Robert Farris Thompson Interview- 2005
A Tango with Robert Farris Thompson
Robert Farris Thompson spoke to us about his new book Tango: the Art History of Love (Pantheon). Professor Thompson is Colonel John Trumbull Professor of the History of Art at Yale University.
NS: You and I have something in common, namely El Paso.
NS: I lived in El Paso when I was a boy. Only for a year. I went to the 5th grade in El Paso in 1960 and 1961. You mention Dudley [public school] in the book. I remember Dudley.
RFT: It was a great public school. Just wonderful.
NS: How did you get from El Paso to Kongo?
RFT: It dates exactly to, I think, the first week of March in 1950. Finally my parents – I’d been hungry to see Mexico City, and they decided we’d take a spring break vacation of a week in Mexico, but mostly Mexico City. So we arrive, and they’re tired from the plane, and my sister’s tired. They crash. I couldn’t wait to savor this teeming center of Latin American culture, so I just walked right out of the hotel, turned right on Avenida Juárez, and walked and walked till I got to Zócalo. And there was this huge building that intrigued me — I had no idea what it was — across the plaza. And there was a man standing by the door. I said, “Cuál es este edificio?” – What’s this building? And he said, “Es el Palacio Nacional!” – It’s the National Palace. “Y si tienes suerte podrás verlo adentro.” I said, wow. He’s saying, if you’re lucky and go in, you may see him. And I thought, him? So I went right in, mounted the stairs, and there was Diego Rivera painting. Just like the scene in the movie on his wife. Painting up there on a scaffolding, painting Aztec cities emerging from the waters of Lake Texcoco. And I was blown away. And then he noticed me staring at him, and he shot me this “¿Y usted qué ve?” What are you lookin’ at, kid? look. So I answered with a smile that I hoped translated [as] “Algo sublime, señor!” Something sublime, sir!
I staggered back to the hotel, get in the elevator. And I’m alone in the elevator with Anthony Quinn. And he starts rapping, and I said, “Mr. Quinn, what are you here for?” And he said, “I’m doin’ The Brave Bulls – it’s a movie about bullfighting.” Boom, he disappeared. Then I staggered back to my room and I realized I’ve seen two celebrities in 45 minutes. I wandered down to the dining hall. The Muzak was going strong and it was [sings bass line]. I asked this woman, “What’s that?” She said: “Mambo!”
And that was it. I was locked in. As soon as I got back to El Paso I crossed the Río Bravo, went to Ciudad Juárez, stoked up on 78 shellacs by Pérez Prado, and I have been chasing the mambo beat ever since. There was just something about seeing Diego Rivera, and then having a chat with Anthony Quinn, and then hearing my first mambo, all within the first hour. And then later, when I was drafted into the United States Army, I had a buddy photograph me on Mexican soil, between the Juárez mountains and the Franklin mountains. And I’m on a Mexican hill, and I have three LPs in my hand, with the black face of Pérez Prado. And somehow I just wanted to be remembered with those LPs, but what I was doing unconsciously was swearing fealty forever to the cause of Latino music, black Latino music.
Mambo, in order to chase it, to search it, to research it, of course led me to Havana. And then I go to Havana, to have a date with this chick in the templete overlooking the harbor. And these guitarists surround us and [sings] “Vaya pa’l monte, mi socio, vaya pa’l monte.” Head for the forest, buddy, head for the forest.
They knew, they were teasing me: get out there, go to Lydia Cabrera’s monte. But I was innocent of all that. But after a couple of years, particularly after reading Fernando Ortiz and Lydia Cabrera and Argeliers León and all the big titans of Afro-Cuban scholarship, and then when I got out of the Army and I was in graduate school here at Yale, I was lucky enough to room next to a very generous guy, and he just wrote me out a check to go to Havana. He said, “I think you shouldn’t talk about mambo, you should go.” So it was sort of like a friendly fellowship, my first fellowship. I went to Havana, and in one week I met [Antonio] Arcaño, and – oh, my God, I met just about everyone. That was right after the Revolution, that was in April 1960. Arcaño was really kind to me, took me to his house, went on his upright and played the sones that he thought were critical for the formation of mambo. Because at that time I had no idea that mambo was not just mambo. Mambo was danzón that was irradiated with son that was irradiated with a little jazz plus Toscanini plus anything.
And I didn’t realize, but it slowly dawned on me when I started going to plantes – the Abakuá ceremonies – that I would see guys in their band uniforms that had just played at the Hotel Nacional, or guys that had just played at the Hotel Riviera. And I suddenly thought, “Whoa! They’re multi-musical. They’re not just playing rumba for tourists. They’re in this.” Ken Bilby has a whole article on the polymusicality of West Indians. But these things I just bumped into, step by step.
And I just kept writing this mambo book. And it kept going through fissions and split off into parts about the indelible timelines of West Africa and Central Africa that feed the clave beat over here. That stuff hived off and became African Art in Motion. And then I had another attempt to write the first chapter of the mambo book and that became Esthetic of the Cool. So what has happened in my life is I have been eternally writing this mambo book, which then, like a glacier or something, breaks off, floats away, and becomes something else. So now, finally, at the age of 73, I’m sitting down, I honest to God am writing the mambo book. But everything reflects that. Mambo became my ruling obsession.
NS: Did you already speak Spanish growing up in El Paso?
RFT: Oh, claro!
NS: I didn’t get much good out of my year in El Paso, but that was the year I really tuned into Spanish.
RFT: Oh, yeah!
NS: Which has been a dominant factor in my life ever since. It’s such a bilingual town, you grew up seeing Mexican movies on TV, at the drive-in theater.
RFT: That’s what predicted my love of tango, too, because I used to cross the border and go to the Cine Plaza in Juárez and there would be big as life the great tango singer Libertad Lamarque singing tangos with [Jorge] Negrete and other Mexican stars. She went into exile – the legend is – because Evita [Perón] didn’t want her competition. And it’s true, she did sort of leave around 1945 when [Juan Perón] came in. In any event, I was getting irradiated by films and I listened religiously to XEJ. It was a program – I can remember now in 2005 as if it were yesterday, in 1948 to “Atardecer Tropical,” Tropical Dusk. Well, of course you know the Mexican euphemism for Afro-Cuban music is música tropical. And it was all Prado. They played everything.
NS: That was just as he was really starting to get hot.
RFT: I was there three months before Jack Kerouac got there. ‘Cause Jack memorialized it with the sonorous phrase, “Mambo blared from everywhere.” He wrote the best definition of the mambo beat, which is actually the congo beat, the conga beat, which is from the River Congo, it is really the world beat. Think about it, among the many things he did, he named the concept “world beat.” It’s right there, in the middle of On the Road. And then I met him finally. And he was still a mambo man. I met him in 1960 when Olatunji was playing, I think not at the Five Spot – I forget the place – but anyway, he was playing, and he was there, and he was very friendly. And I still love mambo.
NS: You grew up on the frontier.
