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April 8: ¡Tanguísimo!

An evening of song and dance with Tanguísimo, an international tango orchestra at Clowes Hall

When: Saturday April 8, 8:00 PM

Where: Butler University, Clowes Hall

This performance fills me with a slight sense of unease ... but not because I'm nervous about the tango. No, I love the tango, as much as it is possible for a man who is utterly incapable of dancing to love a music form that fiercely grabs one by the hips and commands: "Dance!" (An irresistable force meets an unmoveable booty.) When I teach about Argentina in my Latin American politics classes, my students to listen to different tangos, and read Jorge Luis Borges's brilliant "History of the Tango," which observes how the music awakens in the listener memories of events that never happened, memories that are ever so much more vivid and real than those memories of things that happened in this mundane real world:
[The tango] reveals a personal past which, until that moment, each of us ignored, moving us to lament mis-fortunes that did not actually occur to us and to feel shame for wrongs we did not actually commit. For myself, I will confess that I cannot hear "El Maine" or "Don Juan" without remembering with great precision an apocryphal past, at the same time stoic and orgiastic, in which I defied and fought, only in the end to fall silently, in an obscure duel of knives. Perhaps this is the mission of the tango: to give Argentines the certainty of having once been valiant, of having realized the demands of valor and of honor.

What better metaphor for the history of Argentinian politics? (A couple of years ago The Economist had a gem of an article about the history of the tango, read it.)

Astor Piazzolla is one of the great geniuses of the second half of the 20th century, a brilliant composer who could in his Tango Nuevo rework a dangerous dance into an art form worthy of being recorded by the avant-garde Kronos Quartet and Yo Yo Ma, yet who himself remained the most passionate and skillful performers of the bandoneon. Very few days go by when I don't take time out to listen to Piazzolla at least once ... so yeah, I am a tango guy.

The problem is that just about every advertising agency in the world seems to be full of tango guys. This art form, at once starkly simple and wonderously complex, is ubiquitous today, providing the background noise for car commercials, for furniture polish commercials, for flavored gourmet coffee commercials ... The tango's grace and spirit, its beauty has been reduced to a trope, a cliché, and not a very interesting cliché at that.

Think of what happened to Dalmatians after 101 of them were featured in a popular movie. Suddenly every kid was clamoring for a spotted dog. As they sought to profit from the spike in demand puppy mills overbred, and within a few years the broad-browed and phlegmatic Dalmatian was reduced to a narrow-headed hyper dog barely capable of sitting still on a stationary firetruck. That could be the fate of the tango.

To be honest, I don't know much about Tanguísimo (named after a composition by Piazzolla), a self-styled "Argentine Tango Orchestra" even though the group is based in France and few of the members themselves seem to hail from Argentina. They do have skilled musicians, including the Bulgarian violinist Svetlin Roussev, winner of the 1998 Indianapolis International Violin Competition (which is presenting Tanguísimo's performance). So I plan to set aside my fears of overbred musical stereotypes and throw myself into the event (although I still won't dance).

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