Sexteto Milonguero: Tango in the Present Moment

 by Terence Clarke, novelist, journalist and Alma del Tango board member.

Javier Di Ciriaco of Sexteto Milonguero, Buenos Aires tango musician

Javier Di Ciriaco, founder of Sexteto Milonguero

For those of us outside Buenos Aires (I live in San Francisco) tango is heard principally through the thousands of historic recordings made during the last 80 years. If this sea of music were to be believed, you’d think that these old arrangements were the only ones that exist. We dance to them over and over again.

But there is a thriving community of contemporary tango in Buenos Aires, peopled by actual living musicians, who are writing new tangos and re-arranging the old ones in innovative ways that literally re-shape the form. Stellar artists like Cristóbal Repetto, María Volonté, Daniel Melingo, Adriana Varela and Caracol are not only bringing tango to vibrant life again, but are expanding its territory in innumerable ways.

 Sexteto Milonguero, founded and fronted by singer Javier Di Ciriaco, is one of those groups. Just completing a U.S. tour, they appeared recently in the San Francisco Bay Area. Di Ciriaco is to the manner born. He has no formal training as a singer. Rather he describes growing up in Argentina in a musical family (his father was a singer), and those occasions of parillas (barbecues), backyard celebrations, weddings and other family gatherings during which music performance by attendees is de rigueur.

This is a common occurrence in Argentine celebrations no matter where in the country you may be. Di Ciriaco describes these events, and how as a child he too would be expected to participate. It was there that he picked up his formidable singing chops.

Highly original and inventive

The sextet is made up of a bandoneonista, two violinists, a pianist, a bassist and Di Ciriaco himself, who also lends his guitar to the musical mix. One thing that makes this band so special is that these are truly professional young musicians whose abilities run the gamut from very tight playing and authoritative knowledge of the music at hand to a sense of fun and humorous drive that makes the music highly unusual in its originality. This is not a combination heard much outside Buenos Aires. 

There was just one solo performance during the concert, and it was significant. The great tango “El día que me quieras” (“The Day You Love Me”) with music by Carlos Gardel and lyrics by Alfredo Le Pera was recorded in 1934. It was Gardel who had previously transformed tango from a country and urban Buenos Aires street music into the concert stage and recording phenomenon that eventually resulted. His recording of this song was the highest point of his astonishing stage and film career. (He died in a plane crash on June 24, 1935, in Medellín, Colombia.)

Di Ciriaco took up his guitar and sang this song alone, without the band. As with so many of the sexteto’s numbers, this version of the song was immediately recognizable. But it was also so inventive that it gave the piece a much more hip modernity and soul than I have heard in all the previous recordings, with the exception of Gardel’s own. Di Ciriaco’s version was a surprise, and a wonder. 

For fine examples of Sexteto Milonguero’s rich arrangements and featured solos by its artists, look for their recordings on Amazon Music and Apple iTunes. You can also find them at http://www.sextetomilonguero.com.ar

Terence Clarke is co-founder and director of publishing at Astor & Lenox. His latest book is a story collection titled New York.

 

 

 

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The Gods of Tango, a novel by Carolina De Robertis

Book cover, The Gods of TangoReviewed by Terence Clarke, novelist, journalist and Alma del Tango board member.

Carolina De Robertis is a novelist living in the United States and writing primarily in English. She is of Uruguayan roots, however, and has written provocatively about characters whose entire consciousness derives from the land, the traditions and the politics of Uruguay and Argentina. Her latest novel is The Gods of Tango, published by Knopf.

In 1913, 17 year old Leda arrives by ship in Buenos Aires, from Italy, ostensibly to be greeted by her new husband Dante. Once on shore, she learns that Dante has been killed in a street battle between syndicalists and the police.

With only the clothes on her back and a single trunk containing her things, a little money, and the violin that her cherished father gave her, Leda moves into a conventillo named La Rete, in the poor wharf-side neighborhood of La Boca. Conventillos basically were tenements, some set up by the Argentine government, others privately run, to house the thousands of immigrants pouring into Buenos Aires during the first years of the twentieth century.

