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The Great Cafés: Confitería Ideal, Buenos Aires

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The kids are dancing tango again in Buenos Aires, fueled by new styles of tango music that are laced with hip-hop elements, jazz riffs, rhythm and blues licks, and suggestions and samples of rock and roll. You still encounter some younger people in this city that feign a lack of interest, who say that tango is the music of their grandparents and parents. That is so, but one of the glories of Argentine tango, besides the history that it embodies, is its elasticity and its ability to accept and be broadened by so many new musical elements.

Tango is, after all, a child of the great immigrations to Argentina and Uruguay from everywhere in the world. Describing the early 20th century, the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano writes that “tango had been born in the corrals at the city’s edge and in tenement courtyards. It came from gaucho tunes of the interior and came from the sea, the chanteys of sailors. It came from the slaves of Africa and the gypsies of Andalusia. Spain contributed its guitar, Germany its bandoneon, Italy its mandolin.

“The driver of the horse-drawn streetcar contributed his trumpet, the immigrant worker his harmonica, comrade of lonely moments. With hesitant step, tango spanned barracks and dives, the midways of traveling circuses and the patios of slum brothels. Organ grinders paraded it through shore streets on the outskirts of Buenos Aires and Montevideo, heading downtown; and ships took it away, where it drove Paris wild.” In this last bit he’s referring to the introduction of tango to the French prior to World War I, who then took it so excitedly to the world.

All those people who had gone to — or, in the case of black people, had been taken to — South America had brought their various kinds of music with them, and the result of all those rhythms and chords, instruments, ethnicities, cultures, and sounds was a fine musical madness, from the moil of which tango came bubbling to the surface. It was that most wonderful of cultural events, a bastardization from innumerable parents, a burst of musical languages and unusual couplings from which sprung a single, yet endlessly complicated, gorgeous flower.

Tango.

So it comes as no surprise that innovation, as always, is still changing tango.

The Confitería Ideal, at Suipacha 380 in Buenos Aires, is a grand barn of a place, musty and quite run-down. It is the epitome of the notion of a fine, aristocratic old swell who has squandered his fortune and come on hard times. Yet there was a time, in 1912, when it was considered the very cutting edge of Parisian splendor. Founded by don Manuel Rosendo Fernandez on the suggestion of his wife, who was French, it was a tearoom originally, and its clientele were among the most favored that Buenos Aires had to offer.

On two floors, it was one of the largest such establishments in the city, and was famous for the airy aristocratic beauty of its high ceilings, marble columns, grand chandeliers, and other belle époque accoutrements. If you were anybody in Buenos Aires in those years, you felt you had to go to the Ideal. Only the best sort went there, and you’d slide right off the register if you didn’t pay a regular visit.

Today, the echoes of those times reverberate in the Ideal. The times themselves are gone, of course, swept away by world wars, the political conflicts that make Argentine history in the twentieth century so remarkable and dismaying, and the sweep of a contemporary culture that foolishly feels that it has little time for contemplation of the past.

Of all things, the Confitería is now famous for tango. The dance that came from the poor and the immigrants, that is still disdained by the moneyed sort in Buenos Aires as lower class and beneath their notice, is the very reason for going to this place.

Almost every day of the week, dancers gather at the Ideal, starting in the afternoon and going on into the early morning, to do tango. The music is usually recorded and often memorable, although some of the disk jockeys, like many of their colleagues around the world, are stuck in the nineteen thirties and forties. That aside, the opportunity to dance here – or, if you don’t know tango, to watch here — is not to be missed.

The swirl of the dance around the pitted marble floor, the gleaming chandeliers above that nonetheless appear to be covered with a patina of old cigarette smoke and dust, the enormous brown-red columns that create a kind of serpentine course for the dancers themselves – all these witnesses from a century ago make you want to dance well and properly. The essence of the sensuous, dancing tango at the Confitería Ideal should be a goal for everyone sometime in his or her life.

Best of all is that a very respectable percentage of the dancers here are quite young. They may dance differently from the older crowd and they may appear insouciant or unusually dressed, but they realize that whatever innovations they may someday bring to the dance –- and those innovations are welcome –- they are learning what they need to learn about it here at this marvelous place. The obvious respect with which they dance in the Confitería Ideal enables their innovations to mean something in the complicated and lovely history of Argentine tango.

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About Terence Clarke

  • http://tangocherie.blogspot.com/ Cherie Magnus

    Very nice article!
    I too have written a lot about La Ideal.
    But now that I live here in Buenos Aires (since 2004) and dance and teach tango with my Argentine partner, I have to say that rarely do any good dancers go to La Ideal. It more or less has turned into a tourist trap, which is not necessarily a bad thing.
    And the heart and soul of tango are those old orchestras from the ‘golden age of tango,” the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s.
    When those young people get tired of kicking between their partners legs and jumping onto their knees to electronic music, they will return to the close embrace and the profound and moving music of the traditional orchestras.

  • http://www.redroom.com Terence Clarke

    Hello Cherie:

    Thank you. I agree. The close embrace is the essence of the dance, and the innovations these days that I admire are those that recognize the long, sensuous traditions of tango.

    I hope you’ll take a look at another BC article I did last September, about Gustavo Naveira.

    Best,
    Terry Clarke