who grew up practicing as teenagers on the street corners in the barrios can now afford to dress up and go out dancing night after night with young women, as well as with older friends, and some of them can enjoy champagne with it, too. Sure they're happy and enjoying themselves! In the end, life has been kind to them.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Osvaldo Natucci at Practimilongueros

Practimilongueros continues with an interview with Osvaldo Natucci, who has plenty to say about tango history. He describes 1945 to 1955 in Buenos Aires as a big party, the only party Argentina's ever had, and a party like no other city has ever had: the dance and the music was the city's passion. He also says that at that time there were just two kinds of dancer; the amateurs, and then the artisans, who took the trouble to dance a tango of quality. He sees a third kind of dancer emerging in the late 80s: the artists. He admires the skill of the few artists who are really good, but points out that few of their followers realise that dance at this level is beyond them. Social tango is what matters: the survival of tango depends on the continuation of social tango, on the artisans. This is only Part 1, so there's more to look forward too.

From what I'd already heard I suspected that there was a huge social change centred around tango in BsAs in the 1940s. Instead of meeting at birthdays, festivals or in church, young people had the independence to go out to dance together. Many thanks to Mónica Paz for continuing this wonderful exploration of tango and society in BsAs within living memory. She's asking the questions I wanted to ask, and the conversations are fascinating.

Incidentally, I couldn't help noticing how articulate and full of life Osvaldo Natucci's arms and shoulders are. This seems a good example of the body culture of the Mediterranean, part of the background of tango. & I can't help noticing, also, that Osvaldo has taught in France. I'm afraid UK tango is missing out on a lot.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Some I made earlier

It's always bewildered me that my sense of direction is so bad in BsAs, as it's usually pretty good in the UK. It was while making these pictures that I realised why. The sun shines in the deep canyons of central BsAs only between 12 and 2 at this time of year (in fact, probably throughout the year). &, of course, it moves from right to left, and its high point is north, in line with the grid of the centre of the city. As Coleridge wrote:

'The sun now rose upon the Right
Out of the sea came he,
Still hid in mist and on the left
Went down into the sea.' (The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.)

To add to the confusion my street map shows the shoreline of the Río de la Plata at the bottom of the page, which I habitually read as south. All very confusing!

I'd normally avoid the midday sun when making pictures, but the light was very clear and luminous, so I couldn't resist. Since it was winter, even the midday sun didn't flatten out and bleach the pictures: moreover even at midday it still wasn't high in the sky, making dramatic shadows. I resolved to go out again for more the following day – but the clouds came over, and this wonderful light was never repeated.

Euro Records

A trip up Lavalle to no. 2039, Euro Records. A trip to a record store wouldn't usually be worth posting, but Euro Records is different. Come in! Sit down! What can we do for you? I dig out my list, and they start to get my CDs from the case, recommend a few more, comment on the sound quality of one or two. I ask if they have any specifically canyengue CDs (like the series Martha has, with a good deal of early Canaro and a number of largely forgotten orquestas that Martha tells me she loves). A long discussion in the office starts up as to what exactly canyengue music is: they tell me it used to be danced in the streets. They dig out a number of discs, but they are all later music (from the late 30s) and I assumed canyengue was earlier. However, their knowledge of this huge collection is seriously impressive. Then they're curious about my interest in the music. Is it for dancing? For dancing and listening, I reply. Ah, a double pleasure! We sit and chat amiably for a while.

Buying CDs isn't usually like that. I leave with seven CDs, which cost me the equivalent of £22. Just seven. I'm ashamed of myself.

Incidentally the 'catalogo' link on their website doesn't seem to work, but if you click on the black and gold 'Buenos Aires tango club' logo half-way down on the left-hand side you'll reach the online shop and complete catalogue. It's an extraordinary and constantly increasing collection.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

A lightbulb moment -- and Jorge Lladó at el Beso

Wednesday night class at El Beso, more walking, more good advice on walking, and another simple and useful figure. It must be from classes like these that present-day portenos learn their basic tango.

I stay on into the milonga: Wednesday night at El Beso is La Bruja. I suddenly realise that I've been getting it all wrong. I've been turning up later in the evening at a milonga in full swing, expecting the organisers to find me a seat (which they always do), and trying to get dances on a floor packed with dancers who have already been busy for hours; which is careless, a bit thoughtless and could even be seen as arrogant. The practical thing to do is to get there right at the beginning. At that time of the evening you can probably choose where you sit instead of being shown to a seat. The floor is fairly empty, and there are partners there looking for a warm-up: it makes sense to arrive then, and then perhaps to sit out and watch the busiest time later on. A bit late to think of this now, but something to remember for the future.

Jorge Lladó, the nephew of the late Tete, turns up early. I watched him last visit, a big guy but very soft and smooth on his feet. Here he is in El Beso.

I usually prefer to watch dancers in a milonga, fitting their dance round everyone else with smaller steps, but I do enjoy this demo from Jorge and his partner. I notice there are videos of him from Milan last autumn, so he's already visited Europe to teach: too much to hope that someone will bring him to London, I guess. & if I didn't manage to convey the sense of the 'ups and downs' of tango (someone thought it meant a bouncy dance) in this post, I think a good look at this clip shows how smoothly and energetically the music is followed by using a slight dipping and straightening from the knees. I think the turns around the 1.00 and the 1.30 marks show this. & I like the way the 'hanging' phrases in the music are marked with pauses. It seems effortlessly musical and fluent.

Video thanks to Gurisatanguera.

Another visitor

I run into a woman from Scandinavia I danced with a few times on my last visit. I'm surprised to see her again and wonder if she lives here now, but it turns out our visits have coincided. I remember she speaks surprisingly little English for a Scandinavian, but is fluent in Spanish, and I discover she's actually Latin American by birth, and grew up in Europe; part of the diaspora from the bad years, no doubt. Would she want to live here? Emphatically no: after over 40 years, she tells me, she considers herself European. & she asks if I live in BsAs since she finds me here again: emphatically no! If I lived here I'd be fluent in castellano, and I might even be a passable tanguero too. She's come here for just two weeks to dance a bit, and it's really sad to see how little she gets to dance. She's an excellent dancer and knows the music really well, but she's not young and attractive. She has a few friends here who enjoy dancing with her, but it's a real shame she doesn't get to spend more time on the floor.