A polyglot of cultures

The conditions were uniformly terrible, with many people crowded into warrens of single rooms. The conventillo would often have a central patio with a source of water for cooking and washing, which would be the gathering place for the tenants. These sprawling edifices housed people from all over the world, and must have been a polyglot confusion of languages, cultures, manners of dress and, most principally for Leda’s purposes, music.

She hears her first tango in La Rete and is immediately smitten by it. She has never even imagined such rhythmic intensity, or such soulful intent and passion, in any of the music she has ever heard. She can play her father’s violin (although at first her efforts are insubstantial), and she determines to master the tango.

There is, however, a problem.

Tango in 1913 Buenos Aires is the domain of men, and men alone. The only women involved are those who work in the many boliche cafes and bordellos of Buenos Aires, and the duties of those women have little to do with music. The very idea of a woman playing tango is ridiculous to the men.

Leda comes to understand this quickly. Wrapping her breasts to diminish their presence, getting her hair cut in the style of a man, and dressing in her deceased husband’s clothes, Leda leaves the conventillo and takes to the Buenos Aires streets, now calling herself Dante, after her husband. She does so with violin in hand.

Leda remains so disguised for the rest of the novel, and she becomes remarkably well known as a musician. Working at first in the poorest of little boliches, she hones her talent until she becomes one of the best tango violinists on the Buenos Aires scene. But she does so as a man, and the disguise—and what it teaches her about the privileges that men enjoy that are forbidden to women—becomes the very vehicle for her rise to tango eminence.

The ways De Robertis presents the confusions that arise for Dante, her fellow musicians, and her lovers, is one of the real innovations of this novel. De Robertis writes with considerable passion and beauty about the kinds of sex that Leda finds and, of course, the kinds of love that she finds.

For anyone who cares about the origins of tango, this novel is a fine addition to the history of that soulful music in its Rio de La Plata birthplace. Find The Gods of Tango and Terence Clarke’s latest novel, The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro, at Amazon Smile. A portion of your purchase benefits Alma del Tango.

 

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The story of the Milonga

Terence Clarke, writer, tango

Terence Clarke

By Terence Clarke, novelist, journalist and Alma del Tango board member.

Terence Clarke’s latest book is New York, a collection of stories, all of which take place in New York City. He and his partner Beatrice Bowles are the organizers of the milongas at The de Young Museum, the Palace of The Legion of Honor, and The Ferry Building, in San Francisco. You can see him in his role as the moderator of Alma de Tango’s video “Tango: A Romantic Ritual.”

In 1883, an Argentine writer named Ventura Lynch, who studied and wrote about tango and all its variations, described tango’s older relative, the milonga: “It is so universal in the environs of Buenos Aires that it is an obligatory piece at all the lower-class dances (in Lynch’s Spanish, “bailecitos de medio pelo”), and it is now heard on guitars, on paper-combs, and from the itinerant musicians with their flutes, harps and violins. It has also been taken up by organ-grinders…It is danced in low life clubs, and also at the dances and wakes of cart-drivers, the soldiery, and compadres and compadritos (i.e. streetwise ruffians and gangsters).”

This was written well before the tango’s own development in the twentieth century. But the milonga was already an ancient term, and referred to music and dance that was, in the days long before Lynch, not Argentine at all.

The famous early gauchos from the Argentine pampas and elsewhere in southern South America…lonely cowboys wandering from place to place in search of work…also sought entertainment. They found it in their own “payadas,” which were verse-competitions in which a gaucho, with his guitar, would sing a verse of his own making, and a second gaucho would respond with a competing verse, an answer to the first payador’s offering. Inventive rhyming language back and forth was the goal, accompanied by guitar, with quick thinking and improvisation the method.

African influences

Some of these gauchos were black, and before 1861, the year slavery was outlawed everywhere in Argentina, many of the servants and country working class were black slaves. They had been brought to Argentina from the Niger-Congo regions of Africa, where the many Bantu languages and dialects are spoken. One theory has it that these slaves, not understanding the Spanish in which the payadas were sung, and noting how much language there was in the competitions, referred to them with the word mulonga, which is the Bantu for the Spanish palabra, or the English word.

So these payadas were a lot of talk, and with time, the competitive gatherings became known more universally throughout Argentina as milongas.

