Sunday, May 29, 2011

Tango in one word?

A place to embrace, a place to walk and be soothed deep in one's soul.

Try to describe tango in a single word.

That's hard.  Maybe a hyphenated word, like "soul-soothing"?

But the "walking-embrace," is my often-used noun and my best description.  The walking-embrace is more than soul-soothing.  It is the way that we can let our souls go out and play, like children who too long have been sitting in a classroom or inside because of bad weather.  Tango is the soul-play dance while walking embraced.

That's it.

Photo credit:
Also see:

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Psychology of Musicality part 3

Music and dance are primal to the human soul.

The First Dance

What is true of your first dance is true of all dance.  Music inspired it.

I now speak as a poet.  If this is not true scientifically that music comes before dance, it is true poetically.  I feel this more than I know it.  Music is the foundation of the human soul and it moves our bodies.  Music pries open our souls and makes us dance.  We know that we are alive, and we know something about our souls.  Alzheimer patients can be at a stage of total loss of their own biographies and deeply distressed, but music, especially music from their childhood, can restore them to joy which can last for hours.

I asked the question, "what came first, dance or musis?" to a group of tango teachers on Facebook last week.  Some felt that the answer would be different if one is talking about tango versus if one were talking generally about dance.  However, most agreed that music is first when it comes to tango.  I am perplexed by a perception that there should be any difference.  In both cases -- human history or the history of tango -- music comes before the dance.  For example, unique reggae movements were inspired by the inverted downbeat of this music (on 2 and 4 not the usual 1 and 3).

One tango teacher, Ilene Marder, felt it was music that came first, but also pointed out that human movement is the start of music. She said: "The first music was our heartbeat."

From the same Facebook tango teacher forum, Jay Abling, a veteran dancer, musician, conductor, tango instructor and DJ from San Diego said, "When the dance swing, first came into being, I doubt that the someone just started creating steps and said, 'There should be music to the steps I just created.' Swing originated with style of jazz music . . . and people started experimenting with movement to the music, creating different styles of swing. Eventually, musicians started riding the popularity and started creating music for those particular styles."

So one could argue that movement indeed precedes music, starting from the beat of our Mother's heart and then our own.   And, yes, one could say that a drummer's hands "dance" on the drum heads or a guitarist's fingers "dance" on the strings. Movement and music are at one truly, but movement is not dance.  Music is the stimulus for dance, and is still primary because it is created in the musical-mind.

The 9th Symphony: Written in deafening silence
Let me demonstrate: A man is walking down the street just moving and then a song comes to his mind. He is walking his dog, but his dog is not going to come up with music from its movement. The internal ability to create music in the human brain predisposes all movement to inspire music within our unique brains.  From this perspective, movement seems to create music.  But movement, whether a heart beating or legs walking is not dance or music. Music is an an internal disposition in musical brain (human brain).  This same concept is evident in the life of Ludwig van Beethoven, who wrote one of the greatest musical masterpieces of all time from what he "heard" internally.  He was entirely deaf when he composed his last symphony.  Music in a way is implanted in our brain, making music as one of the the most distinctive markers of what makes us human.

Oliver Sacks, a world-renowned neuroanthropologist and psychiatrist has this to say about the wiring of the brain that makes music primary and dance the response to music.

Being human adds up to being a lot of positive and negative things, but one thing we uniquely possess (among mammals) is the ability to make music and the human body's unique response to dance.  If you want be essentially human -- then return to what you did as an infant and allow yourself to feel the music and dance.  

18th Dynasty Egyptian Tomb Fresco with musicians and dancers
External expression of music, such as with clapping, sticks, drums and logs quickly is united with an automatic response from our cerebellum (motoric center of the brain) in the form of dance.  Take a closer look at the dancers and musicians which appear on an Egyptian tomb fresco from the earlier post (part one).  Notice the oldest of percussion instruments on the far left?  Clapping hands.

In some ways the closer we come to both music and movement being one and the same, the closer we are to being truly at one with music, and it does feel as if dance and music are parallel. 