RFT: Yeah! And it was a frontier that broadcast something to me. For example, when Thomas Mann died — I think it was around October 1955 — the El Paso Herald Post, Nothing. The Fronterizo – the little border rag in Juárez – had a eulogy with reseñas or little synopses of The Magic Mountain and other things, and I thought, “Whoa! Who’s really cultured around here? I’m goin’ south, man! South!”
NS: You’ve been at Yale how long?
RFT: Oh, lord, man, I came here as a freshman in 1951. In ’55 I really didn’t want to leave. I was very much into Spanish literature and also the few courses that were in what was then called “non-Western,” which I prefer now that we call native art. Also, creative writing and so forth. And when I went to Paris thinking I might go in the foreign service, that way I would get to Latin America. But I just realized that being a diplomat wasn’t for me. But that took a year to decide.
And I also went to law school. It was a stupid idea, that I would support myself by being a lawyer and also be an Afro-Cuban scholar. I mean, DUMB! At any rate, my only memories of law school are mambo memories. I remember the last day, singing in the shower, knowing a friend of mine was gonna drive me from Charlottesville, from the University of Virginia Law School, all the way to the Palladium. We got to the Palladium, and Tito Puente saw me, and he waved. I felt vindicated. Then I wrote a letter to this professor that I had worked with in Andean art history, particularly the Inca, and asked if I could study under him. Luckily, there was one slot open, and boom, I got in. Then he wanted me to work in Andean art history. But after six months, I couldn’t live a lie. I told him, “I have to work with the Yoruba, because –” “Why?” “Because they are one of the cultures that feed heavily the formation of mambo.”
Then I showed him this mambo manuscript, dog-eared. My roommates used to make fun of it when I’d open it. They would clap and kill invisible moths because it had been stored away so many years. But that mambo text is like a matrix. Out of that has come – well, even this tango book that I’ve just done has got stuff that dates back to the mambo research.
NS: I’ve known so many people over the years who have encountered you when they were students and been influenced by you. People who didn’t necessarily grow up to be Afro-Cuban scholars, or art historians, who may have gone off and been lawyers or working musicians or other things, but who have encountered you and been influenced by what you have to say. As you look back, what do you think has been your major contribution to the field? Can you think of it in those terms?
RFT: I’ll discuss it in terms of what some of my black friends say rather than arrogating myself to say in what way that I did [something]. But C. Daniel Dawson, who’s one of my best friends, said recently that when I wrote Esthetic of the Cool, that the reason why he and other blacks dug it was because I was codifying what they had lived. That’s exactly what he said. And why? Because I’m a great scholar? No. Because I have some omniscient wisdom? No. Because I am simply a medium to reflect the grandeur of the Palladium, which in its heyday between ’49 and when it closed in April ’66 was the most intense African experience. And I mean African, and post-modernists can go commit anatomic impossibilities. We’re on the air, I want to be careful what I’m saying, but the idea that you can never really know continuity is what the Germans might call horse geschichte. These indestructible lines of happening – clave beat, this beat [taps on table] from Senegal to Transvaal and back again – and working with that, I coincide with black culture and try to explain it as it happened. And also shut up and let – you know, I’m not interested in what I think the mambo is. I want to know what Cachao — Israel López, thinks it is. And Orestes [López], whom I interviewed earlier. And Pérez Prado. The idea is that I see myself as a medium, under the possession metaphor perhaps. I just got possessed by the black beat. So I had no choice. But it’s not me. It’s really the fact that the Palladium trained me. The Palladium gave me cultural self-confidence. It never occurred to me to be self-conscious about looking for continuities, when people thought, “Oh, that’s diffusionism,” or whatever. Because I knew it was true! I’d seen Ray Barretto put his elbow against the skin of his conga and [sings] ping-ging-ging-ging-ging bring it way up, and I thought, wow! what a way of getting an octave. I go to Nigeria and to Kongo and what do I see? Drummers pressing their elbow against their drums to rise in pitch. Now is this an accident?
Or little things. When mambo begins to swing, people tend to sing syllabically: [sings] Yo… te…qui…sie…ra…ver…te…por…que…tú…er…es…muy…sua…ve. That syllabic, choppy way of singing. You know, when I started reading Waterman and that wonderful guy who was killed in a plane crash, a great loss to musicology, Alan Merriam. When I studied with these guys via the invisible academy, that is to say, writing them, and getting answers, I soon saw that syllabicity was one of the iron-clad indestructible tastes.
And not only that, that’s one of the secrets. [mocks effete voice] “Oh, how can you have a classical dance tradition if you have no notation?” Well, you know, it’s a funny thing, but Africans have done very well without Labanotation, because they can drum-mouth it all. [If] I want to teach you how to dance to honor a twin, I’ll give you this kere, kere, yon, kere, kere, yon — and the intervocalic r means we’re gonna have an eighth note on either side of that, and the yon, which is nasalized, means we’re gonna have a whole note. And I’m notating down to the exquisite minutiae simply by using my mouth. And mouth-drumming, which goes under this stupid term of nonsense syllables – unh-unh. When Graciela says, “Biribí kumbí, kumbi-kumbi, biribí kumbí,” she’s not only giving the beat of her batiri and she says, “me gusta mi batiri,” – I like my fast way of dancing, meaning fast mambo – and biribí kumbí, kumbi-kumbi, is not nonsense syllables, it’s giving you a beat to move to, but it also is highly creolized Kikongo for, roughly, “She is gone, but we will learn how to recapture everything.”
NS: You went from Libertad Lamarque in the theater in Juárez to getting in the middle of it in Buenos Aires.
RFT: Well, I can date that exactly too. I was lucky again. I take no credit for my luck. Danny Dawson, who’s done about 40 exhibitions of African American art, found out I was going to Buenos Aires and just slipped me one name: Alejandro Frigerio. Alejandro Frigerio is arguably Argentina’s leading Afro-Americanist. So we met, and being a nice guy, he and his charming wife, who is also an anthropologist, Marita – Alejandro and Marita took me to Café Homero. Well that’s like, say you know nothing of jazz, and you have a buddy who takes you circa 1939 or so to a chili house up there near Lenox Avenue where there’s a guy, and his name just happens to be Charles Parker, playing. And there you are, you’re thrust right in the middle of the emergence of bop. I had the luck of being taken by this guy the night that Goyeneche – he died of emphysema a few years later – Goyeneche, the Frank Sinatra of tango. And incredible dancers. One, Nicole, one of the most slinky exquisitely beautiful women on the planet, doing her gancho. So the dance blew me away, and the resonance, the ruling obsessions of nostalgia and yearning in the lyrics, and I found I was back in Buenos Aires four months later.
NS: What year was this?
RFT: This was their winter, our summer, of 1990. So in 1995 I started coming back professionally – i.e., field trips. And I went to one of the epicenters, Sin Rumbo, which means, no particular destination. It was the name of a horse that came in, and they won some money, and with the money they built this tango club.
