In 2011, Marcelo Solís, together with associates in Argentina, founded the Escuela de Tango de Buenos Aires (ETBA), which boasts the participation of renowned tango instructors. He has been teaching tango since 1994, and has taught and performed in Argentina, the USA, Canada, Europe, and Indonesia. Now located in the San Francisco Bay Area, he travels to Argentina several times a year to teach and perform at prominent milongas, such as Salon Canning, Confitería Ideal, Obelisco Tango and El Beso. He was one of the jurors at the First and Second Argentine Tango USA Official Championship & Festival, which took place in San Francisco in 2011 and 2012.
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(Vance) Tell me a little bit about yourself. How did you get to where you are today? How did the Escuela de Tango de Buenos Aires come into being?
(Marcelo) I was born in Argentina into a working-class family. My childhood was typical of my social background, living in the suburbs of a big city, a sort of intersection between the countryside and the noisy mix of asphalt and concrete, that existential landscape described in many tangos recorded by D’Agostino-Vargas, Troilo-Fiorentino, or Pugliese-Chanel.
Although my parents were not highly educated, they had a strong sense of duty, clear ethics, and honesty. They were aware of their limitations, so they encouraged my tireless curiosity, letting me read as much as I wanted, even though they sometimes worried that I spent so much time alone, reading whatever book, newspaper, or magazine I found. I also loved to play fútbol (soccer) and any sport or game the kids in the neighborhood played.
I really enjoyed studying. This allowed me to get scholarships that helped me get an education that my parents’ budget couldn’t afford. When the time came to decide my career, I had to choose between my love for science and the arts. I had to work to pay for my career, so I wasn’t able to follow both paths simultaneously. I decided in favor of art because my intuition told me that I would enjoy more freedom. My formation as an artist includes literature, philosophy, history, psychology, and sociology, on the one hand, and dance and theatre, on the other.
Tango reappeared in the Argentine cultural scene with the return to democracy in 1983. I was 17 years old when I had my first tango class. From that day, I’ve been involved in tango, learning, practicing, researching, dancing, performing, teaching, and organizing practically every single day of my life.
In 2011, together with Néstor Pellicciaro, we decided to create Escuela de Tango de Buenos Aires, an institution dedicated to preserving and promoting the art of tango. We have a wonderful staff of teachers in Buenos Aires and all over the world. We teach the general public, and we also provide training and certification to new instructors. I am now located in San Francisco, USA, where I teach, perform, organize trips to Buenos Aires and collaborate with a strong tango community in Northern California.
(Vance) Many people know the tango as dance, but there is also a strong poetic/literary tradition behind it; most Argentines can quote their favorite tango lyrics and do, frequently. Can you comment on the development of the tango as a dual artform? And, what is your favorite tango lyric?
(Marcelo) Tango is a way of life. Human beings are very adaptable. We are highly shaped by the environment into which we develop our lives. The way we think and feel is determined by the culture in which we live. Tango offers you a chance to live your life as a work of art, guided by an ethical/aesthetic dynamic structure of references. It is a culture you choose to learn. Even if you are an Argentine who did not grow up in the golden era of tango, you choose tango because you realize that it is the way to live your life to the fullest. You have the music, the dance, the poetry of its lyrics, and you have Buenos Aires, you have an Argentine/Porteño character, a whole system of identifications from which you can create your dance, your life. To grasp what tango is, you need to make a complete commitment to it, to an existential place in which you become Tango itself.
The greatest creations of tango, regarding music and lyrics (and probably dancing, as well) appeared in the 1940s, due to the coincidence between an increase in the living standards of the working and middle classes in Argentina who were able now to have leisure time, and the outcome of a process of many decades of evolution of the art form.
“Jamás retornarás…Music and lyrics by Osmar Maderna and Miguel Caló
lo dice el alma mía,
y en esta soledad
te nombro noche y día.
¿Por qué, por qué te fuiste de mi lado
y tan cruel has destrozado
I have infinite favorite songs. I will choose today to talk about “Jamás retornarás,” a beautiful tango written and composed by Miguel Caló and Osmar Maderna. The recording by the authors, made in 1942, starts with the melody in a violin solo by Enrique Francini, so sweet and sad, anxious and anguished. The lyrics are about the realization of a lover that the object of his passion will never return. Raúl Berón delivers it with mastery. A simple, romantic song about love unfulfilled. However, you’ll hear it again, and again, in the milongas, while dancing, while resting at your table, or at home while dreaming of dancing that night, and what you feel is that a myriad of other things will never return, either. Then you understand that the song is talking about life itself and its ephemerality. Then perhaps, you learn that Osmar Maderna, one of the authors, died at 32 while flying his own plane, something he was passionate about. That ongoing experience is Tango: your participation with your personal interpretation, which does not need a test of truth, which is yours, your emotions, made of a collage of pieces of information that randomly become intertwined with your own memories and images.
(Vance) When I think of tango, the image of La Boca springs to mind, with its street vendors, conventillos, and wildly colorful buildings. Is it possible to locate tango geographically within Argentina, to define its epicenter, so to speak?
(Marcelo) Tango is Buenos Aires. You cannot have one without the other. Those who love tango have equal love for this wonderful city. Porteños [people from the city of Buenos Aires] just adore it. One of my dearest wishes is that the spread of tango across the globe might inspire humanity to care for our planet the way people from Buenos Aires care for their beautiful city.
(Vance) An Associated Press article from June 15, 2021, addresses the effects the Covid-19 pandemic has had on tango culture. Among other things, it states that in the past two years, some 40 out of 200 tango clubs closed permanently, as have 28 of 40 industry-related footwear and apparel companies. Tango tours (which you yourself have led) have been canceled.
