War, Sex and Death in B.A.

The half dozen British Goths* who were ejected from the Cementerio de la Recoleta today should have checked the newspapers, the radio or the TV before being rowdy in English.

Today is a public holiday in Argentina commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Malvinas War, and probably not a good time to wander round a high profile public cemetery looking corpse-like and shouting in English.

Before coming to Buenos Aires (hereinafter known as BA) I thought of the tango as a "slow S. American ballroom dance or music for this". Now I know better.

First things first. No definite article, and an upper case T.

Tango is a dance but it is also a culture, and a style of singing. Tango is sensual, Tango is erotic. Tango is macho. "It smells of wine, and tastes like death." (Tango is now also a brand, used to sell clothes, trinkets, food, drink and soft-core porn shows.)

Tango (probably) started in the bordellos of Buenos Aires around 1880, and was originally danced by poor European migrants and prostitutes. Tango traveled to Europe and the USA in the early 1900s and reached its zenith with the Tango singer Carlos Gardel in 1935.

So far, in our five days in BA, we have been to three Tango "shows" and one milonga (Tango dance hall). All very different. The milonga and one of the Tango shows were at Confiteria Ideal (Suipacha 384). The milonga (upstairs $3USA) is a vast decaying room, once elegant, now sad, with peeling walls, recorded music and real people dancing.

The Tango, as danced here, is something you might think you could do with a couple of years practice. Most of the dancers were in their 50s and 60s. As a spectator sport the excitement is between dances as new partners are selected and de-selected. It is hard to tell if the participants are enjoying themselves as Tango, even at this level, demands great concentration. Smiling and even talking to your partner is not encouraged. An excellent way to pass a couple of hours when it's raining (don't worry it will).

The Tango show at Confiteria Ideal (downstairs $14USA) was probably the least successful of the three we saw. The two hour show featured one female Tango dancer/singer and two male dancers, one in his 30s the other in his 60s. The music was provided by a double bass, a bandoneon (a small accordion) and an electric piano. The performers did not seem to be enjoying the show. It was not possible to judge the quality of the singing as the PA system was addressing the public in the next street, rather than those three metres away. The food was below average.

The two other Tango shows were both at the Gran Cafe Tortoni (Av. de Mayo 829). The cafe was opened in 1858 and is much unchanged since then. The food is good and the service friendly (especially Denis from Russia?).

The upstairs show ($14USA), whilst clearly aimed at tourists was fairly traditional. Music was provided by a grand piano, bandoneon and electric bass guitar. The two singers were both good as were the two dancers (in their mid-thirties). The show consisted, in roughly equal parts, of instrumental music (excellent), singing (good, but of course all in Spanish) and dancing. The dancing varied from ordinary Tango to what looked like a very skillful and aggressive martial art. I think she won on points. All the participants seemed to be enjoying themselves. Recommended.

The downstairs show ($10USA) was more show than Tango, with the "History of Tango" as the plot (I think, as again everything was in Spanish). The cast consisted of three female dancers (in their early twenties, and little else) as well as six male dancers, one male Tango singer and a band. Action packed, fast paced and very enjoyable. You need to book both these shows at least a few hours in advance.Recommended.

Visiting public cemeteries is not a popular family pastime in the UK , but then cemeteries in the UK are not as flamboyant at those in BA. Cementerio de la Recoleta is a major tourist attraction, with guided tours and maps showing the top attractions.

The average family tomb is about two metres square and three metres tall with a glass and metal door. The ground floor typically has room for two coffins to be displayed with a staircase or hatch giving access to a subterranean chamber with room for another ten coffins.

Some tombs seem to be cleaned regularly, whilst others have partially collapsed and their occupants vanished. By far the most popular tomb, at least among foreigners, is that of the Famalia Duarte. (And yes, Luis Angel Firpo (bottom, right) is wearing a dressing gown and boots!)

* Goth n. 1 style of rock music with an intense or droning blend of guitars, bass, and drums, often with apocalyptic or mystical lyrics. 2 performer or devotee of this music, or member of the subculture favouring black clothing and white-painted faces with black make-up.

Stephen Stewart.

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