These two original works on Argentina’s music history and tango offer scholars, students, and auditors of these and other musical traditions new and productive insights. In short, the two books question and expand the very definition of “tango” and “Argentine music”—and by doing so, destabilize and nuance our definitions of popular music genres and narratives of national roots.
Matthew Karush—historian and author of three other books on Argentina’s popular politics and culture—proposes in Musicians in Transit nothing less than a geographic and ideological reframing of the history of modern Argentine popular music by focusing on the transnational exchanges that shaped the careers and work of a handful of crucial musicians we think of as quintessentially “Argentine.” In a detailed and well-crafted series of musical biographies—Oscar Alemán, Lalo Schiffrin, Gato Barbieri, Astor Piazzola, Sandro, Mercedes Sosa, and Gustavo Santaolalla—we learn how the work of these “Argentine” artists was in fact made of aesthetic, ideological, and commercial exchanges of transnational nature. The rich evidence uncovered by Karush suggests that rather than exceptional, the global nature of these careers may be a sign of a structural condition of music making in Argentina. The global dynamics that shaped these exemplary cases very likely will appear in other instances as well. Signs arise not only in the work of Carlos Gardel, the first tango superstar, but also in that of many lesser known Eastern European, Italian, and Spanish immigrant artists in the early- and mid-twentieth century. Still others exhibiting transnational influence are Argentine rock artists prominent throughout Latin America, such as Charly García or Soda Stereo, and even Daniel Barenboim, encompassing both the world of classical music and the global public sphere. But the cases chosen by Karush reveal a specifically Latin American layer of musical identity, produced by the sociopolitical and ethno-cultural features of the Argentine musical milieu, which were, before this, astonishingly unexplored.
Musicians in Transit brings together aesthetically disparate careers, and by the same gesture, destabilizes the predominantly genre-based approaches to music history. The chapters advance the argument chronologically, starting in the 1920s and ending at the turn of the twenty-first century. In Chapter One we meet Oscar Alemán, a gypsy-jazz and swing guitar player, whose peripatetic career comprised “black gaucho” performances as a kid in Buenos Aires theaters, choro learned in Brazil in the 1920s, a career on radio in Rio de Janeiro in the 1930s, and stardom in Europe and Buenos Aires until the 1940s, growing out of the Parisian nightlife, where he played in Josephine Baker’s troupe. The shift to bebop jazz in the 1950s turned Argentine musicians and audiences away from the “old” hot jazz played by Alemán, who fell into oblivion. A new generation of jazz musicians who did not identify as black and who declared themselves serious students of the genre replaced Alemán’s entertaining and négrophile aesthetics.
The second chapter concerns the conversion of pianist Lalo Schiffrin and saxophonist Gato Barbieri into champions of Latin jazz after studying and performing in Europe and the United States. Karush’s account of their conversion “from Argentines into Latins” in the changing world of U.S. jazz of the 1960s and 1970s is a tour de force, showing how urban Argentine sons of European immigrants became musically Latin American in tandem with the supposedly less cosmopolitan, working-class audiences of the also foreign, pan-Latin American cumbia—now perhaps the most popular genre in Argentina. This chapter also illuminates the aesthetic framework in which Schiffrin composed the “Latin” theme for the television show (and later movie) Mission: Impossible.
In Chapter Three, Astor Piazzolla’s cosmopolitanism, heatedly debated in the worlds of jazz, tango, and classical music in Buenos Aires and New York, is treated with the same nuance and depth as is, in Chapter Four, the creation of the corny balada star Sandro de América, revealing the convergence of U.S. rock, European pop, and Latin American bolero in the repertoire of an Argentine/Latin-American popular icon. Chapter Five, on the folk singer Mercedes Sosa, shows the twisted lines between official and revolutionary nationalisms, indigenismo, and Latin Americanism from the 1960s to the 1990s, as well as the gender and ethnic boundaries of the music industry that turned Sosa into a “mother” of Latin America, at once a “negra” and an “india.” The final chapter (whose title “The Music of Globalization” misleadingly suggests that the previous periods were not global) reconstructs the production of a “Latin” rock in Los Angeles, aimed at conquering both the United States and Latin American music marketplaces in the 1990s. Its focus is Gustavo Santaolalla, a hippie first, then nomadic rocker, and later a key musical producer of the “Latin” rock and pop sound and an Oscar Award-winning composer. Each of these trajectories, Karush shows, manifests the tensions (ethnic, ideological, aesthetic, and political) between Argentina and the rest of Latin America, Europe, and the United States.
From a pedagogical perspective, I know from having taught Musicians in Transit that the book both entices undergraduates with its narrative style, and challenges graduate ethnomusicologists with its novel geographic and generic frameworks. From the work of Sergio Pujol, Julio Nudler, Ramón Pelinski and others, we already knew about the multiple sources that informed the making of Argentine popular music. But thanks to Musicians in Transit we see for the first time how Argentine artists became Latinos/Latinas via Paris, New York, and Los Angeles (among many other places analyzed in the book), and how the opposing discourses of the “European” and “Latin American” roots of Argentina were in fact mixed and concocted over decades by an array of musicians in transit.
