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
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.