ARLINGTON WILL never be mistaken for Buenos Aires, but on the third Thursday of every month (including this coming week), there's something in the air at Tutto Bene Restaurant that conjures the Argentine capital. It's the sound of tango, with its mesmerizing meld of romantic melancholy and rhythmic mystery, melodramatic pulse and cool sensuality.
At Tutto Bene (501 N. Randolph St.; 703-522-1005), it's delivered by Siempre Tango Orchestra, an ensemble that grew out of some dedicated dancers' desire to provide live music to the metropolitan area's tango community, dozens of whom show up to dance the night away in the classic mix of elegant and erotic movements. Like jazz in New Orleans, tango was born in the back streets and brothels of Buenos Aires before moving to the ballroom. It still carries with it a vague sense of turn-of-the-century decadence and extravagance, once described as "the vertical expression of a horizontal desire."
It takes more than two to tango: The Siempre Tango Orchestra -- violinist Kristin Snyder, left, Charles Kelly and Nadja Kadom on the bandoneon, and Katherine DuVall on bass at rehearsal -- plays at Arlington's Tutto Bene Restaurant.
(James M Thresher -- The Washington Post)
American musician and conductor Charles Kelly and Argentine bandoneon player Eduardo Fernandez were both just dancers when they met five years ago, Kelly recalls. "As we became friends, we discovered that we were both musicians. We started playing together, just piano and bandoneon [a small button accordion developed in Germany in the 1850s so that religious music could be played in organless churches, and now the defining instrument in tango]. Then we brought some other musicians, friends of his and friends of mine and formed Champagne Tango Orchestra."
Two years ago, Champagne Tango split into two ensembles. Fernandez's job at USAID took him to Venezuela, though he visits Washington regularly and sometimes performs at Bethesda's Frascati Ristorante Italiano in a trio with pianist Alicia Bokser and bassist Ricardo Varrenti. In November 2002, Siempre Tango made its debut at Tutto Bene, appropriate since regulars there helped the group find its new name. "For most people, the inspiration for tango comes from the music," Kelly says. "Even if they're not musicians, the dancers are attracted to the music and to the dance itself as well. And the tango crowd here is not strictly Latin American; it's really all nationalities, which is distinctive of Washington generally."
You can get a hint of how big that community has become at www.geocities.com/capitaltangueros, a comprehensive calendar put together by the Capital Tangueros, a group of volunteers who support Argentine tango here. You'll find venues offering milongas -- a term used for any gathering at which people dance tango, whether to a band or to a DJ -- as well as information on classes and special events. To receive a free weekly newsletter, e-mail Capital_Tanguerosfirstname.lastname@example.org.
At Tutto Bene, you can dine and tango. There's a $15 cover and a $35 dinner special that includes a tango lesson. The lesson starts about 7:30 and the music kicks in at 8.
Siempre Tango consists of Kelly on bandoneon and clarinet, violinist Kristin Snyder, bandoneonist Nadja Kadom, pianist Beverly Wells, bassist Gary Mauck and singer Claudia Gargiulo. Gargiulo, the only Argentine-born band member, last year won the vocal section of the International Tango Music Competition sponsored by the Argentine Consulate in New York.
Kelly, who began playing clarinet at age 8 and piano a few years later, has a master's degree as a conductor from Florida State University and has worked with the Reston Chamber Orchestra and McLean Symphony. He started playing bandoneon only a couple of years ago, but he has traveled a number of times to Buenos Aires to study both the music (Kelly does the arranging for Siempre Tango) and the instrument.
Kelly has taken the equivalent of master classes with visiting artists -- Uruguayan bandoneon virtuoso Raul Jaurena performed earlier this month at Lisner Auditorium with the Pan American Symphony Orchestra -- and new arrivals such as Daniel Diaz, a native of Buenos Aires who moved to the United States in 1970 and more recently to Washington.
"Daniel is in his sixties and has been playing bandoneon since he was 5 -- there's a lot to learn from such people," Kelly says. Diaz's Tango Camerata performs Wednesdays from 9:30 to 11:30 at Rumba Cafe (2443 18th St. NW; 202-588-5501).
Siempre Tango's repertoire is a blend of traditional tangos, waltzes and milongas (also the name of a faster-tempo tango with somewhat different steps) and the modern style associated with Astor Piazzolla, a revolutionary figure who unveiled tango nuevo in the mid-'50s, taking a dance music codified in the '30s and '40s and stretching it harmonically and rhythmically to make it contemporary.