The Influence of Dance on Music
I acknowledge that dancers can inspire musicians to create new things. There is a symbiotic relationship, a synergism, that happens. For example, chachachá’s name came to out of what dancers were doing. The inventor of the chachachá said he heard the dancers’ feet on the floor making the chachachá sound, but again the stimulus was music. Have you ever seen anyone ever dancing the waltz without music? Imagine musicians watching dancers and saying, “We should make that into music!” Or as Cherie, a tango teacher and correspondent out of Buenos Aires, wrote me back in 2009: “Can you just see gauchos around a fire dancing a tango without music? Yeah, right.” And I would add to that: “Imagine musicians being inspired to invent tango music just by watching people dancing at a silent milonga!” Maybe in a different universe?

We have chickens and we have eggs. Maybe one or the other came first. That is pretty mysterious stuff. My brain cannot get around the chicken/egg question. It is like rocket science. But music and dance? This is not rocket science.  Music, then dance. The power of music at a milonga routinely makes my body into a musical instrument, playing a song called, "Dance."

Photo Credit:
First dance fire

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Connection and Vulnerability

Music moved me...towards you
by Mark Word

I told myself I would not dance.
I was afraid I would make myself foolish.

I told myself I would not prance,
Like that drunk friend of mine, over-smiling.

This time I would not allow the chance
Of vulnerability and the taste of hurt again.

The music started and I caught your glance,
And I saw how it moved you to be just who you are.

My mind took us back--a bonfire and chants,
To my ancient need to touch and be the music.

Music pried open my soul and made my body dance,
Music pried open my heart and inside I found you.

This poem was preparation for this "story telling" video clip (below) on the search for the meaning and value of vulnerability.  What does it means to be "whole-hearted" and vulnerable to you?

I told my son recently that if I were a terrible father he would not mourn my death in the future.  If parents want to spare their children from the pain of bereavement and loss, they should be aloof and avoid being vulnerable to their children or even avoid love altogether! 

The way of love expects hurt, and does not search ways to numb the pain of love -- drugs, food, avoidance.  This is the paradox of life, that those who engage in life expose their hearts and truly live a life worth living, a life of connection.  Do not be surprised by the words of tango -- they are messages of love and the normal hurt of the vulnerable heart.

This post was both a "break" from "The Psychology of Music" and a preparation for the last installment of the series. Tomorrow: "The Psychology of Music, part 3," subtitled:  "The First Dance."  Insights from tango instructors and a short film by a neurological anthropologist, which should put the whole subject together nicely.  ¿Hasta entonces?

Photo credit:

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Psychology of Musicality part 2

A classical dance from India:  Precision of drums and dancer.

In part one of "The Psychology of Musicality," I reasoned that music came before dance.     Click here for part one.

Ask anyone, including avid dancers, and it seems that nearly everyone has strong opinions about dance preceding music or music preceding dance.  A tango friend, Lisa, using her observation of her children, came to the conclusion that dance and music happen at the same time.  Her daughter was moved to dance with or without music, and her son made every common object into a drum to make music. Maybe that is the solution -- making dance and music parallel, not one or the other first.  She concluded:  "Dance was created by those who needed to move and they did so to their own internal music.  Music was created by those who needed to feel the vibration and they did so with whatever objects were at hand. Dance and music were created parallel."

These are good points.  However, is it possible that the dancing without music we see in small children is the result from the baby's ability to remember the music she had heard earlier? The ability to remember music includes the ability to dance to remembered stimuli, just like remembering where food is gets the whole body reacting by movement to find food again and even have stomach acids ready to receive it. Food is the remembered stimulus, which creates food-searching movements. Music is the remembered stimulus for dance movements.  Also, playful animals "dance" around.  Human beings dance for joy (as some animals do) -- but is this truly dance?  If it is, it is the rare exception to what dance is as a response to music.  An exception does not make dance first and music second.

There is no right or wrong answer to the question of which came first, perhaps. Or the solution is that both happen simultaneously.  At least this is not a question that will cause the end of the world.  However, I would argue that indeed putting dance first has consequences for adult learners.  I believe that the philosophy of Dance-before-Music is exactly how tango is too often taught, and this has negative implications for learners.  A series of steps learned will make a great dancer?  Let's choreograph this song and then add music?  No!  Music first, then dance.

