Saturday, 24 February 2018

13 Fronteras




What do you do with flyers that come through the letterbox? Normally, they are irrelevant to life and go in the bin.

But there was something about this flyer that stopped us in our tracks. It was not that the chef was from Washington DC (wherever that may be). But inspirational plates with novel ingredients? Could this be possible here in San Telmo? And so close by - right next to Origen, our favourite walking-distance cafe for breakfast.

When you go out for a meal somewhere new, you take a chance. We had walked by earlier glimpsing through the windows to a spotless kitchen and sharp interior. “Yes, let’s give it a go, and let’s see what David Soady the chef can serve up that will excite us”.

Going straight to the point, this proved to be the most interesting and exciting meal of any we have eaten in Buenos Aires: a masterpiece of composition, flavour, interest and appeal.



As fairly discerning ‘foodies’ Stephanie and I like to arrive early, before the rush and crush - generally the ingredients are fresh at opening, as is the cook. And so it was shortly after 7 pm that we walked into 13 Fronteras, to be greeted by Senor Soady. Here the kitchen, and the magic that happens in it, is an open part of the deal. You get to see the preparation and cooking of precisely what you are going to eat. And you get to chat with David, chef, owner and inspirer of 13 Fronteras. 

With few other customers so early, we were able to monopolise David’s time - and using my lawyer’s skill and Stephanie’s guile, to interrogate him about his restaurant. We could now describe how the restaurant was inspired, and tell about David’s history since he left Washington DC and arrived two years ago (via El Salvador) in Buenos Aires. We gleaned that he had worked at Aramburu, one of South America’s best restaurants here in the city before opening 13 Fronteras in San Telmo on 10 December 2017.

But we would rather tell you about the food.

The menu at 13 Fronteras is quite simple. Gone is the impossible multiple choice of dozens of dishes. Here you have a choice of 13 mains. For alcoholic drinks, there is beer or red wine - making our selection of La Puerta Malbec from Famatina a simple and delightful task.

After much deliberation, Stephanie chose la churnea, a white fish caught of the coast of Buenos Aires Province, served boneless, together with chunos and toasted maiz mote. The dish, pictured here on the first plate, was utterly fascinating in flavour and composition. This was fine dining at a totally accessible price point. 

  


Pictured on the second plate, I selected porchetta, delicious succulent pork, cooked whole, then portioned and served at the prime moment, so prepared to tender perfection. 

We had opted for a pavement table nestling beneath a Jacaranda. As dusk fell, David returned to introduce us to the desert menu. By now, having understood the potential magic of 13 Fronteras, we simply left it to our chef to make our choice. David returned with coca panna cotta with hibiscus for Stephanie, and for me a desert with a surprising range of ingredients, including those that could never be guessed. “If you tell me what is in them, you may eat here for free for the rest of your lives”, David jested. Stephanie and I agonised for 10 seconds, before simply succumbing to the deserts and giving up on the task. The combination was perfection - like Argentine tango, the panna cotta being light as an upper body giro, the mystery desert being rich, vernacular and grounded.

What I have not managed to capture here was the fun of the meal, with its additions and San Salvador tones, courtesy of Cristabel, David’s San Salavadorian wife. Having David almost to ourselves was a bonus, but the conversation, guessing and tasting provided a special experience.

13 Fronteras is now number 1 on our list of Buenos Aires delights. When you arrive in the city, ensure that your first visit is early, for you will surely want to return. 









Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Bond and Moneypenny in Buenos Aires




Planning to visit Buenos Aires, or maybe a regular visitor here? Then you should check out ‘Bond and Moneypenny in Buenos Aires’ a blog account of their exploits in the city, taking you with them to new places, milongas, restaurants, cafes and more.


Simply follow the link, and click to follow the blog. With this recommendation, what have you to lose? 

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Salon Canning and Orquesta Romantica Milonguera




There are fringe milongas; and there are posh ones. Salon Canning (or just Canning to its regulars) is definitely one of the posh ones.

