The Tango Machine: Musical Culture in the Age of Expediency

The Tango Machine: Musical Culture in the Age of Expediency

by Morgan James Luker

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In Argentina, tango isn’t just the national music—it’s a national brand. But ask any contemporary Argentine if they ever really listen to it and chances are the answer is no: tango hasn’t been popular for more than fifty years. In this book, Morgan James Luker explores that odd paradox by tracing the many ways Argentina draws upon tango as a resource for a wide array of economic, social, and cultural—that is to say, non-musical—projects. In doing so, he illuminates new facets of all musical culture in an age of expediency when the value and meaning of the arts is less about the arts themselves and more about how they can be used.
Luker traces the diverse and often contradictory ways tango is used in Argentina in activities ranging from state cultural policy-making to its export abroad as a cultural emblem, from the expanding nonprofit arts sector to tango-themed urban renewal projects. He shows how projects such as these are not peripheral to an otherwise “real” tango—they are the absolutely central means by which the values of this musical culture are cultivated. By richly detailing the interdependence of aesthetic value and the regimes of cultural management, this book sheds light on core conceptual challenges facing critical music scholarship today.  

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226385686
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 10/24/2016
Series: Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 216
File size: 927 KB

About the Author

Morgan James Luker is associate professor of music at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.

Read an Excerpt

The Tango Machine

Musical Culture in the Age of Expediency

By Morgan James Luker

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-38568-6


Expedient Soundings: The Genre Culture of Contemporary Tango Music

It is late at night, well past midnight. We are in the basement performance space of a downtown bar. During the day the streets outside are a cacophony of noise and bustle. Now they are quiet, with little more than the scratch of the wind as it pushes piles of urban dust from one side of the street to the other. The room itself is completely dark, save for the dim spotlight on the singer. The four guitarists arranged behind him are barely visible, illuminated as if by candlelight. It is the perfect setting for hearing a tango story, a story told in song. This one is called "Amablemente" (Nicely). It describes a man who returns to his small, squalid home to find his lover wrapped in another man's arms. Still, the lyrics continue, without getting worked up, and with great skill, the man dismisses the Don Juan: "You can split, buddy; the man is never guilty in these cases." Now alone with the girl, as the lilting 3–3–2 rhythm of the milonga accompaniment pattern picks up slightly, the man asks for his slippers and settles in to relax, as if he had seen nothing at all. The brooding guitars are violently cut off by a sudden, foreshadowing silence. The previously soaring vocal line retreats to a hushed spoken voice: "Catalina," says the man, "brew me up some tea." The woman, frightened, follows his orders, while the man enjoys the flavor of a nice smoke, chattering on about nothing. The guitars quietly return to marking time, with a plodding emphasis on the downbeat. After relaxing with his tea, the man rises up and approaches the woman, drawing her closely to him, covering her forehead with kisses. Then, with great tranquility — amablemente — he stabs her thirty-four times, killing her. The vocalist releases the final line the way we might imagine the murdered woman's body falling to the floor.

The contemporary tango ensemble 34 Puñaladas is made up of of three guitars and guitarrón that accompany a single male vocalist — "an orchestra of tense strings and singer," as they describe themselves ( This instrumentation is a classic setting for tango song, going back to the time of Carlos Gardel (1890–1935) and even earlier, though it has been heard only rarely in recent decades. The song itself is generations older than the musicians playing it, but it is now one of their signature pieces. The name of the group, which translates as "34 Stabs," is taken from the song's startlingly violent final image. Like the rest of the so-called prison tango repertoire that 34 Puñaladas specializes in, "Amablemente" depicts the lives of the urban poor at the margins of early twentieth-century Argentine society. This was the formative moment of modern urbanity in Argentina, the mundane violence and refined desperation of which have long been exalted in Argentine literature, most famously in the evocative journalism and bleak fiction of Roberto Arlt (1900–1942). Like Arlt's unflinching journalistic etchings, tango songs from this period examine the tropes of urban life — violence, delinquency, drunkenness, infidelity, poverty, and so on — in such a way that they can be heard as quasi-historical reportages, verbal art, and poetic literature simultaneously. However, by concentrating on this repertoire at a time when the social realities of poverty, violence, and insecurity have returned to Buenos Aires at levels similar to those portrayed in these songs, 34 Puñaladas challenges the comfortable consumption of tango enabled by the passage of time and the gloss of canonization.

