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Horacio Ferrer: The Essence of Tango, Part One

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Horacio Ferrer is to contemporary tango what Ira Gershwin is to Tin Pan Alley – and maybe more.

He is a recognized poet, a tango lyricist of formidable talent, and a noted historian — of promethean output — of Argentine tango music and dance. His best-known lyrics are those for “Chiquilín de Bachín,” which was composed by Astor Piazzolla. It is an instantly recognizable tango waltz, a true modern classic. Horacio wrote the lyrics to a number of other Piazzolla tangos, as well as the libretto to Piazzolla’s truly unique opera María de Buenos Aires. The two men were very close friends.

I had the pleasure of seeing María de Buenos Aires a few years ago in Berkeley, California, and joining in on the long, standing ovation at the end. The musical ensemble of bandoneón, strings, percussion, and singers was led by Gidon Kremer, the renowned Latvian concert violinist who is also a devoted Piazzolla fan. The spoken portion of the opera, which is a very important element of it, was handled by Horacio himself.

I met with him the day before the performance. He is a smallish man with a well-trimmed moustache and goatee. He was dressed in a well-ironed white shirt buttoned to the throat, a smoothly pressed white wool scarf, a navy-blue blazer, and black slacks. A small red rose flourished from his lapel.

When you meet him, the first thing you notice about Horacio is his voice, which has the depth and color of that of a very fine actor.

Horacio: (arranging the scarf about his neck) My voice has tightened up so much, Terry, that it sounds like a double base, when really it’s more like a violin-cello. (Laughter)

Terry: I’m here today with Horacio Ferrer, the most famous man in the world – the world of the tango, that is, and I have a half-dozen questions that I’d like to ask you.

Horacio: (Laughter) To which I’d very much like to respond.

Terry: I think it’s not very usual to find a popular music tradition that attracts lyricists of such high quality as the tango has attracted, poets like Discépolo, Manzí, Borges, Blázques, Espósito, and yourself. Why in your opinion has the tango brought in poets of such quality?

Horacio: At the very center of the question, the “why” of the tango’s being so attractive to poets is, I think, the fact that the tango is itself entirely poetic. The music is poetic, the dance is poetic, the singing is poetic, and the world from which the tango evolves is poetic. It’s the world of the night, it’s the bohemian world where money has little importance, and to be sure where love has a great deal of importance, triumphant love or destroyed love, the affections, distant affection, a love of looking back through space and time.

So they’re all colors taken from the poetic palette. And besides, the tango is one of the few song-forms in this century that undertakes not only a lyric excursion but a reflective one as well. The tango thinks. The tango thinks about the truth without claiming to modify it. It simply meditates upon it, which is also part of poetry.

Terry: Here in the United States some of us sometimes feel a little sequestered in the past when it comes to the tango, especially in the milongas (dance parties) where the kind of music they play is always from the thirties, forties or fifties. It’s the same in Buenos Aires.

Horacio: Yes, it’s the same.

Terry: Frequently the music of more modern composers like Piazzolla and the others doesn’t get the respect it deserves. Can you help us with your opinion of contemporary tango, especially the reason that no one dances, or wishes to dance, to the more modern tango tempos?

Horacio: There has existed a dance tradition in the tango from the very beginning of the tango itself, that has gone through diverse stages, but that has always been quite attached to the kind of ambiance from which it originally came. So that the dance did not accompany the great poetic and musical evolution of the tango, and it has now been seized upon, instead of by milongueros (traditional tango dancers), rather by dancers of classic and modern ballet. Because the evolution of the music and the lyrics cannot be left to go without the dance.

Besides, it’s very good to dance to. Every milonguero chooses his own music and type of tango. That’s no sin, but it would be a sin were the more modern kind of music to go on without the dance.

Piazzolla is marvelous for dancing, because besides his being a musician of many tempos (he very much liked tempo), he changed the internal metronome of the tango itself. Piazzolla liked his singers to be musicians capable of many tempos as well, in as much as it’s rhythmically a very rich music and should be danced to.

So, yes, the dance has been taken over — at least on stage — by classic modern ballet dancers instead of by milongueros, and they’ve achieved marvelous things, like the work of Miguel Zotto and Milena Krebs, who’s a veritable creation herself, no? Also some of the work that el maestro Juan Carlos Copes has done, as well as other dancers who aren’t tangueros, but who, like this chica from Tango Kinesis, Ana María Stekelman, who’s been so passionate about the tango without being part of the tango world itself. Because the tango has always profited from people, talents, and situations that don’t belong to the tango.

For instance the tango has stolen some of rock’s instruments: the electric guitar, the electric keyboard, the drum set. The tango’s always been a bit of a thief, in that it enriches itself without losing its virtue, and that’s what happens in the case of the dance as well.

Terry: You write in your book, The Golden Age of Tango, about the influence of rock music.

Horacio: Yes. Litto Nebbia, for instance. Fito Paez.

Terry: That’s right, and maybe you could give me a…

Horacio: Fundamentally, all cultures contain vessels that communicate with each other. And sometimes cultures clash with each other. And in the case of rock music, a true clash took place in 1960 or so, with such extraordinary talents as The Beatles and the Rolling Stones, to be sure, and others. But in Buenos Aires, with so defined a personality, everything porteño, with its tango, its night, its bohemian ways, it was a clash that afterwards took on distinct consequences.

Since the kids who were doing the rock music were living in the same places, the same city, the same night, with the same incitements as the tangueros, they started imitating the tangueros. And they began to find out that that art with which they had had such a run-in was worthy of respect. And they started, given their abilities, because not all of them were good musicians or very good singers, and the tango is musically schooled while rock music is not.

Terry: Quite the contrary.

