24 August 1998

Tango in the night

The church’s interior is glowing with amber, red and cerulean blue spotlights, hung with sumptuous drapes. Impossibly glamorous dancers smooch around in evening dress with lazy, fluid virtuosity, while from the six-piece band at the side comes an exquisitely haunting soundscape. Two violins alternately caress melodies and scrape vicious, piercing accents; piano and double bass lollop and thunder; and two men pull and squeeze their bandoneons, playing wistful, bohemian cafe tunes or giving off thumping atonal growls. The faces of the musicians emanate a melancholy so deep and powerful that its only expression can be one of glittering lightheartedness. This is the music of Dutch ensemble Sexteto Canyengue, who have hooked up with the Argentinian dancers of the Tango 5 for Destino Tango, one the most fiercely joyous experiences on this year’s Edinburgh Fringe.

Forget everything you know of cheesy ballroom tangos from Come Dancing. No bloody roses between the teeth. Destino Tango’s is an altogether darker, more modernist and more blatantly sexual aesthetic. The band’s twinkly artistic director and first bandoneón, Carel Kraayenhof, explains: “The ballroom tango is a kind of stereotype derived from the original tango, which is really like jazz. It’s an art form — with music, lyrics, dance, poetry; even films are made about it. It’s a really full culture in Argentina.”

The word “Canyengue” in the band’s name operates like the term “swing” in jazz: it describes a rhythm, an attitude, a way of walking down the street. Leo Vervelde, the more lugubrious, mournful-faced bandoneónist and the band’s commercial director, says: “It’s onomatopoeic — you know, because this music wasn’t originally written down, you’d say to the band: ‘Play la-ZHUM-pa, or can-YEN-gue…’” Here is the rhythmic secret of tango made word: rhythms somewhere between triplet and dotted-quaver; rumbling glissandos in the pianist’s deep left hand.

The unique character of the tango sound, though, comes from the bandoneón. To the uninitiated, this looks like an accordion, but whereas the accordion’s name derives from its having chord buttons under the left hand, the bandoneón has only one-note keys (perversely arranged), which enable more complex harmonies to be built up, and also make possible the strange wheezing tone-clusters which impart such a modern feel to the arrangements. “Because the instrument is symmetrical,” Kraayenhof adds, “you can get rhythmical percussion-like beats [demonstrates bouncing his bandoneon on a stamping knee], which are very important in the typical tango beat.”

So why have a coven of Dutchmen, who arrange classic tango tunes and write their own, become one of the world’s top ensembles in this music? It’s all the fault of legendary Dutch choreographer Hans van Manen, who in 1977 created a ballet called 5 Tangos around the music of Argentinian tango composer Astor Piazzolla. The latter had begun to reinvent tango in the 1940s and 1950s, drawing influences from Ellington and Basie, and studying classical music with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. Instead of the traditional big-band sound, Piazzolla started to arrange tangos for a quintet of soloists. “He was the Miles Davis of the tango,” Kraayenhof pronounces. It didn’t impress the diehard traditionalists back in Buenos Aires, though, so Piazzolla gave concerts around Europe and especially, after the success of the ballet, in Holland — and Sexteto Canyengue ended up working with the great man themselves. So, explains Kraayenhof, “we had a lot of advantages over young Argentinian musicians with the tango, because Piazzolla hardly performed in Argentina.”

The piece that kick-started Kraayenhof’s passion, 5 Tangos, is being performed as part of a van Manen ballet programme at the Edinburgh Playhouse this week. And Sexteto Canyengue will be providing the music. The choreographer had originally been rehearsing with Piazzolla’s own superannuated vinyl recordings, not thinking that there was a band in the world who could provide the authentic feel. So Sexteto Canyengue rang him up to audition. “It was very strange,” Kraayenhof chuckles. “He was only really interfering with the dancers and hardly paying attention to us. At one point we asked ‘What do you think of it?’, and he said ‘Yes, it’s OK,’ and the same evening we were performing live. So we were like gypsies entering the big door, you know?”

Virtuoso gypsies, if you please. But the idea fits, not just because the Sexteto are globally itinerant performers, but because the Argentinian tango is itself a sizzling cauldron of different musical styles. “Our piano player’s background is in jazz,” Kraayenhof explains, “and he also imports salsa rhythms. Piazzolla introduced jazz chords into tango, but tango was already world music when he started, with European, African and Argentinian influences. It’s really a collision between cultures.”
Kraayenhof has some thoughts, too, on tango’s seductiveness: “It’s a music with big contradictions and really shows deep emotions from all sides of the spectrum. Anybody, anywhere in the world can feel them. If you see a tango score, it’s like the city of New York or the city of Buenos Aires — you see huge skyscrapers and very small houses.” Indeed, as played by Sexteto Canyengue, tango is the sort of music to set up home in for a while: its architecture lends a skewed order to everyday human pain and transmutes it into sultry romanticism. If you are anywhere near Edinburgh, you have a date with Destino.