Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Abuelas (grandmothers)

The last time I said anything about a specific milonga was a month ago, about Sunderland. In the dozen or so milongas I've been to since then, there have been a lot of wonderful moments, perfect to intensely good dances, fascinating social happenings to observe. But nothing I felt like mentioning here. My plan had been to never talk about tango in a way that someone could say, "Hey, that was me he's writing about." But there were two things about last night's milonga in San Telmo that I feel like mentioning.

One was the music. The setup to this milonga is a somewhat common one based on a successful formula: class at 9, practica at 10, milonga at 11. This formula is golden, because tango is first and foremost here a tourist industry, and coming off the plane and into a milonga (tango dance event) to cast one's eyes hither to a local tango girl would just be just too damn scary for the average man and would leave too many foreign girls dying on the sidelines. So it's about networking: meet some friends, suss out their level, get a table with them, dance with them. No matter what else the night offers, you're going to dance instead of suffer (it's one or the other).

So during the class portion, where they sort of fake their way through teaching to all levels from rank beginner to seasoned tango hustler--er, pro, you make your personal connections. You meet some people you might dance with that night. Then during the practica portion, you cement those relationships while ostensibly practicing some tango moves. If all goes well your table ends up a dozen large instead of maybe you and a friend or you yourself. If you're a man you can dance with all the women at the table, and then with their friends who arrive and join the table later. If you're a woman, same deal.

What was cool about this place, though, is that there's an hour and a half of live music between the practica portion and the milonga (dancing) portion, and this live music was KILLER. I was expecting a band of at least four guys, but two came out. A bandoneon and a guitar. And they were amazing. People at my table were saying, "Last week it was more guys, but these two guys are incredible." Turns out they were the warm up act.

Back in my town one of the reasons I did not take tango classes is because the classes are on the same night and at the same time as the one night a week when a live tango band plays at the local Argentine resto. This was the strangest arrangement imaginable and there was zero question but that I'd rather listen to live tango than take classes in a rec center. I LOVE LOVE LOVE live tango music! And at home I am blown away by a band consisting of one violin, one stand-up bass, and one bandoneon.

So when the entire El Orchestra Tipica Afronte came out onto the stage, my eyes got huge and the words "Oh my gosh!" went through my brain. FOUR BANDONEONS in the front row, backed by three violins, then a cello on one side, stand-up bass on the other, and a piano.

I had never heard anything this powerful, and I've seen the Stones, AC/DC, Metallica, and Van Halen. Tango music hits the first and third beat of the bar pretty hard, because these are the main beats you step on, but these guys CRUSHED the third beat! The whole place actually shuddered. And they did some crazy stuff musically: middle-eastern scales, swing rhythms, insane trade-offs of bandoneon solos รก la J, P, and G on "The End" on Abbey Road. And all with a strong "What Lola Wants" vibe.

So I was sitting there in the dark watching this band, feeling really moved by the unusual beauty of it all, when thirty minutes into it this tall handsome young dude walks on stage from stage-left. Blue jeans, tight black t-shirt, black boots, black knit cap pulled down to near his eyes, typically unshaven, and he walks up to the mic stand and takes the mic and I'm thinking, "No way." And the next half hour is just amazing and it's like there's Jim Morrison up there singing some of the most beautiful tango I've ever heard with the craziest tango band I could ever imagine--staffed by intense young ragged-looking "San Telmo types." As soon as that guy started singing I was on the floor in a second with the nearest girl I could grab. It was totally bitchen.


Couple hours later during that time that always comes when a lot of the table sort of kicks back and takes a break and has a beer or wine or water and talks about the tango life in BA and life in general, I hear someone say, "Look: two abuelas," meaning grandmothers.

I scan the floor filled with mostly 20-to-40 types, and there they are, these two easily-eighty little white haired "abuelas" dancing together; super clearly one of them is the "butch" and the other the "femme." The leader did not just appear to be a woman who can lead, but someone who had strong masculine energy and even at 82 had a less feminine face and less curvy body than her partner. Though they were both 4-foot-8 or so, the leader was bigger and more powerful and had this bull-like way of leading her woman that you see in the "old-time tangueros." Very dynamic, muscular, full-body leading with complex rhythmic variations, moving her partner's body with the power of her own energy. There was no doubt that these women had been together for forty or fifty years, tangoing for most of it. You had to look at them with respect for the quality of their tango; yet the real admiration--and I'm sorry to have to say something so corny, but it's the truth so what can I do?--was that you could look at these two people and more than anyone else in the joint, just based on their chemistry, the way the two of them moved and held each other, you could say about them, "Those two are in love."

Edit: I have posted two youtube videos I took at Maldita Milonga the following week:


aiiiydios said...

I think this is the most beautiful thing I have read in a very long time. And I am serious. Zow....

b said...

aiii - Thank you!

BA is a gnarly-shelled oyster...

tangobaby said...

I am in total agreement with aiiiydios. That is exactly what I was going to say.

Beautiful post. Just wonderful.

b said...

Thanks a lot, you guys. I am stoked I was able to share a little bit of the feeling of what it was like to be there.

Sly said...

A very cool and moving post, B. Really enjoyed reading it. Smiles, Sly :-)

b said...

Thanks a lot, Sly. Did you ever dance at Maldita on Wednesday, or Tango Queer at the same place on Tuesdays? I like that location a lot.