Canning is less favoured by this vernacular tanguero; yet there are times when it is fun to dress up, hail a cab, arrive in style and dance until the early hours with the glitterati, the polished Canning crowd. Tonight is one of those nights.

It is 11pm, and we have just finished celebrating another milestone at our dance school, when our dance professor insists that we join him for a night out at Canning. We are already dressed and equipped with our best dance shoes, so the invitation is timely. Moreover, Orquesta Romantica Milonguera is to perform there at 1am, after which there will be two dance performances. So moments later we collect in 9 de Julio, flag down two cabs, and race towards Av Cordoba and the journey to Scalabrini Ortiz. 

Canning is one of those iconic milongas that seems to have been there always. Its history is a little cloaked - its name does not register in the list of famous milongas of the Golden Age - but every self-respecting tanguero (and those that aren’t) ensure that they dance here. 

Spilling from the taxi, we join a short queue to obtain our 150 pesos entrance ticket. Around us magnificent milongueros hug their friends, as well-heeled milongueras disappear into the banos to change into their dance shoes. On entering, the room is packed. It is hard to discern a single seat, let alone a free table, but Patrick has used his influence to pre-book the last remaining place, right in the corner of the salon. 

Those arriving at Canning are inspected as they process to their tables. Milongueras in tight fitted dresses slashed to the thigh look disdainfully, whilst the old milongueros, too busy with each other’s egos, hardly notice our arrival. If you are somebody in tango, Canning is a definitely place to be seen; a smart club of mixed age group that tolerates the groups of foreigners that flock to dance here.

Settled, with sparkling water, Stephanie accepts my cabeceo and we wind our way to the dance floor. Along the route we teeter between close packed tables against which innumerable chairs are crammed, each overflowing with an occupant. We angle our bodies and tip-toe through to the pista. There, the line of dancers seems never ending, but a thoughtful tanguero nods to invite our entry, and we are sucked into the outside lane.

Late last year, Francesca reported the demise of Canning’s ceiling. During a sudden downpour, water and plaster rained onto the floor and tangueros scattered. Tonight, all is restored, with new lighting and bright white walls to replace the yellowing paint. At the head of the room is the iconic mural, a photo-montage depicting the notables that have frequented this place. Elsewhere, bright coloured pictures grace high walls above the sea of tables. 

Busy Friday nights at Canning require the art of producing a joyful dance for one’s partner - whilst moving defensively to avoid inadvertent collision. The floor is so tightly packed that all movement is confined to immediate personal space, and even this is under constant threat from those behind or in an adjacent lane of dance.

The first song over, we have advance but four metres. Ochos, ocho cortados, and giros become the staple diet of the Canning floor. Walking, which was the mainstay of Golden Age tango, is almost impossible here. Our tango world has shrunk from that of Mariposita to a micro world where every movement is condensed, shortened, tightened and to my taste, restricted. I intercept my giro as I sense the closeness of the dancers behind. 

It is now evident why tonight Canning is so densely populated, for we pass an area, usually filled by tables, that has been cleared for the orchestra. Pink blouses and black suits identify the performers who have gathered to one side for photographs. Orquesta Romantica Milonguera is currently the darling of the milongas, having taken Buenos Aires by storm in 2017.



Sometime after 1.30 am the orchestra performs, and the floor floods with tangueros and others. Buscandote, Oigo tu voz, Solamente Ella ring out like bells across the floor. Tomas Regolo leads from the piano, Roberta Meagli, nursing her bandoneon, looks up and smiles; Roberto Minondi and Marisol Martinez arrive simultaneously at the microphone to sing. 



Whilst Orquesta Romantica Milonguera’s sound is distinctive, it is Marisol that seduces the audience. As in the Golden Age, where the vocalist would not appear until half-way through the song - it is said, because to do otherwise would result in the women standing to look at the handsome singer - Marisol will often make a late appearance. When she appears, the floor before the orquestra congests with desire as both men and women watch longingly. 

