Buenos Aires’ annual tango festival kicked off on the 14th August. More than 2,000 artists will perform in over 2,000 shows at venues across the city, drawing international tango-hungry crowds to the capital city. Organisers claim the festival will preserve traditional tango culture while bringing together emerging artists and international stars. However many are concerned that the festival focuses too much on tourism and international prestige at the expense of respect for the roots of Buenos Aires tango.
According to many traditional tangueros, older forms of the dance are under threat due to increased demand for the more flamboyant styles often favoured by tourists. While tourism is responsible for enormous investment in tango culture, many are worried that it also presents a threat to the integrity and long-term survival of authentic ‘tango culture’.
BA Tango: A Crowd-Pleaser
This year’s packed agenda of milongas, workshops, and concerts began on the 14th August and will end with the Mundial de Baile2012 two weeks later. Last year’s festival attracted 400,000 people and this year’s could bring an even bigger crowd.
Tourism is a defining feature of this festival and has been key to cultural policy in Buenos Aires ever since the ministries of culture, sport and tourism were combined in 2001. The Ministry of Culture today claims its role is to “project Buenos Aires into the international sphere of production and exportation of culture”. Culture Minister Hernán Lombardi is well placed to pursue this agenda, having served as secretary of tourism for the city in 1999 before leading both the Ministry of Culture and the City’s Tourism Agency between 2007 and 2011.
At a press release for the launch of Tango BA Lombardi called the event “the horizon of a new cultural geography in which the south has a privileged point of development and expansion in terms of creativity and the arts.”
Tango is an international business in Buenos Aires. However the relationship between tango and tourism is a difficult one, and critics accuse the city government of trying too hard to please transient visitors instead of investing in more projects to nourish tango culture within the city.
Traditional Tango: Everywhere and Nowhere
One such critic is Cherie Magnus, a 2006 finalist in the Tango World Cup who now teaches traditional milonguero tango with her partner, Rubén. Milonguero tango is the traditional form of the dance, partly inherited from Argentine gaucho culture. It centres around the close embrace and is an improvised dance based on a core set of steps led, of course, by the man.
Magnus feels that the city government’s focus on the tango festival and world championship risks a neglect for more long-term investment in everyday tango culture, like the nightly milongas which take place across the city.
“Milongueros go to their favourite milonga and they keep going where they always go. They have nothing to do with the festival. The championship has also gotten so political, so cookie cutter, no one cares about it anymore except the foreigners” she says.
Tango gatherings known as ‘milongas’ are nightly dances which take place in dance halls across the city. Tables are arranged facing the dance floor and constantly interchanging couples dance for short bursts of, often live, tango music.
Milongas have always been the lynch pin of tango culture. However they are independently financed and generally receive no financial subsidy from the government. Coordinating and sustaining a milonga is a precarious business. The organiser must rent a salon, hire a band, and pay to market the event. Often the salon owner takes all the money from the bar, leaving only the money from the door to cover the rest of the costs.
“There are fewer and fewer lovely traditional milongas, I’m sorry to say, because people just don’t have the money… It used to be that milongueros would go every night to milongas, but that hasn’t passed on. A lot of them are dead, a lot are sick, or too poor,” says Magnus.
Like many other devotees to traditional ‘milonguero’ tango, Magnus feels there is an increasing divergence between traditional and tourist tango circuits, which do not see an equal flow of investment.
“At some of these milongas, everyone is foreign, everyone speaks English, everyone is dressed differently, everyone dances differently. People don’t understand that they should be going to the traditional milongas to dance with local people, not to dance with each other.”
The Buenos Aires tango scene runs on demand, and is firmly dependent on tourists with money to spend. These milongas need tourists or locals to continue going in order to stay alive, however many remain under the radar of the tourist scene and suffer the consequences. In addition, many traditional clubs do not cater to the increasing demand for unorthodox forms of ‘nuevo tango’, more popular with international crowds.
‘Nuevo tango’ involves a more flamboyant repertoire of steps and can be a more choreographed form of dance. The embrace is not as close as with traditional milonguero tango and the steps are usually larger, with higher kicks and more dramatic flourishes.
Walter Piazza agrees that the situation of many milongas is precarious, “there are very historic milongas in traditional places that really need financial help, they don’t show up in tourist guide books but they’re very important.”
