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Do you tango? Do you enjoy moving your body to the rhythm of that distinct dance from the working-class port neighbourhoods of Montevideo and Buenos Aires on Rio de la Plata? Or are you like me and simply sit down and listen to tango music as a passive consumer of everything that is slightly out of the ordinary?
Thursday, 1st March 2012, after having survived the ordeal of that anomaly known as 29th February, I sat down in the Great Hall at Lancaster University to enjoy tango music – with musicians not only from Argentina and Uruguay but also Germany, Switzerland and that thriving hub of Latin American music called Manchester.
The concert was moderately well-attended with the usual suspects (hardly any young students… why?), but that didn’t deter the ensemble Tango Orchestra ‘Silencio’ from vigorously performing various tango pieces without repeating themselves, i.e. they made tango sound interesting and vivacious. Harmonious songs – both instrumental and vocal – intertwined with dissonance and elements of jazz dominated proceedings for the next two or so hours, audience members were invited by the ensemble to dance at the back of the hall and a not inconsiderably large amount of good jokes were cracked by the band. Being Argentinean, the director and piano player Roger Helou made a few quips about the Falklands (“Please buy our CD! Money will go (significant pause) to the Argentinean army… only kidding! It will go to the children of Argentina… same thing really.”) and the band members frequently bantered with each other in Spanish only to reveal that their command of English was more than adequate. Tango, vals (the tango version of waltz), milonga (tango with a fast tempo) and songs by the legendary tango composer Ástor Piazzolla filled the room as the concert morphed from being a high-brow event to a quasi folk festival for lovers of Latin American music.
Apart from piano player Roger Helou, the ensemble consisted of Omar Fernandez on vocals (And by God did he have a powerful voice! I’m not usually taken aback by impressive singers, but his voice transcended most voices I have ever heard. Incredibly powerful!), Wini Holzenkamp on double bass, Michi Gneist on viola, Susannah Simmons and Luciano Di Renzo on violins and Marty Feldman impersonator Jose-Luis Betancor on bandoneon (a large Teutonic version of the humble concertina). Most solos were performed by Betancor and he even had a slot on his own. He is a remarkable player, he is one of the main members of the group (most players in Tango Orchestra ‘Silencio’ only stay for a brief period) and he knows how to musically interact with the other musicians, but there is only so much one can do with a free reed aerophone (that family of instruments including concertina and accordion), and after two minutes of his solo slot, I felt I was witnessing a solo from a 1970s big arena rock concert: What am I doing here? When will it end? Will it end? Is God male of female? Does Mick Jagger secretly wear knickers in public? Will I be able to describe the phonological environment of all Tarahumaran allomorphs and the type of assimilation that determines their distribution for my presentation?
To paraphrase the late great John Peel, it was a waste of time, talent and air, and this was further reinforced when the mighty Fernandez came on stage, did not step up to the microphone and belted out a moving love song with Betancor as accompaniment. Finally, in the very few instances someone other than Betancor was allowed to perform a (often brief) solo, my heart leapt with joy. Whether it was Helou on piano, Simmons on violin, Holzenkamp on double bass or Di Renzo on the other violin, they were all amazing musicians who could deliver delightful solos. I mean, for God’s sake, the violin was made to be to solo instrument – be it folk, classical, jazz or dance music (in addition, Holzenkamp’s occasional solos and riffs even gave the concert a sporadic Stravinskian edge).
Great music, great musicians, great orchestra, great musical interaction – but too much self indulgence on behalf of one member.
Do you tango? I do… under certain circumstances!