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“Yeah, we’re going to South America. You know, Uruguay…”
— Answering machine in
the Coen Brothers film Blood Simple.
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“The problem with Putumayo is that they don’t like tango,” a colleague told me a few months ago in Miami.
My friend was right.
The multifaceted, cool, gorgeous-looking, Starbucks-friendly, commercially successful (but artistically uneven) label had only one tango track in its extensive collection (judging by a “tango” search on putumayo.com). Weird, considering the label specializes in popular World Music, and tango has proven to be one of its most reliable genres, both in its purest and most contemporary, experimental forms.
That’s why I was pleased and surprised when I received Putumayo’s recently released Tango Around the World collection. Crissa Requate, publicity manager for Putumayo, says the label “loves tango” and “was waiting for just the right mix of songs” to represent the genre.
For starters, the album’s title is a little misleading: This is not a straight-ahead tango CD. It’s comprised of an interesting — and, at times, superb — selection of international nuevo-tango exponents, from Argentina to Serbia and Finland. These are the the more roots-oriented guys right behind heavyweights Bajofondo and Gotan Project (Disclosure: I wrote Bajofondo’s liner notes), the main exponents of the fusion of tango with dance and electronica.
Tango Around the World’s complete liner notes (in English, Spanish, and French) score a three-pointer when they correctly state that Argentina has no monopoly on the roots of tango: Cuba and, especially, Uruguay deserve a good piece of the pie. (Disclosure # 2: I’m Uruguayan. Disclosure # 3: I don’t give a fuck about Uruguayaness, but facts are facts.)
Why is it, then, that Tango Around The World doesn’t have a single track from Uruguay or Cuba? While Cuba’s contribution to tango merely (and significantly) lies on the fact that the roots of tango are the danzón and the habanera, it was in Uruguay and, mainly, Argentina that tango developed and became what it is today. To have a tango collection of anything without a track from Uruguay is like having a rock collection without an American or British band in it. Requate says several Uruguayan tracks were dropped “due to repertoire or licensing issues.”
Call me a Uruguayan crybaby, but this is nothing personal, just the facts, ma’am: Why do Argentinians call tango “argentino” when candombe (the Afro-Uruguayan rhythm) and murga (the Spain-influenced vocal style developed in Uruguay) are considered música rioplatense (music made on both sides of the De la Plata river, which unites and divides Buenos Aires and Montevideo)? And why do Argentinians love to say “argentinos y uruguayos are all the same” but when you go to any record store you find Carlos Gardel (tango’s greatest singer) in the Argentina section? (He died with a Uruguayan passport stating he was born in Tacuarembó, Uruguay, but his nationality is disputed between France, Argentina and Uruguay. My take: who cares? He sings better and better every time, even though he died in 1935, and he’s more rioplatense than the mate, whether he was born in Toulouse of Ouagadougou.)
But those who know, know. Two-time Oscar winner and Bajofondo founder Gustavo Santaolalla once told me that “Buenos Aires is the capital of tango, and Montevideo the capital of candombe).” And Uruguayan Jaime Roos, one of the most influential rioplatense artists of the last 30 years, admits that “there was always tango in Uruguay, but most of the best tango was made in Argentina,” and “there was always candombe in Argentina, but,” he adds, “the best candombe is from Uruguay.”
However, when it comes to tango, Uruguay (except for the bi-national Latin Grammy-winning Bajofondo project) was wiped from the map long ago.
In Robert Duvall’s Assassination Tango, he asks Luciana Pedraza’s character (I’m paraphrasing) “Do you think I’d have a chance if I were younger?” The girl replies “Maybe you have a chance now.”
Uruguayans, who come from a tiny country with a population of a little more than three million, should ask: “Do you think if we were a bigger, more influential country, our contributions to tango would be properly acknowledged?”
In light of Jorge Drexler’s Best Original Song win at the Oscars in 2005 (for ‘Al otro lado del río,’ included in The Motorcycle Diaries) and a new generation of talented rock and electronic artists, maybe Uruguay does have a chance. But, as of today, tango’s official story remains closer to Pedraza’s greeting to Duvall: “Welcome to Argentina, my friend.” •