Dance was not far behind, and at first it was an individual expression, in which a gaucho (probably bottle in hand, his movements fired by drink) would dance to the payadores’ music by himself. Simple, a step to every beat of the music, rough-and-ready solo moves were the earmarks of the early milonga dance.

Sometimes, the men would dance with each other…milonga’s earliest appearance as a couples event. Later, as the music and dance moved toward the city in the nineteenth century, the presence of women became a reality (usually women of not much virtue). The phenomenon was deeply influenced by the black former slaves, whose presence in Buenos Aires made a permanent mark on the music and, especially, the dance. The best-known rhythms were the habanera and the traspié, the syncopations that we now always hear and see in contemporary milonga. Both are of African origin.

With time, the milonga became not only a music form in its own right, but also the single word that would describe a gathering of people coming together to dance. So,—¡Vamos, chicos, a la milonga! “Let’s go, guys, to the milonga!”

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Students of the Month ~ Jim Depeyster & Lynn Tompkins

by Lanny Udell

Jim & Lynn dance at Alma del Tango milongaDancing tango since:  Jim started dancing Argentine Tango in the mid 1990’s. He was living in New York at the time and after seeing a tango performance he was intrigued. In 1993 he saw an article about Buenos Aires in Smithsonian Magazine which mentioned clubs where people dance tango all night. He thought, “yeah, I’d like to go someplace where they dance tango all night.” So he started to look for a place to learn tango in New York. “I searched for a year and a half,” he says.

Lynn was living in Colorado, but the couple met in Florida when both were visiting their mothers. She moved to New York in 1997 and they started taking tango lessons together. “Fortunately, our relationship was strong enough to survive our early tango years,” says Jim.

Why tango: Jim had danced ballroom but wasn’t satisfied with it. “When I found tango, I knew there was no point in doing anything else,” he says. Lynn, who loves all kinds of dance, decided to learn tango so she and Jim could dance together.

After moving to the Bay Area they found tango in the City and danced at the Golden Gate Yacht Club and the Verdi Club. Eventually they found Gustavo and Jesica in Marin. “At the time we were volcada challenged,” says Jim, “they took us through that.”

Favorite part:  For Jim it’s about the connection and communication on the dance floor. Lynn agrees. “Touch is a basic human need,” she says, “and tango is difficult. You have to be brave to keep working at it. If it weren’t for the touch, people may not stay with it.”

The couple makes tango a central part of their exercise routine. They dance two to three times a week, primarily at Alma del Tango. “Lynn has cleverly molded this into a dinner date—dinner and tango, it’s part of our relationship,” Jim explains.

About Debbie & John: Jim first danced with Debbie at a practica at Bay West. He knew she was a teacher but didn’t know about her role as a founder and choreographer of Tango Con*Fusion. When Lynn watched Debbie dance she realized that she was not like other dancers. “She was doing something different, it’s the way she moves, the way she pushes off.”

“We gravitated toward Debbie and John as teachers,” says Jim, “and they’ve taken us over the colgada threshold.”

Anything else? In July 2017 Jim had hip replacement surgery. He wasn’t allowed to dance for six weeks. At the end of the six weeks he was on the dance floor the next day. 

Last word: When she isn’t practicing tango or enjoying a daily walk with Jim, Lynn can be found in her art studio painting portraits (people and pets) or still lifes, or on location painting in plein air. See her work here.
 

Painting of tango dancers by Lynn Tompkins

Dean and Raya at the Seahorse

Cat portrait by Lynn Tompkins

Cat portrait

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Student of the Month ~Gwen Sarandrea

By Lanny Udell

Alma del Tango student of the month Gwen Sarandrea Dancing tango since: Gwen fell in love with Argentine Tango in the 1990’s when she started dancing with Al and Barbara Garvey in Fairfax. She’s been dancing for more than 20 years, mainly ballroom, swing, tango and country.

Why tango: Gwen had always loved tango, but she didn’t have a comprehensive place to study. She took a 6-year hiatus from dancing, and when she came back, it was to tango only. She had moved to Bellingham, WA and found some tango classes there but “it was on a small scale,” says Gwen. “Not a big community.”