What is your perspective on the impact of Covid-19 on the tango, both as an industry and as a cultural expression? How/Can it reinvent itself to cope with a time in which close physical contact has become problematic, if not outright taboo?
(Marcelo) In essence, tango is no different from any other human endeavor. It has been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic to the same degree as other activities and industries. It has begun to follow the trend of virtualization, with classes, private lessons, milongas and lectures online. This has been more challenging for some than for others, but in most cases the industry has adapted quickly.
Regarding the issue of physical contact, tango has never been an activity involving close physical contact between total strangers. I’ve been dancing with ladies I know for a long time, years and decades, and when I dance for the first time with someone, it has been through a previous introduction, by a friend in the milongas, and failing that, if I do want to dance with someone to whom I have no connection, it would be because I have seen that person dancing. A milonguero learns everything they need to know about a person by watching them dance. This is how milongueros understand tango: it is as if we were members of the same family. You wouldn’t have a problem getting close to your relatives.
As far as classes are concerned, the approach we have taken at Escuela de Tango de Buenos Aires is to require students to attend classes with partners, to register in advance (no drop-ins), and if it is their first time, to meet previously with their partner to get to know each other better before they come. It is a more rational approach to the classes, which we had wanted to implement anyway before, but were prevented from implementing by the inertia of how things were done. The interruption of the classes that happened last year provided us with the opportunity to make this adjustment.
(Vance) You’ve referred to yourself several times as a milonguero. Could you give me a basic definition of the term?
(Marcelo) The word “milonguero” dates to the origins of tango. “Milonga” was used to refer to this particular music and dance, and consequently, became the name of the tango dance gatherings. A “milonguero” is, then, a person who participates in these gatherings. Today it indicates an attitude in relation to tango. A milonguero or milonguera is a person whose life is centered around tango. It is a system of values that is expressed in the way you dance and behave in the milongas, and by extension how you carry yourself through life. As a synthesis, it states that when you dance the tango, the intricacies of the choreography are meaningless if you do not experience the emotions inherent in the dance. Emotions can be very elaborate, and are the foundation of rational thought. Soon, a robot will be able to dance tango, but will it be able to experience these emotions, too? Perhaps this is the definition of the human realm, the one to which we belong.
(Vance) Can you comment on the tango as tourist-based industry as opposed to tango as local cultural practice, and how these two aspects interact? What distinguishes the one from the other, and which is the more important, in your opinion?
(Marcelo) These two aspects of tango are as intimately connected as the partners who perform the dance itself. They are necessary to each other. Tango has been both a culture and an industry from its initial moments, when the first tango musicians passed the plate to receive money from dancers. Francisco Canaro started this way at the beginning of the 1900s, and by the end of the 1920s he was one of the richest men in Argentina, with stakes in authors’ and composers’ rights management, in the recording industry, theatre, movies, and publications. The customer base of tango is made up of passionate consumers who care about quality and are very educated in the matter. With globalization, with a more integrated world, people everywhere now enjoy greater access to the producers of the tango industry and its culture.
Each time a person has an encounter with tango–going to see a tango show, taking a class, going to a tango concert, going to dance–this person is getting educated in what Tango is. At each point in his or her path through tango, he or she discovers more and more layers of its deep beauty. Eventually, this person may embrace the culture of tango. If a tourist goes to a milonga in Buenos Aires and finds it empty, the business model of the tango industry collapses. If tourists did not spend money on tango, it would be hard for the milonga organizers, instructors, and performers to survive in what is basically a purely internal market.
“Generally, popular musical forms enjoy a fairly short lifecycle: first, they cause a great uproar, they become the fashion, then once they have become established they stagnate, decay sets in, and finally they remain only as a witness to an era, or merely to a brief moment in time. Tango, on the other hand, is not an isolated incident, tango is an end in and of itself, an end that epitomizes a perception of beauty and a subtle meditation on the whole of human society in its unfolding, encapsulating all aesthetic, sociological, and even metaphysical considerations.”Carlos A. Troncaro, El tango, el gaucho y Buenos Aires (2009; my translation)
(Vance) Why do you think the tango appeals so strongly to Argentines? Carlos Troncaro, in his book El tango, el gaucho y Buenos Aires (2009), writes that while many popular musical forms fall out of style quickly and culturally come to symbolize only the era to which they belonged, the tango goes on, constantly evolving, growing, and changing alongside Argentine society in a way that keeps it always current. To what do you attribute tango’s staying power? Will there ever be a time when it ceases to be relevant?
(Marcelo) Argentines struggle with identity. Since our nation’s founding, it has been difficult to define what it means to be Argentine. Tango provides a clear element of identification. Your background–if your ancestors came from Spain, Italy, Poland or the Middle East, if you are rich or poor, if you got a university degree or educated yourself in “la universidad de la yeca (the university of the streets)”–does not matter. Even if you do not care much about tango, you hear its music and you know it is about you, your things, your particularities; you see a couple dancing and you feel proud even if you yourself do not dance, and you tell yourself: “We did this. Others put a man on the moon, created the nuclear bomb, devised the computer. We, as a particular culture, gave birth to tango.”
I think tango belongs to all of humanity, in this era of global metropolis and increasing interconnectivity. Tango is a manifestation of our particular situation as human beings, with human bodies, in the face of dehumanization in an urbanized world. As long as we live in this interconnected way, which seems to work beautifully as a driver of prosperity, tango will not only continue to be relevant to Argentines, but it will become increasingly relevant to humanity as a whole.
“I shall die in Buenos Aires, in the early morning hours,Balada para mi muerte – Music by Ástor Piazzolla; lyrics by Horacio Ferrer (my translation)
The hour at which they die who best know how;
And on my deathly silence wafts the perfume of misfortune,
The words for you I can now no longer speak.”
© Vance Woods