Ballade.no: Tango across sea and land

A bridge of melancholy and longing extends from Oslo to Buenos Aires. The bridge is called El Muro Tango. It stands on pillars of Skype, musical adventurousness and airline tickets.

By Marianne Lystrup, published 20.12.2018 in Ballade.no. Read original article in Norwegian.

El Muro Tango released its debut album this autumn: Nostàlgico. In the recording we hear the Norwegian violinist Karl Espegard and Åsbjørg Ryeng on bandoneon, pianist and composer Juan Pablo de Lucca from Buenos Aires, and bassist Sebastian Noya, who lives in Switzerland. With them, they have the singer Juan Villarreal from Buenos Aires. The band has already been on tour in many countries for the past two years.

A bitter cold afternoon in December I meet Karl Espegard in Oslo. We seek refuge in the apartment he borrows from a friend (the globetrotter has not yet a place to call home) and start a Skype conversation with Juan Pablo de Lucca from Berlin and Juan Villarreal, who is having breakfast in Buenos Aires.

El Muro Tango in Skype Call, © Marianne Lystrup

I’m looking at the small screen and thinking about all the amazing technological opportunities we have at the moment. But these guys create music and that is quite something else, isn´t it?

Fierce dance
Recently, everyone was gathered in Norway for a small release tour, during which they were warming up Oslo and other smaller cities with their hefty tango rhythms. They are also known from the television show “Norway´s Got Talent” on TV2, where they accompanied the dancers Cyrena and Steinar. Lived life and longing for even more adventures vibrates in the air.

 

– It’s not easy to be a group when we live so far apart, says de Lucca.

– While it’s useful to be able to talk over the web, it’s something quite different to be in the same room and share and develop ideas. When we still are able to pull it off, it’s because we really want it. We are proud of what we have achieved so far. And when we get together, have concerts and notice how the audience gets carried along, it gives us a real kick, he continues.

Espegard nods and adds that it is the desire to live a life filled with music that keeps them going, despite the fact that the distances are cumbersome. For his part, he is also genuinely interested in tango after several long stays in Argentina.

– You Argentinians probably have tango in the blood, and have also played and sung together with many other groups, but how is it for you to work with two Norwegian musicians?

Villarreal takes the word:

– To me it is very nice to work with these Norwegians. They are good musicians. Nationality does not matter, but in the case of tango, it is an additional challenge because it is so closely linked to the culture.

– For us, having grown up with it, tango has been transmitted unnoticed into our life through our parents. But Karl has lived here in Argentina and has learned the language and ways of tango. It’s not about being able to play the right notes, but about the actual basic emotion. I feel he has grabbed it.

El Muro Tango, © David Dollmann

Straight from the spleen
– Yes, what is tango really? On the record there are several different rythms, including waltz and something similar to samba … Can anything be tango if you just perform it in a certain way?

– To me, there is one word that defines tango: esplin, says Villarreal.

He speaks Spanish now, and both Espegard and I find that our language skills come a little short. But Villarreal explains:

– The songs can be about anything. It can be a love story, something about friendship, a story from the past – anything. Sometimes a happy song, but at the bottom you will always find stripes of melancholy and nostalgia. It’s the “party where sadness is danced,” as a friend of mine says. That’s how it is.

– Of course there are certain elements that belong: Syncopes, fermatas, rhythms – many elements – but ultimately, it is a state of mind. To me it is esplin. This is what carries it all, which speaks about everything you’ve lost or almost lost, and about death. Remember that tango is created by poor immigrants, slaves, indigenous people and gauchos – people who have lost their roots.

When I check the term, it appears that the word Villarreal uses to describe tango is a term for the organ “spleen”, and it is linked to an old idea that spleen is the organ in the body that produces “black bile” . People who were sad, melancholic or depressed had an excess of this fluid.

Lentil stew
– It may be symptomatic that while I asked about counting bars in the music, you are more concerned with the inner life of music?

– Yes, you can make tango of many different kinds of rhythms, but if you do not understand the esplin, you do not play tango, confirms Villarreal.

From Berlin, de Lucca jumps in with a bit more music technological explanation:

– Tango is divided into three subcategories: Tango, Milonga and Waltz. Tango is at 4/4 pace, but it must be played with the right feeling. If not, it becomes carousel music.

– There are clearly defined rules, continues Espegard.

– These have been developed over the years. For example, you do not have percussion in the orchestra, but you use the instruments percussively. It’s typical for tango. You have the obvious difference between a legato, marcato and syncope, which are basic structural elements.

De Lucca illustrates:
– Yes, this is the skeleton, but the most important reason to know it is to be able to free yourself from it. You can compare it with a mass-produced suit. You do not want it. Why would you like to have a suit that is identical to what everyone else has? You also don´t want to play tango like everyone else plays it. You want to create your own.

Espegard concludes that making your own version of a tango song is typical.

– The scores you get from the composer usually contain only the melody and the harmony, therefore the same song can sound very different, depending on which artist is performing it.

The Lucca rounds off by testifying to the relationship between jazz and tango, and continues enthusiastically into an explanation of food recipes. Although some dishes have certain elements that must be there, like lentils in a lentil soup, you can add a lot of different ingredients to your own liking.

Dense sound
– What is the core of El Muro Tango?

– You ask about our recipe? Parallel fourths!

