Buenos Aires is known for tango; it’s part of the history of the city. It is kept alive in restaurants and tourist areas in the ever-present “tango show,” which features the iconic music — often live — and several dancers, the women dressed in the appropriately short skirts and high heels. Locals look down on these shows, saying that they don’t have the passion of true tango, that it’s not real.
But the music does still have a place in the heart of porteños, everyone’s mum used to play it in the evenings, everyone knows the most famous songs. And it’s still played live in tiny clubs not usually visited by tourists, certainly not organised for the benefit of visitors.
A typical “tango show”
We were studying Spanish in Buenos Aires, and a fellow student invited us to go out for the night with him and a group of others. “I’ve found this awesome place,” he said. “A real locals’ bar.”
The place was the Boliche de Roberto, a tiny bar about the size of a four-car garage, with a one-metre square stage wedged against one wall. We got there early (at 9pm) to secure one of the five or so tables; the rest were occupied by individual people obviously holding the space for friends. People trickled in, picking up a drink at the bar then joining friends or leaning against a handy wall.
By eleven, the place was packed and the first act came on: a guy with a guitar and a female singer. They had no amps, no other equipment than his guitar and her voice. The bar went silent, a hundred people listening respectfully, occasionally joining in for a line or two, which surprised me: in the quiet hush of the room, one person singing along was very noticeable. However, the singer didn’t seem to mind, just continued on, making eye contact with people in all parts of the room as she sang. The music was amazing: the sound of tango at its most simple.
Short skirts and heels are not always a part of tango
The set lasted about half an hour; we went back to our drinks and conversation. We were thinking about leaving at about 1am, when suddenly the next act arrived: two older guys with guitars. We stayed. It was the same music as the previous act, some of the same songs even, but completely different. Instead of husky soul, these guys had energy. They stayed standing, with a foot on their chairs and their guitars balanced on their knees. They started more slowly but built tempo over a few songs, then started encouraging the audience to join in. “Bueno,” one of them said. “Un tango que todos conocen.” (A tango that everyone knows.) And everyone did know: the bar broke into song.
Afterwards, they passed around a hat and everyone drifted into the street. There had been no dancing, no short skirts and high heels, but we felt like we’d really experienced tango; much more than we had in the touristy tango show we’d been at the week before.