Bajofondo takes its global tango sound around the world

Jordan Levin
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

Argentine composer and producer Gustavo Santaolalla is a boundary-leaping kind of guy in just about every way you could (and some you couldn't) imagine. But taking his global tango group Bajofondo to South Korea and Japan is a cultural stretch even for this groundbreaking Latin rock producer (Juanes, Julieta Venegas, Cafe Tacuba) and Oscar-winning film composer ("Brokeback Mountain," "Babel").

And if that isn't enough musical world straddling, one of Bajofondo's guests in Japan will be Japanese bandoneon player Ryota Komatsu, an artist much admired by tango cognoscenti, whose soulful playing powers "Pa' Bailar," a song on Bajofondo's latest recording, "MarDulce."

"I see myself like a bridge between different things," Santaolalla said from his home in Los Angeles. "Some of that is bringing my Latino heritage and sensibility to international audiences, and at the same time to bring to Latino audiences the flavor I get from contacts with the Anglo or international world."

Bajofondo is Santaolalla's baby, and it's definitely mixed race.

Although it's often dubbed electronic tango, for Santaolalla and co-founder Juan Campodonico that's too simplistic a term. They call it musica rio platense - Rio de la Plata music, for the giant river that divides Buenos Aires and Montevideo, their two native cities. In Bajofondo they combine their traditional music - tango, milonga, murga and candombe - with the electronica, rock, hip-hop and other styles that vibrate in any modern city.

Even the group's titles have multiple meanings.

Bajofondo, "below the depths" or underground, is used for tango's underworld origins. But it also refers to bass, or bajo, and the group's bass-driven dance grooves, and to Argentina and Uruguay's location at the bottom of the globe. MarDulce, sweet sea, is the enormous freshwater expanse of the Rio de la Plata, but Santaolalla says it has other connotations, too. "It's so big you don't see the other side, like a sea, but it's sweet like a river. So you have that river that some people think divides and others connects us."

What they're trying to do, say Santaolalla and Campodonico, is make music with local soul and international reach.

"Bajofondo is our story, our music from our part of the world, our musical history, and that comprises all these things," says Santaolalla. "There's a saying I believe in - paint your village and you'll paint the world."

But the village for these two musicians and their collaborators has less to do with a geographical place than a creative place, with finding a way to bring together their origins with the ideas and musics from their border-crossing lives. It's music for an immigrant, international, electronically linked audience.

"National identity is not important for us," writes Campodonico in an e-mail from the group's Asian tour stops. "Cultural identity is important for us, being able to make music that represents us, something original and our own. We don't try to copy whatever style is in fashion. The music we make with Bajofondo is music in the style of Bajofondo. For us it's super important to be able to define new styles and not just copy what the metropolis dictates."

More likely that others would copy Bajofondo.

Santaolalla started at age 16 in Arco Iris, one of Argentina's first rock bands. As a producer, he has shaped the sound of some of the most important and influential Latin rock and alternative artists, most famously the Colombian and international star Juanes, but also Mexican acts Cafe Tacuba, Molotov and Julieta Venegas. Besides his Oscar-winning efforts on "Babel" and "Brokeback Mountain," he has done soundtracks for breakthrough Latin American films "Amores Perros" and "Motorcycle Diaries."

Campodonico, who lived in Mexico as a boy after his parents fled the dictatorship in their native Uruguay, has produced work by Uruguayan songwriter Jorge Drexler (an Oscar winner for the song "Al otro lado del rio" from "Motorcycle Diaries"), and, recently, the Mexican alternative sensation Ximena Sarinana.

When Santaolalla and Campodonico (who met when the Argentine was producing Campodonico's rock-hip-hop group Peyote Asesino in the mid-1990s) launched Bajofondo in 2002, it was primarily as a studio project. But it soon evolved into a full-tilt live band, both on tour and in the studio, with bandoneon, violin, guitar, bass, drums, percussion, and just a touch of electronica from Campodonico and French DJ/keyboardist Luciano Supervielle. Composing is a communal effort by the two producers, musicians in the band and others.

"The music takes a totally different flow and different power by being played live, so it's a much more powerful experience," says Santaolalla.

That shift toward live music pushed them away from dance tracks and toward songs - and the stellar guest singers on "MarDulce." They include Gustavo Cerati, frontman for legendary Argentine rock group Soda Stereo; Elvis Costello, Spanish rapper Mala Rodriguez, Venegas, and Canadian pop hip-hopper Nelly Furtado. And 82-year old Lagrima Rios, a famous singer who was in Cafe de los Maestros, a Santaolalla project with traditional tango artists, who made her last recording with Bajofondo.

What they have in common is a connection to the music. Rodriguez's dark, tensely elongated rhythms and rough urban feeling fit with tango's sultry tension, as does Cerati's charismatic angst (his track, "El Mareo," has been a hit in Argentina).

Costello - who sings "Fairly Right," a song Santaolalla wrote 20 years ago and always thought would be perfect for new wave's intellectual godfather - belongs to a group of artists that include Leonard Cohen, Marianne Faithfull and Tom Waits, whom Santaolalla says "embody in their work without knowing it a tango vibe - a relationship with tango's melancholy and passion."

It's that sense of melancholy passion, of music that seduces you into something dangerous and irresistible, that's been at the heart of tango's appeal since it rose from Buenos Aires brothels to international high society in the early 20th century. In recent years, tango has surged to popularity again, drawing a new generation of followers in Argentina and around the world.

Bajofondo is one more step in that global musical journey. "This melting pot that you have in the Rio de la Plata is a product of a great immigration, and from that evolved new styles and unique combinations of music," Campodonico says. "It's the same way that in the U.S. blues, jazz, rock and hip-hop evolved from your mix of cultures, there in the south you got tango, milonga and candombe. They're new genres and new music for the world."

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