And there I met Lampazo. Lampazo’s a dance nickname, it means literally “Sweepy.” I pricked up my ears, because that’s also a hip-hop dance name – guys who know how to sweep the competition, or sweep, glide, on the floor. Sweepy. Sweepy Molina to this day is still one of the best b-boy dancers on the planet. And that interested me, that I was already beginning to hear little overlaps, little cultural cognations with hip-hop. And when Lampazo taught me, he said, “Well, to begin with, you’ve gotta know what a corte and a quebrada is.” Corte means stop, freeze. I thought, “oh, that’s interesting, because you have the freeze in hip-hop.” And then, he said, a quebrada is, you break your hips, you bend your knees, and then you go down. I thought, “Well, this is very familiar.” So those are the two innermost African-influenced steps of the tango. Then there’s a hell of a lot of western influence here. There’s what they call tango liso, the smoothed-out tango. Then there’s the erect, the straight-like-a-ruler back, of flamenco, but also western court dancing since the Renaissance. That’s in salsa and tango. But the earliest tango, around 1900, the one that Lampazo taught me, taught me to recognize, although I’m a junior varsity dancer and I’m not really good at it yet – give me a decade – was canyengue.
I realized that tango is not just a simple dance with a lot of flashy moves and a sad lyric. One of the definitions – this comes from [Enrique Santos] Discepulo — that tango is a sad thought set to dance. That’s true if you’re a lyricist, and that’s what he was. But if you’re a dancer, you don’t talk. And you don’t smile. When I worked in Yorubaland, when I worked in Kongo, one of the first things I was taught: freeze your face. A wonderful dancer came out balancing delicate terracotta on her head, this Yoruba woman, and I asked a guy, “What do you like about her dance?” He said, nitorí, kò it rerim rárá o. “Because she does not crack one smile.” And another guy said, “note how the correct freezing of her glance.” And I thought, “whoa.” And I said, well, what’s the word you use? itutu – cool. And slowly, as they say in Hollywood, the dawn came. That cool, no matter how blasphemed by kids who think if they put on the shades and imitate Eminem that they’re super-cool, this is a deeper cool. A spiritual cool that freezes your face up. That frozen face – when I took buddies and girlfriends to the Palladium. Many times they’d remark, “no smile! no smile!” Because they were used to that dá-ta-ta Broadway obscenity-eating grin. Versus the serious frozen face, the mask of the cool. And that is definitively tango. And one of the most misunderstood things. There’s an Argentine writer who wrote a book called X-Ray of the Pampas. And in it, he makes fun of tango and says, they’re automatons. He misread the frozen face. And if you see a lot of movies, like Soldier of Orange, one of the best films to come out of Europe, about two Dutch: one Nazi and a Resistance hero, they do a tango together, frozen-faced. They look like automatons. But it’s really a reflection of black cool.
To get back to your question: it was seeing so many mirrors of so many other African-influenced things. And then when I learned that tango came from milonga, and the beat of milonga was bang-ki-ging-ging, bang-ki-ging-ging, suddenly that opened up whole halls of mirrors, reverberations of tango’s connection. I realized: this is transnational, long before the term was coined. Habanera was a transnational beat. And not only that. There are areas of the planet which you can use as time warps, or you can enter like a time machine, like: I love danzón, for example, but, correct me if I’m wrong, there’s very little of it to be seen in Cuba, today, or is there?
NS: Not much. You’re more likely to hear a danzón played than to go somewhere where people are dancing it.
RFT: That’s just what I thought. But if you go to Mérida, Tampico, and especially Veracruz, in the danzoneras, you’re back there. Time stopped in 1939.
NS: For that matter, if you want to see people who go out at night to dance son, you’re better off in Santo Domingo than in Havana.
RFT: Yes! Well, what I learned here – that hit me with danzón – so when I finish up this danzón chapter for my mambo book, I will be doing, as you can guess, most of the research in a huge danzonera in Mexico City, that’s across from a place called, meaningfully, “Mamá Rumba,” which is the hotbed of Afro-Cubans in Mexico City now. Anyway, that alerted me to the fact that these things, if they’re worth their salt, they’re transnational. And bam! I hear from a Cuban friend, “if you want to hear habanera, you have to go to Cataluña.” So I went to Cataluña, I went up two hours’ drive north of Barcelona, to a fishing village called Calella de Palafrugell, and it was like, I’m in habanera heaven. They have a cantata, every summer. 5,000 people crowd this village of about 300. And in the winter you go to this place called La Bella Lola – oh, gorgeous Lola. And they sing a song, a habanera about her that sailors brought back from Havana, allegedly in the 1850s. And I went there, and heard habanera, live. Bing–ki-king-king. And also, I watched how it’s created, or re-created. It’s dancing the thumb on the guitar. Bing-ki-king-king, bing-ki-king-king. I watched this guy put his guitar on his chin, over his chest, so he became his instrument. The strings were right about where his heart was. And when he started playing the thumb, and singing songs: Oye, soy negrito de kongo, de allá yo traigo mi tango. And I said, “are they culturally teasing me?” I sing of the little guy, the good guy from Kongo that brought over his . . . tango. Then they killed me off with an habanera called, “Habanera embrujada.” [bewitched habanera] They actually, in another habanera, used the word bilongo, Afro-Cuban for medicine. The point is that I was blown away in Cataluña. I realized that Cataluña is a time machine, you crank it and you’re there, and that dancing the thumb on the guitar. One of the earliest and most influential guitarists in the history of tango was a black man, named as such, El Moreno, who was famous for bailando his pulgar [dancing his thumb.] In any event, one uses Veracruz to understand danzón and its point of origin, and one uses Cataluña to understand habanera today. And it is very much in tango – even the tango-est tango, every now and then, like Troilo, for example, there is a song named after the word for slaughterhouse, la tablada. And in this tango suddenly they go into a habanera, just out of the blue: bing-ki-king-king, as if to say, this is what we came from, this is what we still are.
So to sum up: one of the first things I learned in going ritually to Buenos Aires from 1995 right up to now, was that you have to understand that styles are translucent, that you can see through to the milonga, see through even to the habanera in tango today, and that nothing dies stylistically, it’s there somewhere.
NS: You’re talking repeatedly in this book, and in our conversation, about the black core of tango. But a lot of people don’t think of Argentina as a place that has black people. Can you explain a little bit about what Afro-Argentina is?
RFT: Yes, I can. First of all, there are about two to three thousand Afro-Argentines – a cadre – lost in this sea of 8 million white faces. But there are also Cape Verdeans, and there are a couple of African Americans in the North. Statistically, Argentina seems to be white, to such an extent that once I was writing a chapter on a table of a restaurant in Buenos Aires, the waiter came by and saw I had a photograph of two of my black friends who danced tango, and he said, “¿De cuál país son ellos?” — What country are they from? And at that moment tango was playing on a loudspeaker. I said, “They are not only as Argentine as you are, but Mr. Posadas is the great-grandnephew of Carlos Posadas,” who wrote one of the first tangos. And he was amazed.
