As the story goes, it was early in the 20th century in Buenos Aires when my great-grandmother, a French immigrant, was at a Jewish social club's youth event. Between waltzes, a young lady approached the orchestra and asked its members to play a tango. They obliged, but at the end of the dance, the social-club authorities asked her and her dance partner to leave the premises. Born among the lower classes and filled with references to violence and sexual innuendo, the tango was the original gangsta rap — truly the forbidden dance.
It's fascinating to me that any style of music and dance could cause such an uproar — especially a style that's now so beloved and celebrated. I confess that I can't listen to tango on a regular basis: It's too emotional. Too many memories were forged to its soundtrack. Even in his old age, my grandfather used to go tango dancing with his mistresses; my grandmother would stay home and sing tangos of betrayal and heartbreak while preparing food; my father is a tango devotee, and he and my mother would dance it for Christmas. (They revived the tradition this year.) In my youth, I'd inherited slang that can be traced directly to the tango underworld.
Sometimes, as I go through the mundane day-to-day, I fear that I'll forget the surreal, carnal place I used to live in called Buenos Aires, and at the end of the day I'll go home and play some tangos. That's how I discovered Maria Volonte, an Argentine singer whose refreshing interpretation of tango stole my heart. Of course, Volonte's repertoire extends well beyond tango, and she's fully capable of transplanting herself into other genres, sounding just as powerful when she's interpreting folk, Latin blues or the traditional music of Peru, Uruguay and Brazil. "El Beso Azul" (The Blue Kiss) is a pop-folk ballad full of menacing sadness, and the soulful "Oh Viejo Tren!" (Oh, Old Train!) feels like a rainy day.
But it's "SF Tango" that holds a special place in my heart, as an ode both to the city I used to call home and to a music I love so much, I can barely listen to it.
A tango singer's shoes are hard to fill. There's a reason the girl at that Jewish dance was kicked out. In the beginning, the ladies who tangoed had moves that exemplified the phrase "a vertical expression of a horizontal desire" and sang lyrics so racy and aggressive, they'd make Lil' Kim or Nicki Minaj nod in admiration. Maria Volonte fills those old shoes comfortably and polishes them with new colors. With her mature sensuality, her music feels both deeply sensual and awash in nostalgia — a unique blend of melancholy and a potent brew. Here are a few of the songs she performed at a recent Tiny Desk Concert in the NPR Music offices. Consume responsibly.
- "El Beso Azul"
- "Oh Viejo Tren"
- "SF Tango"
Filmed and edited by Michael Katzif; audio by Kevin Wait; photo by Michael Katzif