Saturday, December 02, 2006

Number Ten! Tinta Roja: Andres Calamaro.


There may be no second acts in North American lives but in the South there certainly are, and Andres Calamaro would be as good an example of a mid-life “renacimiento” as that of the recently cleaned up, slimmed down and ultra celeb-friendly Maradona whose lachrymose chat show was the big TV hit in Argentina last year ( to the dismay of many). Calamaro never shot at journalists or quite ballooned to El Diez’s Zeplinesque proportions on an unstinting diet of meat and Bolivian nosebleed coke, nor did he quite manage to commit acts of suicidal coke-fuelled frenzy up there with the legendarily deranged granddaddy of Argentine rock (the appropriately named) Charlie Garcia’s leap from a tenth floor hotel window into a swimming pool (captured on film, and available as are all things, on youtube) but he’s certainly infamous enough back home for his drug habit, weight gain and self-exiling to Spain after he got in trouble for suggesting at a concert that it was “a lovely night to smoke a joint” and appearing smashed on TV one time too many.

This is not to say of course that Argentines don’t have a huge tolerance for fucked-up artists, indeed the tradition almost demands it of them, the Tanguero’s demi-monde of coke, whisky, impossible loves and all-night Milongas has finished off most of the greats, with the exception of Carlos Gardel of course, who was fortunate enough to go down in a plane over Colombia while still relatively young, thus preserving him as an icon of all that’s beautiful and noble in Tango.

Calamaro, like Maradona has effectively stared his own ruin in the face and come back out the other side sporting a newly found sense of propriety and engaging with his manhood via a crack at the tradition. He started this after a particularly poorly received triple album (!) “ El Salmon” written in a fortnight or so at the height/depth of his Madrid drug binges, a move which seemed to have finished off the solo career which started in the early Eighties with a series of highly successful quirky pop hits ( “Flaca” being the most widely known) and the album “Alta Suciedad.” In 2003 with “El Cantante/ The Singer” (the title taken from a Ruben Blades track he covered on the album) he began to interpret other people's works, taking on salsa, folk songs, modern classics of various traditions of Rock Nacional, (either a mature act of homage or the last recourse of a spent creativity, take your pick) and most significantly for “Tinta Roja”, the tangos “Volver,” a flamenco version of which recently appeared in Almodovar’s movie of the same name and “Malena” a slightly more obscure but inspired choice, a fabulously gothic paean to a Tango singer from the slums of Buenos Aires.

The album was a huge critical and commercial success prompting Calamaro to return to El Sur, cleaned up, slimmer, newly in love and ready to be taken back into the bosom of the family after his forty days in the wilderness. He performed a couple of sold out concerts, released another big selling disc of the gigs, “El Regresso/The Return” and set about his next recording, “Tinta Roja” in which he’s concentrated exclusively on Tango, the same combination of classics and more obscure works ( the Tango corpus is ridiculously vast) albeit a rather eclectic take, featuring lots of flamenco guitar, horns and very little Bandoneon, certain to upset the purists.

The singing of Tango is frankly, to inexperienced Anglo ears such as my own, pretty weird, it’s essentially declaimed, somewhere between spoken and sung. Quite why one Tango singer is great and another mediocre is dependent on a whole subset of micro-gestures, tone, empahasis, modulations, inflections and pauses, not to mention the grain and heft of the voice itself , along with the even more imperceptible performative “feel” for the lyrics and the tradition, which largely leaves ears such as my own, steeped neither in the form nor fully conversant with the language, at a loss.* There is a level then on which Calamaro provides a pretty good kind of intro to non-initiates into the music, it’s a prettified, more singer-songwritery take, more accessible.** The fact remains, it’s hugely enjoyable, moving and refreshingly disinterested in doing anything “new” or “radical” for the kids (actually the kids are really trad, aren’t they? Ok, then, blogging academics!) and much more concerned with doing unfashionable justice to the genius and the enduring legacy of his great grandparent’s golden years. A selection from youtube, Calamaro’s***** version of the magnificent “Por Una Cabeza" appears above, along with Gardel’s original and a humble attempt at a translation by Impostume Industries

*Roberto Goyeneche the last of the Tango greats ( a chronic alcoholic whose signature world-weary laugh provided a high point of many of his works and whose work with Piazola on “Vuelvo al Sur” and “ Solo” from Pino Solanas’ tango musical “El Exilio del Gardel” were the points at which any of it started to make any sense to me, in an affective way, I mean) observed, utterly shit-faced, in an interview that the secret of his success was that he had respect for the text. “ I say it well, I say it with full stops, I say it with commas!”

** Nothing Vanguardist whatsoever going on, just a series of fascinating songs being re-jigged by a skilled musician. Very unlikely to appeal to Euro-hipsters whose take on Tango is “Gotan Project”, “Bajofondo” and the million similar acts that their success has spawned and who can’t really be bothered engaging with another culture/form in all its tiring complexity*** and localness, but will feel good about their open-mindedness by indulging in third world traditions if they are served up to them with enough Electronica to neutralize its otherness, make it immediately appetising and reassure them that yes, their culture is the global cutting edge and model of aspiration,(and what could be more important than being cutting edge?)

*** “ El Lenguaje de Buenos Aires/ The language of Buenos Aires,” by Borges is, for example, just one attempt among many to analyse and assess the sheer quantity of slang (Lunfardo) specifically derived from Tango and one of the more formidable difficulties even for speakers of other varieties of Spanish in the “EspaƱol rioplatense” spoken in Buenos Aires , its environs and Uruguay, where many claim Tango originated.

**** Those with a Western Imperialist allergy to mullets/bouffants may wish to look away when Calamaro appears. Naturally since "Tinta Roja" came out the absurdly prolific Calamaro has released another album, of his own stuff this time, which basically sounds like the Lightning Seeds. Ahh well.

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