The point being, there’s a truth above statistics. How many Donatellos and Rafaels and Michelangelos were there? Ten thousand? One million? No! We only needed three. There’s a truth above statistics, and the blacks have tended forever to gravitate towards the center of the dancehalls, where their cultural call is, and music. So to this day, I end the book with a list of people in allegedly all-white Argentina who are performing today. The greatest, arguably, living composer-musician-pianist is Horacio Saldán, very much alive at the age of 88, and he’s black. The greatest b-boy, that is to say, breakdancer, in Buenos Aires today is Lucas Álvarez, and he’s black. The greatest dancer and mixer of styles, boogie with a little tango, and milonga with a little jazz dance, is Carlos “El Negro” Ansuate. And the woman who presides at the epicenter – Sunderland Club – at their Saturday night shindig, she has her own table, she sits there like a queen, she’s the madrina of this most important tango dancehall, and she’s black. And then she led me to a publication about another dancehall that had photographs of black dancers like Betty Pizarro, a gorgeous woman of color that, unfortunately, died in 2002, but – point is, it’s numerically small but its cultural impact is big, that is outwardly vanished but inwardly present.
And I’ve been able to go to the site of the Shimmy Club. Now, of course, you’re into jazz, and mambo, and everything, you know that if Afro-Argentines call their hangout place the Shimmy Club, they’re telling us something. And what they’re telling us is that they are multiply black, that they love jazz dance, they dance to boogie and shimmy and et cetera, and the Shimmy Club, which is right smack in the middle of downtown Buenos Aires, was a place that had two dancehalls: one on the first floor, where they danced jazz and tango and milonga and pasodoble and a little mambo. And the basement, where, at midnight, if you weren’t black, you were politely asked to leave. And after midnight, which in Kongo terms is when the world is wheeling, when we’re wheeling into the world of our ancestors, they would dance candombe.
And I have interviewed kids – not kids, adults who were kids during this golden age. As far as I’m concerned, it was the Palladium of Buenos Aires. And in the Shimmy Club, after midnight, one of the reasons they wanted the whites out, is that the candombe drums were brought out. They would dance candombe, and there was spirit possession. Spirits from the past came by. As we say in New Orleans, those saints came marchin’ in.
NS: Can you explain what candombe is?
RFT: Yes. In classical Ki-Kongo – ka, “pertaining to”, plus ndombe, “black person,” or “black people.” Candombe is, again, transnational. It’s not just an Uruguayan and Argentine term. It’s a black nationalist term in Kongo itself. In the 40s, when guys were plotting, “how can we get rid of the Belgians?”, they called their group candombe, which roughly means, “all that we are as blacks.”
People ask me again and again, “what’s your methodology?” And one of the things I’d say to that, is, “Realize that the black Atlantic world is one vast Rosetta stone. That if you see something tshia, tshia, in Kongo which means move, and that gets Creolized to chan, chan in Argentina, but meanwhile Chan Chan of the Buena Vista Social Club. Or if you learn that canyengue means “melt into the music,” but it also means you’re melted by age. So there’s this big semicolon there: melt into the music; you’re old, you’re a duffer. And Benny Moré said, [sings] “es un cañengo . . . ” Benny Moré sang about an old duffer with this very term, in “Viejo Cañengo.” But there you go! There’s Benny Moré, and of course Benny Moré was one of the guys, getting back to mambo for a moment, who challenged me to my bottom root, because he would show off that he was a palero, and he would use – you know, he’d say things like, batiri, batiri, iküi, iküi, mambo, batiri, batiri, iküi, iküi.
And I thought: What happened to my Spanish?
Because batiri is – well, it works in two languages, Kikongo and the Creolized language of the Ejagham, Abakuá. And then I’m suddenly in the Palladium. Graciela gets up to the mike, and at the very end of biribí kumbí, playfully, she goes: iküi! Now she was playing. I interviewed her way back – 1959, and I said, “What about this term ikui?” And she said, “Oh, we like to play with it.”
You remember that old jazz saw, “if you have to ask, you’ll never know”? It’s one of those things that — you keep studying and you keep studying, and gradually it dawned on me, as I noticed that Oluwá, Yoruba for the Lord, became Eluwá, or then noticed that Baba Elegbá, became Babalagua, in that old Tito Puente song. And then suddenly it hit me one day: it’s a voice mask. It’s not ikui. It’s ekue. The holiest word in Abakuá.
RFT: Yes! And that got confirmed by some powerful paleros/Abakuá, like – he practices the Kongo religion in Los Angeles today, Felipe García Villamil, one of my strongest friends in terms of learning what I should learn.
NS: I want to talk about the beat – the habanera – and how it got to Argentina.
RFT: Multiply. Multiple channels of transmission. I can give you at least three.
Number one: sheet music. There’s a Cuban scholar – I forget her first name, Martín. She wrote a wonderful article on the history of habanera in which she said, “Don’t forget that in 1803, Havana was leading the Spanish-speaking hemisphere in terms of the production of sheet music.” So habaneras went out via this printed form. They could turn up anywhere.
Secondly, mimesis of Madrilenian vogue. The habanera came to Madrid in the 1850s, where it became a big hit. When the zarzuelas are cooked up – the light operas, the zarzuelas, sainetes, whatever — they come from Madrid to the stage of Buenos Aires. And that’s another level: it’s seen on the stage.
But the killer are black Cuban sailors, sailing south. This is later, late 19th century, and they landed in Montevideo. And believe it or not, there are marching groups listed and documented on the streets of Montevideo: Los Pobres Cubanos, Los Esclavos Habaneros, and so forth. At least three or four of them. I have the whole list, and the dates of their appearance. Black Cuban sailors.
And also given the fact that candombe – one of the beats in candombe is [taps], which is the clave beat, which is everywhere. But there’s some other rollicking beats. There’s one that goes: borokotó, borokotó, chas chas, borokotó, borokotó, chas chas. This goes under the heading of “cultural preparation,” that they’d heard so much that was like the habanera beat that it would almost have to be invented anyway, you know what I’m trying to say?
But at any rate, sheet music, bouncing off of Madrid and then back, and finally the killer. But there’s yet another: the zarzuelinos. Named after zarzuelas, the Spanish light opera. These were sailors that got on their boats in Cádiz, and then sailed to the Canary Islands, and then sailed to Fortaleza and Pernambuco and Bahía, and Rio de Janeiro, Montevideo, Buenos Aires. Can you imagine these sailors hanging out in all these dance-mad towns? The women invite them into these open-air parties. And they were the hit of the town, the zarzuelinos. Now I had never heard a mention of habanera with them. All I have in the data is that they brought finesse in dancing with them. But they probably were a source too.
NS: The beat of the habanera is very recognizable and it’s still with us today. Can you percuss it for me?
RFT: Sure! Daa-ka-kaa-koom. Daa-ka-kaa-koom. Daa-ka-kaa-koom. Daa-ka-kaa-koom. And not only that, I was told in Kongo that when things are a little sluggish, someone gets out on the bass drum: [taps same rhythm]. This is mbila a makinu, the call to the dance.
