Saturday, February 18, 2006

Tango Through the Wreckage

Anyone who, like me is fascinated by tango music, particularly its old school singers, as well as by Jorge Luis Borges, and contemporary Buenos Aires, should have a look at Tomas Eloy Martinez’s The Tango Singer (published by Bloomsbury in the UK). Even better than his last novel, Saint Evita, Martinez’s latest begins in Buenos Aires in 2001 with inflation spiralling out of control, and the city on the verge of chaos. Arriving in the city is Bruno, in search of an elusive tango singer who is supposedly better than Gardel. Bruno is writing a Ph.D. thesis on Borges and interested in tango singers and songs that Borges refers to, and which were written during his era. . Upon arrival in Buenos Aires Bruno meets El Tucomano who takes him to a boarding house where Borges set his story The Aleph. Bruno finds that in Buenos Aires nothing is as it seems, words appear before the things they represent, streets change names overnight, and the shape of the city is altered as much by those who inhabit it as by corrupt city planners, politics and poverty. I read The Tango Singer at the same time as the thought provoking Planet of Slums (Verso) by my friend Mike Davis, a book that indicates in no uncertain terms that the world is even worse off than you can possibly imagine. Davis provides some mind boggling statistics, as he takes the reader through the world's urban underside, including Buenos Aires. It's a sober read. For starters, from 1950 to 2004, the population of Buenos Aires has increased from 4.6 million to 12.6. But that's nothing compared to Mexico City which has gone from 2.9 in 1950 to 22.1 in 2004. But that’s the most obvious bit of Davis's book. It goes far wider and much deeper than that. In any case, Davis corroborates what Martinez hints at in his novel, that thanks to internal and external political decisions, Buenos Aires has altered over the years, leading to poverty, economic disaster, unrest and discontent. Both books are essential reading (and perhaps should be accomapnied by viewing Naomi Klein's documentary The Take). By the way, while on the subject of Latin American, where are all the novels written about contemporary Lima? I know they exist, but not in translation.


Anonymous said...

Hey, my name is Silvia, and I am Argentinean, I just read in your blog a book by Tomás Eloy Martinez was published in UK and as I sing tango myself (and I love tango) I thought it was really good that I found your blog, although I dont believe much in translations I will have to read the book in English. I am a translator myself, but I do legal translations or subtitling.

Hope everything's fine!


Woody Haut said...

Good to hear from you. Yes, I like tango as well, particularly its older forms. Unfortunately it's very hard to find any tango music, old or new, here in the UK. Martinez books are excellent. One day perhaps I might get to Buenos Aires to hear it for real. By the way, there is an exellent book by Robert Farris Thompson entitled Tango: the art story of love, which was published in the last year or so. But maybe that's better for those living outside of Argentina.

Anonymous said...

Do you like women tango singers? Like Libertad Lamarque, Rosita Quiroga, Azucena Maizani? I brought with me a couple of CDs that are absolutely wonderful.

I have also a bit about Tita Merello, she is something! Well really was sth, because she died recently but I knew her and she told me to stop bothering her. She was 90 then. hee hee

Woody Haut said...

I have to admit I’m pretty much a tango neophyte. To the singers you mention, I'd add Adriana Varela. But I often wonder why it is that Brazilian music, which I also like, is easily available in the UK, but not tango. On the other hand, “nuevo tango” has achieved a certain amount of notoriety, probably due the popularity of Gotan Project. Personally, I find them a bit dull in comparison to the real thing.

Anonymous said...

As you said, I like the classic old singers and although it is a matter of taste, Adriana should have been born a man. She has very low pitch voice and while she can "recite" some songs (and those are the ones she is best) she really cannot sing.

But that is only in my opinion, I am quite a purist and maybe because she did rock n' roll before she is not my cup of tea. However, I have to say that when she sings "men's tangos" there is no one like her, because she is very male.

Woody Haut said...

I think I tend to agree with you about female tango singers. I didn't realise that Adriana sang rock and roll before she sang tango. I'd be interested in hearing what your ten or so favourite tango CDs are. Maybe I might find a way to get of some of them.