Culture and national identity: how Argentine is tango?

I was listening to Victor Davis Hanson’s lecture on the disappearance of the Greek city states in classical antiquity. One reason he gives is that the Greeks did not develop a concept of a nation state, meaning, a community based around common language and culture (religion, ritual, custom), and this prevented them from evolving their approach to warfare. Even though they had a common language and culture their identity remained rooted primarily in the local city state. He argues that it is the Romans who developed the concept of a universal state which is based in language and culture. This way Rome was able to assimilate a diversity of people and expand in a way that the Greeks could not.

This raises the question of how far we can say that a given cultural product such as tango is specific to a particular localised group of people. Europe and the West is a specific geographical area that is distinguished from the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, etc. It is also internally diverse. It has recently been divided into nation states which are identified in terms of language, culture and religion. Nonetheless, the West has a certain cultural unity which means that these diverse groups share something in common that is different from the rest.

Cultural products of the West can be categorised as those that are specific to some local group of people, things like Flamenco, pizza, perhaps kind of beer, and various European folk dances. Others, however, even though localised, are considered to transcend these local distinctions: Bach, Mozart, Vivaldi, Chopin, Debussy, classical ballet, etc. Classical high culture is said to be universally Western rather than specific to the nation that produced it.

The difficulty seems to arise with respect to forms of culture that are, one might say, middle-class. An example here might be jazz. The birth of jazz is the United States. But it’s hard to say today that jazz is strictly American music because so many contributions to the jazz canon are from outside the US, in particular, from Europe and Latin America. If you were to eliminate the contributions of musicians from Europe, Latin countries and Brazil the canon would be substantially reduced.

Now, the countries of Central and South America were imperial extensions of Spain and Portugal, much as Anglophone countries were imperial extensions of Great Britain. In order to attain the status of a nation they had to develop a unique identity so that they could claim that they’re no longer just such an extension.

However, the whole business of the nation state has been problematic from the outset, in the sense that it is really always an artificial construction. The claim is that there is some reality between grouping these people together because of common history, language and culture. But the motivation behind this is really to gain power, in particular, to motivate people to feel that they have something in common so that they pull together and do things like fight wars and pay taxes.

If you look at the new world generally and Argentina specifically it is fairly clear that there’s not that much that would distinguish them from the other parts of the Latin world, meaning that they’re not really that distinct from other Latin countries. On the other hand, it is not clear that they’ve had all that much internal homogeneity, cohesion or coherence. But that is what is required to have a strong national identity: they’re similar to each other and different from the others.

This is highly questionable. They’re pretty much indistinguishable from Uruguayans, Chileans, or Europeans for that matter. They’re the product of heavy immigration from Spain, Italy, France, Germany, and Eastern Europe, even going by their family names. And so on and so forth.

So perhaps it’s tango that is uniquely Argentinian. Well, that’s really not that easy to argue. Because Latin American musical and dance cultures are the product of a lot of cross-pollination, and can all be traced back to European music and dance primarily via the Spanish and French colonies or Cuba and Haiti. Sure, there was a local variant of that called the milonga that then evolved into tango, but even that was not uniquely Argentinian but rather uniquely Rio Platense, meaning characteristic of Buenos Aires and Montevideo.

Once it evolved it then spread throughout the world the Europe and the US, and it is only after that event that Argentinians started to pay closer attention to it and to develop it into what we now know as tango. In other words, it’s not uniquely Argentinian, and it did not developed locally in isolation, in some sort of regional cultural bubble that is the case with something like Flamenco. If Argentinians started to identify with it it’s probably for other purposes of creating a national identity as a social construct.

The way I look at the situation is that there are localised cultural products, that are themselves the result of cross-pollination, so that they’re neither just localised instances of mainstream or high culture, nor purely spontaneous cultural expressions, but some combination of a tradition and local flavour. These then become absorbed into and developed in terms of the wider musical tradition.

This is the case with classical music, jazz, bossa nova, European dances, and tango. Bossa nova songs talk about Corcovado, which is a place in Rio de Janeiro, but they’re enjoyed as much in Brazil as outside, and they’re played by musicians all around the world. It is probably considered as middle class culture in Brazil and many Western countries, in the sense that it will appeal to the tastes of mostly middle class people. Similarly, I’d say that tango is best identified as Western (meaning, European and new world) middle class culture.

