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.


  1. Thanks for this discussion Mark... You are right on..

    My own opinion is that most Musicians want to be heard, listened to by 'their' audience. Fame & fortune depend on being heard ! Musicians do not want 'their' audience distracted from listening by dancing.

    And musicians have many musical tricks to enforce complete audience attention. Massive amplification is one way; playing long introductions dead slow is another; playing lots too fast is another.Tricks that turn listeners away; that lead them to not bother listening. .Ummmm


  2. @Bill, the message I most want to convey is that it is a great "business plan" for musicians to make their highest aspiration to make people want to listen through their bodies -- make the desire to get up and dance something irresistible. Your comment influenced part of part 3 (coming soon) about being too loud. This is a good point, but DJs can be worse! So I will have a section of the best (and worst) behavior of both musicians and DJs in regards to treating dancers with respect.


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