Tango nuevo got its start (as much as genres or styles get starts) in Argentina in the 1950s. Astor Piazzolla worked at this time to integrate various contemporary styles, particularly jazz, into the tango tradition, creating a new sound that listeners responded to excitedly or with disdain. His departures began the first radical changes in the music’s 100-year history. Since then, artists have pulled in their personal influences to take this new form, “tango nuevo”, in a variety of directions. The Rough Guide to Tango Nuevo offers a 19-track introduction to the music.
The existence of many sub-styles makes the creation of such a compilation difficult. Some of the music that falls under the tango nuevo rubric sounds to the untrained ear like traditional tango; other tracks show a clear reliance on contemporary house music, with electronics being the primary instrument, rather than the bandoneón or guitar. In between, we have tracks influenced by jazz, rock, pop, and folk music. It’s not so much a specific aesthetic that circumscribes tango nuevo as it is a willingness to experiment with tradition. In organizing these tracks, compiler Chris Moss and colleagues have done a wonderful job in developing a natural flow. Listening to the first and last tracks back to back would be jarring, but connecting them through 18 degrees of separation feels fine.
As a listener, the challenge is to avoid hearing this sequence as a chronological or stylistic progression. Certainly some of these artists were influenced by others (Dino Saluzzi, who contributes the classical-influenced “Reprise: Los Hijos De Fierro”, is one of the early performers of tango nuevo from the ‘60s and ‘70s), but the performances recorded on this disc represent a branching out rather than an advancement, musical cousins rather than offspring. The joy that comes from the conglomeration lies in the experience of such variety stemming from a single root.
Although the collection as a whole never falters, certain moments do stand out. Sonia Possetti Quinteto’s “Bullanguera”, relies as much on classical music as on tango, shows off exciting piano runs as well as funky hand drums and a smooth violin line. Three musical styles are audible, and it’s a tribute to Possetti’s skills as a composer and arranger that the result is such a smooth blend. “Vi Luz y Subi” by Carlos Libedinsky introduces synthetic sounds and effects. The easiest comparison for this type of music would be Gotan Project, but Libedinsky, at least on this track, is sultrier. Whereas his peers work a European club feel, Libedinsky keeps the music hot and traditional, using electronics to bring out the sexuality of the piece in an updated manner.
We often think of tango as an instrumental music, but this Rough Guide features several stellar singers. Patricia Andrade argues for the need to make tango more “urban and edgy”, and she shows that tactic here with “Discepolin”. She’s got a strong voice, and the confidence to step aside for some electronic chatter and suspenseful drumming at the end of the piece. Omar Mollo follows with “Nostalgias”, a slow but hard song about something that sounds (to my unilingual hearing) like a hard knock life. Sandra Luna brings an almost operatic quality to her “Lejana Tierra Mia”. She probably has the biggest voice on the disc, and she employs it with a strong delivery. Luna’s no more or less successful than the other vocalists, but she makes the one-time music of peasants as comfortable in a concert hall as others make it in a brothel.
After an hour of listening, it’s hard to say whether you truly have gotten a grip on what tango nuevo’s about, but that’s not really the point, and it may not be possible. What The Rough Guide to Tango Nuevo does is lay out the various forms of this music, without making claims about any particular approach. The liner notes are complete enough to help give you direction, but the music’s strong enough to get you disoriented, and that’s about as close as you’ll come to where you’re going.