Serato DJ Pro vs. Audirvana Studio for tango music: it’s all about the DAC filters

As I mentioned in a previous post (Towards a music-focused tango: the audiophile milonga) many tango DJs use software like Traktor Pro.

I haven’t had a chance to test the Traktor Pro with my Chord Qutest DAC which I acquired more recently.

But recently I’ve been doing some gigs in a cafe bar on my guitar and also DJing some Brazilian electronic music. For that I’m trying out Serato DJ Pro for the DJing. I was looking for DJ software that would play the CD quality music from Tidal.

So I did some comparisons between that and Audirvana Studio for tango.

I use high res 24bit/96kHz music files for tango. When I use Audirvana Studio I set it to upsampling to 32bit/192kHz. I can see on the Chord Qutest DAC the blue light which indicates that it’s receiving 192kHz sample rate.

On the Chord Qutest DAC use the “Warm HF roll-off” filter which is “designed to introduce a little warmth to the recordings … ideal for high resolution PCM playback”. I find using the “Incisive neutral” filter, which is “Designed for all who wish to hear the full spectrum of audio no matter what sample rate … has an ultra linear frequency response”, is too much information and a bit overwhelming.

Serato DJ Pro sounds pretty good for electronic music on CD quality 16bit/44.1kHz files.

When I play the high resolution tango files it still outputs 44.1kHz judging by the red light on the DAC.

When I compare the two player apps without changing my DAC settings I find that there is a clear reduction in quality when I move to Serato DJ Pro to the point that it sounds unpleasant. However, when I switch to the Incisive neutral filter on the DAC it sounds much better.

I’ve recently been alerted to the importance of filters in DACs when looking at some reviews of the Topping DACs which are developing a solid reputation for budget level DACs. You learn a lot by watching product reviews and this is most certainly the case with DACs which can be hard to get your head around.

I still prefer Audirvana Studio with the Warm HF roll-off filter on the DAC. The sound is euphonic and has colour that is really pleasant to the ear.

But this filter only seems to work when using high resolution playback, and this is mentioned in the instruction manual for the DAC. In other words, even if you’re using high resolution files, unless the player app outputs in high resolution then this filter will not sound good.

On the other hand Serato DJ Pro may have some advantages in terms of cost and file management which is not that great on Audirvana. In that case using the Incisive neutral filter on the Chord Qutest DAC seems to produce acceptable sound for tango.

What are you looking at? Why musicians rather than dancing teachers should be in charge of milongas

One major difference between milongas in Buenos Aires and those elsewhere, I believe, is that on the global tango scene milongas are controlled by dancing teachers who attract students by way of performances and various events: classes, workshops, bootcamps, etc. that are focused on movement.

Dancing teachers are in the business of movement, and that is therefore their main focus. They are mainly concerned with dancing that looks good, that attracts attention, that is highly visible and fun to look at.

It’s a basic principle of psychology that the prior stimulus primes your interpretation of subsequent stimulus. If you look at a dancing performance then subsequent evaluation of dancing will be controlled by that prior stimulus, and thus will colour your perception of it.

Musicians by contrast focus on the music. As a result, their interpretation of movement will be less in terms of how attractive it is visually, but rather in terms of whether and how it connects to the music.

In other words, what you view as primary in tango depends on where you’re coming from. If you’re a dancing teacher tango is primarily the dance. If you’re a musician, tango is primarily the music.

It is an interesting question whether the music could exist without the dancing, or whether the dancing could exist with the music. It seems that the two modalities are inextricably linked.

Some musicians play tango music that demands a performance. Then those musicians will probably have similar preferences to the dancing teachers. And the performance oriented dancing teachers will prefer music and musicians who play the sort of music that’s good for a floorshow.

On the other hand, musicians who have good understanding of traditional Epoca de Oro tango music and the reproduction of this sort of music, where that is their focus, are going to be interested in how social dancing connects to this music. The music is going to be their point of focus and their judgement and interpretation of dancing will be coloured by their understanding of the music.

Because tango milonguero social dancing is very inward it does not really have pulling power to the wider audience. It’s traditional tango music that is more likely to attract people’s attention.

