July 13, 2015
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Carolina De Robertis's The Gods of Tango is a lyrical and compelling novel vividly set in the Buenos Aires of the early 1900s.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"Wonderful…beautifully written… the entire novel makes for a poetic read, with De Robertis penning effortlessly lyrical sentences. The novel is true to its time…engrossing and believable."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
In The Gods of Tango, a young Italian immigrant called Leda arrives in Buenos Aires, in 1913, to discover that her husband-to-be is dead. Faced with the challenge of surviving alone in a dangerous city, she dons men's clothes and assumes a new identity as Dante, a violinist in the underworld of the tango's Old Guard. As time passes, she begins to uncover her own desire for women, a desire that might free her, or threaten her very life.
In the United States, the tango is known primarily as a dance, but it is also a musical tradition, with a history as rich and intricate as the North American history of jazz.
In this playlist, I begin with tango music that offers some glimpses of that history, and then move into songs beyond the tango genre that speak to me of Leda/Dante's tumultuous personal, artistic, and sexual journey toward becoming her/his full self.
"Vuelvo al Sur," Gotan Project
This contemporary track by the tango fusion group Gotan Project sets the mood, blending jazz, electronica, and tango to create a lush tapestry of sound. The longing and passion of the lyrics ("I return to the South / as one always returns to love") is matched by the velvety wail of the tango's quintessential instrument, the bandoneón.
"Mi Noche Triste," Carlos Gardel
Carlos Gardel is the undisputed King of Tango—you might call him the Frank Sinatra of the genre, only far more immortal. His untimely death in a plane crash in 1935 was a defining moment in tango history, still commemorated elaborately to this day. This is the song that catapulted him into stardom, and that, in 1917, transformed the tango from a largely instrumental affair into a song whose lyrics tell a story. In this novel, Dante and her fellow band members witness that moment, and it changes the course of their musical careers.
"Fumando Espero," Libertad Lamarque
Although this tango is relatively obscure, it's the one I knew best growing up, as it was the favorite of my paternal grandmother, an Argentinean poet who died in Uruguay when I was seven. My father used to sing this song, off-key, around the house; it must have reminded him very much of his mother, as it's sung from the point of view of a woman smoking cigarettes as she prepares for her lover's arrival, and his own mother was a chain-smoking bohemian. As an immigrant child, I was always struck by the raw sensuality of this song, which seemed to belong far more to my root-culture than to the more Puritan one that surrounded us. Often, as I was researching and writing this novel, "Fumando Espero" would slide brightly into my mind.
"Esclavo," Lágrima Ríos
Few people in the English-speaking world know that the tango has African (along with European, Cuban, and criollo) roots. In The Gods of Tango, Dante's band leader Santiago hails from the Afro-Argentinean community. Santiago has a deep connection with the true roots of tango, but he also faces invisibility, condescension, and structural barriers in his pursuit of musical success.
Lágrima Ríos is virtually unknown outside her native Uruguay, but in her nation she is beloved. Early in her career, in the 1940s, she was barred from performing tangos in Montevideo's cabarets because she was black. In this song, entitled "Slave," she gives voice to emotional pain that transcends the personal, and touches on the resilience of a people.
"Libertango," Ástor Piazzolla
Ástor Piazzolla revolutionized the tango in the 1950s and beyond, creating dazzling compositions that blended jazz and classical elements with the traditional form. The result was tango nuevo, an experimental style that generated great controversy. This song, first recorded in 1974, combines the words "libertad" and "tango" in the title as a kind of creative manifesto.
This could easily be Dante's personal theme song: no we're never gonna survive, Seal sings, unless we're a little crazy—and it's exactly that kind of leap from the edge of sanity that Dante takes when she crosses gender lines, at first to live, and then, as Seal so aptly puts it, to fly.
"Where the Streets Have No Name," U2
Run, hide, tear down the walls that hold me inside; these burning needs propel Dante. She is, after all, seventeen—and what young person has not felt these urges? Also, the recurring image of nameless streets in this song captures something about the experience of immigrants like the ones in this book: how adrift you can feel, and how uprooted, when everything about a city is foreign, and yet it's your only home.
"Do I Move You," Nina Simone
Lust, swagger, and brash seduction fairly explode from this song. Once Dante discovers her attraction to women, it's exactly these things that she must learn to embody in order to get what she longs for.
"Let's Dance," David Bowie
There is the obvious: the tango is a dance, and the Buenos Aires of this book ripples with people enjoying this rising art form. But, for me, this song has become imprinted with a certain summer day while I was living in Uruguay, working on this novel. "Let's Dance" came on the radio on a crowded bus (the drivers often turn music up for all to enjoy), and the song washed over all of us together: my wife, my small children, tired office workers and young couples and carefully coiffed octogenarians, all nodding in time to Bowie. As if we might accept his invitation, right then and there.
"Midnight Radio," Hedwig and the Angry Inch
In this song from the musical, the transgender Hedwig finally comes to understand herself as whole, and tells her fellow misfits that they're really rock and rollers, shining on the midnight radio. It's a beautiful, unabashed anthem for anyone who's ever taken a long queer road to become him or herself. If Dante could only have heard it, it would surely have rocked her soul.
Carolina De Robertis and The Gods of Tango links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays
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