Their music does not breathe new life into tango as much as conjure it from the dead. Alejandro Guyot, the group's vocalist, explained this to me in evocative terms: "When I put on my suit, a black suit, to go out and sing [...] it is like going back to give life to the anonymous, low-life characters of Buenos Aires. That is what the reinterpretation of these tangos amounts to, a liberation of those ghosts. It is like returning to free the ashes of those forgotten characters, so that they can once again travel across the city of Buenos Aires with the wind" (2007). This image of tango as a ghost that occupies the city flirts with hyperbole. There has been a continuous, albeit highly circumscribed, genre culture of tango among dedicated audiences in Buenos Aires going back more than a hundred years. Thus any claim regarding the "death" of tango should be taken with more than a grain of salt (e.g., Zanada 1988 [2006]). Yet, as we saw in the introduction, there is simply no denying the profound disconnect between the niche status of contemporary tango and the long history of mobilizing tango as a national genre in Argentina. For contemporary tango musicians, this dual trend of detachment and connection is not a loss to be mourned, nor is it a contradiction in need of explanation. It is the foundational trope of their historical experience regarding tango and a key part of what has made tango such a productive resource for making artistic work today.

This dual trend of detachment and connection is reflected in a vigorous debate regarding the value and meaning of tango in Argentina that took place during the neoliberal transformation of the 1990s and the disaster of the 2001 economic crisis. A new generation of historically informed tango ensembles first emerged at that time, including 34 Puñaladas. These groups drew upon genre conventions, stylistic details, and musical repertoires from previous periods of tango history and creatively incorporated that material into their current artistic work. Rather than producing straightforwardly new or original music, these artists utilized the sound, style, and visual imagery of their historical predecessors as aesthetic templates that would frame or key their musical performances (Bateson 1972 [2000]; Goffman 1974 [1986]; Bauman 1984). Because knowledge of these templates was unevenly shared, the value and meaning of this work came not from the alternately celebratory or anxious positions these artists took with respect to canonized tango history, but from the creative misunderstandings of that history that their music articulated. In this context, music history itself became a charged field of symbolic action in which a variety of contemporary concerns could be productively engaged, not least of which is the contested relevance of that history.

Discussing the music of 34 Puñaladas within the broad contours of this context, this chapter introduces us to the genre culture of contemporary tango music in Buenos Aires. In it, I argue that contemporary tango operates as a mode of "expedient sounding," a means of making productive claims not only on music and the arts, but also on culture, power, history, and politics more broadly. These productive claims are made, in this case, through formal matters of instrumentation, style, performance practice, repertoire, and language, among others. Examining how these artists draw upon and use these musical features will help us understand how and why tango has once again become a valuable resource for meaningful artistic production, something that was by no means inevitable given the larger scope of musical and social history in Argentina. It will also help us understand how and why musical practice itself participates in the larger turn toward usability that characterizes musical culture in the age of expediency and the work of the managerial regimes, a crucial component of the critique that unfolds over the course of the subsequent chapters.

On the surface of it, the relationship between musical and managerial use is straightforward. These musicians deliberately use tango to generate a wide variety of values and meanings: musical, social, historical, economic, and so on. Those values and meanings in turn serve as a cornerstone of what makes other expedient claims on tango compelling and, indeed, even possible. Tango is not simply out there waiting to be drawn upon and used, despite the managerial regimes' metaphorical interpellation of culture as a "natural" or "renewable" resource, which is commonplace in the discourses of cultural-policy making and the commercial cultural industries. It is in fact not a thing at all, but an intangible zone of cultural practice that is creatively conjured anew with every sounding note. This is what Alejandro Guyot means by his image of musical performance as a "liberation of [tango's] ghosts [...] so that they can once again travel across the city of Buenos Aires with the wind." In framing it this way, I do not mean to perpetuate romanticized notions regarding the moment of musical origination or to propose that the role of "musician" is above or comes before the many other roles that together constitute the field of cultural production regarding contemporary tango in Buenos Aires. I simply mean to recognize that the tango genre would not exist without the genre culture of tango; much less would it serve as the affective foundation of the many expedient projects that mobilize and use tango in Buenos Aires today.