One problem is that those who deal with movement are mainly interested in performance, whereas musicians are less likely to be skilled at movement.

Still, I don’t think that this is the main obstacle.

Rather the main problem is that it’s the performances that attract audiences, and once performances become the main vehicle for attracting people to tango then this gives the dancing teachers the power to then impose their particular views about what comprises competent tango dancing.

Performance dancers and their preferred musicians can attract audiences, but then need to translate that into a social dancing scene. The basic spanner in the works is that performance dancers are clueless about social dancing and so create the Frankenstein global tango scene.

So really the music rather than the movement needs to be the leading factor in the attraction of audiences to traditional social tango. Therefore, the people in charge should be those who are knowledgeable in music, in playing music, preferably some tango music, and in music reproduction.

The question then is whether they can teach basic tango dancing.

In my view musicians can develop the necessary movement skills to teach tango milonguero dancing by taking lessons in Feldenkrais Method and reading Moshe Feldenkrais’ “Awareness Through Movement”. If they also take some Contact Improvisation classes that would be even better.

In other words, I see the ideal skillset for a tango organiser as being a musician, or at least being a competent DJ with good listening and technical skills, plus basic knowledge of somatic movement in the form of Feldenkrais Method and Contact Improvisation.

In terms of promotional skills it would be preferable to attract audiences to tango via traditional tango music rather than via performances.

One possible strategy that I am myself exploring is to make a deal with a cafe or cocktail bar to promote their venue if they allow you to play tango music for an afternoon or evening and everyone buys at least one beverage. They will usually have enough space for at least a handful of couples to dance in the milonguero style.

Scoring a rent-free dancing space: make yourself musically useful

I am currently playing unpaid gigs on my guitar in some cafes and cocktail bars.

What I’m finding is that the managers are quite clueless about audio. Often they’ve invested a lot of money in their sound systems but are unable to get quality sound out of them.

Apart from just not knowing how audio equipment works they are quite poor at choosing good music for their cafe or bar.

Like most people they have no idea what a DAC does. Just like the tango DJs, they simply plug their system directly into their device.

I hooked up my Chord DAC to their system and played music from the Tidal.com app. Totally blew their mind.

After the demonstration, they tell me that they’re planning to buy a mixer. I think they believe that the problem is a lack of EQ knobs to get better sound. It’s kind of hard to explain to people what exactly a DAC does and why you need good quality music files.

So I think that if you’re smart and you have even basic knowledge of audio technology, eg., you know what a DAC is and own a good one that you can carry with you, and you can help them with their playlist and advice on where to source good quality music files, you can quickly score points and an afternoon for your tango party free of charge.

And if you keep clear of dancing large kinespheric movements you don’t need to be limited to dancing studios or large dancing floors and thus you save yourself those hefty rental fees.

Kinesphere, spatiotemporal efficiency and aesthetic effect

In previous articles I have argued for the following claims:

  1. Dance performance requires focusing on testing of the kinesphere in order to be visually impactful
  2. The horizontal push-pull image or partnering technique originates with studio-based teaching of performing artists
  3. Social tango milonguero dancing is characterised by what I’ve called “long spine” image as opposed to the “horizontal push-pull” image and efficient or controlled dancing at a milonga requires this
  4. This technique is outwardly manifested in floating knees and elbows.

I want to further elaborate these arguments in terms of the different focus of the performing artist and the milonguero social dancer, namely, focus on feet and hands vs. focus on knees and elbows

The performing artist is focused on visual appeal and this invariably demands regular testing of the kinesphere which in turn demands that the performing artist is focused on the extremities, namely, the hands and the feet. These are the furthest parts of the body that can effectively test the kinesphere. Thus, the performing artist is highly interested in what the hands and the feet are doing.

The consequence of this focus is that the technique, such as the walking technique or the partnering technique is characteristically defined in terms of the action of the hands and the feet. The other points of focus is what they call posture, the separation at the hips in order to swivel, and the powering or pushing into each step. All of this is motivated, I argue, by the interest in visual appeal and to aid large, kinesphere-testing movements. Because if you have that posture and swing the hips but you don’t take large steps, do high or wide boleos or large ochos, have a very large frame at the hands, etc. there is not much to look at.

