Archive | August, 2019

Adriana Varela – From rock star to tango singer

Tango singer Adriana VarelaBy Terence Clarke,  author,  journalist and Alma del Tango board member

Adriana Varela may not be for everyone. Her voice is not pretty. It seldom floats and will not ease you into dreamland. But I became a fan of her voice the moment I first heard it. I feel that, if you want to hear how Buenos Aires can sound when portrayed in song, you should go to Adriana Varela and listen closely.

Varela has been a best-selling recording artist of tango since the early 1990s. Starting out as a rock singer, she paid little attention to the at-that-time accepted notion, of traditional tangos of the 1930s through 50s being those most worth listening to. So…large string and bandoneón sections playing lyrical, even romantic, versions of tangos ad nauseum. They’re all very pretty, but we dance to them over and over at the milongas, no matter where the particular milonga may be held…in Buenos Aires, San Francisco, London, Istanbul, or wherever.

The voice of Buenos Aires

Varela’s voice, however, is pure porteño, which is to say, Buenos Aires!…rough, direct, and filled with irony, often humorous, often angry. When you walk down almost any street in that city, you hear this voice and that language. It is recognizable to anyone who has enough Spanish to understand what is being said, and especially how it is being said. There is no other accent in the Spanish language quite like it.

Early in her singing career, Varela made the acquaintance of the great Roberto Goyeneche. By now internationally famous, his voice was anything but soft and pleasing. When you hear it, you know that this man, too, knows the streets of Buenos Aires’s massive urban landscape and the difficulties it can present.

The circumstances of their first meeting have become famous. Varela was singing in a Buenos Aires club one evening, and she spotted Goyeneche sitting at the bar. It was known that he did not care for female tango singers, and he spent her entire set silently nursing the whiskey before him, his back turned to the stage. At the end of her set, beset by nerves, Varela stepped down from the bandstand and approached the great man. When Goyeneche realized that the young woman was trying to get his attention, he turned to her and, without provocation, said, “Che piba, (Hey, girl) you’ve got it!” From then on, they were fast friends.

For an example of Varela’s work, watch her studio performance of Mano a Mano (“Hand in Hand.”) It’s a tough-minded tango, one of Carlos Gardel’s greatest. The lyrics tell of the crazy love the speaker has for a very high-spirited young woman he knows, although one with questionable morals. She is sought after by the worst of the local two-bit gangsters…and she often gives into them. But the speaker loves her no matter what. As the singer puts it in the last verse:

“Y mañana, cuando seas descolado mueble viejo

y no tengas esperanzas en el pobre corazón,

si precisás una ayuda, si te hace falta un consejo,

acordate de este amigo que ha de jugarse el pellejo

p’ayudarte en lo que pueda cuando llegue la occasion.”

Sadly, I can’t translate the lyrics to include the rhymes they contain, which are terrific. But here’s the essence of what they say:

“And tomorrow, when you’re broken down, an old piece of furniture,

and there is no hope in your poor heart,

if you need a hand, if you need some advice,

remember this friend here who would risk his skin

to help you any way he can, whenever you need it.”

 

The Spanish translation of Terence Clarke’s latest novel, The Splendid City, is currently seeking publication in South America.

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Navigation & Etiquette Guidelines for Milongas

(These great suggestions taken from Clay Nelson’s Burning Tango Festival)
 
1. Always move forward in line of dance.
2. Stay in your lane.
3. Move up and fill gap in front of you.
4. Use cabeceo and accept refusals.
5. Dance small figures.
6. Eyes up and avoid collisions.
7. Seek permission to enter the floor.
8. No teaching, criticizing or loud talking.
9. Clear the floor during the cortina.
10. Apologize regardless of who’s at fault.
11. Center is for beginners–good dancers stay in outside lanes.
12. Dress appropriately and have good hygiene. 
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Paquita Bernardo… “La Flor de Villa Crespo”

Paquita Bernardo, first professional woman bandoneonistaBy Terence Clarke, author, journalist and Alma del Tango board member

These days, women who play the bandoneón abound in Buenos Aires and around the world. This was not so in the 1920s. But one who did so was Paquita Bernardo. By some accounts she was indeed the very first professional bandoneonista.

The daughter of Spanish immigrants to Argentina, she was famous for playing tango with verve and true porteño style while often wearing a man’s suit and tie.