This post was about to be published today, but I called my 17 year-old son and asked I asked him how his dance lessons were going.  He just started a month ago.  He said he loved it, but he does not like that the dance instructor has her adolescent students learning steps first and then she introduces the music!  That's right:  She goes through the steps and then turns on the music, belting out directions of how they must move.  Ben said, "I now know why you like tango, Dad.  There are no steps that you are forced to do."  I couldn't believe how perfectly his complaint fell in line with these articles on the psychology of musicality.  He gave me permission to mention his experience.  Dance before music is poor pedagogy if nothing else.

In the psychology of musicality we must return to the simplicity of stimulus and response (music and dance). Secondly, we must return to being childlike. Among a long list of motherly anecdotes, Lisa, my tanguera friend said, "Although I waited until age 7 to sign [my daughter] up for ballet lessons, [her ballet dancing] was never as wonderful as her spontaneous dancing. Now, at age 14, she will only dance when no one else is home." Lisa's daughter is already learning how to control herself so much that she is losing the innate ability to dance with natural musicality (see Part One for the discussion of why we lose our innate musicality). Later, she might tell a dance teacher when she is in 40's, "I have two left feet." No, sweetheart, you have a brain that has forgotten how to be and do what it was made to do:  Dance spontaneously to the music.

Next: The Psychology of Musicality part 3. I asked a group of tango teachers if music happens before dance, and a few responded back with some insightful answers.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Solo Performance

A couple of weeks ago I had free tickets through my work to go to a ballroom competition dinner. This extravaganza included social dancing, a finalist competition and a show. I am used to dancing, but this was something new, being surrounded by the ballroom dance competition crowd. Afterwards, I planned to go with my dance partner to a milonga -- our more usual routine.

A few days before the dinner, I mentioned to my partner that we could actually sign up to compete as novice first-time Argentine Tango dancers. But she responded: "No way! Remember, you are the guy who has a blog that talks about tango being a connection between two people, and you are always saying, 'It is not what shows, but how it feels!'" she said wisely.

Of course she was right, but my appeal to her was to go and just improvise as a statement that dance is all about letting your soul play on the playground, and just dance with our hearts.

But she again countered with, "No, competitive ballroom is another world. People pay lots of money -- classes, costumes -- and learn to perfect each level in a curriculum, gradually moving from first timer, to novice, to bronze level, silver level and gold level. Judges would be looking for perfection in just the moves at your competition level. Nothing more and nothing less counts."

"Well, it would just be for fun," I said.

"Yeah, and if you do it once and have an ounce of success it is so easy to get sucked in and want to do it again!"

"Yes, the Dark Side. You're right. I know the Dark Side and its allure." My face has a distant stare of delusions of grandeur. I enter a trance. I imagine myself at the tango alter, giving up my Holy Grail Philosophy of dancing just for the one person in front of you, breaking to bits my Stone Tablet Philosophy of connection -- especially the First Commandment to have only One Connection and not to worship the pagan gods of Cool Steps. I hear Darth Vader's artificial lung regulator sucking in and blowing out air. His voice says, "Mark... Mark...Come to the Dark Side."

The trance is broken by "Mark! Hey, are you okay?"

"Sorry. I was just spacing out. I thought I heard an important announcement over the P.A. system."

"Yeah, it was me talking!"

She pulled me away from the Dark Side. "Yes, that‘s right," I told myself. "I am a social dancer. What would I accomplish competing?"

Nevertheless, we still have a story to tell. . .
Sure enough, after dinner had been served and a chachachá, a waltz and a foxtrot had been played, we hear a tango--an authentic tango--being played. The following video records the wildly different styles between our milonguero style and our distant cousin dancers, doing a ballroom rendition to the same music! Just play this for the first little bit, and you will get the idea.

Then later they played a milonga. My partner, with her eyes closed, didn't even realize until the end that we were the only ones on the dance floor for this one. We, of all people, the social milongueros, ended up unwittingly performing solo before wannabe show dancers -- and they applauded us!

In the video that follows, we are dancing to a milonga played by a mere duet--piano and bass.

That was when it dawned on my partner: "You know if we had competed, no one here would have even competed against us in Argentine Tango. We could have won gold!"

But wait a second. Is that Miss Tango Purity speaking now? How the allure of performance beguiles! Interestingly enough, that night we both lamented that the ballroom extravaganza was a lot more fun than the milonga that followed. Perhaps the Dark Side is always there lurking, ready with the next temptation!