Later, as two professional couples give back-to-back performances, we struggle to watch through the press of standing dancers. It is time to leave. With our dance shoes tucked away in dance bags we nod to Andreea, and step out together into warm night air. Somewhere distant, a clock chimes 3 am. A taxi pulls up and we board. Now racing along the calles and avenidas, slowing only for the storm drains, we head back to San Telmo. Andreea is humming Fueron tres anos; dawn light appears just above the horizon. We all picture Marisol and re-define our tango love.




Orquesta Romantica Milonguera
Lucas furno: Violin
Luli Christe: Violin
Sara Ryan: Violin
Oscar Yemah: Bandoneon
Ricardo Badaracco: Bandoneón
Roberta Maegli: Bandoneón
Juan Miguens: Contrabajo
Tomás Regolo: Piano

Marisol Martinez: Voz
Roberto Minondi: Voz


Friday, 9 February 2018

Finding Friends in Buenos Aires



Facebook friends, and other blog readers will already have discovered my ‘other’ blog.

Its title might suggest that you should be of a certain age to read it. In fact not. If you are over 50 years (or may sometime reach that age in the next decade) the blog is for you. If not, it is still a good read to inform you about your parents’ and grandparents’ outlook.

Here is the link. Pop across and check it out. But don’t forget to return here for the next tango blog from Buenos Aires. Next time we will be visiting and contrasting two famous milongas - Salon Canning and Lo de Celia. Now, there’s a contrast! Which will win?

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Its time for asado - Buenos Aires style




It is time for an asado.

Asado is taken very seriously here in Buenos Aires.”How is your asado?” is the third question that a woman will ask a prospective fiancé after “are you solvent”, and “are you generous or mean”. Unless she is a tanguera, when the only question is “can you dance tango?”.

Fortunately for me, Stephanie is more interested in the butcher than my asado skills. Jose, Pascual y Gascon have run unit 54 in San Telmo market for 40 years without a break. Part of the fabric of the market, they are always thrilled to see Stephanie and hear her request. “Un bife de lomo”, says Stephanie to Pascual, at which he will scowl with mock disbelief, dart furtively into the chill store and return with a smile and 600-800 gms of pure beef filet.





One of our first purchases on arrival in Buenos Aires was a small parrilla (pronounced ‘par-y-sha’). For this we went to Casa Bella, Independencia 1502, a hardware shop in Monserrat stuffed with every kind of device from the ‘patio portable’ to huge 2m long grills opening into brick chimneys. We opted for a small, slim grill that would sit on the roof and be easily protected from rain. Armed with a 4kg  bag of organic charcoal from the grocers in Defensa and a fistful of twigs retrieved from beneath the plane trees of Paseo Colon, we were set to asado. 


In less kind climes, lighting the parrilla can be a tortuous task. Here in Buenos Aires, with long summer days, it is relatively simple, for the metal and tiles of the grill are already hot from the sun. The ‘art’, apparently, is to nest the charcoal - spaced so that it can breathe, but sufficiently close that it will catch and spread. When the bloom of ash is evident on one side of a coal, simply turn it to allow contact with the other side. Once lit, the next imperative is to open your first bottle of Malbec and pour a glass or two. Rushing an asado can be fatal: you need at least 30-45 minutes of steady, quiet, smokeless, ash-covered coals before dreaming of adding meat.

 

Barbecue in Britain tends to be an unseemly active affair. You will see men (for it seems to be a ‘male thing’ to light fires to cook meat) in a sweat, rushing pieces of chicken from scorch to safety, or flapping at flames as dripping fat catches. 