In 1915, as a teenager, Paquita entered the music conservatory of a woman named Catalina Torres in Buenos Aires, as a pianist. There she met a young bandoneonista named José Servidio, who so impressed her with his ability and the instrument’s sonorous soulfulness, that she switched to the bandoneón. She never looked back. (Servidio, incidentally, went on to a distinguished career as a tango musician on the Buenos Aires scene.)

Problem – she was a girl

Initially the trouble for Paquita was that she was a girl, which could have made her professional advancement an impossibility. (For an interesting novel about just such a situation in turn-of-the-20th-century Buenos Aires, see The Gods of Tango by Carolina De Robertis.)

At the time, women appearing on stage in tango boliches and clubs were thought to be of questionable morals. Playing bandoneón requires the instrumentalist to open and shut the legs, which was deemed entirely inappropriate for women. Paquita persisted, however, and persuaded her father to allow her to pursue her study of the instrument. He acceded to her request, and Paquita, whose talent was so obvious, went on to play with various bands on the Buenos Aires club scene throughout her teen-age years.

A meteoric rise…and fall

In 1921, Paquita founded her own band, Orquesta Paquita, with her brother Arturo on drums and a very young pianist named Osvaldo Pugliese. They got a steady gig at the Bar Dominguez on Corrientes Street, and soon the traffic on Corrientes had to be diverted because of the sizable crowd waiting outside the club to see Paquita and her mates. To be sure, it was not just the novelty of seeing a woman playing the bandoneón that brought them to the club. By now Paquita was a master on the instrument and a star. In 1923, she appeared at a Grand Fiesta of Tango in the Coliseo Theater, a major Buenos Aires venue. It was a monumental event in which hundreds of noted musicians played, and Paquita was the only woman on the bill.   

Her fame rose meteorically. She played constantly through the next few years at most of the principal tango venues in Buenos Aires and Montevideo, clubs and ballrooms alike. She also became a regular in appearances on the newly established radio stations in both capitals.

Such constant appearances can take a toll on performers, and Paquita was no exception. In the fall of 1925, she contracted a difficult cold that turned quickly into pneumonia with other complications. It is thought that the treatment she received was not up to the seriousness of her affliction, and she died on April 14 of that year. She was just short of her twenty-fifth birthday.

Sadly, there are no recordings of Paquita’s playing. She also had talent, though, as a composer of tango, and none other than Carlos Gardel recorded two of her pieces: La enmascarada (“The Masked Woman”) and Soñando (“Dreaming”).

Terence Clarke’s novel about the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, The Splendid City, was published in March.

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Students of the Month ~ Shana Rassner-Gann & Conrad Gann

Students of the Month Shana & Conradby Lanny Udell

Dancing tango since:  Shana and Conrad started their tango adventure a year and a half ago.  She had been a modern dancer for 20 years and has a graduate degree in dance movement therapy and also in psychology. Both enjoy Contact Improvisation, a form of contemporary dance with two people.

Why tango:  Conrad says he had a vision of traveling around the world dancing tango. He and Shana had the desire to travel but not just as tourists. They thought that a couple of privates with John would be all they’d need. Ha! (The three of us had a good laugh over that.)

“We discovered we have a lifetime of learning ahead of us,” says Shana.

They started taking classes in the East Bay, then found Alma del Tango online. “We were slow learners, we were scared to go to class,” says Shana. So they started taking privates with John. After a year, they worked up the courage to go to the Level 2/3 class on Friday night.

Favorite part: Conrad jokingly says it’s the food. Getting serious, he says: “When we figure things out it’s very rewarding.” Shana likes tango because it’s an alternative way to connect.  “It’s so delicious to come together and share. We’re on the same level–we’re bad together.”

About Debbie & John: “We think they’re great, we love watching them dance,” the couple agrees. “John is really smart in the way he teaches,” says Conrad. “He boils it down in a constructive way to think about it that works for me.” Shana adds, “I feel like we found a teacher not just in dance but in life. He teaches with heart. He understood right away that we want to create a beautiful connection. Debbie is very warm and welcoming, and a beautiful dancer.” They find the Friday night mini tandas with Debbie and John very helpful.

What surprised them: “Tango is difficult, I never suspected it would be so complex,” says Shana.  “It will be something I’m working on for the rest of my life. I’m also surprised it’s grabbed both of our joint inspiration.”  

Next step – being comfortable at milongas in San Anselmo, then maybe the Boulder Tango Festival…and dancing tango in Paris!

 

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