In The Tango Machine, the ethnomusicologist Morgan Luker explores the current life of this music genre from an unexpected perspective: the private and public institutional and economic forces that treat tango as a resource. This book is the first analytical account of the contemporary tango scene since the genre’s recent renaissance. Current tango musicians are starting to receive scholarly attention, for instance in Kacey Link and Kristin Wendland’s Tracing Tangueros, which presents the stylistic evolution of tango from the orchestras of the 1930s to the generation born in the 1970s.1 But Luker’s book deals with tango as a contemporary cultural industry, and this might be part of a larger trend: published at almost the same time in Buenos Aires by the remarkable series “Gourmet Musical,” Fábricas de Músicas (music factories) by Marina Cañardo shows how deep the history of tango is as a commercial practice.2
Readers will find a rich discussion of tango as a socio-cultural and economic resource for the city of Buenos Aires itself, for private entrepreneurs, and for artists, audiences, and practitioners involved in composing and producing tango. The main thesis of the book is that contemporary Buenos Aires tango reveals an “age of expediency” (a concept coined by George Yúdice in 2003), by which music and the arts are supposed to address socio-economic demands traditionally beyond the cultural and artistic realm. Tango, as a resource, has a value activated by “development projects” based on synergies of state, private, and civil-society actors. Musicians after all are just, as the well-chosen epigraph of the book states, quoting the maestro and orchestra director Osvaldo Pugliese, “screws in the tango machine.” (Pugliese, a Communist, ran his orchestra as a cooperative, framing tango as an economic activity informed by social principles, and he was both a symbol of the golden era of tango in the 1940s and 1950s, when market demand could sustain countless orchestras throughout Argentina, and the main inspiration of some of the school-orchestras of tango studied here.)
The book analyses the activism, views, and musical choices by which tango, after declining in popularity since the 1960s, slowly emerged in the 1990s to create not just a niche of devoted young and old practitioners but an entire urban industry. Seen in perspective, the recovery of tango in a context of both economic recession and wider public and private cultural initiatives is amazing. The subway station by the old Abasto market was renamed for Carlos Gardel in 1984, as some milongas (tango dancehalls), such as “La Catedral,” secretly thrived in the Almagro neighborhood. This was followed in 1990 by the creation of a National Academy of Tango and in 1992, a few blocks from there, by the Centro Konex, which revalorized tango’s musical heritage with its prestigious awards. Since then, musical, institutional, and commercial projects around tango in Buenos Aires have flourished, including the inauguration of the new juvenile Orquesta El Arranque in 1996; the conversion in 1998 of the Abasto market into a shopping mall (whose Hoyt Cinema hosted the city’s international film festival Bafici, further revalorizing a traditionally neglected neighborhood); in 1999, the creation of national music awards named after the greatest tango icon (Premios Gardel) and the passage of the Tango Law officially consecrating the genre as Argentina’s cultural heritage; and the declaration of Buenos Aires’s traditional, tango-related slang lunfardo as intangible heritage in 2000, the same year that the tango-themed super modern Abasto Hotel was inaugurated.
By the time of the economic catastrophe of 2001−02, all these trends were in force, followed by the global boom of electronic tango with Gotan Project (first album released in 2001) and Bajofondo Tango Club (2002), and most importantly for the argument in this book, the founding of Tangovía, at once an NGO, a recording archive, a school, an orchestra, and a production company modeled on Lincoln Center, to give tango the status of national art form and “unique Argentine contribution to global culture.” After the crisis, the sacralization of tango continued with the founding of the Museo Gardel in 2003, the expansion of tourism in the Abasto area, the inclusion of tango landmarks in Argentina’s Atlas of Intangible Heritage (2006), and the crowning achievement, the successful proposal by Argentina and Uruguay to UNESCO to declare tango as nothing less than part of the “cultural heritage of humanity.”
Explaining how tango became a culture industry unto itself makes The Tango Machine an important reference for scholars studying contemporary forms of cultural management in other cities and countries. The “age of expediency” in the subtitle, however, is never satisfactorily defined. The ethnographic research for the book took place mainly from 2004 to 2007, years of economic and institutional crisis and recovery as well as increased international tourism, which began in 2002 as a consequence of the devaluation of the local currency—a crucial condition for the development of the city’s cultural and tourist industries. As a consequence, urgency, expediency, and pragmatics were certainly features of the world of tango as it appears in the ethnography. But the reader may ask: was there any historical context in which music did not serve causes, meanings, or social mechanisms beyond music, in the social, economic, political, or cultural domain? The author concludes, in fact, with the (true) claim that music has always been a resource for extra-musical demands—even within the supposedly purely aesthetic paradigm of the Western canon. The book’s lengthy theorization of the economic and institutional management of music feels at times a bit repetitive, whereas the tangueros’ concrete experience and practice within these institutions—the orchestra 34 Puñaladas, the cooperative tango school El Astillero, the NGO Tangovía, and the Buenos Aires cultural industries—seems a bit rapid. Tango thrived in different political and economic climates: the neoliberal recessive period of the late 1990s; the mayoral administration of Aníbal Ibarra (when, despite low domestic demand for tango, tourism and culture festivals reinvigorated the city’s cultural scene) and that of Mauricio Macri; and finally the neo-developmentalist economic recovery of the Kirchner era. To what extent, then, does the term “neoliberalism” capture the multiple logics of cultural policy that animated those critical years?
This question about neoliberalism, like Karush’s use of globalization, in fact puts the research on Argentine music history into dialogue with larger debates about the economics and cultural circulation of popular music. If The Tango Machine is an invitation to ethnomusicologists and tango scholars to open their research towards institutions and politics, Musicians in Transit is an invitation to rediscover the global shaping of a national musical tradition. Scholars of Argentina and tango will enjoy and celebrate these two fantastic contributions.