There are always hotheads who want to modernise traditional music, and there are always those who get offended by that. But Philippe Cohen, one third of the Gotan Project, reminds us that, in fact, in his native Buenos Aires, tango began as a punk movement of lowlifes — gangsters and cocaine junkies. Moreover, it remains the same.
“The roots of tango lie, as is the case with many kinds of music, in Africa. The word tango comes from an African dialect, just like the word milonga [the mother of tango. It’s also used to indicate the tango dancehall.] At the end of the 19th century, European and African immigrants got together in bars and brothels of Buenos Aires, and they started making music with the original Argentinians. Tango emerged from that. So it actually already is a hybrid of different kinds of music. And after it was mixed with Europe and immigration from Europe. But it was from the bad boys, from the harbor of Buenos Aires”, explains Cohen.
“But because it was so successful in Paris at the beginning of the 20th Century, it came back with all of the chic and the glamour of Paris to Argentina – it was accepted by the bourgeoisie. In the 1940s the music was played by the Germans, by the Nazis, you know. They were dancing to tango. It was a kind of conservative music, that the people associated with Peron liked.”
“It isn’t a laidback, lounge kind of music, you know”, continues Cohen. “The tango’s fuelled by much more of a rebellious spirit, much more of a punk attitude than a lot of other music. Piazzolla really shook society up when he came along. In his way, he made as great an impact on the music scene as the Sex Pistols did in their day. Tango’s the music of old cocaine-heads who didn’t need any kind of body piercing to prove their marginality! It’s a totally sensual music, like a speeded-up slice of life. A tango may only last a few minutes but in that short space of time an entire love story unfolds as the dancers approach one another, seduce one another and then make love. And, just like in real life, things don’t always work out! The dancers’ bodies don’t always fit snugly into one another, but that’s what makes it interesting. This almost trivial form of sensuality is what gives tango its force.”
La revancha del tango is an assimilation of Argentine music and modern music. Listening to a small accordion at a young age may not be the most interesting activity. The Swiss electronic artist Christoph Mueller and the experienced French house DJ and film composer Philippe Cohen thought so too until they saw a different view of folk music from the coast of Buenos Aires. Cohen discovered Astor Piazzolla’s music when he was young and examined the music collection of his girlfriend’s parents. Mueller didn’t acknowledge anything other than electronic music until he moved to Paris in the late 80s and got to know black and Latin American music, which wasn’t far from the Argentine Astor. Cohen and Mueller met in the mid-90s, looked at the anarchy of samplers and decided to cross Brazilian music with electronics. Very soon they were lucky to meet a kindred spirit, a real Argentine Eduardo Makaroff, who dreamed of developing tango beyond acoustic concerts.
“I dreamed to put tango again into the hearts and ears of young people who don’t know it.” Eduardo knew nothing about electronic music and hardly distinguished hip-hop from house while Müller and Cohen knew nothing about Argentina. No doubt they had a lot to talk about.
Mueller: “Eduardo let me listen to all kinds of folk music from Argentina and other parts of South America. One of the records I heard was this folkloric album with extremely percussive music from Argentina, and I simply fell in love with it immediately. We decided to start making music together, without thinking of trends or commercial success. Through Eduardo we met loads of other Argentinian musicians living in Paris, and we started jamming. At first it didn’t work out at all. After a couple of jams we recorded the Piazzolla track Vuelvo Al Sur (Spanish I go back to the South), but somehow it didn’t turn out the way we wanted it to. Something was missing, and whatever we tried, we just couldn’t seem to get a satisfying result.
At one point we were about to give up, when one day I was fiddling about in the studio, twisting some knobs and such. I started dubbing some of the separate tracks, filtering them and manipulating the sounds, and all of a sudden the song came to life. I had found the missing ingredient! Excited as we were, we started playing around with it; we let the bandonion player improvise around certain pieces of music, for example, instead of giving him finished pieces to play. We re-recorded the track and made another one, El Capitalismo Foráneo. But the same thing happened to that song; something was missing. Until one day I was walking down the street, listening to it on my walkman, when I heard the street noise coming through the music; a dog barking, a train passing... It sounded fantastic. So I recorded those sounds and mixed them into the song, which gave it a kind of 3D feel.”
Having released a thousand 10-inches containing two tracks in 2000 and hoping for nothing, they drew the attention of agencies and music critics. The records continued: Tríptico, obviously composed of three parts, and a cover of Gato Barbieri’s Last Tango in Paris. It was followed by the most famous of Gotan’s tracks, Santa Maria, and with a slow, almost dub, remix of Chunga’s Revenge by Frank Zappa on the B-side. “We dedicate the record to several people, more or less divided in three groups”, explains Christoph Mueller. “Willie Crook, the man whose voice is featured on the track, names the musicians who collaborated on the album, then the people who inspired us, and lastly our families and friends.”
Among their songs, the revanchists highlight the Época inspired by the recent history of Argentina. Mueller: “I said to Eduardo: ‘You should write lyrics like a love song, but about a time when the people are disappearing. It can happen in a love affair, but it happened to your country, with the young people who died.’ But Época [Spanish for era] isn’t only about the disappeared. It’s also a song of hope for the future of Argentina.”
“Our first album was in a way the soundtrack to the 2001 economic crash in San Juan. We released the album in October, and the crash happened in December. And I know because El Capitalismo Foraneo played a lot there at this time. Because it was exactly what happened, you know. The foreign capitalism just sucked the blood of this country – with the help of the Argentinean government, I have to say.” Briefly: prices in dollars + tax exemption for foreign companies and traditional populism = half of population living in extreme poverty and a default at Christmas. And so, appropriately, they included an emotional “oligarchs cannot break us” speech by Argentine Eva Perón from the 50s and a fragment of the “we want peace” speech by Comandante Che Guevara in Queremos Paz, five years after the Cuban revolution.
The group does not claim to be a political gang of left-wing activists. Rather, they simply remind us of the history of Argentina and its culture. But knowing all the details of the album (as well as the fact that the guys founded the label ¡Ya Basta! — ¡Enough already! which is the motto of the party of the Mexican radical left-wing politician Subcomandante Marcos), you can consider the record revanchist not only in musical terms. If only those who played the record in fashion boutiques from Paris to New York knew that :-)