The boys are grinning, but de Lucca still reveals a few secrets from their cookbook:

– The sound is for a large part built by mine and Karls interaction. The sound of tango orchestras is almost always directed from the piano. Because of the fact that tango groups do not have any rhythm section, the piano leads through its bass lines and harmonizations. When there is an accelerando or ritardando, it’s always the piano that directs it. The piano also has a lot of volume, so the others must follow. You can say I control what’s going on, hehe.

Espegard says tango today has two distinct directions.

– On the one hand you have the traditional clubs where people go to dance, and it is quite common for the orchestras to faithfully copy the old, well-known artists and styles.

– On the other hand, you have concert tango, which largely flourishes in Europe. Here the main emphasis is on the legend Astor Piazzolla and other classically trained musicians. El Muro Tango finds itself in the middle of these. We want to keep it danceable, but also add some new subtleties, some harmonic explorations and create our own expression. It’s a demanding task, because if you get too experimental, it’s easy to get away from the danceable. It seems like we’ve managed to find our balance.

 

Woman with bandoneon
Noticeable for the group is the fact that they have a female bandoneon player. Åsbjørg Ryeng is not present while I talk to the rest of the group, but afterwards she tells me about her random way into this particular choice of instrument:

– I was ten years old when I entered the local music school in Trondheim. Just then, Kåre Jostein Simonsen had been in Paris and learned to play bandoneon, and started teaching the instrument. It seemed like fun, so I signed up for the class.

Since then, Ryeng has continued to play the instrument, and several years later graduated with a masters degree from the Norwegian Academy of Music and has become a member of several tango bands. Even in the traditionally male chauvinist Argentina, she has only met positive response to the fact that, as a woman, she plays the instrument which until recently has only been played by men.

– Here we have, once again, the fact that tango relates to the culture, says de Lucca.

– In the typical local milongas (clubs, ed’s note), the women only went out with their family. If you wanted to dance with a women, you had to ask the father for permission. The women never went out alone. My mother, who is around 70 years old, always had to bring her aunt if she wanted to go out to dance while she was young. In the last ten years it is no longer the case, and there are also more women playing the bandoneon. Some of them are really good.

 

Controls the dance
– Does the dance change as well? When you see people dancing tango, you see that there is a clear hierarchy – the man is the boss and the woman is being led?

– When I started dancing ten years ago I was not taught that the man is the boss, but someone has to lead the dance, and according to tradition it’s the man, says de Lucca.

– But first and foremost it has to do with the fact that he is looking in a forward direction. You cannot lead the dance while walking backwards. But the dance is something we do together. Today, if you dance with young women and try to lead them in a bossy way, they will quickly say thanks and leave the dance floor, he says.

Espegard has observed that in milongas, many couples are switching to take the leading role.

– It can happen both between man and woman, and between two of the same sex. But you can´t ignore the fact that in the dance there are two very distinct roles.

Controlling the fermatas
– In the group, how do you manage to coordinate all the rhythmical and emotional changes that are used in tango? Long fermatas, syncopes or accelerandi – all this passion, how do you agree to when it should happen?

De Lucca explains:

– We make some kind of choreography when we practice. But how we do it is not as important as why we do it. If you only know how to do it, you can only do what the choreography directs. We also improvise. We can do that because we understand each other. It has something to do with the way we speak. There is a lot of singing in the language. We shout, whisper and gesticulate, and much is said with just the eyes.

– A couple of years ago when I arrived to Europe, I first lived in Hamburg, Oslo and Berlin. Then I arrived to Italy, and it struck me that as soon as I got out in the street, I felt that I understood everything that happened. The way people used their eyes, body posture, how they talked to each other … all the insignificant things in communication. It was almost like back home. We do not have a ‘clean’ and tidy communication as you guys in Northern Europe. It is much more dirty, messy and expressive with us.

De Lucca talks warmly about the way to express, and recites a few lines from one of their songs:

Cerrame el ventanal que arrastra el sol su lento caracol de sueño

He recites first softly and confidently, then hard and imperiously to illustrate how the musicians must follow carefully the expression of the soloist and adjust their playing accordingly. The poetic verses are so delicate that I will not try to translate, but we understand that it is a good idea to pay close attention.

 

– You simply just have to listen very carefully to each other?

– Yes, you should have a choreography at the core, but most interesting things happen when someone in the group strays off from the choreography. As if Juan suddenly discovers something in the text that he has not thought of before and sings it differently than usual, then we have to change the plan, says de Lucca, and emphasizes that they must respond to what the singer is trying to convey.

– When five people go together to tell a story, it’s so powerful that you can hardly stay untouched. You sometimes notice in concerts: Something is happening, you cannot describe it, and you cannot recreate it even if you tried, but it is a strong experience.

– This is not unique to tango, continues Espegard.

– It concerns art in general. The musicians respond to the circumstances and it affects what is happening on stage. However, it is noticable to what extent tango is related to the Argentinian style of life. Therefore, there is also a difference between tango played at club in Buenos Aires and in some German city.

Percussive game
– You are a classically trained violinist. What is the biggest challenge for you as an instrumentalist when playing tango?

– I would rather answer to what’s the biggest benefit! What I like about playing tango is that although the music has certain rules, one is free. Free to experiment. Create your own versions. It is an essential reason to why I play tango.

– As for the technique, there are certain things to learn, such as the percussive way to play such squeaky sounds as one gets when playing with the bow placed behind the bridge. There are other percussive effects as well. I do not feel like I have mastered everything yet, but I have not focused strongly on it either. I’m not looking for cheap effects. The music consists of other things, says Espegard.