Ástor and the Brothels of Buenos Aires

Forget “Hernando’s Hideaway.” Forget “Whatever Lola Wants (Lola Gets).” If you want to hear some serious tango music, you’ve got to go to Argentina.

It was, of course, where the tango originated. Well, Buenos Aires, specifically. The dance originated with the African community in Buenos Aires during the 19th century; it was based on ancient African dance forms, and the word “tango” comes from the Niger Congo. Most historians say the tango really took hold in the brothels of Buenos Aires. Certainly the overtly sexual energy of the dance tends to lend credence to the idea.

Tango music is traditionally played by a sextet, known as the orquesta típica, which includes two violins, a piano, a double bass, and two bandoneons (handheld accordions). Vocalists are optional.

It was Rudolph Valentino who brought the tango to new audiences, especially in the United States, with his sensual depictions of the dance on film. At the same time, tango was moving out of the brothels in Argentina and becoming a more respectable form of music and dance.

A second revolution came in the 1950s with the work of Ástor Piazzolla, who incorporated elements from jazz and classical music, morphing the traditional tango into a new style called Tango Nuevo. He is widely considered the most important tango composer of the latter half of the twentieth century. A formidable bandoneonist, he continuously performed his own compositions with different ensembles. He is known in Argentina as “El Gran Ástor” (“The Great Astor”).

You might be interested in seeing just a bit of this BBC documentary on Piazzolla:

In 1974 Piazzolla did an album called Libertango, featuring the song by the same name. In 1999 the renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma did an album called Soul of the Tango, and this video is the result of their collaboration:

Tango music continues to evolve. Recent trends might be described as “electro tango” or “tango fusion,” where the electronic influences are available in multiple ranges, from very subtle to rather dominant. One of the most prominent groups who work in this genre is the Paris-based Gotan Project, and their most popular album is probably La Revancha del Tango (2001). Their sound features electronic elements like samples, beats, and sounds on top of a tango groove:

In 2001 Indigo Bunting, her wonderful husband Tim, and I traveled nearly an hour to a theater showing the Baz Luhrmann jukebox musical film Moulin Rouge! I absolutely hated that movie. If I recall correctly, Tim rather liked it, and Indigo was somewhat perplexed by it. The only piece I liked somewhat was Sting’s “Roxanne,” retitled “El Tango de Roxanne” in the film:

Finally, pop culture has begun to embrace Argentine Tango in earnest. On this past season of So You Think You Can Dance, a television dance competition, one young couple — he’s a ballet dancer, she’s a breakdancer — did an amazing tango to (of all songs) “Whatever Lola Wants.” For me it was the highlight of the season:

By the way, the first judge you see at the end of the clip is Adam Shankman, the director/choreographer of this summer’s wonderfully fun movie musical Hairspray. Fun factoid: He officiated at the wedding of Freddie Prinze, Jr., and Sarah Michelle Gellar, with whom he worked while choreographing Buffy the Vampire Slayer.


~ by Craig R. Smith on 23 September 2007.

5 Responses to “Ástor and the Brothels of Buenos Aires”

  1. I tried to watch Moulin Rouge. I really did but, honestly, I was so utterly confused I gave up on it.

    And you forgot the most important tango of them all: “Hermendel’s Kuchelain.”

    If you feel frisky
    Come try the kishke (BUM bum)
    At Hermendel’s Kuchelain
    Oy Main!

  2. Is that anything like

    Whatever Yenta wants
    Yenta gets
    And little Schmuley
    Now Yenta
    Wants you!

  3. Very mmuch so.

    Ahh… Childhood memories.

  4. My memory is that you and I really wanted to see Moulin Rouge and we were both really disappointed. I thought it was visually stunning, but I didn’t give a rat’s ass about the characters at all—nothing made me care. I can’t remember Tim’s reaction, although it’s hard for me to think he liked it . . . but you could be right. I watched it a couple of years later and felt a little more kindly toward it. But I think it’s the kind of film I would have loved at, say, age 13. It’s too bad, because obviously we liked the concept.

  5. I saw Astor Piazzolla play at the Almeida Theatre when I was working there in 1985, and I could hardly believe I was actually watching someone play such things right in front of me. . . . A bit like the priceless scene in The Forsyte Saga where Montague Dartie, failed cad and bounder back from Buenos Aires with his tail between his legs, tells his chum about the dance they do there, looking ashen at the memory of it.

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