Tango Bajofondo

Tangled up in Tango

Gustavo Santaolalla’s Bajofondo

“There’s a sense of self-assurance that Argentinians have; sometimes it’s pathological, but the porteĖo tends to be somebody who knows about the world. They have a certain information that they carry with them, and a certain sentimental richness that comes from being from a land that was created by immigrants.”

Possibly the busiest man in the history of the universe, superstar record producer/film composer/musician/publisher/wine-merchant Gustavo Santaolalla has a knack for juggling disparate plates of creativity without the entire pile crashing to the floor. It’s a gift the L.A-based Argentinian dynamo demonstrated with his electro-tango ensemble Bajofondo at Walt Disney Concert Hall on May 14. The band was joined by conductor Alondra de la Parra’s Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas in a concert featuring music that celebrated the 200th anniversary of Mexico’s Independence, the 100th anniversary of the Mexican Revolution and the Argentine bicentennial.

American audiences got to know Santaolalla primarily through his Oscar-winning score for Brokeback Mountain, and for his critically praised music for Amores Perros, The Motorcycle Diaries and Babel. Yet prior to his film scoring work, Santaolalla’s achievements as a musician and later as a multiple Grammy-winning producer of a long list of artists including Julieta Venegas, Molotov, Juanes, Café Tacuba and Juana Molina made him perhaps the prime architect of the roc en espaĖol movement that united the Argentinian and Mexican rock scenes.

At his Echo Park studio, the wired, dapper Santaolalla seems the physical embodiment of the unfettered and fertile Argentinian musical character. It’s a stance that’s important to convey, he says.

“My determination to commit to the concept of identity I’ve had since I started my band Arco Iris when I was 16 years old. I always thought that it was very important to convey in what I did the place that I come from, my culture, my people.”

Santaolalla’s score for Brokeback Mountain flowed with both a spatial lushness and an intricate textural scheme that is, he says, directly related to the folklorical, tango and rock music of his native Buenos Aires. Argentina’s remoteness from its sources of musical and artistic inspiration, as well as its history of immigration, played a major role in widening his imagination.

“Geographically, it’s located in a very distant place; if you look at a map, it’s waaay down there,” he says. “And Buenos Aires is a very cosmopolitan city; it’s a harbor city too, so it was a big place for coming and going, immigration currents, you know. The core of Argentina is made out of Spaniards and Italians; we do have a big Jewish community and other communities –– a lot of Brits and Welsh in Patagonia; I mean, I did all my school at St. Paul's, a super-British school in Argentina.

“People say Buenos Aires is the Paris of South America, because it’s a big cultural movement, with great nightlife, great food. Because of the particular mixture of the immigration, we are always looking in from the outside, and we’ve always represented avid curiosity for what’s happening. We’ve always looked very much to Europe. As a matter of fact, in Argentina we use a phrase from Macedonia Fernández, who is an iconic writer from many many years ago: ‘The only thing we don’t consult with Europe is tango.’”

Les Paul and Mary Ford, and Frankie Laine and Dinah Shore and Floyd Cramer, Fats Domino and Chuck Berry”), there was no escaping the sway of the Argentinian national obsession: tango.

“It’s part of my genetic musical makeup,” he says. “My dad used to sing tangos shaving every morning; you’re listening in the houses, in the public transportation, at family gatherings, on the radio and TV. And I always had tremendous respect that it was very sophisticated music and yet very popular. I always knew because of my connection with this concept of identity that tango was something that sometime in my life I was going to tap into it.”

“To be a tango player, you need life experiences that will take you to that. There’s nothing more depressing that seeing a little kid singing a tango.”

In Argentina, the tango is not just another musical style; it is, for many, a way of life, a genuine symbol of the social order. When nuevo tanguero Astor Piazzolla revolutionized the form in the 1950s with new works that dared to alter tango’s scope and structure, he was widely attacked as something of a blasphemer –– a traitor, even.

“After Piazzolla, many things happened with tango,” says Santaolalla. “Tango became like a question: What is Tango? After Piazzolla, there was this fight about `It’s tango!’ ‘It’s not tango!’ Certainly it was music from Buenos Aires, and certainly Piazzolla brought a lot of new elements into tango. Piazzolla is one of the great masters of tango, a giant, but he kind of polarized the whole scene, in the sense that everything that happened before him became ‘obsolete,’ and everything that started coming after him had elements of his music but lacked his genius. They were all influenced by Piazzolla, but they were never quite like Piazzolla.”

It was with all this in mind when Santaolalla formed his Bajofondo with longtime creative partner Anibal Kerpal in 2003; they, too, would dare to take the tango to unknown, dangerous places. Comprising a crew of Argentinian and Uruguayan musicians, Bajofondo brought the tango into the modern world, mixing rock and electronic and hiphop elements to forge a hybrid musical language that aims to respect its folklorical roots –– yet, says Santaolalla with a laugh, not be too reverent about it.

“We knew that we were stepping on sacred ground, that we would be burned at the stake just to do this, by people from the tango side and people from the rock world. But I wanted to experiment. How can we create a modern music that represents that urban landscape that is particular to places like Buenos Aires and Montevideo? In Buenos Aires and Montenegro, tango is there. So is milonga, so is candomble. We knew we wanted to have all those elements, and we also knew what we grew up on and what we are from the starting point, which is rock musicians.”

Santaolalla believed that his Bajofondo had to represent the varied musical histories of the Rio de Plata (the estuary of the Paraná and Uruguay rivers that forms part of the border between Argentina and Uruguay).

“You know, one of the greatest feuds –– and it’s a friendly feud –– is about where [tango pioneer] Carlos Gardel was born,” he says with a laugh. “Argentinians say Argentina, Uruguayans say in Uruguay –– and some people say in France. But we have great tango writers and interpreters from both sides. And I thought this was a great opportunity to do music that will encompass both. It’s a very unusual band; we come from two different countries, do music from one part of the world, we all live in different cities, some in Montevideo, some in Buenos Aries, one in Patagonia, two in L.A. We have people in their 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s –– and we don’t rehearse. We get together to play and to make records.”

Any possible fears he may have had about Bajofondo’s popular reception were allayed by the multiplatinum success of the band’s two albums, Bajofondo Tango Club (2003) and Mar Dulce (2007), as well as an early public performance at Bueno Aires’ Obelisk stadium, where 200,000 people showed up to cheer the band on.

Santaolalla cites the acceptance of Bajofondo by the ultra-critical Argentinian and Uruguayan tango fans as one of his proudest achievements. Yet he’s also quick to deny that Bajofondo plays tango at all.

“We’re not doing new tango,” he says. “We do music that represents who we are. I’m a mixture of everything: the music that my parents listened to, that I grew up with, which involved tango but involved the Beatles, too. Now, if what we do with Bajofondo is bringing something new to the genre, that’s something that we’ll only be able to say 10, 15 years from now. Then we’ll perhaps be able to say okay, this guy is bringing something new.”