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The man who was supposed to kill the tango

In Argentina you can change everything, except the tango. Astor Piazzolla did it anyway and went on to become the greatest in the genre. He had to kill the tango first to be able to renew it. On the occasion of his centenary and the virtual tribute tonight at the Klara Festival, his followers portray the innovator.

‘There were many great tango orchestras and bandoneon players in his country, but their name and fame were limited to Argentina. Astor Piazzolla has put tango on the world map. ‘ That is what the Flemish accordionist Gwen Cresens (45) says firmly. Tonight he brings out his bandoneon again to pay tribute to the father of modern tango, who was born on March 11, 1921 in Mar Del Plata, Argentina.

A year after the death of the revolutionary composer and bandoneonist in 1992, Cresens launched his ‘Piazzolla cover group’ with Orquesta Tanguedia. At the Klara Festival he returns to the renowned quintet repertoire that he already performed at the time.

By combining tango with techniques from classical music, avant-garde and jazz, Piazzolla drew the ire of the average Argentinian on his neck.

Gwen Cresens

Flemish accordionist

The contemporary Brussels tango ensemble Sonico, a name that sounds like a clock in tango circles, will also be on stage tonight. Pianist Ivo De Greef (44) came into contact with Piazzolla’s legacy through the tributes that classical musicians such as Gidon Kremer, Daniel Barenboim and Yo-Yo Ma dedicated to him in the second half of the 1990s. His colleague, the Argentinian double bass player Ariel Eberstein (41), knows the legends about Piazzolla like no other. “The common thread is his Argentinian soul, the idea that you have to fight to achieve something, because everyone is against you.”


‘All the characteristics and influences that we would later attribute to the great Piazzolla were already present during his childhood in New York, where he stayed with his parents from 1926 to 1935,’ says De Greef. ‘After jazz, klezmer and classical music, tango was bizarrely his last influence, despite the fondness of his melancholic father Nonino. What do you want? He grew up in the golden era of Count Basie and Duke Ellington’s swing bands.

But the rousing rhythms and melancholy of Jewish festive music would later find their way into his music. His neighbor Bela Wilde, a Hungarian pianist, taught him Bach’s fugues. He played it on the bandoneon that his father had given him for his ninth birthday. ‘Now that is standard repertoire at every conservatory, but in the 1930s it was unique’, says Cresens. Piazzolla would later also write fugues himself and often borrowed from baroque music for harmonic patterns. Eberstein suspects that his career would never have spread so widely if he had enjoyed his first musical experiences in the (much more rigid) tango environment and not in a musical melting pot like New York, where Piazzolla absorbed all influences like a sponge.

Street fighter

Legendary is the interlude during his famous concert (recording) in Central Park in which Piazzolla explains the origins of the bandoneon and tango in a few sentences. Invented in Germany in the mid-19th century, the instrument was taken by missionaries to Argentina to listen to masses for lack of organs, after which priests took it to the brothels, where the tango originated. The rawness that Piazzolla experienced in his youth was of a completely different order, but just as exciting. “His father worked for a Sicilian barber where Mafia heads also got their hair cut,” says Eberstein. “After being expelled twice from school, Astor joined a gang and had to prove himself in street fights.”

De Greef points out that Piazzolla had a club foot. ‘Then you are not eager to play football with your friends, but you look for another outlet. People with a disability often develop more drive and fanaticism. They are more likely to get the impression that the world is against them. Piazzolla quickly learned to defend himself in the midst of gang violence. ‘ According to Cresens, he has always remained a fighter. “In Argentina, too, he occasionally ended up in fistfights.”


When he returned to Argentina in 1938, Piazzolla was half an American. ‘His Spanish was appalling and for the first 15 years he considered himself an outsider,’ says De Greef. Nevertheless, he was soon able to join Anibal Troilo’s tango orchestra. At first he checked so often that after a while he knew all parties by heart. When the fourth bandoneonist dropped out, he applied to play with. Troilo was blown away when he heard Piazzolla play Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue.’