And it’s interesting that W.C. Handy, when he talked about it in a letter to downbeat in 1952, he called it “the call of the blood.” Sent goose pimples up me. Handy was plugged into something. He did not just say, oh, this is a tango beat. He said: tangana. We’re still working, and trying to figure out how that absolutely Kikongo word for “walk that walk” [got into Handy’s vocabulary] . .
NS: I was going to ask you: the word tango?
RFT:Well, the word tango is more than a word. It’s a semantic spectrum. It’s a semantic range. And on both sides of the Atlantic, it means a dance, a place of dance, the people who dance it, the beat of the dance, and many other things. And on the Atlantic side, crossing the Atlantic, you have tanga: the funeral, the dance, the drum; matanga: the second funeral, the dance drum. My argument is that when you are lining up two spectrums that match, the chances of it being coincidence are rather slim. Now there have been so many off-the-wall folk etymologies, like, “oh, yes, tango is really tambo. Tango, yes, it’s obvious that they’re trying to say Shango.” I mean, come on. Give us a break! What I try to argue in this book is that we don’t put one dictionary next to another. We try to put contexts, and see if the context – because the context is just a little too intricate. We’re not talking about a single little feeble thread coming from Kongo, we’re talking about a coaxial cable, baby. One that is most heavily associated with funerals.
The Kongo idea of the funeral is send the dead off with a lot of music. You don’t want them going sad to the other world, they might come back to haunt you. That’s the rationale, which I would argue, was the secret rationale behind the jazz funeral in New Orleans. Not to mention the candombe funeral in Montevideo, not to mention the candombe funeral in Buenos Aires, and so Kongo-centric that the whites were amazed at [the way they would] process and singing to this rhythm: chin-chin . . . chin-chin. This guy writing in 1856, said, “What’s really extraordinary is that at every crossroads, they stop, get out two chairs and put the coffin on the chairs and then they do countersigns.” Well, you know, talk to any card-carrying Mukongo, and he’ll tell you, “Oh, but of course.” Because any crossroads is where the spirits meet. We want all the spirits to acknowledge the brother that will be joining them.
And also wave flags. I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie of the funeral of Benny Moré, but in that movie, there’s a lot of flag-waving over his coffin. And Benny Moré, of course, was a palero.
Does that hopefully suggest what it is I’m trying to say about tango being a creolization of tanga? But — it’s more complex than that. The word for “sun,” our nearest star, is ntangu. It’s also the word for time, like ntanguzazo: forever and ever, like multiple suns. And this term ntangu may well also have fed the emergence of the Creole term. Now someone could say, “Now what in the hell does the sun have to do with a dance?” In Kongo, everything. The path of the sun – nzila ya ntangu – is a counterclockwise circle, danced in – they’re trying to tell us something – conga lines.
And so to this day, if you go to a tango dancehall, hey, they’re in couples, they’re in western-embrace couples, but the couples tend to revolve counterclockwise: the ghost conga line. And you ask them, “¿Por qué?” “Siempre ha sido así.” “Why do you do this?” “Well, it’s always been that way.” But the fact that you’ve got the counterclockwise sun path going in tango even now makes me suspect that maybe ntangu, which is even closer to the sound, had something to do with it too. Because Kikongo was spoken so vibrantly that in 1780, a reverend father named Chome decided that he would preach to the black people in their language
NS: In Argentina?
RFT: Yeah, and that’s one of my dreams: to find his handwritten dictionary.
NS: Oh, my lord.
NS: And we know that that word tango was already around. There’s that occurrence of it in 1786 in New Orleans, written down by the Spanish governor: “los tangos, o bailes de negros.”
RFT: Well, there you go.
NS: The precise context is he’s saying that they have to wait till after Vespers to have their tangos. The word was used in Cuba a lot, but I don’t know of an 18th-century occurrence in Cuba.
RFT: All I know is what I read in Odilio Urfé, that those early habaneras were called tangos congos. But they’re trying to tell us something. That’s like, “Yo’ Mama is Conga,” the big hit of Santiago in 1856.
NS: You can also slow that beat down, right? You don’t have to do it fast, you can also do it [sings rhythm at half speed]
RFT: Yes. Well, of course, Bizet. That second phrasing is close to what he came up with in Carmen: [sings Carmen’s habanera, with the words]: “and everyone knows the habanera, whether they know it or not, they know that melody.”
NS: Taken from Sebastián Yradier.
RFT: Yeah, who took it from Cuba. Transnationalism strikes again.
NS: And talking about transnationalism: the tango was a worldwide hit. Mambo was influential all over the world. It was enormous. And at the moment, you have reggaetón, which is all over the Spanish-speaking world.
RFT: I love reggaetón.
NS: We’re seeing something we don’t see very often, but we saw it back in the days of the mambo, when a Cuban style of music was popular in Mexico. But you’ll hear reggaetón now in San Francisco or Albuquerque, places you don’t normally hear Puerto Rican music, and Puerto Rico is the epicenter of the reggaeton phenomenon. And that beat is: [percusses] It’s that tango beat again! And the merengue: [in the 80s] they started playing a similar style, called alomaco that’s… [percusses]
RFT: So, let it rock on.
NS: What is milonga?
RFT: Milonga, in terms of what it meant originally: back around 1642, the Portuguese authorities in Luanda wrote back to Lisbon: we are having trouble with this uppity queen, Nzinga, and she is making milonga against us. Meaning, messages. Meaning, messages of defiance. Meaning – and this is way back, this is the 1640s – that term was already that famous, that if you had any contact with Angola, you had contact with the term milonga. As well you might, because in Kimbundu it means argument, lawsuit, conversation.
NS: Which is also one of the meanings of mambo, right?
RFT: Yes! Yes! And of course, so many of our dances have to do with argument. Mambu can mean argument, milonga can mean argument. Reggae in Afro-Jamaican means argument. Reggae – from ripping a cloth. A rag is an indication of struggle. And rag equals argument is a Kongo metaphor, it got loan-translated. Not once, but twice. Reggae, and ragtime. Yeah, these things get around. I’m still working on the etymology of ragtime.
But anyway, back, what is milonga? Etymologically, it comes with a double root. Milonga was picked up around 1642 as a term for argument, and cultural insolence, meaning, we’re just as good as you are, maybe better. And then, in Kongo, milonga is the plural of the word longa, which means “line,” so milonga is a dance where you’re forming lines. And that fits it too. So you’ve got this choreographic possible root and then you have this distinct, powerful root, well documented, meaning “argument.”
Now, when the roots of tango are emerging, one of the roots is payada. Now payada should be very familiar to us, because it’s a battle of rhyme. Men living in rhyme and turning it into a composition. Does that sound familiar? ‘Cause if that ain’t like rap I don’t know what is.