The idea of genre culture comes from recent work in popular-music studies, ethnomusicology, and elsewhere. Fabian Holt hears genre culture as a complex amalgamation of social and discursive networks, musical conventions, and the work of the mass and micro media. His perspective is useful because it "stresses the social and historical dimensions that are ignored when categories are defined only in relation to the music itself" (2007, 19). My argument expands the idea of genre culture in two specific ways. First, it places additional emphasis on the historical relationality of genre. Musical production is not only a mode of artistic creativity within a historically informed social network, but what the Argentine sociologist Elizabeth Jelin (2003, 5) calls a "labor of memory," something that takes place "when human beings are actively involved in the processes of symbolic transformation and elaboration of meanings of the past." In other words, the history contained in genre — as repertoire, as canon, as performance practice, and so on — is not "a presence without agency" that is simply received from the past. It is the product of creative work that both generates and transforms that history through a tense process of "acting out" and "working through" (Jelin 2003, 6–7).

Secondly, my argument asks us to reconsider the role of place in genre culture, especially regarding the cultivation of musical value and meaning. Tango is no different from other genres in that its every mobilization is located within a network of "communicative relations between the many different agents that create and sustain the genre's identity," a network whose many nodes, be they individual fans, musicians, groups, communities, or scenes, are always located in space and time (Holt 2007, 20–21). The primary site here is the city of Buenos Aires, the place where tango initially developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and where the musicians I examine are physically situated. Buenos Aires is also relentlessly celebrated in tango itself, exalted in innumerable tango songs from across the history of the genre. Thus the city of Buenos Aires is not just a physical site, a node in a global network of artistic affinity, the location of a particular musical scene, or even a charged cultural geography. It is a key frame for the production and reception of tango in artistic practice, the stage upon which the drama of the genre is enacted, and a physical means by which the past and the present of tango are juxtaposed and mediated.

Taken together, these twin emphases on place and historicity carry some explanatory power regarding how and why tango has once again become a productive zone of artistic engagement in Buenos Aires today, at least for 34 Puñaladas and their peers. It also helps us understand how artistic concerns with tango can intervene in broader matters of history and politics in Argentina. Long celebrated as the so-called national genre of Argentina, the performance conventions and musical codes associated with tango have been taken as a sonic boundary between those who are included and those who are excluded from the imaginary space of the musical nation. Genres like tango are therefore not just frames for historically and physically situated modes of shared artistic practice, but powerful discourses of place and history that exalt certain figures, instances, or subjectivities while silencing others. The hows and whys of this are highly contested, but this lived correlation between musical style and social inclusion nevertheless speaks to the value of musical culture as a resource for aesthetic forms, social sensibilities, modes of cultural politics, and other expedient claims.

Following a brief introduction to the group and its members, I begin with a discussion of the artistic concerns that motivated 34 Puñaladas' initial interest in tango. Their engagements with the genre have been highly self-conscious and clearly charged with the weight of the contested histories outlined above. I then focus on the musical details of 34 Puñaladas' artistic project, with particular attention to matters of instrumentation, style, and performance practice. These and other features of their music speak directly to the group's concern with the historicity of tango, which is widely shared among their peers. They also speak to how musical style can be mobilized as a resource for the creative rearticulation of social identifications. I then examine how these concerns are further compounded by the group's focus on tango canción (tango song), a historically distinct subgenre within the otherwise largely instrumental tradition of tango music. Their emphasis on tango canción raises additional questions regarding the status of language in tango. Central to this is the use of lunfardo, a slang vocabulary of Spanish unique to Buenos Aires that was commonly used in historical tango lyrics, especially the so-called prison tango repertoire in which 34 Puñaladas have specialized (Conde 2014).

All of this is framed by the dual trend of detachment and connection that is at the heart of 34 Puñaladas' musical project and the genre culture of contemporary tango music as a whole. As we shall see, the group is deeply engaged with but ultimately critical of the hegemonic construction of the tango tradition as they have encountered it. That tradition has historically located the value and meaning of tango in its exceptionalism and essential difference vis-à-vis other forms and styles, places and times. Against this, 34 Puñaladas refigure the relationship between the sounds, styles, and sensibilities of tango and other decidedly non-tango forms, genres, and practices. In doing so, they have made tango into something that can, in its musical sameness, meaningfully account for an expanding range of historical, social, and political difference. This conflation of artistic practice and cultural politics is part and parcel of the larger mushrooming of values and meanings that characterizes the use of musical culture in the age of expediency.