Dance and Diversity: Tango Today
Piazza is secretary to the president of the National Tango Academy and it is his job to know about all forms of tango, including the increasingly popular new forms. Founded in 1890, the Academy was established to preserve tango heritage in Argentina. The ornate building which sits above the famous Cafe Tortoni is home to an enormous library of tango music, poetry, and literature; housing over 20,000 original music scores.
Piazza is adamant about the need to preserve tango heritage, however he also sees tourism as the key support for the tango industry in the city and believes the Festival plays a major role in this.
“I think the tango festival is an excellent thing,“ he says. “Inside the city here, there are those who try to preserve orthodox tango, but tango doesn’t come from just one place, it comes from a mixture of cultures and people.”
“There is no such thing as one pure tango culture. The key is to move forward while respecting your roots,” says Piazza.
According to Buenos Aires Mayor, Mauricio Macri, this is exactly what the festival will do. “The increasingly large young crowds that come to the festival give rise to new codes on the dance floor, new poetic styles, new sounds, and new expressions,” he said in a press release. “The tango festival isn’t a nostalgic longing for better times gone by, it reflects a capacity for creativity in a society moving forward, with an optimistic eye to the future.”
The definition of ‘tango culture’ has been historically slippery, as reflected in its 2009 designation by UNESCO as ‘intangible cultural heritage’. This designation recognised the importance of “the mix of European immigrants, descendents of slaves, and creoles” in the creation of tango culture.
The UNESCO award did not come with financial aid, but Lombardi told BBC Mundo at the time that he would establish US$3 million worth of tango projects and preservation per year.
Tango for Who? Community Investment
Many claim that the money promised by Lombardi has not filtered down to community level, however. On the 25thJune 2012, cultural centres across the city gathered in Parque Centenario to protest against the government’s focus on festivals and tourism at the expense of investment in everyday culture in Buenos Aires. The protest was organised by the Frente Cultural Raymundo Gleyzer movement, an umbrella organisation for cultural centres who are railing against what they see as a consistent short-term view towards government investment in culture.
“Since taking office as mayor of the City of Buenos Aires, Mauricio Macri has applied a constant policy of disinvestment and budget cuts in cultural matters,” says director of El Gleyzer, Jonathan Thea.
“Today the budget for culture is just 3.1% of the total, which is aimed at the development of mega-events which are profitable from the economic point of view, but not representative of our history, identity and culture.”
There are over 51 cultural centres in the city, forming the backbone of community-oriented cultural provision, including tango classes and workshops. However the city government budget for festivals is six times higher than the budget for neighbourhood cultural projects, and the culture budget has been reduced by 20% in recent years.
According to El Gleyzer’s manifesto, “the City government wants to turn Buenos Aires into a tourist mecca in South America, and that explains the unification of the ministries of culture and tourism.”
However, according to Thea, “a city with social and spatial segregation can’t have a cultural policy based on big events which only benefit a small sector of society.”
The Heart of Tango: Still Beating
Lombardi and tango festival organiser Gustavo Mozzi are keen to deny this assessment. Both have stressed the inclusive and community-oriented nature of the festival which remains 100% free for all events. The leaders claim it will bring needed investment and rejuvenation to important community areas connected to the roots of tango, like the historic neighbourhood of La Boca, which has recently seen the opening of Usina del Arte cultural centre.
“With its arrival in the Usina del Arte, the tango festival has regained a space in a neighbourhood closely related to its origins and its identity in music and dance. Tango lived in La Boca, taking shelter in modest dance clubs and cafes when it was banned from main stages and fancy venues,” says Lombardi.
Across the eight different categories in the agenda, the festival showcases veteran stars like pianist José Colángelo and dancing legends Gloria and Eduardo Arquimba, as well as innovative new dancers and musicians like band Tanghetto. The event showcases a vibrant tango culture which, despite its difficulties, shows no sign of dying out just yet. Sitting in his office surrounded by tango memorabilia old and new, Piazza agrees.
“There are still plenty of people who respect this way of life, this tanguero culture. People from the older generation -70, 80 years old- but also people much younger than me, who want to continue the line. It’s going to continue for a long time, this culture is very much alive and well.”
What do Argentines think about the relationship between tango and tourism in the city? Click here to find out.