Horacio: And they started talking, to figure out the harmonies the tango had, the tango’s counterpoint, its poly-rhythms, the tango poetic, and the singers – they began to like all that. And since they belonged in the same starry enclave, eh?, in the same night and the same pizza parlors and the same little black holes-in-the-wall and the same bars, they started going around with the tangueros. And I think they’re much better off for it, because it’s made them more human and made them much more of their own place and, therefore, more universal.

Terry: Here in the United States we’re having a similar kind of time. Some of the rock musicians are very interested now in Tony Bennett’s music, for instance, or the music of Sinatra.

Horacio: Sure.

Terry: He’s a great master.

Horacio: Of course. Marvelous.

Terry: And there’s a mix of the two kinds of music. For instance there are clubs in San Francisco, a lot of clubs, that are, well, we call them “lounges.” And a “lounge” is a club where they play Frank’s music and that of the jazz singers of the forties and fifties. And that’s, well, a bit of a problem for me (laughter) because I remember the original epoch, the first time around, when I was…my father was a fan.

Horacio: To be sure. To be sure. Sinatra was a real source.

Terry: Sure, but it seems to me that to be twenty-years-old, like the kids are now, and to sit around in a “lounge” getting wrapped up in such sweet, bland, prehistoric music as that is the opposite of experimentation, where I think they should be. (Pause) But that’s another story.

Horacio: Okay. Shall we talk about señor Piazzolla?

Terry: Yes. When he was a young man, he was in the United States, in New York.

Horacio: Yes, he was there a long, long time. We went to New York.

Terry: Do you know that in English he had a Lower East Side accent? I heard him speaking on the radio, and his accent is quite strange, especially when you consider that he’s Argentine. Can you give us some comments about the elements of North American music, especially jazz, in Piazzolla’s music?

Horacio: I think that really there are not too many jazz elements in Piazzolla’s music. They’re there, but they’re not central. I think that Piazzolla’s idea — well, maybe he attained something different from what he proposed — I think he was very essentially a tanguista, playing the bandoneón. That instrument is very specific to the tango.

Other things can be played on the bandoneón, like Bach’s music, but the bandoneón is the very face of the tango, and he played the bandoneón. Besides he came from a race of tanguistas, because he played in Anibal Troilo’s orchestra, who was a great innovator, and he was an admirer of Osvaldo Pugliese and De Caro, who had been the greatest of previous innovators. So that he was very involved, and all the elements of Piazzolla’s music are of the tango.

What happens is that, in the harmonic and contrapuntal parts of his music, he finds things from other musical springs, like jazz, also from European classical music, with which he garnishes the dish. But the beef, the churrasco, is from Buenos Aires. The accompaniment, the decoration is from others, because, besides, he liked differentiating himself from the tangueros because he was different.

I believe he changed the very scale of the tango. And by changing the scale I mean that, before, in the western tradition, there was the 78-rpm record that could hold six or seven phrases of sixteen measures each. He extended that. And he is always passionate in whatever he does, in the beginning, the middle and the end, and so, that way, there are works that last six or eight minutes.

So he changed the scale of the tango, and always with the same depth of feeling. Because there are musicians that have a kind of elastic that is red in color, but when they stretch it, it gets pink. Not him. He’s always red, what he does is always intense, it’s always very human and very profound in its poetic musical discourse.

Terry: You come from Montevideo, don’t you?

Horacio: I was born in Montevideo. I could have been born in Montevideo or Buenos Aires, which in reality are the same city.

Terry: But are there different musical elements in the tango montevideano?

Horacio: No, no. The school is porteño (i.e. from Buenos Aires). The school of the tango is porteño. What we do have in Montevideo is more black people. They’ve disappeared from Buenos Aires – in total, in all of Argentina now there remain only three thousand black families.

So in Montevideo, there’s a lot of candombe and a lot of milonga. Because the milonga is Black. The tango has nothing of the Blacks in it; the milonga is totally Black. It contains the essence of the Blacks. And so Montevideo is more milonguera and more candombera than it is tanguera. But one doesn’t know, in the end, which city is more or less tanguera, because the fact is it’s the same cultural region, the same substance of customs and habits, with small differences.

Terry: I want to ask about Chiquilín de Bachín (The Kid from the Bachín).

Horacio: Yes, yes. Why not?

Terry: It’s one of my favorite tangos, especially in terms of the poetry of the lyrics. For me, the vision of this kid looking through the window of the “boliche” (cafe/bar)…he’s probably thirsty, well, hungry – he’s very poor, probably.

Horacio: Yes, yes, he’s very poor.

Terry: And the idea of his poverty, and the riches of the people on the other side of the windowpane, that’s like a transparent barrier, and the difference between them…

Horacio: Right, right, the street simply continues being cruel, while through the windowpane inside everything is much more hospitable and affectionate, and there’s a lot more food.

Terry: It’s a poem in its own right, isn’t it?

Horacio: No. It’s written to the music, eh? I wrote it to Piazzolla’s music. When he passed it by me, la-la-la la-la-la (Horacio sings a few notes of the melody), I said to him…he says, “Do you like it?” And I said, “It’s lovely!” And I said to him, “But what does it mean to suggest? Because I’ll write something from the inside of your feelings, from inside what you’re thinking.” He said to me, “It sounds to me like a children’s round.”

From that, the idea occurred to me of this little kid selling flowers (whom I still know now. He’s so much older now. He’s forty. He was eight then.) And that’s why I wrote those lyrics, no? Because of Piazzolla’s idea that this was a children’s round, and because of what happened in that Bachín cantina to which Piazzolla and I used to go to eat, into which all those characters of the night would come, no?

(Part Two)

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About Terence Clarke