Monday, May 16, 2011

Death of my Tanguera

When love exceeds the beauty of heaven
La Muerte de Anabel, mi Tanguera
by Mark Word

My friends were sure our souls entwined.
   They saw us dance as one,
That we, our love, had surely defined
   a love bright as the sun.

Our purpose was to love each other --
   two souls, two lives on the run.
The gods, envious of a love so pure,
   placed her in her coffin.
A tragic death, the papers said,
   a life not yet begun!
They took from me a love so true,
  forbidden a mere human.

Milongas without her presence now
  are songs all spent and sung.
No spring to my feet and no place to hide,
  I'm Adam alone in Eden.
I wait not for heaven or a better place.
  Our heaven was a beacon,
Whose beam shone brighter than heaven's light,
  so they sent death's coachman
On the path of light that led to us
  and a love they yet have known.

This poem is a dedicated to my son, Benjamin and a tribute to Edgar Allen Poe.  I was delighted to read through some of Poe's work with Ben, who is 17 and in an English class in Germany.  We discussed a paper he was doing on Poe, and I was struck with his thoughtful exegesis on several of Poe's works.  One was a poem, "Annabell Lee" (below).  This sad poem references the untimely death of Poe's wife.  Although the poem was dark and painful, it was also a tribute to the human experience -- that human love and life are so precious that even the seraphs were envious.  The ancient Greeks believed that human life is far better than the bleak existence in the shadows of the afterlife.  Today's religious belief makes out human life as a mere shadow of that to come.  Personaly, I see God's love as far more benevelent than E.A. Poe and today's popular theology, but just in case the world does come to an end on the 21st of May (as perdicted), I thought I would get this out! 

Although I do not believe that things get worse after this life we know, please imagine seeing the value of our present life as being so precious that it even the angles are envious of what we have!  I do wonder if the angles are envious when I dance at times.  Also, this sense of "it doesn't get any better" describes my love for my children, Ben and Toby.
Here is Poe's poem in its entirety:

Annabel Lee
by Edgar Allan Poe
It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee--
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.

I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea,
But we loved with a love that was more than love--
I and my Annabel Lee--
With a love that the winged seraphs of heaven
Coveted her and me.

And this was the reason that, long ago,
In this kingdom by the sea,
A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling
My beautiful Annabel Lee;
So that her highborn kinsmen came
And bore her away from me,
To shut her up in a sepulchre
In this kingdom by the sea.

The angels, not half so happy in heaven,
Went envying her and me--
Yes!--that was the reason (as all men know,
In this kingdom by the sea)
That the wind came out of the cloud by night,
Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.

But our love it was stronger by far than the love
Of those who were older than we--
Of many far wiser than we--
And neither the angels in heaven above,
Nor the demons down under the sea,
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee:

For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee:
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee:
And so, all the night-tide, I lay down by the side
Of my darling--my darling--my life and my bride,
In the sepulchre there by the sea--
In her tomb by the sounding sea.

Photo Credit:  

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Musicians/DJ's killing tango, part 3

Musicians/DJ's:  What is the mission -- make us sit and listen or make us move?

As a recap from part one and two of "Musicians Killing Tango" the basic thesis was:

Musicians who forget the dancer kill the very music that they love.

This thesis was not my thesis. I just borrowed the idea from two Latin American musicians. Some musicians will cringe at this added thesis (which is my own) here in part three:

DJ's are proxy musicians, and as such they can be just as effective at killing the very music they love as musicians have through time.

DJ's, whether we like it or not, have taken over the role that too many musicians have abandoned -- keeping people dancing. However, DJ's are susceptible to falling in love with the music and forgetting the dancers just as much as musicians are susceptible.

Let's assume that great musicians and their proxies do an excellent job of working the crowd--sensing what the crowd wants and taking them there and beyond:  When to go slow, when to go fast, when to play to tradition, when to be an iconoclast, when to introduce a new dimension to the dancer.   This is the Art and Science of the true performer. We have all experienced this magical evening when musicians or their proxies make this happen.

