Tango Week for milongueros
June 13-16, 2002
“This music is the life of the city, springing from the common people, associated with the bohemian life-style, the shady world, heat, a smoky atmosphere, wine, the commoner, the aristocracy, a more than 150 year-old companion, in political, monarchical, republican, socialist, and democratic struggles.”
As we walked through narrow alleys paved with cobblestones, Alex and Sol, continued to describe what we were about to hear as soon as we entered a small door carved at the foot of a hill. Little is known about the origin of this piece of poetry expressing pain, sadness, full of emotion, except that it was probably sung by slaves or sailors brought to shore by ships traveling across the oceans from remote continents.
We have heard similar claims in Buenos Aires and in New Orleans, both port cities, both early colonies, both cradles of tango and jazz respectively.
Our thoughts were interrupted as a voice from the shadows of the room said, “Hush, the fado is going to be sung.” The sound of a guitar and a mandolin preceded the voices of men and women as they took turns to pour out their hearts with tales of lost love, hopes and dejection. We were in another port city, an early colony, where a hundred people have promised to show us their love of the tango, their understanding of its ethos, and the way they treasure the opportunities to embrace and dance. “It’s because of the fado,” they have said, when after months of exchanging e-mails, Alex invited us to come to Lisbon to teach tango.
After having spent one week in Italy teaching at Villa La Rogaia in Umbria, it was time to get on the road, the railroad that is. The ride was wonderful, relaxing, and picturesque. The daylight finally turned to darkness around 10 PM, and by breakfast time, we were again speeding across the French countryside. In Paris, with four hours to spare, we had lunch near the Gare du Montparnasse, and wrote a whole bunch of postcards to our friends before boarding the high speed train to Lisbon.
The vineyards of Bordeaux flirted so briefly as the train sped by, with an invitation to taste the fermented elixir of its grapes to which we could only wave regrets. Our excitement for the days ahead had no point of reference, no prior experience to draw upon, and no knowledge of how the Portuguese approached the tango.
At over 200 m.p.h., seven unforgettable days were peeling from our eyes and lodging in our memory. The intensity of La Rogaia’s days and nights, the warmth and scent from the good bye hugs still fresh in our bodies, and the exhilaration of having opened new eyes to the magical spell of our tango, made it very hard to imagine what lay ahead for us in the land of Vasco da Gama.
The sun had set once more and the names on the billboards of the cities that were passing by the windows indicated that we had left France and we were now traveling through Spain. The topic of conversation at dinner time included which language we would be using to teach in Portugal. A couple of days later we would be standing up in front of fifty dancers, beginning our class in English, Europe’s second language, we had been told, only to be asked politely if we could switch to Spanish, a language which lusitanos were very familiar with.
Speeding into the night we were having our first taste of Portuguese hospitality as the train porter, attentive without being intrusive, refilled our glasses with the bouquet of porto. Soon our eyes shut down, our bodies went to sleep, and our minds dreamed of all the things to come.
Dozing off and on from village to village, from valleys to mountain passes, and from sunshine to moonlight, we couldn’t anticipate that in the seven days ahead of us, we would be part of some unbelievable experiences. The hands down favorites to win the World Cup, Argentina’s national soccer team would be unceremoniously sent packing back to a depressed Buenos Aires. After boarding a state-of-the-art train in the City of Lights, we would disembark and it would seem that we had traveled back in time to what Europe looked like fifty years ago. When entering the basement ballroom of the one-hundred-year-old Clube Estefania, we would gasp and shudder at the intense energy irradiating from the embraces of over twenty-five couples obliviously dancing in a collective state of trance.
We couldn’t have imagined that during the next seven days we would marvel at the hills and monuments of a city built on the banks of the Tagus River.
We would tour a city that in many places still maintains the colonial manners from the times when intrepid sailors set to sea in search of undiscovered continents and unimaginable fortunes. We would drink port wine, green wine, and more wine. We would taste delicacies at established restaurants, eat family style at the cafeteria of the Clube Estefania, and occupy one of five tables eating with the locals at a hole in the wall by the riverside.
There would be days when we would explore the narrow and curvy alleys of the Barrio Alto, the oldest settlement in Lisbon, and the center of its night life. On the way down we would spend hours at a flea market perched on several blocks of uphill and down hill streets. We would be able to do this day after day because in Lisbon, we would learn, the tango is a late night activity. Our tango activities would consist of daily three hour sessions starting at 7 PM, followed by dancing from 11 PM until 3 or 4 in the morning. In the process we would become affectionately attached to a group of people who loved to dance not just tango, but quizomba, an African rhythm which sounded like a mix of Brazilian samba and Cuban rumba.
We would swiftly be overtaken by the care, love and respect that the Lisbon tangueros profess for the tango, its cultural roots, and the people whose original image it reflects. We would quickly understand the meaning of saudade, an emotional state of being
nostalgic. We would be immersed in a love fest of embraces and osculations. We would quickly learn to love the unique sounds of a language which reads like Spanish, but sounds like a carioca bossa nova.
At the farewell party Sunday at the Club Barraca, we would see the full force of quizomba, fado and tango combined when the participants of the tango week would be joined by lots of young and middle age dancers curious about the intricacy of the tango, and attracted by the sensual appeal of the tango dancers.
That night we would discover another facet of Alex’s artistic life. The Argentine expatriate, a musician, modern dancer and Portugal’s leading tango promoter, would be the soul of the Barraca spinning music, arousing the crowd with the beat he kept banging on a cow bell, and playing a composition of his own to which the entire room would take to the floor and burst into a spontaneous line dance.
Before this all happened, we woke up to see another morning and a shroud of fog carpeting the valley below as the train rode high above the mountains. Just before noon on June 11, the train pulled into the old terminal by the river. Something special was about to begin: “Maestros Alberto y Valorie ben-vindo a Lisboa,” said Jose Serrao welcoming us to his city. Soon we were in a taxi climbing the narrow streets of old Lisbon on our way to the hotel. A couple of hours, a shower, and a few sardines later, Alex and Sol picked us up to take us out to dinner and listen to the Fado.
Sorting out our way around laundry hanging from balcony to balcony across the narrow cobblestone streets, Alex said, “This music is the life of the city, springing from the common people, associated with the bohemian life-style, the shady world, heat, a smoky atmosphere, wine, the commoner, the aristocracy…”