Una Casa Tomada
"...a bunch of clowns"
If you wander around Buenos Aires you may notice buildings with the doors and windows completely bricked over. They are sealed up so tightly because under Argentine law, if people are able to get inside and start living in a place, it can be very hard for the owners to get them out. Occasionally it’s so difficult that the owners just give up, and the buildings become “casas tomadas”. This means, literally, “taken houses”, and some neighborhoods are infested with them. They provide some shelter for poor people—but no one is happy about it. Casas tomadas are a symptom of a system that’s broken, and neighbors must deal with deteriorating property that no one maintains. They create unsanitary conditions, petty crime, and worse. Because no one has an ownership interest, no one paints, or repairs, or plants a garden. The occupants are just camping out. They are using up the property without putting anything in.
When I began to learn more about tango, I became fascinated by the people who created it. A hundred years ago, giants somehow emerged from a relatively small and unsophisticated group of working class people. Composers and poets emerged from tin shacks. Great dancers and musicians played on street corners. A tremendous burst of creative energy built a new and different kind of music… a brilliant mix of notes, and words, and movement that culminated in the Golden Age of tango in the 1940s. How many great tango poets, musicians, and dancers, were there in this period? A hundred? Five hundred?
Street performers in Boca.
But things have changed. Today, very few tango teachers seem to care about the music. They don’t teach students how to step, or how to use the rhythms of tango, because they can't teach what they don't understand. Their arrogance and their venality is almost unbearable, and the skills needed to dance tango are disappearing. There are movies, and stage shows and street performers dressed like clowns… but the movies are mostly garbage, and the shows are worse. There is a Buenos Aires tango television station that regularly shows videos of dancers with different music on the soundtrack than the music the dancers are dancing to. And no one seems to care. Maybe the great orchestras, and the composers and poets who wrote the music would have said something— but they're gone. There hasn’t been anything significant created in tango in almost 50 years. No new music, and no new words. The giants have been replaced by small people with large egos. The owners have left, and people are living among the ruins, arrogantly plundering the halls, and robbing the tombs.
But we have to look somewhere to find tango. So let’s ignore the entertainers and the promoters, and the incompetent teachers for now, and look to the people in the clubs. They aren’t exactly giants… but a few of them knew the giants. And some of them stubbornly kept dancing tango while everyone was home watching television and hiding from the proceso militar. A few have even been dancing since the 1940’s—which is an amazing thing. That means that some of the older people in the clubs today were once rubbing shoulders with dancers who began their dancing at the turn of the century… at the very beginnings of tango! So, some of these milongueros have been very close to greatness, and they have almost links to the birth of tango. They are only a generation away from its origins. So if we listen to what they say, and look carefully at the way they move to the music, we may learn something.