The greatest singer of that was Gabino Ezeiza, a black gentleman who composed 500 payadas. Five hundred. And influenced Gardel. Now, as his music slowly turned into tango, the competitiveness of it went straight into milonga. And you have milongas with guys saying, “I’m from San Cristóbal, where blades collide. What I say with my mouth I back up with my hide.” It’s almost word for word out of first-generation hip-hop, the braggadocio element. And also thoughtful milongas, like – Borges, God bless him, adored milongas. Borges is one of my main sources, because he not only studied it and collected it, he wrote them. He wrote a book of milongas, called For the Six Strings of the Guitar. “Para las Seis Cuerdas.” And he has a milonga dedicated to persons of color, and he has a milonga about how blacks were the bravest in the war of liberation against Spain, and he has a milonga about this charming dude who gives all the women of his barrio a good time and is well-beloved. And he says, “Is he Indian or is he black? Who can tell?” And then he gets shot down by a jealous lover of one of the girls that he’s with. And Borges is teaching us through milonga that bravery is not pointless. That even if you get shot, the memory of what you were lives on.
And then he writes another milonga, where he says: you may take this as apocrypha, but the way we walk now, the way we whistle, the way we saunter, the way we lend rage to guitars, comes out of milonga.
Now back to your question, what is milonga? Milonga is the quickest way to indicate the blackness of tango. Because it is a beat, like ragtime just before jazz, milonga just before tango, what all tango dancers of today, if they want to really show off how good they are, they have a special little milonga routine. Why? For the same reason that Horace Silver would go back to the blues, or go back to church music. To show where he came from. To show that he knows where he’s coming from and therefore he will know where he’s going. So the use of milonga in tango is to me very like the use of blues as a truth-seeking device in jazz.
At any rate, back to your question: what is milonga? So it comes in with this heritage of choreography, and the conga lines are there in candombe, and it comes in with the pugnaciousness and the rap-like battling in rhymes. And then there is this insertion of candombe, pure – well, nothing’s pure – scintillatingly influenced by Kongo. Master tango dancers like Lampazo or Pibe Palermo – Pibe Palermo said almost word for word what our friend in New Orleans [Jelly Roll Morton] said: to get the jazz right you’ve gotta season it with the Spanish tinge. He said, to get the right flavor in milonga you have to season it with candombe. And he hung out with blacks. He was like the Eminem of his generation. He just couldn’t get enough of the brothers and their art. One day his dad walked in, and he was practicing with two blacks these very candombe, get-down-range dancing steps, his father comes in and says, “damn! my son is turning black right in front of me.” And his black buddy says, “Aw, let him do it. The kid knows his stuff.” Well, Pibe Palermo to this day can dance like Stumpin’ Stumpy in the history of jazz dancing in our country. I watched him – he’d go through about five sequences in a minute and a half. Of making fun of drunks, and knocking his leg like he’s telling his leg what to do next. All sorts of things that a jazz dancer up here would immediately smile at.
That’s one of the tests. How do we know there’s African influence involved here? When I read milongas making fun of people to my black friends, they started laughing immediately. They got it. It’s like the dozens. Cultural recognition. Cultural preparation and cultural recognition.
NS: Sonically, how would you recognize a milonga as opposed to a tango?
RFT: Milonga is happy. Milonga is full of riffs. I asked that question to a lot of tangueros; cuál es la diferencia entre tango y milonga? What’s the difference? And they said, well, tango, you know, is often melancholic, thoughtful, meditative. Milonga is [snaps fingers] happy, upbeat. Milonga is fast. But most of all, milonga is repetitious. It’s riff-oriented. So when you’re dancing tango, you may go through all kinds of smooth transitions. You’re dancing milonga, if you hit the viborita, the little snake, and not one, two, three, four, five repetitions of it. You’re savoring it for the riffiness of it. Like something out of Ellington, or those incredible riffs that René Hernández wrote for Machito.
NS: You mentioned canyengue. What’s canyengue?
RFT: Canyengue is old tango. But its semantic range is broad. Canyengue refers technically to the style of tango as it was danced during its first decade, 1900-1910. And what is the difference between canyengue and tango today? Number one: tango liso, or tango de salón, the smoothed-out or the salon style. Erect back. Coming straight out of flamenco, and the straight back of Spanish folk [dancing], coming out of the straight back of court dancing in Europe since Renaissance times. That all gets erased in canyengue.
What is canyengue, dancewise? It is “Position One” in Africa. Feet flat on the ground, knees bent and flexible, torso way forward, way out, face stone cool. Now when that’s creolized, some of these African terms, as you would expect in the creativity of local invention, they don’t say cool, they say, cara fea, ugly face. And that was misunderstood by a lot of people. So canyengue is a dance style. And you can see it in – I can give you a precise visual document, in 1911, in a journal called Pebete, and it shows a white dancing with a woman – I think she’s white, although her style is definitely black. And he’s straight up, as straight as a ruler, and she’s so bent into African Position One that her face and her chest fall against his chest. As time goes on, both do this, and they fall into each other. Which is interesting, because it spiritually is appropriate to melt into your partner, since canyengue literally means “melt,” melt into the music. Ku yenga, to melt in Kikongo, canyengue, melt into the music; you’re melted by age, you’re old. And I think we discussed this, how as far away as Benny Moré in Havana, through the same Kongo root in Cuba, two cities sharing strong Kongo influence.
NS: Musically, what distinguishes canyengue?
RFT: Canyengue in music is like the term duende in flamenco. Like the term salanc in the folk music of Cataluña. Salanc in Catalán, duende in Spanish, swing in U.S. jazz parlance, all of the above. Canyengue means you know how to swing, you’ve got the flavor, you’re culturally appropriate. And the first historical notice – one of the first – Canaro, the great orchestra leader, Canaro had a black bassist – I call him the Cachao of tango, a big, powerful black bassist — and his name was Ruperto [Leopoldo] Thompson. Easy for me to remember his name. And Ruperto was famed for introducing [percusses] drumming the side of his bass. And also striking, sometimes drumming, the strings. And he started the tradition of canyengue, that is, the drum-izing, or turning melodic instruments into percussion instruments. And that is canyengue, when percussion begins to dominate at highly sophisticated levels, which is one of the definitions of swing, then you’ve got canyengue. And if you dance with a kind of rhythmic flair, you have canyengue.
NS: That’s significant, because the tango is played entirely with European instruments, right?
RFT: And that is where we overturn one of the assumptions that we’re really talking about a purely European thing. Yes, the instruments were European. Because in this city where blacks were outnumbered, and there was a lot of cultural prejudice, it was okay, as long as they were playing bona fide instruments, but if they started whipping out candombe drums, or scratchers… After all, even in Cuba it wasn’t until way late that tumbadoras were accepted. And you know the story cold of how people would walk out: “I’m not dancing in a solar, I’m in a dancehall.” The same thing, the same prejudice. But they couldn’t touch it.
And the guy who played the guitar, of course, is critical to the history of tango, because that’s the rhythm producer. And when I did a list of as many black musicians as I could find, and the greatest number were guitarists, what does that tell us? This is not my insight, I was reminded of this by Pablo Aslán, who’s one of the leading tangueros of New York, and Pablo pointed out to me, he said, “Look what you’ve got here – all these guitarists. Do you know what this means?” This means that they were rhythm producers, they were feeding habanera, but putting a little gravy on it. And one of the guys who put gravy on his guitar, played for [Eduardo] Arolas, which is where Rupert Thompson first played before he went out. And Rupert Thompson played for strategic bands: Firpo, Canaro . . . The irradiation process was at the center of the current. So canyengue is, for me, a nice way of indicating the hidden blackness of tango. Because when tango begins to swing, the blacks are getting credit, whether people know it or not.