In 2007 Gwen went to Buenos Aires with a group and stayed two weeks longer than the others. “I was alone, and it was a little frightening,” she recalls. She knew people wouldn’t ask her to dance if they didn’t know her, so she hired taxi dancers and had a wonderful time. “Coming home was disappointing,” says the tanguera.

Finding tango at home: Gwen came back to the Bay Area and started looking at tango videos online. That’s how she discovered Alma del Tango. “It woke me up! So I started going to the Wednesday night classes and I’ve been there ever since.” Now Gwen attends the Level 3 and 4 classes on Monday nights. “I just love it, it’s so fulfilling.”

Favorite part: The collaboration and synergy with partners keep her coming back.

“Every partner is different, every dance is different. Some dances are fun, some are nurturing, some exhilarating, some playful, and some irreverent.”

About Debbie & John: “They should be very proud of what they’ve created—an open hearted community.” She finds both are very generous with their time, dancing a tanda with students at the Friday night practica. “The studio is based on a living partnership, and that feels good,” she says.
Gwen feels at home at Alma del Tango. “I love the community, people who are joyful in dance.”

Anything else: “I like laughing at my mistakes. Often, while dancing, we burst out laughing. I’m trying to take that into the rest of my life.”

Last word: Gwen is also a talented montage artist and has written a book on the subject, Montage Mirage Photo Tapestries, How To Create Photo Art From Your Heart. Learn more at MontageMirage.com

Wedding montage by Gwen Sarandrea

Wedding montage by Gwen Sarandrea

 

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Sending you a cabeceo to Milonga Valentina, our new alternative milonga

We’re excited to announce a new monthly milonga for tangueros(as) who enjoy
dancing to non-traditional tango music. Hosted by Christianna Valentina, the
first event will be held on December 16, from 6:30 to 11:30 p.m.

Christianna Valentina hosts Milonga Valentina at Alma del Tango in Marin

Christianna Valentina hosts Milonga Valentina

We talked with Christie to get the low-down:

Christie, for those who are unfamiliar, what is an alternative milonga?

C: It’s a milonga using music other than Golden Era tango, or Golden Era music given a new twist or a new interpretation. This music gives our students an opportunity to experience tango in a different way.

How did the idea for Milonga Valentina come about?

C: I’ve had the fantasy of doing this for about three years after going to alternative milongas in Portland, Las Vegas, San Francisco and Santa Cruz. I proposed the idea to Debbie and John and they liked it.

I began developing a play list and practicing with my Level 4 class partner, Jason Arnold, and we found some surprising connections with the music.

What kind of music were you practicing to?

Non-traditional tango music, familiar songs with new instrumentation, pop music sung in English, world music with a habanera beat.

How do you dance to that type of music?

C: You take what you know about tango and something new comes in. It becomes more expressive.

You said you want to make this a comfortable place for beginning tango dancers to experience a milonga. Can you explain?

C: I want to give beginners the opportunity to experience dancing in a social setting, outside of class. So we will have ice-breaking activities to entice them onto the dance floor and encourage them to take some chances. When you go to a fancy milonga you have to keep it simple because of the crowded dance floor. That’s why beginners can come and follow the line of dance using the simpler figures they’ve learned in class.

How are you dividing the time to accommodate both beginners and experienced dancers?

C: We’re starting at 6:30 and the first hour or so will be for the beginners, but I’m encouraging more experienced dancers to come early and dance with the newer dancers. At 8 p.m. we’ll have a 15-minute “live surprise,” but I’m not telling what it is. You’ll have to come find out.

About Christianna

For those who don’t know, Christianna Valentina assists John Campbell teaching Level 1 and 
Level 2 classes on Wednesday nights at Alma del Tango in San Anselmo. 

Christianna Valentina in Tango Dreamscapes, an Alma del Tango student production

Christianna Valentina in Tango Dreamscapes, an Alma del Tango student production

Christie has been studying tango since 2012 and has performed in Alma del Tango student productions including Tango Dreamscapes.  An accomplished pianist and vocalist, she has her own tango ensemble, Lagrimas y Sonrisas (Tears and Smiles) and the group is currently working on a CD. For the last two summers they studied together in a program for tango musicians at Reed College in Portland.