Even when an arranger dropped out, Piazzolla took over his role. He even immediately won a prize with it. “He was such a cockerel,” says Cresens. Ultimately, Troilo became his second father. And yet, at a time when tango orchestras across Argentina were struggling, he dared to leave Troilo’s respected orchestra and start his own. ‘

But actually Piazzolla wanted to become a fully-fledged classical composer. That is why he moved to Paris in the mid-1950s to take lessons with the influential music educator Nadia Boulanger. She advised him to turn the tango world upside down. ‘In everything Piazzolla was driven by unbridled ambition,’ says Cresens. ‘You also need that if you want to ride such an unconventional course.’ But above all to develop a sound that is recognizable out of a thousand, which combines enchanting bandoneon playing with revolutionary musical connections.

Frontier pushers

‘Traditional tango lovers wanted to dance, but the more complex harmonies that Piazzolla had picked up from Stravinsky and Bartók were not suitable for that’, Cresens describes the resistance he evoked in his home country. ‘He took the tango from the dance floor to the concert stage. By combining the genre with techniques from classical music, avant-garde and jazz, and by replacing the acoustic guitar with an electric one, he not only broke unshakable conventions. He also angered the Argentines. ‘

Piazzolla wanted to appeal to a different, younger audience that had exchanged swing for bebop, and especially wanted to listen to tango. You could still dance later, to Bill Haley, Elvis and The Beatles, because society had also changed drastically in the meantime. ‘Until the end of the 1940s his arrangements were still danceable,’ explains De Greef. ‘Sonico’s new album,’ The Edge of Tango ‘, focuses on the era in which Piazzolla began to break away with his Octeto Buenos Aires, just like contemporaries such as Eduardo Rovira.’

Nevertheless, tango has always been a hybrid style, says Eberstein. ‘Only the innovations were never as extreme as at Piazzolla. The shock wave was big. A taxi driver once threw him at his feet for killing the tango. ‘

Shark Hunter

Piazzolla slept very little, a consequence of his restless soul, according to De Greef. ‘I sometimes compare his inherent unrest with that of Miles Davis, who could also change style very quickly, always kept his finger on the pulse of the time and liked to collaborate with younger musicians. Piazzolla also started playing electrically in the 1970s, with a synthesizer and a hammond organ. Once, in the middle of a tour, he was so bored with his own music that he put together a new repertoire in just a few nights.

This excitement was expressed in a special hobby: shark fishing. Also in his spare time, Piazzolla was constantly looking for challenges and adrenaline kicks. This can be seen in the documentary ‘Los años del tiburón’, in which he shows his collection of shark jaws, but it can also be heard in his music. The piece ‘Escualo’ is about shark fishing. You feel the nervousness. Some live performances, a composition like ‘Michelangelo’ and some of his fugues also sound quite haunted. ‘

That’s all right, Eberstein concludes, although you have to be careful with generalizations. ‘He was constantly in the media and also sought confrontation as a marketing tool. For the same money, he was the sweetest person in the world in private. ‘

Happy Birthday Piazzolla, with Sonico and Orquesta Tanguedia, free tonight at 8 pm on

5 albums not to be missed

‘Octeto Buenos Aires’ (1957)
The chamber music-like approach of the Octeto Buenos Aires, in which Piazzolla was accompanied by an extra bandoneon player, two violins, cello, piano, double bass and an electric guitar, swore in the tango church. Without a singer, but with cello solos and jazzy guitar improvisations, he broke with the traditional tango for good.

‘Piazzolla Interpreta A Piazzolla’ (1961)
The first recording with his quintet: violin, piano, bass, electric guitar and Piazzolla’s bandoneon. Here the avant-garde seeps into the tango. With the first version of ‘Adiós Nonino’, an ode to his father and the song that moved Queen Máxima to tears at her wedding.

‘Libertango’ (1974) Ugly cover, but impressive album, despite the somewhat kitschy strings, marimba and disco-like arrangements. Grace Jones scored a big hit – ‘I’ve Seen That Face Before (Libertango)’ – with an adaptation of the title song.

‘Enrico IV’ (1984)
Piazzolla also wrote a lot of film scores. One of his most famous pieces, ‘Oblivion’, would be picked up by many classical musicians, but first it was in this drama by Marco Bellocchi.

‘Tango: Zero Hour’ (1986)
Piazzolla himself would leave this studio recording of his Quinteto Nuevo Tango to his children if he were allowed to choose one album from his oeuvre.

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