Sitting in a café watching tourists throng the pedestrianised cobblestones of calle Defensa one Sunday, I noticed three young chaps carry a piano by.
So used, was I at this point, to the strange goings-on of San Telmo’s weekly market, I barely batted an eyelid.
Later on, I noticed a crowd had gathered down the road, and behind them recognised that same piano – surprisingly in tune for its ordeal – was part of a full ten-piece Tango orchestra.
This was Orquesta Típica Imperial, and being a bit of a sucker for Tango, I stopped to listen.
“It’s lovely to hear the next generation bringing Tango back, but I do wish they’d dress better,” the lady in front of me lamented to her sister.
I stifled a giggle as the cellist, who also had heard the comment, winked at me. It was obviously not the first time people had said such things.
But looking at the group of musicians in front of me, I had to admit the ladies had a point. The double bassist was sporting flared jeans and aviator sunglasses, and the cellist a beard and hair typically described as ‘the Argentine Jesus look’.
Like it or not, Tango has moved with the times.
Later Matilde, one of Orquesta Típica Imperial’s bandeon players, told me of course – the music has had to evolve to remain popular, and the kind of smart clothes the women were lamenting the lack of were simply the fashion of the time when Tango was most popular. Men would go out wearing suits and ladies in dresses. It wasn’t related to Tango, it was simply the fashion of the era when Tango happened to be popular.
|Hear Orquesta Típica Imperial’s song – ‘El Loco Milonga.’||[audio:edition036/ellocomilongamatildevitullo.mp3]|
Nicolás, another bandeon player, interjected, “often people want to reminisce about the golden age of Tango, and think if we dress the same and play the same music they can turn back the clock. They are romantic memories of a time that has gone. People are not accustomed to seeing someone who is young and dressed like me play a beautiful Tango.”
After Tango’s boom in the milongas (Tango dancehalls) of the 1940s and 50s, the movement died off, making way for rock and roll and other musical genres that had come into vogue. However, by the early 1990s, Argentina’s flagship musical style started making a comeback. The new orchestras that came out of the revival had very much changed with the times – playing classic Tango melodies with a modern twist.
And Orquesta Típica Imperial are emphatic in that they are not trying to recreate anything. They do play a lot of old Tango songs – only around a quarter of what they play are their own compositions, but that is balanced by only a quarter being well-known Tangos. Half of their chosen playlist is generally old songs that are beautiful compositions but not so commercially well-known.
They admit this is not an easy path to take, and perhaps dressing in a more traditional way and playing more crowd-pleasing, famous Tangos would have more easily lined their pockets. However, the drawback would be they would have to play each song a certain way to make it a crowd-pleaser.
|Check out Orquesta Típica Imperial’s song – ‘Feos, Sucios y Malos.’||[audio:edition036/feossuciosymalosmatildevitullo.mp3]|
But as independent musicians they relish the freedom of being able to play things their way. They also believe this way the music can grow and develop in a natural way. As violinist Federico says: “We do not sound the same today as we did five or three years ago – the music is evolving as the group evolves and comes more and more into its own style.”
However, they tell me it is hard to find places with good acoustics that fully show off the sound of the group, so the orchestra has taken the innovative step of making their live performances more of a ‘show’, to make them more entertaining.
“We live in an era where the visual is super important. Things that are not taken in by the eyes are often not taken in,” Nicolás says. As a result they feel that to make their shows more popular, without falling into the tourist-trap style of tango, they need to be able to offer something else.
Matilde is enthusiastic to unite a variety of artistic styles – creating a theatrical dance performance being one idea – but for now they are instead projecting images onto a screen behind them as they play.
“Soundtracks are chosen for films by putting music that goes well with the image. Well, we do it the other way round – we choose images that go well with the music,” Matilde says.
But having been along to one performance, and noticed the projected images were powerful, political images, which really seemed to make a statement, or give the group some sort of an alignment, I had to ask why they had selected such clips.
“Are they combative, you mean?” Nicolás asks, laughing. “Well, for some people Simon Bolivar is a hero, for others he is not – you are never going to please everyone. We choose real things that have something to do with Argentina – poverty, Che. Images of Latin America too. We also have one about Salvador Allende.”
“But we have also done one with Maradona,” Matilde adds. “Each person picks their choice, and I suppose they are all similar in a way, in that we are all similar in what we think. Music is not just an entertainment – it contains artistic ideals too. Sometimes that ideology can be to say ‘I’m not getting involved in politics’, but that in itself is a political statement and ideology. Even getting up in the morning is making such a decision – you are deciding to get up, to conform. And anyway, showing a clip telling how a democratically elected leader in Chile was assassinated is not at all a left-wing ideology – it is a fact and history. Allende was killed. He was elected and killed and a military junta took power.”
The orchestra have been together for nearly ten years now, and despite the makeup of the group changing numerous times, they are starting to get known and play for bigger crowds. They played in Plaza de Mayo for the 30th anniversary of the coup that led to the last dictatorship, on 24th March 2006, and also take one overseas tour a year.
These tours are an essential way to earn money, as although the idea of their music being free for all to hear is appealing, it doesn’t put bread on the table.
Matilde tells me how they are heading to the UK for the first time this year, and how they are excited about playing there.
It might be a good idea to leave the Maradona projection at home for that leg of the journey though…
Go and Orquesta Típica Imperial play!
They also play every week on Defensa during the Sunday market during the early afternoon, where you can also pick up their latest CD which came out last year.
For more information please visit www.orquestaimperial.com.ar