When does the magic stop and why?
  • When musicians do not practice or do not know their stuff; when DJ's just don't do the work of getting a play list together that honors the musicians and dancers.  For example, the DJ plays the same songs more than once without even knowing it.  The worst example of this was a DJ who thought fast tangos were milongas.  To be a proxy musician means learning about la música de tango from good DJ's or local musician-tangueros.
  • When musicians get tired of their own "best hits" which the crowd is waiting for; when DJ's forget the dancers' favorites and start playing scratchy old tangos or a very cool bossa nova to which it is easy to dance.  What happened to di Sarli, did he go on a vacation in Brazil?   
  • When musicians do not understand the importance of the cortina for dancers;  when DJ's come up with their own bizarre ordering of songs that is their "signature," causing chaos on the floor (milonga/vals sets together or rarely playing a milonga); when DJ's do not follow the general idea of featuring one orchestra or composer at a time.  
  • When musicians play something that will catch everyone's attention so much that they will sit down waiting for the ballet dancers to appear because no trained dancer can follow the legato wanderings of the tempo; when DJ's have learned so much about music that now they are self-deputized musicologists playing artifacts for a "dancing music appreciation class" that sounded interesting while the DJ was in the hospital with a broken foot.  (See the Music Appreciation Assumption in part two.)  For example:  Why would you play a guitar-bandoneón duet at a milonga that does not have the power to go over the din of the milonga crowd?  It worked while bed-ridden in a hospital bed, but now the dancers are all visiting the snack table, hoping the next tanda will have the dance-power of an orchestra tipica.
  • When live musicians play so loud that dancers have to wear earplugs or suffer at least a small amount of hearing loss; when DJ's set up their equipment at ear level, blasting you every time you dance by one of two speakers.  Some DJ's play louder than any musical group would.  "Musician proxy" does not suggest trying to emulate the biggest mistakes that musicians make, hurting their own art. 
  • When musicians forget or even despise the dancer by demonstrating (for example) how one can tangoize a Bach fugue  (the Serious Music Assumption, mentioned in part 2);  when DJ's play this music just because it is "serious and deeply meaningful tango." 
  • When musicians play with poor equipment and distortion; when DJ's have poor equipment or do not know how to use good equipment.  The biggest DJ mistake in this area is a different sort of "distortion":  Using recordings which have poor fidelity to the musicians' performance.  What is the opposite of fidelity?  Infidelity (adultery).  DJ's who play music with low fidelity (just because it is cool to play that old record) are committing adultery!  :-)  And of course, they are living in their own world because they have (...OMG...) forgotten the dancer!
A good business plan for musicians and their proxies:
Let's forget about the "calling" of musicians and DJ's to make dancers happy.  Let's talk about just being successful in the music business.  Let's say that musicians want to play what moves their souls, and DJ's want to play what they most like.  Do your soul work at home and leave the public out of your search for real meaning.  We all really want you to find your Holy Grail (seriously), but this search is a a personal matter.  The art of playing music in public is to NOT forget the public.  A great business plan is to nurture and develop this skill and present music as an art to the public and all the while feeding your own soul.  That is truly an art all by itself.  Picasso did this.  He did not have to die to become famous and all the while do what he wanted.

Isn't it clear now?  Musicians and DJ's who truly love their music will never forget the dancer.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Her Empty Chair at the Milonga (poem)

We leave her chair empty, hoping she will return.

The chair she always found 
Is empty--no red, tattered shoe bag
Reserving her spot as she danced.

I notice the lonely chair
The first night of her absence.
I ask about her.
I call. She says she's on holiday.
Tango's become a chore.

Days turn into months
Without her presence.
Her loss is my absence.
The bell tolls for me too.
Her loss is our absence.
It is us; it is me.

I mourn my own frailty to abandon
Love or kindness or an embrace.
The struggle of being fully engaged in life,
The drama surrounding waking in an embrace,
The drama surrounding the walking embrace
Can be more than we --
More than I--can stand.
Is it worth it?

Why do we quit love?
   The love of movement,
   The love of being held,
   The love of a walking as one?
Ask any lover, and the voice will belie
The connection the heart desires.
The excuses of disconnection are many
For which our heart has no words or reason.

So this is my song to you, tanguera!

(I pull out my guitar and say...)
Se llama este vals cruzado...
Silla de Soledad

There's a season for all of these things,
But your hand in mine--that lasts forever.
There's a song in your soul which still sings,
Of the bonds inside you, you must sever.

There's a season to make bonds anew,
When the soul again needs you to share.
There's a cry out of empty dance shoes
Which is asking you once more to dare.