Milonga Valentina will be held on the third Saturday of every month. You are invited to bring snacks and beverages to share. Drop-in price is $15; $20 when we have live music.

This month, the color theme is red. Dress accordingly if you wish.

We look forward to seeing you there!

 

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Saturday Mornings with Luz

Tango Conditioning Class to help you find
your Inner Tanguera/o

Luz Castinerias teaches at Alma del Tango

While Rose Vierling takes time off for maternity leave, we are delighted to welcome Luz Castiñeiras as our guest teacher for Tango Conditioning starting September 30 through March 2018.

Luz moved to the Bay Area from Buenos Aires in 2011. Since then she’s been dancing, performing and teaching at various venues.

Luz brings a unique approach and background to her tango technique classes. She first connected to tango as a music therapist working with cancer patients in Buenos Aires. During that time she collaborated on a 5-year research project that studied tango as therapy.

“I became interested in looking at how tango practice can change lives,” says Luz, “and how it can help you learn to move your body in different ways.”

In addition to tango, Luz has studied ballet and modern dance, and she integrates these forms into her tango practice. In her classes, she creates a friendly, inviting atmosphere and invites feedback from her students which she uses to tailor the class to their needs. 

Tango is a dance to enjoy with someone else but it requires knowing yourself, and knowing what you want from tango.”

Luz’s teaching reflects sensitivity to each dancer in their own journey to express themselves through tango. Students are guided on how to explore boundaries and the challenge of improvising.

Join Luz Castiñeiras for Tango Conditioning on Saturday mornings at 11 a.m. at Alma del Tango, and discover your inner tanguera/o.

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Student of the Month ~ Laura Gish

by Lanny Udell

Tango Student of the Month Laura Gish

Dancing tango since: Laura is celebrating one year of immersing herself in Argentine tango. She had dabbled in classes before but didn’t find them satisfying. Then she met Wade Spital (a regular at Alma del Tango) at a party and he pointed her in the right direction.

Why tango: “I had been interested in Argentine tango for several years,” says Laura. “The essence of it intrigued me.” She loved the theatrical expression of tango, and the romanticism. “When I saw it performed I said, oh, I want to do that.”

Back story: As a child, Laura felt shut out from artistic expression, discouraged by her mother who was a performer. To deal with her feelings, she turned to horses. “They were my stability, they taught me everything,” she says. She bought her own horse when she was 11 years old. Shoeing horses became Laura’s passion. If she couldn’t dance, she’d do, what was for her, the next best thing.

Favorite part: “Learning tango has been an interesting journey. I’ve always picked things up quickly but tango stopped me in my tracks,” admits Laura. When she found that she had chosen the most challenging dance, she realized that she had to live in the moment. “It put me in touch with my emotional side and I accepted that I’m on a lifelong journey.”

Lady’s Tango Week in Buenos Aires

Student of the Month Laura and Veronica take a selfie

Laura and Veronica ready for the milonga

Unexpectedly, the trip brought up a lot of emotional issues for Laura–it was a very expensive therapy session, she says. At first she wanted to flee, but she stayed and pushed through her fears. “It was a big shift for me,” says the tanguera. “When I came back I felt I had the strength to be in my own shoes.”

Laura with Barbara Henry at Lady’s Tango Week


About Debbie & John:

When I started coming to Alma del Tango, I felt at home. I felt that this is the soul of tango and it’s where I want to be.

With Debbie and John, you don’t feel that it begins and ends with them,” Laura explains. “They’ve built a community and it’s very comfortable.” In addition to the Wednesday night classes, Laura has taken some privates with John. “That’s helped boost me,” she says.

Last word: “Now I feel like I’m at the beginning. I have no expectations. I’ve arrived at a place where I can let it flow without a preconceived notion of what I should be doing. Now I’m just going to enjoy myself.”

