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Is It Tango?

A civilian recently sent me a recording of the intermezzo from Lalo's Symphonie Espagnole.  He wanted to know if I thought it was tango. Here is what I said.

Thank you so much for your music!

Is it tango? That is the question. And my answer is, as it usually is, both “of course” and “not really.” I hear a lot in it. I could see professionals doing a stage performance dancing to this, particularly the legato parts. I hear that very French “romantic” sound, I hear a lot of Dvorak-y Eastern-European kinds of sounds, and above I hear the aural equivalent of what happened to tango when it came to Europe and the United States. It sounds like foreigners watching tango, translating it through themselves, and then saying what they saw. It sounds like a tango written for the instruments to dance, not for dancers. it tango?

Piazzolla wrote tangos for instruments to dance, not for actual dancing. He used to say he hated it when people said his music was not tango. Piazzolla, for tangueros, is something you listen to for yuks, maybe in the car home from a milonga. If it's for listening and not for dancing, is it tango?

Purists a long time ago said that you were not supposed to dance to any tango that was sung, you were only supposed to dance to strictly-instrumental tangos. Today nobody has ever heard of such a rule and it sounds preposterous. Not dance to “Danza Maligna” or “Fueron Tres Años”? Crazy talk! But again: if it's sung and you're living in 1935, is it tango?

Some of my favourite leaders to dance with are Arabs and Indians. I am going to risk being offensive and say that these guys really feel the sinuousness of tango and bring it out, their tango is perfumed with rosewater and it's wonderful. It's different from the tango of the porteños. Is it tango?

There's a world called tango nuevo, which, if people did it with better technique, could be seen as a future for tango, although I hope not the future. I define it as externalizing what is internal in tango (what I think of as real tango). Tango is an internal dance. Hear someone's heart with your heart, and they hear yours with theirs. That's all it is and that's everything. Raw, terrifying, seductive, addictive, demanding all, transformative, destructive, transcendant. When we externalize that, and turn it into a dance about huge boleos and big flashy it tango?

Tango is “I feel the moment, I feel the music, and I feel you.” So when you dance with a man and you feel him thinking, “hmm, I like volcadas, so I'm going to do a volcada,” is it tango?

Tango is making love. There is no line between the two. There is no, this is just something we're doing on the dance floor because we have no handy bedroom to retire to. If someone kisses you tenderly, passionately, bravely baring their whole soul, and you're sitting in a car and there's no music, is it tango?

There is this thing that Americans call “tango.” It's a ridiculous, pompous, melodramatic ballroom dance with stupid stiff arms and ostentatious gesturing. It looks like a bad parody and insults the name of love. Is it tango?

The great Carlos Gardel, grand-daddy king of all tango musicians and the official Gold Standard of “what is tango music,” the Greenwich Mean Time against which all other tango music is held to see if it's tango or not and if it's good or not, is never ever played at milongas. I've never heard Gardel played at a milonga. Because tangueros say “it's too hard to dance to,” and it's true, his music is hard to dance to, and tango-nuevo dancers (who pride themselves on dancing to everything, Jimi Hendrix, the Cure, everything) equate Gardel with the Old Guard that they think they're too young and cool for. Gardel wasn't even Argentinian (not that anyone was, nation of immigrants), he was born in France and had to learn castellano as a second language. And, ironically, when he was young people said he'd never be a singer because his voice wasn't good enough. All irrelevant. He was and is the great Gardel. Is it tango?

Itzhak Perlman plays his take on Gardel's “Por Una Cabeza.” You can hear how it sounds like another country listening to tango and picking up the more obvious notes and running with them. Is that wrong? Is it the next step? Is it tango?

Saludos y gracias otra vez