And a haunting song plays still within,

From a tango played deep from your heart.
"Tell me when you'll return to your place!
And when will your soul's dance yet start?"

So do what your soul now most loves.
And when you return I'll embrace you.
So do what your soul now best does.
And when you return, I'll embrace you.

When you return.
When you return.
And when you return, 
I'll embrace you.

Note:  "Silla de Soledad" means 

Chair of Loneliness  

The idea for this poem came from an announcement from a fellow tango blog-ista, "the Tango Bitch," who was a bit disillusion with the milonga scene (22 Apr 2011):  Be kind to those around you. Embrace them and let their soul get out on the playground to play with other.  We need each other.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Musicians Killing Tango part 2

The Piazzola Theater:  Where is the dance floor?

ango musicians who compose or play tango do so because they love it.   In part one, my major point was that Latin American music has tended to live on and on because the dancer is not forgotten, as it was in jazz music.  Many forget too, that rock 'n roll was at first a partner dance like swing.  Then it became free-style dance, but the dancers were eventually forgotten as bands became more and more complicated.  Try dancing to "Black Dog" by Led Zeplin with 4.5 beats per measure!

Although I am being provocative with my title, tango dancers are a big part of the problem too because now tango dancers are not supporting the musicians who are attempting to provide good dance music.  Too many DJs play terrible music both musically (out-of-tune, weak orchestras) and with poor fidelity just because it is "classic."  (There will be more about DJs in part 3.)  Tango music lovers -- mostly dancers outside of Latin America -- also hold to some extent the four deadly assumptions that kill tango.  These assumptions are ingrained in non-Latin culture; so it is not just musicians but dancers who also endangering tango--an attempted homicide not by intention but assumption. Here they are -- the four deadly assumptions:

1.  The "truly listening public" assumption:   The belief here is that people who are dancing are not really listening. I myself am a musician, and I used to have a sense that people dancing were not truly listening to the music. The focus was on their partner, the crowd, the atmosphere and the music was just in the "background." I was wrong. Tango is an impovisational dance, and dancers are truly listening to the music because their whole body/mind/spirit is invoked to participate in the composer and musicians are creating. Musicians from Latin America would not for a moment believe people dancing are not really listening; so this assumption is Euro-centric in its origins. Afro-centric musicians (playing mambo, cumbia, danzón, guaguacó, samba and tango) normally understand the body/mind link to true listening.

2.  The "music appreciation" assumption:  In order to preserve music, one must appreciate it and understand its origins, and of course, great orchestras need to play it. This too is a Euro-centric idea which had its greatest proponents during the Romantic Period in Europe. The idea was for great composers to make symphony music of folk song melodies to immortalize them. The reality over and over is that music that loses its dancers, loses its listeners. Just in the last 100 years this process has been seen with many types of popular music dying out.  A person over 45 years old has already experienced this:  The developmental model of a dying form of popular music is that the music is popular and people are singing and dancing it. The musicians who have great dance bands start putting on performances (for example, Count Basie). The people stop dancing at the musicians put on "shows."  Meanwhile a new generation comes along with music that has them singing and dancing. Then the process starts all over with musicians and composers again forgetting the dancers. But this did NOT happen in Latin America -- at least in all cases.  Salsa (renamed by  a New York promoter from mambo) has long been well and alive with new hits every year.  

3.  The "ballet assumption" or "court dance" assumption:  This assumption believes that great music needs great dancers to express it. This is yet another elitist Euro-centric idea. Royalty, or highly trained dancers preclude commoners or less trained dancers to participate in this music except as those who must "stand aside," as their bodies are shackled from dancing. Commoners are serving the guests but not dancing.  Although dancers appreciate that tango shows value the idea of dancers being included, the assumption was that it must be stage tango dancers, who not only are highly trained, but many of their moves are closer to ballet than social tango.  So where are "the commoners" who really know social tango?  They are the Argentine waiter staff serving the tables!  Or they the "commoners" are tourists who have saved their money to be elite during an expensive tango vacation -- "royalty" -- for a day.

