Why you will never be an ‘authentic’ tango musician–and why you (+ Yo-Yo Ma) shouldn’t take it personally

You have Piazzolla’s 6 Etudes/ LibertangoLe Grand Tango in your hot little hands. You love playing the score. In fact you revel and delight in it. You think you could become a tango musical Jedi equivalent if you just knew how to play more authentically. So you dream about venturing to Buenos Aires to immerse yourself fully in this genre.

Photo by Andre Deak, Flickr

Photo by Andre Deak, Flickr

Here is one thing you should know about the tango journey I‘ve taken as a tango flautist: There is no one authentic tango style, nor will you ever be considered an authentic player. But no need to be offended—or even disappointed.  Even Piazzolla’s tangos are up for debate about whether his style is authentically ‘pure’.  Why is this? Because NO one can agree what is authentic– not you, not me, not the bandoneonistas in Buenos Aires, not the dancer demonstrating a sleek quebrada on the corner, nor even cultural anthropologists (tango specialists, or otherwise). Allow me to explain.

Some tangueros might say, well no doubt about it, che, it’s so simple; you just have to be Argentinean ‘cause then it’s in your blood! Uh, No.  It really isn’t.  For some, you have to be a native porteño (from Buenos Aires).  But even this isn’t clear-cut.  Though you might have been born in the city itself , if you moved away–say, to Amsterdam– you’ve lost all tango street-cred, and can no longer be a part of the club until you plan return for good– and no, visits to your Buenos Aires familia DON’T COUNT (I am not kidding).

For others you have to perfectly execute una buena parillada argentina once a week, have a shrine to Gardel on your mantle, know Ferrer personally and memorize Messi’s childhood goals from age 4-12 (Ok, I am kidding about that one).

thanks to Peter Forret, Flickr, Antwerp Tango Festival, 2012

 “But wait!” you say.  “I have some printed tango scores that will SHOW me the right way because the music is really detailed. I’ll follow it and surely it will sound authentic!”

Ooooh no.   And I am sorry to say it. Especially to Yo-Yo Ma:

Even if you can read the tango score like no one’s biz-ness,  release a bestselling Grammy award-winning CD, are uberly  famoso  for crossin’ into world music, play with tango musicians from Buenos Aires in a recording studio IN Argentina itself, you will you not necessarily be able to be seen as  authentic  tango player. (I am sorry Mr. Ma if you are reading this now, please don’t take it personally. I’ve heard the same thoughts said about Daniel Barenboim, who was even born in Argentina)

Ok. So now we know why no one can really agree upon an authentic way to play a tango.

But before you want to take up the bossa nova instead, here is what can be agreed upon: Like an aging Hollywood starlet, the genre of the tango is constantly getting a face lift. From the coquettish phrasing played between the flute and guitar in the bordellos of the fin de siècle, to big tango groups of the golden era, to the times of the Military Junta of 1971, to the economic crisis in 2001– the tango has emerged from Argentine hardships to constantly be reinvented by its dancers and musicians.

Thanks to http://viajeportango.com for this image

Of course, that ‘classic’ tango image that you might be thinking of–a man sportin’ a grey fedora, a woman with a red rose in an erotic pose all dressed in fishnets– that’s still found on the tourist trail in Buenos Aires. It’s still on a lot of postcards by those in search of this stereotype (read: Calle Florida).

But did you know about tango queer, the movement that sees dance partners swap and even abandon the typical gender roles? Or how about tango groups like Fernandez Fierro who dress like rockers, and draw in the neo-hipsters?

Then, there are fresh, all-female tango groups like Chifladas. These women bring ‘nontraditional’ musical instruments to the tango sound (shaz-zam, it’s the svelte bass clarinet!), albeit into a predominantly male musical world. Or, did you know about the huge tango movements happening in Finland and Japan? Or how about the about the mixture of fado + tango in the Fado Tango Club?

And so this is why you don’t need to worry about finding an authentic tango: because a genre that can continually renovate itself will continue to survive across the continents when it is infused with new life and fresh possibilities.  And like a Hollywood Starlet, the tango will keep winning the hearts of its diehard fans no matter what new guise she takes. So, find you own way to play your tango, and make it yours and yours alone. Don’t worry about the authentic bit so much.

Want more? Check out my free, downloadable article ‘5 tips to play tango like a tanguero for classical musicians’ here

Still don’t now where to start? Check out my all-time top 10 online resources to help you get started here

Still curious + want personalized advice? Let’s meet for an online lesson all about your playing so I can show you the ropes of tango flute. Really. Click here

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The Top 10 Online Tango Resources to Check Out if You Want to Play Tango Music Better Than Ever

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