Tango, wrote Jorge Luis Borges, expresses “a conviction that poets have often tried to voice with words: that a fight can be a celebration”. It may have been the first global musical craze. Born in the bordellos of Buenos Aires at the end of the 19th century, its prominent place in the 1926 film The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, with a sprinkle of stardust from Rudolph Valentino, sent it round the world. Moralists tutted, but Europe and America succumbed.
These days, it seems, it takes two genres to tango. The music still flourishes as a hybrid with other styles. In a packed Purcell Room last month, the group ZUM cross-bred tango with Gypsy music, with the same propensity for sudden lurches in rhythm: the bright stabs do not so much form the rhythm as stop it in its tracks. Adam Summerhayes, the violinist, flashed through pyrotechnical leaps and runs or plucked pizzicato, his instrument sounding more like a skittering cimbalom.
The band gleefully mined their instruments for unconventional sounds. A series of tortured yelps made by the string players sawing on the wrong side of the bridge and plucking away wildly eventually resolved into a tango rhythm, to delighted chuckles from the audience.
But the best moments were played straight. Versions of Astor Piazolla’s “Michaelangelo 70” and, in particular, his old warhorse “Libertango”, were triumphant. Picking up on tango’s melancholy late-night moodiness, there was a version of Rezso Seress’s notorious “Gloomy Sunday”, banned by broadcasters because of its reputation for provoking listeners to suicide. Cello and violin traded the melody between them over an icy accordion figure from Eddie Hession; David Gordon played pointillist piano.
The band’s signature tune, “Swallowing Flies”, rolled tango up into a break-neck potted history of early-20th-century music, tracing connections and hinting at hidden kinships. It raced through dark-alley Klezmer and boogie-woogie, caught its breath in a languid, urbane piano solo, and offered some bluesy slide cello before ending up in a bizarre hoedown. As with the rest of the concert, it was hardly authentic, but it was tremendous fun.
Dino Saluzzi is Argentina’s best-known bandoneon player after Astor Piazolla. His new album Juan Condori sees Saluzzi and family members (plus the Italian drummer U.T. Gandhi) take an angular jazz approach to tango. In the album’s best moments, tango is disaggregated into its component elements (a dash of flamenco, Mediterranean café music, eastern European wedding dances), then reassembled into a surreal moonscape.
But tango is above all a dance music. The Go’Tan Project proved this a few years ago by marrying the music with the blurred soundscape of dub. Amy WInehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good”, the highlight of Back To Black, gives tango a brassy R’n’B strut.
The dance producer Claus Zundel’s album Palermo Nuevo, released next month, mixes tango with electronica. Piano and bandoneon are to the fore, and the electronic beats are sympathetic and restrained. “Libertango” is here again, blipped-out and icy, sounding very different from its treatment by ZUM (or, indeed, versions by performers as varied as Sharon Shannon and Grace Jones).
Borges complained that tango had become tainted by “a trivial vulgarity, a taste of infamy that the tango of the knife and the brothel never even suspected”. But this music constantly evolves; even Piazolla’s Tango Zero Hour, hailed as the best tango ever committed to disc, took its own stylistic liberties. Tango is as aggressive and unpredictable as a knife duel, as hard to dance as it is to play. These hybrids offer a seductive glance of tango’s attractions, but it keeps its secrets close.