Tango is not only a fascinating dance but also a fascinating philosophy, culture and lifestyle. The search of tango is the search of connection, love, unity, beauty, harmony and humanity, i.e., an idealism that is not consistent with the dehumanizing reality of the modern world. The world divides us as individuals, but tango unites us as a community and people. In tango we are not individualists, feminists, nationalists, liberals, conservatives, Democrats, Republicans, etc., but interconnected and interdependent members of the human family. Tango calls us to tear down the walls, to build bridges, and to regain humanity through connection, cooperation, reconciliation and compromise. It is a dance that teaches the world to love.

October 13, 2011

Masculinity & Femininity in Tango and Other Music, by Prebenantonsen

Recently my love for Tango music was rekindled when I played piano in a band for an informal dance during intermission at a San Francisco Symphony concert. Here are some gorgeous songs to give an example:

Bahia Blanca
A la Gran Muneca

Part of what makes Tango magical for me is the juxtaposition of opposite moods. The music must be easy to dance to, so the rhythm is brutally crisp, forceful and rigid - but the melodies are fluid, rich and impetuously unrestrained. Sometimes these moods alternate, but usually they’re simultaneous. These opposite forces keep each other in check: whenever the melody tumbles into wailing passion, the rhythm seems to say “Stop feeling sorry for yourself, everyone has problems,” and when the rhythm gets locked into a pounding rut, the melody says “Hey, cheer up, look at that pretty lady over there.”

Given that Tango is a sexual dance between a man and a woman (traditionally), I realized that these two moods might represent masculinity and femininity. Viewed this way, the music mirrors the dance quite literally. Every note or phrase is played with a “masculine” affect - short and steady - or a “feminine” affect - improvisatory and emotional.

On the way to one of these Tango rehearsals, I listened to Save the Last Trance for Me by Paul Oakenfold. Trance may not be so fashionable anymore, but this is a serious fucking anthem. Anyway, I was reminded of Tango, because the beat is incredibly strong and raw - almost industrial, if you listen to only the first few bars. Every drum has unflinching impact. It sounds definitively masculine. But once you get to the meat of the song - the melody, the strings, the pastoral flute floating above - it’s just the opposite - supple, fluid, expressing blissful submission. Feminine, if you will. The two forces coexisting throughout give it an incredible feeling. If the drums were weaker, it would sound like sentimental mush; if the strings and melody were gone, there would be no warmth or feeling.

I started to feel kind of sexist using 1950s gender roles to describe music. I thought of that awkwardly antiquated view of Sonata-Allegro form, where the first theme is dominant and masculine, and the second theme is gentle and feminine. Obviously there are plenty of people and sonatas that invert the stereotypes, making that analysis offensive and stupid.

But I realized it illuminates a deeper truth: effective music often works to unite opposing emotions or states. You don’t need the gender descriptions. Sonata form dominated Western music for a long time - it must have been doing something right. I think the secret might be the pair of emotionally opposite themes, forced to intertwine and respond to each other. One of music’s strengths is its ability to evoke multiple emotions at once. I’m willing to bet that if right now, you tried to describe your favorite music ever - the stuff that puts you over the edge every time - you’d be contradicting yourself a lot. Majestic yet intimate, tragic yet uplifting, sweet but threatening, discomforting yet satisfying.

It’s a challenge to create music that evokes multiple emotions at once, because you can’t indulge your passionate impulses too much. You have to maintain a distant perspective on how the parts of the music interact, and restrain and balance everything appropriately. It’s counterintuitive that the most passionate, moving music is often created with a certain amount of detachment.


October 9, 2011

The Signature of Tango

Music plays a critical role in tango. Lousy, unfamiliar, outlandish or non-tango songs never produced a beautiful tango. Well-performed tangos are all danced to excellent classic tango music, which is an inspiration indispensable for bringing the dancers’ skills into full play. Good classic tango music excites the dancers, stirs up their emotions, lifts their spirit, kindles their creativity, generates synergism, and leads to what the Argentinians called duende, an elated state in which the dancers perform exceptionally well. Without good music, there is little scope for even a master’s abilities.

There are tens of thousands of tango songs available on the market. Only a fraction of which are good, danceable songs and the majorities are either mediocre in quality or for listening and not dancing. The CD makers understand their business. If they place all good, danceable songs in one basket nobody will buy the rest, so they mix the good and the junk together. In a CD of twenty songs, perhaps only one or two are good, danceable songs and the rest are junks. The Argentinians know their music. They buy a CD for that one or two good songs and discard the rest. American tourists, on the contrary, buy a CD and play them all. Our rather bad collection habit and bizarre taste keep haunting us. We collect junk songs just like we collect kitchen tools and fancy steps. Worse still, we show favoritism to eccentric and rare junks such as exotic, non-tango and alternative music.

Experts all agree that familiarity with the music is essential to an exuberant tango experience. The Argentinians only play the best and well-known classic tango music in their milongas. They don’t even play rare and unfamiliar tango songs, still less outlandish and alternative music. Playing such music does a disservice to tango. It is weird. It lacks the richness and depth of the classic tango music. It cannot bring the dancer's skills into play. It changes tango to a hybrid dance that caters to the low taste. It repels the seasoned dancers who in Argentina are treated with respect, free or discount admission, best seats and their favorite classic tango music, because they are the mainstay of the milongas.

Classic tango music is the signature of tango. It is created and developed with tango and for tango. People recognize it and associate it with the dance when they hear it. There is a sentimental attachment between the two. In fact, tango dance and classic tango music are two aspects of one thing called Argentine tango, inseparable as body and soul. The fact that tango can be danced to other musics doesn’t mean it can remain intact when so danced. One may dance tango to the music of Beijing opera, but that will not be tango. Alternative music from different cultural background does not have the same rhythmic structure and sentimental richness of the classic tango music, which is passionate, multi-layered, manifold, changeful, sentimental and moody, allowing the dancers to interpret and improvise. (See The Characteristics of Classic Tango.) Any music sharing the same rhythmic structure and sentimental richness will be recognized as tango and not alternative music. By definition, alternative music is the music that lacks the structural and sentimental depth of tango, and therefore is not the best music for tango dancing. It only appeals to novices deficient in good taste or weird dudes seeking novelty, and those who choose to pander to their taste in order to make money.

Those who love tango more than money, on the other hand, can do one thing for tango. A three-hour milonga only contains 15 tondas or 60 songs. If we meticulously select 600 best classic tango songs and play them repeatedly in our milongas like the Argentinians do in the milongas of Buenos Aires, we will change our tango culture and raise the level of our dance in more ways than we can imagine. After all, tango is intimately related to its music. The better the music, the better the dance, the better the milonga, the better the community, and the better we all will be. (See My Two Cents on Music Selections.)