When even hearing the word “tango”, the distinctive music comes to mind. But most people first think of the Argentinean instrumental music, that slinking, sliding breathy tango that guides graceful dancers in their elegant glide across the floor. The tango, made famous by and nearly synonymous with Argentina, is so well recognized that almost anyone can hum or whistle “La Cumparsita”, the popular archetype of all tangos (which was actually composed by a Montevidean). How unusual, then, to hear the tango as it is sung (sung) by Vayo Raimondo in Uruguay, where the evenings are also filled with many couples embraced in the fluid movements of the tango.
Vayo (he is publicly known by only his first name) is a tango singer in Montevideo, and his Al Filo de La Noche is an ambitious offering of 21 vocal tangos the likes of which you may not hear anywhere else. Vayo’s tango is another distinct form popular in Uruguay, perhaps a little closer to the original which is often heavier and sadder in delivery and modeled from classical music. Now that the prospective listener has become acquainted with the existence of this sub-genre, Vayo’s rich baritone with his operatic inflections and dramatic flourishes now sounds apropos. The content he selects and mood he creates are undeniably “tango”, singing as he does of the longing for intimacy as inspired by the tango and poetic tales serenading its nocturnal lives.
This is the polished smooth sound of a real tango performance. There are no over-dubs or studio splicings, the music having been made and set down in one take. The variety of songs is quite broad, with a few homages paid to the “museum” pieces over 50 years old and still kept alive through performance. But Vayo composes original tango, often with very contemporary themes, such as his “Tango for Export” sung in English and a rather bizarre piece (untranslated in the liner notes) called “Travestido” (“Transvestite”) which features coconut percussion.
The arrangements are skilled and stay in the background, pushing the vocalist to the forefront. There is good use of piano and double bass in addition to the usual percussive accents of a drummer making his cymbal shimmer and echo to sparkle the atmosphere for the dancers. The warm sound of the bandoneón (an accordion-like instrument) is immediately recognizable as a major tango accompaniment, which is only fitting as the instrument often provides the pulse to the music and the breath to its dancers. “Cosas Olivdadas” (“Forgotten Moments”) is an especially fine piece, with Vayo’s usually deep voice floating easily between octaves and duetting with the staggered choking notes of the bandoneón.
The possible roots of the tango are given props with a saucy excursion into candombe, on “Candombe de Mi Vida”. The song opens with an echo of the deep drums that gave the music and the dance their name. The cheerful song fades out with a fast-picked Latin guitar phrase that keeps the spirits up even though the notes are fading into the distance. And a look at another of tango’s influences with “Memorias Desteñidas (“Fading Memories”), a “Valse” (Waltz), which was the dance that allowed the dance floor embrace to become accepted and popular.
While most Americans still have an impression of the tango that is struck from the movie screens of the ’40s, Vayo experiments with new topics for tango. His “Dios de la Guerra” or “God of War” is quite morose, having a long cacophonous lead-in that sounds like the rapid pop of rifles, the whistle of a ricochet, the burst of returned fire, and the final explosion of a grenade. Similarly, “Soldados” (“Soldiers”) leads in with the mournful sob of the double bass played like a deep cello, a funeral cast to the piano notes, and the martial tattoo of marching snare drums. The song soon drowns in the slow sorrow of the words: “The one who gives his life / Is always too young / For old men who only want / Wealth and power”. Then, like artificially pumping up a required mood with slogans or shouts, the song swings into an upbeat tango rhythm for the remaining half of the tune. This portion explains simply and eloquently who benefits from such propagandizing, “The old men respond / To anxious questions from the youth / They light fires, of country and flag / Those who only know / Greed, hate, and power”.
Vayo and his tango straight from Montevideo takes a little getting used to, but almost anyone will be won over by its sincerity and charm. This music is made to be heard at night. But as it ends up, almost any room where you play this music will be transformed into a cabaret, dimly lit by the flickering candles on the tables and soon you’ll swear you hear the tap of shoe soles hitting the floor. If there is one piece that will make you sigh and want to get up and slink, it has to be the “Dulce Engaño” (“Sweet Deceit”) tango, dripping as it does with all the romantic elements of classic tango. And if there’s a rose handy, well, it’s nearly made to be clenched between the teeth as you practice the moves… isn’t it?