by Terence Clarke, author, journalist, and Alma del Tango board member
Tango is a child of the great immigrations to Argentina and Uruguay from everywhere in the world, from the very beginnings of the Spanish conquest to the present day. The Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano writes in his Memory of Fire histories:
“tango had been born in the corrals at the city’s edge and in tenement courtyards. It came from gaucho tunes of the interior and came from the sea, the chanteys of sailors. It came from the slaves of Africa and the gypsies of Andalusia. Spain contributed its guitar, Germany its bandoneon, Italy its mandolin. The driver of the horse-drawn streetcar contributed his trumpet, the immigrant worker his harmonica, comrade of lonely moments. With hesitant step, tango spanned barracks and dives, the midways of traveling circuses and the patios of slum brothels.”
All those people who went to – or, in the case of black people, were taken to — Argentina brought their various kinds of music with them, and the result of all those rhythms and chords, instruments, ethnicities, cultures and sounds was a fine musical madness, from the moil of which tango came bubbling to the surface.
It was that most wonderful of cultural events, a bastardization from innumerable parents, a burst of musical languages and unusual couplings from which sprung a single, yet endlessly complicated, gorgeous flower: Tango.
The Confitería Ideal, at Suipacha 384 in Buenos Aires, is now closed for renovation. It was a grand barn of a place: musty, quite run-down, and world-famous for its tango.
There was a time, in 1912, when it was considered the cutting edge of Parisian style. Founded by don Manuel Rosendo Fernandez on the suggestion of his wife, who was French, it was a tea-room originally, and its clientele were among the most favored that Buenos Aires had to offer. On two floors, it was one of the largest such establishments in the city and was famous for the airy aristocratic beauty of its high ceilings, marble columns, and grand chandeliers. If you were anybody in Buenos Aires in those years, you’d slide right off the social register if you didn’t pay a regular visit to the Ideal.
With time, it lost its luster for the well-to-do, and ultimately became the venue for, of all things, tango. The dance that came from the poor and the immigrants, that is still disdained by the moneyed sort in Buenos Aires, became the very reason for going to this place.
For many years, almost every day of the week, tangueros gathered at the Ideal, starting in the afternoon and going on into the early morning. The music was usually recorded and often memorable, although some of the disk jockeys, like many of their colleagues around the world, were stuck in the 1930s and 40s. That aside, the opportunity to dance here – or, if you didn’t know tango, to watch here — was not to be missed.
I write in the past tense, as though the Ideal no longer exists. But that is not true.
“The Ideal never was intended to be a space specific to dancing tango,” says Alejandro Pereiro, architect of the current re-do. “It will come about as circumstances dictate, as the undertaking develops.”
This sounds like corporate architect-speak intended to prepare longtime tangueros for the Ideal’s disappearance as the singular most memorable space for tango in the world.
Terence Clarke’s new novel, The Splendid City, is being translated to Spanish by noted Chilean novelist Jaime Collyer.