34 Puñaladas and the Genre Culture of Tango

Treinta y cuatro Puñaladas was formed in March 1998 and has since gone through several personnel changes. At the time of my primary fieldwork, the group featured Alejandro Guyot as vocalist, Augusto Macri, Edgardo González, and Juan Lorenzo on nylon-stringed acoustic guitars, and Hernan Reinaudo on the Argentine guitarrón, a slightly larger-bodied six-string guitar that was incorporated into tango from Argentine folkloric music (it is not related to the Chilean and Mexican instruments of the same name). As of 2015, the group has released five full-length recordings, Tangos carcelarios (2002), Slang (2005), Argot (2006), Bombay BsAs (2009), and Astiya(2014). In 2011 they released a DVD titled De la bolsa al ruedo, which documented a live performance. With the exception of their first recording, which was released on the Argentine jazz-oriented record label BAU Records, all of their recordings have been released by Acqua Records, an independent record label in Buenos Aires that specializes in contemporary Argentine music in a variety of genres, including tango, folklore, and rock, among others.

The group's recorded work has been greeted with significant critical acclaim from the outset. Tangos carcelarios was recognized as one of the best contemporary tango recordings of the year by two of the most prominent daily newspapers in Argentina, Clarín and La Nación. Their two subsequent albums, Slang and Argot, were both nominated for the Premio Gardel de la Música, the Argentine equivalent of a Grammy Award. Gabriel Plaza, an influential Argentine music journalist, wrote that the album Bombay BsAs, the group's first to consist entirely of original compositions, was "not just another recording for the group," but "the beginning of another era" for tango in general (Plaza 2009).

The ensemble performs regularly in Buenos Aires and has toured internationally, including appearances in Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Austria, Australia, the United States, and Canada. But despite the extent of their performance schedule and the enthusiasm they have generated among critics, at the time of my fieldwork the group's members were unable to support themselves through work with 34 Puñaladas alone and had to supplement their incomes by other means. Much of this was still musical. The guitarist Edgardo González composed and recorded music for films, taught private tango guitar and composition lessons, and occasionally worked as a record producer. Hernan Reinaudo kept a rigorous schedule as one of the most active freelance tango guitarists in Buenos Aires. Outside of music, the guitarist Juan Lorenzo had a significant parallel career as a visual artist, and vocalist Alejandro Guyot worked as a German-language instructor in an Argentine high school. All expressed hopes that they would someday earn their living through work with the ensemble.


Excerpted from The Tango Machine by Morgan James Luker. Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: On the Values of Music in Expedient Argentina
1 Expedient Soundings: The Genre Culture of Contemporary Tango Music
2 Contemporary Tango and the Cultural Politics of música popular
3 Tango among the Nonprofit Arts
4 Tango as Part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity
5 “This Is Going to Be Good for All of Us”: Tango and the Cultural Industries
Conclusion: He Sings Better Every Day: Musical Culture in the Age of Expediency

What People are Saying About This

Geoffrey Baker

“On one level, The Tango Machine fills a surprising gap in the English-language literature, serving the need for an analytical yet accessible monograph on contemporary tango. Yet it does much more than this: it also treats tango as a case study of music as a multi-faceted cultural resource in the ‘age of expediency,’ and its theorization of how music is used in Buenos Aires, the ‘managerial regimes’ that organize it, and the multiplicity of values, contradictions, and synergies that it accrues, will shed light far beyond Argentina.”

Anthony Seeger

“In the process of developing his masterful model of musical culture in the age of expediency, Luker addresses many aspects of musical life that have all too often been neglected by ethnomusicologists, including the roles of NGOs, diverse kinds of media companies, government policies, and international cultural heritage projects. His broad insights, based on a rich multilevel ethnography of tango music in Buenos Aires in the twenty-first century, have implications for music throughout Latin America and beyond.”

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