Independent Tango Music in Buenos Aires

Mauricio Macri, the Head of the city of Buenos Aires Government, once dubbed tango “the soya of the city.” This made some tangureros choke on their mate. While the mighty soy bean is Argentina’s biggest export, comparing it to the iconic, history-laden tango didn’t go down well in some circles. In our own way we all have an idea of what tango is though, even if that comes down to stockings, stilettos and men rocking enough hair gel to fill the Río de la Plata. But an independent revolution’s going on in Buenos Aires and the protagonists want to shout it from their barrio’s rooftops. Tango’s not a crop, it’s culture and it’s not just for export.

The manifestos of the movement are about filling the streets, the schools, factories and every nook and cranny with the rhythms of beating bandoneons. They encourage the creation of new compositions and want to keep representing the streets where it comes from, not just sucking the blood of dead tango greats such as Carlos Gardel. Tango muerto legends have their place, but this generation are keen to avoid imitating the same boom, crash, boom cycle as Argentina’s economy by getting young people involved to sustain the art form’s current revival and keep it evolving.

Young musicians from the Government's Children and Youth Orchestras project.
Young musicians from the Government’s Children and Youth Orchestras project. “We get some of these kids when they are really young, from some of the poorest villas (slums) but you see how music really makes a difference,” says conductor Joelle Perdaens; photo by Sonja D’cruze.

The Independent Tango Festival, now in its fifth year, brings together the top class musicians behind the scene. It’s a more humble affair than the Government’s slickly produced Tango Mundial, but the passion and sense of community is unrivaled. Special line-ups pop up in city wide venues and kicks off with musicians and neighbours taking over the streets in the Southern working class barrio of Boedo, hosting hours upon hours of gigs.

It’s getting bigger every year too, now the provinces get involved and it’s even hopped over the Río to Uruguay. “We are not fashion, we are a movement,” the festival’s organisers say. If this all sounds a bit political, you’d be right, but in a country where the rising price of your cortado and medialunas is a political issue, it’s no surprise there’s even a Union backing this movement, the Unión de Orquestas Típicas to be precise. That’s where they’re coming from, but I wanted to find out who they are and most importantly, what they sound like. So on your behalf, I’ve happily traipsed across the city to bring you a little taster of the tango music that makes me love this city even more.

Orquesta Típica La Vidú

The bandoneonists of La Vidú doing their thing as only they know how.
The bandoneonists of La Vidú doing their thing as only they know how; photo by Sonja D’cruze.

Hands down my personal favourites on the Union board are the babble of smiling, mish-mash musicians that make up the family run Orquesta Típica La Vidú. These guys rock their tango, and I’ve pretty much been stalking the 14 members around the city since I discovered them at the festival. Fronted by four powerful bandoneonists, their bodies jerk, necks craned over their instruments as they work up a sweat to the driving beat. Gabriel Bartolome, director, composer and violinist leads the members, which include his two talented teenage sons, and his brother Jorge manages. Real personajes they stun audiences with their virtuoso skills. Their sound is very much from their roots, “I listen to stories from my friends in the barrio,” says Gabriel, “We have an asado and drink, talk, these things inspire me.” True to their influences, they’re more into reworking versions of the rock nacional artists they grew up with such as Patricio Rey and sus Redonditos de Ricotta, than taking on a classic cover.

Quinteto Negro La Boca

A quick moment back stage with bandoneonist Pablo Bernaba and hip hop artist Malena D'Alessio from Quinteto Negro La Boca.
A quick moment back stage with bandoneonist Pablo Bernaba and hip hop artist Malena D’Alessio from Quinteto Negro La Boca; photo by Sonja D’cruze.

As far away from classical tango as the soy bean itself, Quinteto Negro La Boca are a cultural collective that may challenge some tango purists. Political to the core, their album En Patagonia Rebelde, who’s namesake refers to the violent suppression of a rural worker’s strike in Patagonia in the 1920s, features hip hop artist Malena D’Alessio rapping lyrics about their fight, intimidation and ultimate blood shed. This fused with the poetry of former exile, Osvaldo Bayer and the dark rasping voice of Limón García make for a powerful listen. “It’s all about fusion, all art is political,” says the bands maestro bandoneonist Pablo Bernaba.

Amores Tangos

Sultry, political and melancholic tango may be, but it doesn’t all have to take the smile off your face. Amores Tangos are one group that want to have fun with it. This playful bunch mash up improvisations influenced by Cumbia to jazz and Balcan tuneage. Their up-beat melodies and sea shanty kitsch stage shows are just a good excuse to have fun.

Appreciative audiences make way for dancers at the festival.
Appreciative audiences make way for dancers at the festival; photo by Sonja D’cruze.

Orquesta Típica Fernández Fierro

A skip hop and a jump from Carlos Gardel’s former Abasto casa turned museo is the mighty warehouse which is throne to the ringleaders of independence, Orquesta Típica Fernández Fierro. “Tango is authentic, not a commercial invention, we are about art for arts sake,” the bands chief bandoneonist El Ministro says. Original rokeros for over a decade, these guys wrote the handbook of how to do it right. The cooperative has no need for bosses. Instead they self manage, self produce albums, have a radio station and deafen audiences weekly at shows out of a former mechanics’ workshop. Kind of lifted from the stuff of terminal nightmares, their style is ripe with the influences of tango dramatist Osvaldo Pugliese. They’re dark, passionate and gig worldwide these days, even showing up on set lists next to Rufus Wainwright, The Cure and the late Lou Reed.

Tango always tells a story and it’s meant to move more than just our feet across a dance floor. Lost loves, critical social commentary and politics, the same issues still stand. Now many Orquestas Típicas are doing it their own way, creating their tango heritage for future generations. A cultural export it may be, but tango’s not for sale.

Night falls and Orquesta Típica La Vidú plays on to tango fans of all ages.
Night falls and Orquesta Típica La Vidú plays on to tango fans of all ages; photo by Sonja D’cruze.

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Sonja D'cruze

Sonja D'cruze

Sonja is a freelance journalist who studied at the London College of Communication. After working as a radio producer for the BBC, she got a ticket to carnival in Rio de Janeiro and then made her way on many a long bus to Buenos Aires. She stayed, lured by a love of porteño life and its Castellano speaking people. The city still surprises and she's not done with it yet, always on the hunt to uncover something creative, beautiful, tasty or just plain weird, behind one of BA's many unassuming doors. She writes, dabbles in tango, loves yoga and longs to be good at playing the trumpet.
Sonja D'cruze

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