These tango acts aim to move you
By S. Alexandra Russell
Friday, April 20, 2012
Gala Hispanic Theatre slinks into spring with its "Tango Series," bringing to life the history, atmosphere and characters of the Argentine genre in two shows: "Puro Tango," featuring a singer, musicians, dancers and actors from Argentina and Uruguay; and the award-winning local group QuinTango, with guest artists focusing on the story of legendary tango singer Carlos Gardel.
Argentina declared Gardel's birthday National Tango Day, but few Americans have ever heard of the crooner. The "Buenos Aires songbird," as Gardel was known, is credited with lifting tango out of the ghettos of Buenos Aires and into the salons of the elite. Gardel composed and recorded hundreds of songs in the 1920s and '30s, and starred in several movies before his death in a plane crash at age 44.
New York actor-singer Chris Vasquez, one of the guest artists who will be performing with QuinTango, grew up listening to the Gardel records his Dominican father collected. "I didn't understand the language when I was younger," Vasquez says, "but I loved the smoothness in Gardel's voice. He had this special timbre that seemed so sad and yet so desperate to say what was on his mind."
With his dark hair and suave manner, Vasquez resembles the dashing Gardel. In character onstage in a suit and fedora, he brings the Argentine icon to life. And before interpreting the songs in their original Spanish, he explains in English what they're about: "You see, you are never sure if your horse is going to win . . . it's a gamble. And you can never be sure if a woman really loves you . . . it's a gamble. So then we should swear them both off, right? But no matter how many times we do, we can never get away from them. Because sometimes we are so close to winning, 'por una cabeza' - 'by a head.' "
QuinTango director and violinist Joan Singer says it was precisely that Gardel song, "Por una cabeza," that first hooked her on tango music. (The song seduced many others, too, in the movie "Scent of a Woman.") Singer says she thinks people connect to Gardel because he made tango about universal human experiences - love, loss and longing.
Rounding out the group of two violinists, a cellist, a bass player and a pianist is guest musician Emmanuel Trifilio of Argentina on bandoneon, an accordion-like instrument that gives tango music its distinctive sound. Trifilio grew up steeped in tango culture and the Gardel cult.
"In Argentina, 'Gardel' means 'the best,' as in 'sos Gardel' - 'you're the best.' So my very first encounter with Gardel was in language as the equivalent of excellence," Trifilio says. "And he's everywhere; you see him on TV, you hear him on the radio, you see his picture all over Buenos Aires."
Singer, - who has incorporated narratives about the music, the composers and the culture into the show to make the tango more accessible to non-Spanish speakers - says she wants the audiences to leave the QuinTango performance feeling like they have just fallen in love.
"You know," she says, "when you discover something and can't get enough of it."