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The New Tango Orquesta

The self-appointed saviours of New Tango blew back into Moscow this week for a second chance to hear their unique sound and line-up. Neil McGowan went along for http://www.expat.ru/.

B2 Club, 27th Feb 2003

Think of the Tango, think of Brazil… and you think of rays of sunlight piercing the pristine northern birchwood forests, as elk meander through the conifers, and salmon splash in the… what d’ya mean, "no"? Yet strange as it might seem, the only remaining live group carrying the torch for "New Tango" don’t come from the rainforests of Brazil, but the pineforests of northerly Sweden.

And no one is more passionate about New Tango than NTO founder and front-man Per Storby. I asked this mohican-cut evangelist about the instrument that’s the heart and soul - not to mention the main melody-line - of New Tango… the bandoneon. "Well, yes, it’s kind-of like an accordion or concertina – a BIG concertina! It was invented in C19th Germany, to play the hymns in small Lutheran churches who didn’t have an organ, or couldn’t afford one. Sailors and missionaries took it to South America – where it immediately went straight into the whorehouses, of course! From moral superiority to moral depravity in one quick jump. Then it was taken-up into the tango orchestras, but with a minor problem.. it’s such a bloody clumsy instrument to play, they had to slow the tempo of the tango down specially for the bandoneon players!". Per fell in love with the sound of the instrument from hearing records – "I just knew I wanted to play that sound!" - but only realised later that being clumsy to play was only half his problems. No one even makes bandoneons any more, and no one could show him how to play one either. A long search tracked-down an aged second-hand instrument, and he figured out the double button-boards for himself.

Almost all the material the quintet perform these days is original – but lurking in the background is the guiding spirit of the genre’s originator, the legendary New Tango king, Astor Piazzolla. Indeed, his spirit (the man himself died over a decade ago) took a posthumous turn around the stage for one number at B2 – a piece Piazzolla had written as a farewell present to his own quintet, when the time came for them to disband. "We were in Brazil last year, and doing the sound-check for our gig, when they told me that we had visitors – the relatives of Astor Piazzolla. When I said what we were going to play… well, you could see they were a bit uneasy about it! So we played it – just for them. At the end, there was a HUGE cheer, and I knew we’d passed the test" Per explained… with the faintest hint of a nervous tremor still lingering in his voice.

Sharing the melody-line honours for the ninety minute set was fellow Swede and violinist Livet Nord. Some of the material being heard was so new that it’s "work in development", and doesn’t even have official song-titles yet. Livet’s soaring strings illustrated clearly what other critics have said openly – there are some strong overtones of classical and jazz in the NTO’s unique sound. One of her semi-improvised solos had a hint of the spirit of Vaughan William’s "The Lark Ascending" – with all of the brilliance, exhilaration and technical mastery stunningly turned-round into a wholly new form. In an unusual way the NTO are akin to contemporary classical ballet – steadfastly remaining true to a revered tradition, yet pushing the envelope in every direction. Another untitled number, unashamedly introduced as being influenced by baroque music, featured a multi-track playback of different strings, against which the live musicians added their own contributions. The audacious result makes a "new tango" out of the archaic form of the Chaconne – but here there are Chaconnes of all eras!! We start in the C17th, with Josef Kallerdahl’s sumptuous string bass establishing the bass-line, and slowly golden melody-threads begin to interweave between bandoneon and violin, suggesting Pachelbel or Purcell. Tomas Gustavsson wrestled to add delicacy from a somewhat thrashed-sounding piano but soon the genteel control of the "baroque" form gives way to an unstoppable wildness that fused ideas suggestive of John Adams "Shaker Loops" with orgiastic mayhem, as though the periwigged fops had cast-off their crinolines for a boozy bacchanal to Beelzebub’s doorstep… before slipping back, as if caught with their trousers down, into the delicate accuracy with which it all began.

Rhythmic drive in this percussion-less line-up was ably driven along by Peter Gran on guitar, whose seamless accompaniment was sometimes given special permission to solo. Especially welcome was a lunatic guitar-bass duet that galloped along like a Bach two-part invention after a very large spliff, which expanded to become a kind of "Tango Fugue" with melody lines being rapidly back-passed between the whole group like a skilful rugby team on a top-form attack. Even so, the classic sound of New Tango is more wistful and plangent, and this is how they went out. Storby’s self-acquired bandoneon style is uniquely vocal – he plays only on the "pull" strokes, pausing to close the bellows in a breath-like instant before playing the next line, with the poise and delicacy of the most heart-tugging and breathless chanteuse.

The whole thing was sweetly set-off by a lush warm PA system at B2, and superlative sound management. Apart from the barman who decided to use the ice-crushing machine during the slow double-bass solo, you could’ve heard a pin drop, and the NTO had the audience eating of their hands long before even half-way.

The New Tango Orquesta are: Per Storby – bandoneon, Thomas Gustavsson – acoustic piano, Peter Gran – guitar, Livet Nord – violin, and Josef Kellerdahl – string bass. They are appearing at the Red Club in St Petersburg before continuing their European tour through Germany and northern Europe – they also featured on Russian TV this week. They have a website at http://www4.tripnet.se/~storby/

 

 

 


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