Firpo has another rhythmic device [taps]: carraspeo, which means throat-clearing. A wonderful metaphor. Carraspeo sort of says, now watch this, and then something interesting’s gonna happen. Like, hrrrmp, you’re clearing your throat, so we’re gonna hear a real speech in a minute.
NS: Like the timbalero goes prrrrmp to kick off the band.
RFT: Yes! The abanico. So that turns up in Firpo during the canyengue period. So – I haven’t talked about it in the book, it’s occurring to me know, maybe I’ll put it in a second book, carraspeo is part of the rise of canyengue. Then, with the coming in of Julio Da Caro, beautifully trained, now the guys read music rather than being ear guys. And with this comes a richer counterpoint, all sorts of things.
NS: What’s a bandoneón?
RFT: Bandoneón is the soul of tango. Bandoneón is an accordion-like device except, unlike the accordion, you do not see the keys, you have to feel them. It’s really Braille writing in music. You must feel the buttons that are on either side, which you cannot see. Very complex. Playing a bandoneón with all those buttons is like flying a jet, with its instrumentation panel. And not only that, as if that weren’t complex enough, there’s a certain type of bandoneón that, whether you’re exhaling air or breathing it in, pushing or pulling, you get two [different] notes with each button. And think of how complex that is.
There’s some argument about who really invented [the bandoneón]. I don’t really want to get into that. What we really need to know is that it emerged around Krefeld, which is near the Dutch border, roughly northwest of Düsseldorf. And it was designed for church music, to be a portable organ. It was designed for polkas, it was designed for waltzes. It was designed for anything but the mournful, clichéd sound – you know, Piazzolla, the greatest bandeonista of them all, he said it had a certain mellow sound that immediately distinguished it from the accordion. And he’s absolutely there.
But the point I’d like to drive at is, how can you get canyengue on a bandoneón, this German instrument? Well, we know [that] one of the main currents flowing in the formation of tango is out-of-work cowboys – gauchos – when their cattle range was plowed and fenced, they came by the thousands to Buenos Aires seeking work. They brought with them their dance styles, including rrrrrrrrrroomp! the arrastre. The blurring of notes together so that they become sort of a percussion, like a drum roll. The arrastre they brought, they brought [pops fingers] finger-popping, they brought [smacks table] taconeo. Now, what happens in the playing of the bandoneón that is unique to Buenos Aires and Montevideo is that you [establishes a pulse with his heel] heel tap, and lay it over your knee, so that it gives it a strong staccato thing. I mean, if anyone can prove me wrong on this, call me collect, but I seriously doubt that the Germans played it that way, with the heels. And that is one of the things that turns it into the soul of tango. You see it constantly.
You have even a uniform for playing it. You don’t just play it. You spread a big black cloth over your lap, and then site it on that. And I got a fictive version and a real version of why they do that. The fictive version is, “it’s so sensitive that the heat of our thighs would spoil it.” I wrote that down passively. But as you know, writing a book you check things, and another [bandoneonista] said, “who the hell told you that? He must have been satisfying himself. The only reason we do that is to keep the sharp edges of the bellows from tearing our pants.”
NS: I want to ask you about the figure of Carlos Gardel, an idol to a previous generation and less well known now.
RFT: Gardel! You cannot escape him. He is an icon. A símbolo of Argentina. If you’re coming in from the airport, and you turn onto the street that takes you to Avenida Callao, one of the main drags, before it becomes Callao, it is Entre Ríos…
There was a huge festival at his grave. And there were some young people there, but mostly there were people in their 60s and 50s. But my young anthropologist friend attended. He and his wife are writing about the sociological phenomenon of the worship of Gardel. And I wish I had them here, because they could answer your question far more richly than I can. But from what I’ve gathered from their research, it’s mostly a generational thing now. But that does not mean that the youth of the city are unaware of him. There’s no way they can escape him.
But I think the rockeros – those who play rock – when they go on stage, just as an indication that Gardel will never die, they mention the word “Pugliese.” It brings you luck. And [Osvaldo Pugliese] was arguably one of the most generous of all the bandleaders. His band wasn’t a band, it was a collective. His sidemen got exactly what he got, and they were able to buy houses and cars. And they loved him, and he became a saint. And now these rock players, before they go on stage, they say: Pugliese! and that will bring you luck. The point why I’m bringing this folk belief in: to know about Gardel will bring you luck, too. And for a lot of reasons, he’ll be there forever, like the red ribbons that counteract envidia – envy – that are in every other taxicab in Buenos Aires. Buenos Aires is a city wired for belief. In no other city that I’ve lived and loved in, have I seen taxi drivers cross themselves when they go past a cathedral. Just a little [gestures], you know? And that kind of effervescent belief, it hits you. And I watched people at the corner of Scalabrini and Corrientes, where Pugliese’s statue is, touch it. That brings you luck. I’m getting seemingly off the subject, but not really. Because Gardel is such a whammy that he will never disappear. Not ever.
NS: Do you still see his films on television?
RFT: Well, of course there is this nonstop FM station that plays nothing but tango, 24 hours. And there’s another station, and there’s a TV channel devoted to tango.
NS: There’s a TV channel devoted to tango?
RFT: Yeah. He’s there, but of course they’re playing plenty of the contemporary stuff, because tango’s not a museum. You’ve got this active, fiery, feisty band called Arranque. With a feisty name: beginning. We’re gonna start things. Arranque is led by a wonderful guy named [Ignacio] Varchausky, a bassist – like Cachao – and then there’s Pablo Aslán, and then there’s Pablo Zeigler, who was the pianist for Piazzolla. In this typical transnational life of a tanguero today, Pablo Zeigler has an apartment in Berlin, an apartment in Brooklyn, and an apartment in Buenos Aires.
NS: How do you locate Piazzolla in the context of tango?
RFT:Ah, Piazzolla. Well, Piazzolla is a final epiphany. Piazzolla is all of the tendencies brought together. There was always a promise that tango and jazz would meet. But why? Because in the tango dancehalls the bands would play a tango, then a milonga, then a valse. But they’d also play a little ragtime. And a ragtime pianist – Phillips by name, a black North American, arrived in Buenos Aires in 1900. For 16 years [he] played ragtime, and then more and more tango. So what happened there? To this day, you hear fragments of ragtime in critical, historically important tango.