Alma del Tango student Laura Gish and her dog Stewart

Laura and her pal Stewart at Alma del Tango

Alma del Tango student Laura Gish

Laura and taxi dancer in BsAs

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Tango Con*Fusión premieres Sex, Women & Tango at SFIAF, May 26-28

Tango Con*Fusion dancers

Tango Con*Fusion, the all women dance company, challenges the iconic images of gender roles in Argentine Tango in this boundary-breaking dance production. Directed by Debbie Goodwin, and choreographed by Debbie & cast members, the show will be presented at the San Francisco International Arts Festival at the Southside Theater in Fort Mason.

Should feminists dance tango? That’s just one of the provocative questions this exciting dance production  seeks to answer.

The mere mention of Argentine Tango conjures up the iconic image of the macho-male and hyper-feminine woman of Argentine Tango. Yet many feminists dance Tango socially and professionally. How can this be reconciled?

Sex, Women & Tango explores this issue and more, such as body image, street harassment (the piropo, or cat call), same-sex couples and social and economic equality.

Says Goodwin:

Debbie Goodwin, director/choreographer of Sex, Women & Tango

Debbie Goodwin, director

“Because of the current political climate and the objectifying
attitude toward women, Tango*Confusión is delving deeper into women’s issues. Being an all-woman dance company, I felt we needed to make our voices heard, to create something in this art form where we can bring these subjects up.”

Meet the cast of Sex, Women & Tango

The Tango Con*Fusión dancers include Mira Barakat, Christy Cote, Michele Richards, Mila Salazar, Rose Vierling, Pier Voulkos and Jasmine Worrell.

Guest artist Marcelo Molina

Also featured are International artist, Marcelo Molina of Buenos Aires, Argentina;  Jonas Aquino, Daniel Peters and Casey Young.

Scott O’Day is featured on guitar.

 Joining Debbie Goodwin on the Creative Team are Daniel Peters and Pier Voulkos

Order tickets now !

Performances are Friday, May 26, 9:30 pm; Saturday, May 27, 7 pm; Sunday May 28, 5:30 pm.

General Admission $25; Children under 18 $12.50 (PG – not suitable for young children)
Box office: www.sfiaf.org/tango_con_fusion
Southside Theater, Fort Mason Center
Phone: 415-399-9554

Sex, Women & Tango is sponsored by Alma del Tango

For more information: tangoconfusion.com 

 

 

 

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New at Alma del Tango – Essentrics® Stretch and Tone Classes

Taught by Jasmine Worrell

Are tight muscles messing up your molinete? Does lower back pain put “ouch” in your ochos?  

Then come stretch, strengthen and find relief at Alma del Tango’s Essentrics® Stretch and Tone class every Tuesday and Thursday from 4:30-5:30 p.m.  Jasmine Worrell, an Essentrics apprentice instructor, will gently guide you through a series of exercises designed to prevent and relieve pain. Jasmine is also Alma del Tango’s Swing Dance teacher and a member of Tango Con*Fusión Dance Company.

Apprentice instructor Jasmine Worrell demonstrates an Essentrics stretch

Apprentice instructor Jasmine Worrell demonstrates an Essentrics stretch.

 

What is Essentrics?

Essentrics is a full body workout that rapidly changes the shape of your body through a dynamic combination of strengthening and stretching. These exercises develop lean, strong, flexible muscles, and you’ll quickly notice changes in your posture.

“This style of stretch is flowing, not static,” says Jasmine, “and it’s not aerobic; it’s much calmer. It feels good as you’re releasing tension.” No equipment is used in the class, except for a mat (bring your own), and a diverse playlist accompanies each routine.

After experiencing debilitating shoulder and arm pain a few years back, and getting no relief from traditional medical intervention, Debbie Goodwin came across this program and wanted to offer it to her students and others. She says:

“Essentrics fits in beautifully with the dance classes we offer at Alma Del Tango. It has given me relief from my pain and has helped create a stronger and more flexible body that allows me to manage my strenuous schedule of dancing and teaching.”

Not for dancers only

Essentrics is ideal for all fitness levels. Whether you’re a tango dancer or not, you’ll benefit from the exercises that rebalance the body, prevent and treat injuries, and unlock tight joints.

 “I love all things stretchy,” says Jasmine. “In tango, things get tight—women are in heels, muscles and joints are challenged. Exercises that loosen up your hips and increase flexibility will make you a better dancer.”

Learn more about our Essentrics class

 

 

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