On a number of occasions I’ve had the experience where I had negative feedback on my dancing from onlookers who were kinesphere-focused dancers and positive feedback from the woman I was dancing with. Which one do you think I care about? This is the difference between the attitude of the performance artist and their students and the milonguero social dancer. In order to dance effectively in a social context what you need is not visual appeal but what might be called spatiotemporal efficiency. I need movement technique that allows me to move to the music in sync with my parter such that I express the music, and in a way that minimises the use of space.

The issue of space can be confusing because often this is stated in terms of not upsetting other dancers rather than in terms of aesthetics of dancing experience. It is as if I have to sacrifice the aesthetics of dancing for the sake of not interfering with other dancers. I recently read on Dancing Forums the view that it is not necessary to have other dancers on the dancing floor to enjoy tango, and probably some people prefer to have more space. Of course, if you learned the performing artist dancing technique then more space is better than less space.

But I would turn the argument on its head and say that having less space, or the minimum space possible, forces milonguero social dancers to develop a highly efficient dancing technique which then results in better aesthetics. The crowded milonga is the ultimate teaching/learning tool of tango milonguero dancing, not as a “style” that looks this way or that way, but as a unique aesthetic dancing experience. Once you learn to dance that way you don’t care about what you look like and you have no interest in dancing the performing artist technique.

So the question is what is the technique that is unique to the miloguero social dancer that emerges naturally out of dancing at crowded milongas and can it be taught systematically. My previous argument was that it is the vertical long-spine image that is characterised by floating or high knees and elbows. Notice that it’s not the hands and feet but the knees and elbows. This is my argument, namely, that once you remove the requirement of testing the kinesphere you no longer have a reason to focus on the hands and feet, and the only question is what is the more efficient way of moving with your partner to the music.

Because spatial efficiency actually equals temporal efficiency. The less space you need to move through the faster you can move. The music moves and you move with it. To express the music in a tight connection with your partner you need to move fast, immediately. What’s more immediate, moving through a large space, with large movements of the extremities, or moving tightly within your intimate space (see …)? Music is time, movement is space. But space equals time (speed, immediacy), and you want time. For the aesthetics of social dancing you want an immediate response, and that means minimum use of space.

The artist must move through a lot of space because moving through a lot of space equals visual appeal. Little movement through space means little or no visual appeal. The dancing looks boring. Milonguero social dancers look boring. From the point of view of the performing artist that means no aesthetics, because no visual aesthetics. Performing artists, most of them, are incapable of seeing any other sort of aesthetics beyond the visual image. They and their followers are addicted to the visual image and are incapable of seeing past that. It’s the world that they inhabit, the world of the eye. The music and the physical sensations are just a background for them.

So then the next question is, if we’re not focusing on the extremities, on the hands and the feet, what should we be focusing on in order to move with spatio-temporal efficiency? Answer: knees and elbows. That might seem strange if you’re used to the standard tango lesson but it’s perfectly normal if you think about dances like the Charleston or Swing.

I’m not saying that you can’t move effectively by widely moving the extremities, or that dances like Charleston or Swing never involve testing the kinesphere with hands and feet. I’m saying that the wider the dance the more it depends on push-pull, wide use of space, and therefore greater difficulty and energy required to produce speed. It’s necessarily less “tight” and efficient. You can do it but you have to work hard. Finally, it’s not feasible in a packed dancing floor.

Tango milonguero social dancing focuses on the inward expressiveness within the embrace for its peculiar aesthetic effect, rather than the outward expressiveness of wide hand and foot movements and motion through space. It’s skinespheric rather than skinespheric. Unless you have experienced it you will find it difficult to be open to this as an aesthetic approach and will probably only be able to recognise the aesthetics of the visual approach. Even when dancing socially your mindset will be that of the performer and this will show to those looking on. You will look like you’re doing a performance in a social context. Twenty couples at a milonga dancing that way will look like twenty couples competing for attention at one of those tango dancing competitions. A couple dancing social milonguero type dancing will stand out on that busy dancing floor and will look decidedly inactive by comparison. It will look fundamentally different, and the students of performing artists will probably not recognise it as dancing at all.