Then, of course, [Osvaldo] Fresedo. He loved jazz. Fresedo added traps to tango. Everyone said, sacrilege! And he said, oh, no man! I’m not gonna change the beat. I’m gonna play tango beat with all these wonderful little sounds. And it’s Fresedo who invited Dizzy Gillespie for that capitally important moment in the history of Argentine music, when Gillespie played bop over their tango. And it’s the most polite episode, for, you know, he could have showboated . . . Dizzy plays, and he just bebops his way to the stars over this rollicking tango beat, it’s very beautiful. Well, in that very place where this took place, which was Fresedo’s own nightclub, Piazzolla put together his famous octet of 1955. And there were two things that fed his mind. What caused him to play with the national symbol? He got a lot of static for it, but he triumphed. One was that he was desperate to be a composer. He wanted to be Bartok. He had Bartok’s picture over his bed – if that doesn’t tell you something! And of course Bartok’s scale – you begin to hear it. There’s a piece called “Three Minutes with Reality” – “Tres Minutos con la Realidad,” and you begin to hear Bartokian scales, all that folk energy, coming in. But also “Passacaglia,” straight out of Bach. When his father died, in 1959, he used a passacaglia under the tango, or over the tango, and then he goes into a thing which is, like, a dirge which turns into a lullaby. Piazzola rightfully, justly, forever, is the most famous of all Argentine musicians, and one of the reason is that his genius was so powerful that when he sang a song for his father, it turned into a lullaby, so that father is now son, child is now parent, and linear time blurs in the prism of his tears. It is unbelievable.
At any rate, he wanted to be a classical composer, but he loved to play tango. When he got to Paris, he was lucky enough to win a scholarship with Nadia Boulanger. She had worked with Ravel, and she had trained Aaron Copland.
NS: And Philip Glass and Quincy Jones!
RFT: So she listened to his classical stuff. She was very polite, she didn’t say anything but, “what do you do for a living with music?” Then he played “Triunfal,” I think, one of his early compositions. She grabbed him by the hand and said, “That’s the real Astor Piazzolla.” There’s a wonderful rendering of this in an L.A. magazine – I forget the title – called “The Tango Destroyer,” which is the best rendition of this, it was picked up by a guy named Frasca, who wrote a brilliant study of the elements of jazz in Piazzolla’s music. And Frasca has this quote, and I quote him in my book.
In any event, ragtime was already in tango. And then you had this shift toward art music, with the black composer Salgán, and the other composer, Pugliese, whose “Malandraca” is one of the classics that you’ll have to listen to — “Malandraca,” which was recorded May 31, 1949, a red-letter date in the history of tango. Because in this he pulled off the impossible: he had a little of Stravinsky, he has pure tango, he has cowboy rrrrrrrrrooomp! arrastre, but they’re so strong they sound like a rocket going off at Cape Canaveral – vroom! And, as if that weren’t enough, then he switches to the blues! Suddenly blue tonality – blue notes out of nowhere. He switches from factory industrial noises to meditation on the back porch of a shotgun shack in rural Mississippi. Unbelievable mastery of form! Of one of the clashes that defines the tango, the clash between hardness and sentiment. The hardness is trrrrromp! domp! domp! domp! trrrrromp! domp! domp! domp! The sentiment that’s mmmmm. [He] got all of that.
So, to answer your question, who is Piazzolla? Piazzolla is the person who reconciled tango to an incipient and already always there presence – the love to mix, every now and then, with jazz, but not just jazz, but free jazz! In “Tristezas of the Doble A,” my God, he takes free jazz of the 60s and turns it on its head.
There’s this composed, strictly written, part, and then they improvise freely in between, but they improvise in terms of harmonics. And of course, free jazz is supposed to get you away from harmonics. So he gives harmony back to free jazz while keeping its central idea. And he’s revolutionizing tango while keeping to the basic rhythm. And so Piazzolla proves that there’s nothing more stupid than that saying, you can’t have your cake and eat it too. Because in the black world, you say, “We’ll buy two cakes!”
NS: My last question for you today – not that I couldn’t hit you with twenty more – is: your book is called Tango: The Art History of Love. What’s up with the subtitle?
RFT: The subtitle means that you can’t have tango without love. You can’t learn the 50-odd, 70-odd, 80-odd, God knows how many, steps there are, unless you love what you’re doing. You could go out and memorize them without any affect, but what are you? A robot, a computer. Forget it. The imperative of tango is love. And that imperative requires translation. Translation of a little of ragtime into the flow of the tango. Translation of a candombe step where you freeze one foot and inch the other slowly forward. How are you gonna translate? Walter Benjamin, one of the great intellectuals of the 20th century, wrote a fabulous article on translation. And in it he said, how do we translate German into English? French into Spanish? If you don’t love the other language as much as your own, you will never be able to translate. And of course, Piazzolla loved jazz as much as he loved tango. So it’s a history of love as an essence of creativity. That’s one meaning.
But then there’s a sexier valence – I mean, let’s face it, tango is a choreographed seduction in many ways. But with control. You know, one of the roots of tango is one of the roots of samba – it’s again the transnational whammy. Maxixe started with a mixture of polka and habanera, and milonga and polka were fusing at the same time, and maxixe has a deep lean, which went straight into samba, and tango is a world of leans. But those leans reflect love in a lot of things you do.
You love what’s happening in your neighboring country, and you take a step or two from maxixe. If you’re a total nationalist, and you think you’re completely complete in being whatever nation you belong to — well, the love of tango demands that you keep your ears open, your eyes open, for new moves that can come from anywhere. But mostly I mean love in the absolute essence of it. How do you take responsibility for the happiness of someone else? To become the custodian of someone’s happiness?
Tango is a wonderful analog for showing respect. Like, for example, you can show love in just the way you take the hand of the woman. “Whoooomp! like this, I am now grabbing her hand and pulling it, like, you will dance with me! and you will do as you’re told!” But who’s gonna hang out with a guy like that very long? In fact, there was a Lysistrata-like rebellion in the 40s, where the women told huffy, over-testosterone-filled guys that, you throw me around like that any more and you’re sleeping alone. The men who were hippest answered by revising certain things to show greater love rather than domination. One of the things they did was take the fingers of the woman’s hand just by the fingertips, so that she can leave whenever she wants to. She’s not held, she’s honored. But these little secret glyphs of love and honor are built in, so when I say, tango is the history of love, I mean love as a multi-faceted phenomenon that’s gonna come in just the way you hold her hand.
I’ll give you another example of tango as love. Cut: we’re in a dancehall. A young girl comes in. It’s her first tango lesson. She’s come from the world of rock. She’s danced apart for all her nineteen years. She does her first tango step and bursts into tears. And the instructor, who told me this, said, “Why are you crying, Juana?” She said, “I’ve never been held like this before.” The amorousness of the tango embrace.
Tango, why is it the art history of love? Because the first tango step is not a step. In contrast to rock – whomp! whomp! you get out there and you get it on immediately – whomp! whomp! In contrast, in tango you get out there and you quietly embrace. And it’s almost like masonry, where the stones fit seamlessly, till you really feel the tightness, and you’re just right with it, and then you dance. And I asked a woman, “Why do you guys not do anything for several beats?” She said, “Because we’re getting the embrace of it. Till we fit perfectly. And we’re listening, so we will fit into the climate of the music.”
NS: Thank you very much, Robert Farris Thompson, for talking to me today and I hope that we can have many more conversations, especially when your mambo book comes out!
RFT: If God is kind, that will be a year and a half from now.