It takes two to tango, but a generation to revive

Francine Pelletier discovered how passionate young Argentians were about identifying with their culture (Cara Smith/AQ)

When journalist Francine Pelletier and her partner went to see a tango show while on vacation in Buenos Aires, they were expecting an “orchestra of elderly gents.”

“They were all young people. Some with dreadlocks, others with gas masks. Nothing to do with your grandfather’s tango, and it was such electrifying music on top of that; we said ‘wow we have to do something.’”

They researched the “new tango” movement when they got back to Canada, discovering why young people in Argentina were reclaiming Tango music and making it their own.

After many return trips to Argentina many, Pelletier has directed and co-produced the film Tango’s Revenge. This year’s Irving Chair in journalism screened her 70-minute documentary at McCain Hall on the STU campus Monday.

“Tango was more or less outlawed with the military coups. There were a series of coups. The first, you see here in ‘55 and that sent the whole thing underground.”

The coup in 1955 started a dark age politically for Argentina, and culturally for Tango music. Since Tango was so indigenous to Argentina, the military didn’t allow or trust it.

“Everyone before that [coup], people would go out and listen and dance to tango and knew tango and grew up with tango it was coming out of their ears,” said Pelletier.

When Tango started becoming popular again, it was for economic reasons – to draw in tourists. “Tourist’s tango,” involved elaborate shows with dancers wearing plastic flowers in their hair, sequins on their costumes and traditional orchestras.

Young people couldn’t identify with it.

Argentina had threats of bankruptcy in 2001 and there was a sense of an “existential” crisis among young people. They wanted to leave their mark on their country.

“They’re very proud young people who I think wanted to do something that was theirs, not just do more American music,” said Pelletier. “They’re mission, literally, is to make tango once again a popular art form as it was in the 40s and 50s. Pretty ambitious, but they’re very dedicated. They’re very passionate. They’re very inspiring.”

There is a scene in Tango’s Revenge where a band rehearsal is filmed. One member, who seems to lead the group, urges the musicians to play loud even if it’s bad. Loud comes first.

“The important thing is to feel and to want to do something which is why there are so many of them doing it,” said Pelletier. “And most of them are doing it really well. I mean they go from bad to loud, to good and loud.”

The film features the music of many tango musicians in Argentina. Their Spanish is subtitled. The film’s first screening was in October at the Festival de Nouveau Cinéma in Montreal and the film will return to the city for its official release in December.

But this new wave of music hasn’t come without some resistance from the older generation, staying true to the classic form of tango.

“I think the more you hear them, the more it’s hard to not say wow,” said Pelletier. “Some of the tunes, even I have a little bit of trouble with, but they’re great musicians. It’s just extraordinary music and they’re really good at it. It’s contagious.”

The Montreal-based Pelletier, who has co-hosted the CBC’s The Fifth Estate, and founded the feminist magazine La Vie en Rose, compares the passion of the music revolution in Argentina to the recent student protests in Quebec.

“It was like, finally we get a little bit of people who dare to stand up and be counted. Who are not afraid to try and change things or do things,” said Pelletier. “It felt really good for someone who had been there years ago.”

So when this story found Pelletier in Buenos Aires, she knew she had to help. She even put some of her own money into the project.

“[When] something is tugging at your heart and the question, of course, is not to put your whole heart out there but that inspiration makes for better work,” she said.

“So I said if I can contribute to making these people and this music known, then it doesn’t matter if I have to go bankrupt. I’d like to do it. I just hope they become world famous, actually,” said Pelletier, laughing.

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