When we hear the term “dance music” today, many of us tend to think of formulaic, repetitive, and often almost interchangeable songs and beats. But from a historical perspective, that stereotype does little more than give dance music a bad name. Since time immemorial, dance forms have nourished countless strains of music the world over, from the lightest of pop to the densest of art music. Chopin never expected anyone to dance to his “Minute Waltz” or “Polonaise Héroïque,” and how many of the minuets and bourrées written by old master composers like J.S. Bach were meant for the dance hall? And while you certainly could dance to Duke Ellington’s swing compositions, they are valued today as important works in the jazz canon.
The best known example of the evolution of dance music into art in more recent times was probably Ástor Piazzolla’s 20th-century transformation of the tango of his native Argentina into a huge body of serious work that fused classical, jazz, and other modes into an organic whole – music that remains unflaggingly popular to this day. In fact, tango in general remains an object of international fascination.
What makes tango so popular and so ripe for transubstantiation? Surely it’s the sensuality of the dancing and of the music behind it, but it’s also the depth and complexity of the emotional landscape the music can paint. In any case, top-echelon musicians from classical and crossover luminaries like Yo-Yo Ma, Gidon Kremer, and Lara St. John to modernist stalwarts the Kronos Quartet and jazz vibraphonist Gary Burton have found inspiration in the tango through Piazzolla’s lens.
Proving the point in the new century is Gustavo Santaolalla with Presente, the new album from his Argentine-Uruguayan band Bajofondo. Out March 5 on Sony Masterworks, Presente gently breaks new ground while retaining a friendly pop-music appeal. If you must pin a genre on it, the tangled term trumpeted in the album’s promotional materials is probably as good as any: “alt-electrorock-tango.” Put that in your pipa and smoke it.
“Pide Piso” video from the new Bajofondo album “Presente”
Originally called Bajofondo Tango Club, the group takes us on an exotic, danceable journey through an encyclopedia of progressive tango-inspired music that mushrooms from the first dissonant guitar note of the solemn “Intro” into a broad tapestry of textures and beats. Many of these 21 tracks would be at home at a dance party just about anywhere in the world. Yet Bajofondo has what you might call an “academic” pedigree too – previously, Santaolalla, who is both band leader and co-producer, won two Academy Awards for Best Original Score, for Brokeback Mountain in 2006 and Babel in 2007, beating out, incidentally, both John Williams and Phillip Glass. Santaolalla has also won a Golden Globe, two BAFTAs, two Grammys, and 12 Latin Grammys.
photo by Picky Talarico
But as you can see from the photo, Bajofondo is anything but one man’s baby. Co-produced by guitarist Juan Campodónico, the disc features not only the band’s core instrumentation (rhythm section, guitar, piano, violin, and of course – it’s tango, after all – bandoneón), but a 21-piece string section, woodwinds, and brass.
At the other end of the scale, it includes the band’s first a capella track, “Oigo Voces,” with all parts sung by Santaolalla himself inspired by groups from the Beach Boys to Buenos Aires 8. Several other tracks feature vocals by different band members, including drummer Adrián Sosa growling through the taut “Cuesta arriba.” Still, the fundamentals of this ever-evolving musical form remain instrumental. The band’s debut album a decade ago, Bajofondo Tango Club, included some vocals too, but the Latin Grammy it won was for Best Pop Instrumental.
Fast forward to 2013, and Presente is, in the words of Santaolalla, “a trip that takes you from the most magical to the most epic urban moments.” Into its second decade, Bajofondo seems on the verge of another epic moment of its own.