Here in Buenos Aires, movements are molecular. The asador will stir as if from deep contemplation, to squint at the asado. He will breathe deeply to summon energy, perhaps sing a phrase or two of Fresedo, then rise purposely. Unless absolutely necessary, the meat will stay exactly where it was placed, simply to be turned when needed. Cooking asado is slow; leisurely. The charcoal may be hot, yet the rack for meat is spaced well away. My Porteno asadors tell me that beef matures with slow cooking, producing a crisp outer skin and soft, succulent, moist interior.

Asado for Stephanie and me has an added joy of a rooftop view across the barrio to Puerto Madero and San Nicolas. The scene before us extends for two kilometers over 200 degrees. Above, the sky is a sparkling azure blue peppered only by the swifts in aerial displays, racing teams of green parakeets and the odd dove settling into a tree. Below, countless roofs of inumerable homes; and occasionally from one of them the tell-tale spiral of smoke from another asado.


Today we are serving the filet of beef with salchicha parrillera, pinned spirals of sausage grilled for 30 minutes or so. The beef will cook for as long as needed. With this is the mixed salad of lettuce, tomato and red onion. Red chimichurri is essential. 

As is another bottle of Malbec. This time, being on a 6th floor roof, we chose a ‘high altitude’ Mendoza, stunningly delicious from the effect of night-time thermal amplitude. Manuel Louzada of Terrazas de los Andes explained the significance, 
“During the day the plant produces, via photosynthesis, carbohydrates that are taken into the berries. Throughout the night, respiration takes place without photosynthesis, consuming some of the carbohydrates and other organic compounds. The lower the night temperature and, therefore the bigger the thermal amplitude, the lower the amount of these components consumed during respiration, resulting in more intensity of the grape expression due to a bigger richness in the berry of these components, that affect colour, aroma and palate structure.” 
Well, now you know!



Stephanie asks, “Is it the Argentine temperament that makes the asado, or the asado that forms the Argentine ways?”. I look at her lazily and gaze into my half-full glass of Malbec, “Both, I reckon, but right now I am feeling particularly Argentine”.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Sunday in San Telmo



‘Hielo, hielo’, is the call from Calle Defensa. I peer down from the terrace to spy the white-coated icecream vendor threading his way through a mist of colourful tourists. His box hangs from his shoulders on broad leather straps that were used by his father before him. The sun is still hot, so his trade is brisk.

Either side of the street the traders have their stalls. Early, about 8 am, we heard a gentle clanking on the cobbles, indicating that the market overseeers were busy setting out the metal frames and wooden benches. The sound, hardly discernible, was familiarly in a soothing way than disturbing. By 10 am the scene had changed, with advancing pools of tourists seeping, then pouring into the street. From time to time they pause, only to pulse forward when a channel appears.

It is now after 4 pm and the lone Argentine singer who stood away from the sun in the shadows has given way to amplified sounds of a singer, guitar and drums in San Lorenzo. Judging by the waves of applause he (or they) are surrounded by a crowd of onlookers who he is unsuccessfully teaching to clap a rhythm. They must be English. 

In fact the English presence here in San Telmo is sparce, new visitors preferring the seemingly safer barrios of Palermo and Recoleta. English accents from around the world are however ubiquitous. It is the principal language for stall traders with those not bearing the tell-tale Latin signs.

Shortly, our performers will be driven from the street by the San Telmo drummers, a band of about thirty who, as dusk gathers, process along Defensa every Sunday when not raining. They dress for carnival, with aerobic extravagance as they turn and spin.

Of course, Stephanie and I pass them at a pace. Our destination is not their rehearsal carnival, but the real street milonga in Plaza Dorrego. Here we will dance tango on the polished tiles of the square for an hour or so until Pedro (El Indio) Benavente calls the Santiago del Estero folk dance of Chacarera,  now learned by all Argentine children. 

At this point, we too slip away, along deserted Sunday night streets, and back to the lights of Independencia and home.

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Bar Los Laureles - Golden Age of tango




Have you been to Bar Los Laureles?