4.  The Serious Music Assumption:  This is by far the most harmful assumption.  It was Piazzola's assumption -- that dance music is not serious music.  Now his assumption continues because great musicians want to play his works.   This assumption, I think, is the fear that if great tango ensembles and even orchestras had people dancing then the ensemble  would be perhaps "only" a dance band.  Highly respected musicians in Latin America, uninfluenced by European notions, would never consider this assumption as having intellectual validity.  Great musicians in Latin America gauge their success by how they inspire people to get out of their seats with the joy of movement.

Assumption Destruction:
Music which forgets its dancers dies. 

If left to politicians who disallowed tango to be danced, if left to musicians who would have everyone sit down, tango would be all but dead except for people listening to Public Radio or elite concert goers. However, this is a new time in human history. We have recordings and people love to dance to these recordings. It is not just the old music. What is recorded is the spirits of musicians who respected the dancer.  Tango seems to have survived in spite of modern musicians who continually are interested in composers who historically downplayed or even despised the tango dancer, such as Piazzola, who was highly influenced by classical (Euro-centric training).

My fellow musicians:  Your influence to present the spirit of Latin American music is not alone a musical influence, it is a cultural influence.  Latin Americans hold their music close to their hearts but "listen" through their bodies as dancers.  I hope that whenever you perform in the future that even if it is a show that at least at some point you invite the public to dance.  That would teach the unknowing public a great deal about what Latin American culture and music has to offer the world:  A music that moves the soul and body.

Part III of Musicians Killing Tango will look at the hope (and danger) dancers have through the modern tango DJ.  And for those who have been asking, I promise this month that I will continue with more about the essential rhythm of tango, the "clave" of tango, which many even deny. (Are they deaf?)  I promise to be provocative on this one too -- as always.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Musicians killing Tango, part 1

ango musicians are more passionate than the majority of tango dancers about tango.  They live it, breathe it and dearly love it.Why would they kill that which they love?

Ask jazz musicians why they killed jazz!

Well, jazz musicians will deny it.  But let's do some detective work.  Jazz as a popular music is dead.  It was marginalized by rock 'n roll in the late 50's.  In the 1930's and 40's, everyone was dancing to live bands in America and around the world.  The great jazz musicians were playing for dancers before they started doing sit-down shows.  This is the first clue in our detective work:  When dancers sit down, the end is near.

I am a jazz musician.  I played jazz before I played rock.  I played it professionally at age 13 before I ever played a rock n' roll gig.  I love jazz, but I colluded in keeping it dead (because it was already dead as a popular music when I started playing it).  I liked to play the complicated stuff, and I did not appreciate the dancer.

That changed when I was in graduate school many years later.  I decided to take a dance class.  I was exposed to all the ballroom dances, but I fell in love anew with swing era jazz, which once had filled dance halls with foxtrot and swing dancers.  I should add that upon learning how to dance to jazz, I immediately became a better jazz musician.

Later, when I started learning to play bass, I picked up a book called "Afro-Cuban Bass," and when I started to learn to play salsa, I was so excited about it that I immediately took a dance class.  This is what I knew I had to do to understand this music.

At that time, I was also influenced by a film I saw on a type of music that eventually would change my life profoundly.  The music?  Tango.  In that documentary, an veteran bandoneón player asks a younger player/composer what he imagines when he is playing his new composition.

"I see people in a club sitting, sipping on their wine, and listening with their heart and soul," he told the older man.

I would have thought that the older man would be glad that the new generation was composing tango music.  Unexpectedly, the older musician chastises him:  "You will kill tango when you forget the dancer."

While watching the film, I immediately thought about the mambo king, Tito Puente, in an interview talking about how he composes and plays around the dancer's experience.  Musicians from Latin America tend not to be overly influenced by Euro-centric ideas of shackling the listeners' feet to their chairs.  Euro-centric ideas have the audience obediently paying attention to the music like little disciplined children in the strict musical world of "sit still and watch" and "look but do not touch."  Although the European influence to tango is huge, the way it is danced and the role of the dancer is true to its African and Latin roots.  Music in Latin America is psychosomatic -- an experience of the psyche and the soma (mind and body).

Nothing was said in the film about jazz dying, but I had seen that happen, and I have watched rock become so complicated that something had to take its place too as a dance music, such as during the disco music era and the advent of hip hop and rap.

What will become of tango?  The good news I can say now (for a happy ending):  Tango will not die.