Born near Buenos Aires in 1921, Piazzolla and his family moved to New York City when he was 2 and lived in Little Italy until he was 16. Piazzolla taught himself to play bandoneon, with the help of a neighbor, a classical pianist. Reared on classical music, Piazzolla didn't play a tango until he was 14. After his family returned to Argentina, he found work as an arranger with the Buenos Aires Philharmonic and began to study with the famed Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera. Winning a composers' competition sent Piazzolla to Paris to study conducting and composing with the legendary Nadia Boulanger; ironically, Boulanger loved both tango and the bandoneon and persuaded Piazzolla to develop the popular music of his cultural heritage. Returning from his studies with Boulanger in 1955, Piazzolla formed his octet and began the modernization of tango, introducing jazz and classical influences, a risky venture in a country where tango is a way of life, a religion, a sacrosanct tradition.
"A lot of tango traditionalists feel that Piazzolla was the end of tango, that he killed the old traditions," Kelly says. "But from our perspective here in North America, we see him as one of the foremost exponents of tango. Most Americans didn't know the tango tradition before Piazzolla."
According to Kelly, the traditional and modern styles coexist here, and do so more and more in Buenos Aires, "not so much among the dancers but among the aficionados of tango music. Here almost all of the market for tango is dancers, but in Buenos Aires there's a cafe society and people who go just to listen to the music, like you would have a jazz club here, with no dancing at all. And there are also concerts in major halls."
Siempre Tango sometimes appears in concert -- as they did with the McLean Symphony in February. The area's other major tango group, QuinTango, featuring two violins, cello, bass and piano, is primarily a concert ensemble. Founded in 1995 by classical violinist Joan Singer, QuinTango gained national attention in 1999 after a White House performance with actor and tango fanatic Robert Duvall, Jaurena and actor Pablo Veron, star of "The Tango Lesson" and "Tango Argentino." Next month, QuinTango performs in Mexico with a symphony, and they've even gone to the source, performing in Buenos Aires.
"I'm told they were very well received there," says Kelly, pointing out that "QuinTango doesn't play for dancers as much as we do. We're pretty much the opposite -- we play more for dances and less in the concert format."
As the makeup of both groups suggests, many tango musicians come from classical backgrounds.
"In the early years of tango, it was mostly street musicians, although frequently the leaders had classical training," Kelly says. "These days, the pianists and violinists are all conservatory trained, and now even the bandoneon players go through four years of music school."
Siempre Tango's Tutto Bene gig isn't the only place to get a tango fix, of course. For tango lessons, milongas and other events, check the Capital Tangueros Web site. Charles Kelly recommends these regular milongas featuring live music or tango DJ:
CocoCabana Bar and Grill (2031A University Blvd, Hyattsville; 301-431-1882). Mondays. Lessons 7:30, milonga to midnight. "There used to be two good tango locations on 14th Street that were pushed out by redevelopment -- Diversite and the BA Lounge," Kelly says. "The same guy who ran Diversite moved to Langley Park and he does salsa and hip-hop and other forms of dance music on the big-money nights, and tango on Mondays."
Meze Restaurant & Lounge (2437 18th St. NW; 202-797-0017). Mondays. Lessons 7 to 9, practice 9 to 10. Candlelight milonga to 1 a.m.
Agua Ardiente Restaurante (1250 24th St. NW; 202-833-8500) Tuesdays. Lessons 7:30 to 8:30, milonga to 10 p.m.
Ascot Restaurant (1708 L St. NW; 202-296-7640). Tuesdays. Lessons 7:30 to 8:30; milonga to 11:30 p.m.
Divino Lounge (7345-B Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda; 240-497-0300). Wednesdays. Lessons 8 to 9; milonga to midnight. Also hosts occasional tango concerts.
Market 5 Gallery at Eastern Market (Seventh Street and North Carolina Avenue SE; 240-372-5134). Thursdays. Classes at 7 p.m., milongas from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m.
Frascati Ristorante Italiano (4806 Rugby Lane Ave., Bethesda; 301-652-1492). Live tango dinner music resumes in May.
Chevy Chase Ballroom (5207 Wisconsin Ave., Chevy Chase) will host all-night milongas Saturday and April 30 from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. with Cleveland DJ Timmy Tango, a midnight dance show and a 2 a.m. breakfast. Call 301-664-9690 or visit vivianatango.com. Instructors Viviana and Isidoro Levinson usually hold milongas at the Chevy Chase Ballroom the fourth Sunday of each month, as well as the second Sunday of each month at Du-Shor Dance Studio (7800 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda).
At the Spanish Ballroom at Glen Echo Park (7300 MacArthur Blvd.), milongas are held on the second Sunday of each month, though the May event will move to the third and fourth Sundays (May 15 and 22). Lessons at 7 p.m., milonga from 8 to 11 p.m. Visit www.flyingfeet.org.