There are great musicians of all Latin American genres of music who haven't forgotten the dancer.   Also in Latin America when I go to functions, dancers of all ages get up to enjoy the music together.  As long as the culture of tango follows Latin culture, tango may be saved from its own end.  The question now is -- will dancers support these wise musicians?  Will tango dancers corroborate with the few musicians who value the social (not stage) dancer?

My greatest hope is that I fully expect that the best tango music has yet to be written and that it will be for dancers!

Coming soon...

Part 2 of Musicians Killing Tango follows soon.  What do you think the "Four Deadly Assumptions" of musicians would be?

Part 3 of Musicians Killing Tango reveals some insights of the advent of DJ's, a look at other Afro-Latin dances who are losing dancers (and other gaining), and finally an appeal to milonga DJ's to reward modern composers who have not forgotten the dancer-friendly musician by playing their work at milongas.

See you soon.

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Saturday, May 7, 2011

Mother's Day

Te amo mucho, Mami

Sometimes love is blind.

Better than the Gods 

She loved me unconditionally.
She loved me
Before I knew what love was.
She cared for me when I could not,
And when I was sick.
I met her when she was already forty.
She was experienced in life --
A wise soul ...
She showed me what others just talk about.
Unconditional love she gave me
Whether I was good or bad.
Even the gods cannot give me that.
And if the gods should decide
That she be in heaven
And I in hell,
She will still abide in my heart forever.

In dedication to the little girl, Ruth Irene Austin, who changed her name 
and became my mother as Ruth Word.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Live Tango Music on a Grand Scale

Pan American Symphony

Just by chance, I was invited to a dinner to hear the Pan American Symphony near Washington D.C.  I was not expecting that much--to tell you the truth--but they were very good.  The bandoneonista from Uruguay was featured with a new tango he had composed, which had won a Latin Music Grammy award.  

It was a magical evening to hear live tango on such a grand scale.  What a shame not to be able to dance!

Luckily I sat in the back of the room and was able to get up and at least feel the music in my feet.  So here is a little taste of what I saw and heard.

For more information about the Pan American Symphony:

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Tango Hands

One hand is yours,
One hand is mine.
We desire of harmonic synchrony,
A tandem hope in a world of chaos.

Our hearts pound together.
We listen for an internal beat,
Intertwined with the orchestra's,
The momentum of moments in music.
Marcela & Gavito:
Cathedral Door, apilado

Our bodies form a cathedral door's arch,
A human structure of holy communion,
Leading to a sanctuary of the Triunity
Of Music, Movement and Embrace.

We congregate to celebrate life,
Unafraid to embrace even a stranger,
In a world which vainly seeks connection,
Holding devices not hands or souls close.

She openly adores the divine with me.
We stand in awe of One made from two,
We do not pray that heaven soon come;
It has found us in this very moment.

Such is the tango prayer.

Tango Therapist's Facebook Page

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Sunday, May 1, 2011

Gift of Tango to an Old Man

Grant falls in love with tango.

When I took my car in to get it fixed, I met Grant, who had been working on my car.  After dozing in the waiting room with the recap of the royal wedding on the TV, Grant returned with my keys in his outstretched hand.  He reluctantly handed them back to me, and said, "What was that music in your car? I didn't want to get out of the car!"

At first, I thought he was referring to public radio and the Baroque music I had been listening to.  But then I realized that he had been working also on my CD player because the CD loader was sometimes sticking.  He described the haunting "accordion" music.  "Oh, that's a bandonión, a squeeze box with buttons, not the accordion," I explained.   "The music is tango,"  I said.

He followed me out to the car, as if he didn't really want me just to drive away.  I turned around and he was  still standing there.   "I will tell you who was playing if you'd like,"  I told him.

"That would be good," he said.

I turned on CD player in my car.  "The composer was from Uruguay, and that is a harmonica," I told him.  He got my email address, so I could send him the names of some good tangos to order.  He took the email, and started to walk away.  I realized that he might not even have email or a computer.

"Hey, Grant," I shouted.  He came back and I gave him the CD.

I cannot expect you to believe me, but it seemed like the man nearly cried for happiness.  I said, "Take this home and make love with your wife to this music."  He smiled.  "I will!"

Now, the gift of that CD just doubled.

Grant is not that much older than I.  I too am an "old man" -- in love with tango as if I had never heard it before each time it comes across my ears.

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