Deep in Barracas, southern barrio of Buenos Aires, there is a cafe. It dates back to 1893 when it was a hotbed of socialism and tango. Later in 1940 Jose Lomio, the famous tango singer known popularly as ‘Angel Vargas’ started to sing at the bar, and since then singers have come from across the southern barrios of Buenos Aires to sing here.

It is Friday night - open mic night one might call it in London or New York. But the very term seems to steal the true-tango-authenticity of Fridays at Los Laureles. The songs are tango - of the Golden Age singers Carlos Gardel, Alberto Moran, Angel Vargas, Armando Laborde, Virginia Luque, Pepita Avellaneda. They are tango at its very best, some of the resident and visiting singers having sung for a lifetime, as professionals and enormously talented social singers.

We meet with Moneypenny and Damian to board colectivo 24 to Herrera, then on foot to Av Gral Iriarte 2290 Barracas. Stephanie and Moneypenny sit towards the front of the bus, whilst Damian and I stand by the wide open window that allows in cooling air. Green traffic lights are in our favour, and number 24 careers through the intersections, the windows of closing shops and opening cafés flashing past in a blur. 

Av Gral Iriarte is a suburban boulevard which we recognise, in contrast to the rest of Barracas, by the long slim garden that divides the road. Just before the railway bridge on the left is ‘Los Laureles’. Tables have been gathered close below the street windows, and already locals sit there with copas de vino, beers and empanadas. Nearby, a mechanic and its owner appear to dismantle a car’s carburetor and momentarily Los Laureles is lit blue by the flashing lights of a passing police car. 

 

The bar’s owner takes us to our table by the dance floor. Finding that we were tangueros, this place was reserved specially for us. To our left shellac resin and vinyl spins on the turntable of the analogue radiogram. Its Pugliese, his plump face peering out at the room from an old crumpled photograph on the album’s cover. We have come early for Yuyu Herrera’s tango class, but we need not have rushed - here in Barracas we are definitely on ‘Argentine time’. 

With the change of mood to Osvaldo Fresedo, Moneypenny accepts my cabeceo  and we take to the pista. Odd tables are now occupied, yet we dance alone. ‘Los Laureles’ is not a place for show. Here, in the traditions of the barrio, tango is totally grounded, feet barely leave the floor, movement is unhurried, continuous and seamless. We dance in close embrace, receiving approving smiles from faces by the floor and beyond the windows in the street. Shortly, we are joined on the floor by Stephanie and Damian and the evening has started.

Within three tandas a small, fiery woman bearing a shock of curly black hair appears in the room. In a place that has seen no sudden movement since the 1950’s, her arrival amounts almost to consternation. The music switches to a Canaro beat, and she corralsher students into groups of ‘beginners’ - and ‘the rest’. Yuyu darts to a window to repel staring chicos with the sweep of her arm; then as if by magic, she sets the beginners to walk - the most important skill of the tanguero - and we (the rest) are invited to embrace. Argentine tango is a dance that requires contact, a proximity so close that the follower can understand the lead from the partner’s breath and torso. 

Stephanie and I hold each other in the perfect embrace before moving to the next partner and a new embrace. Here in Buenos Aires, it is often visitors that have an issue with the embrace; Portenos simply relax into it. After all, it is part of the culture. If one wants to learn Argentine tango and become truly integrated as a tanguero here, you simply have to release any aversion to hugs and rotation of partners.

Before Yuyu takes us all onto the giro (the tango turn) she admonishes a couple for talking and lines up her students in a column, as if for a Greek Sirtos; but these steps are those of the turning giro. Within seconds we are all proficient - including the new beginners. Then it is the moment for timing...one, two, three-four, five. Yes, we have got it. And the class finishes with applause. 

 

I need not take you, my reader, through the menu, the taste of the Malbec, nor the finale of fabulous budin de pan with dulce de leche and cream. In truth, one does not visit ‘Los Laureles’ for gastronomic delight. We are here for tango. And so it is now that a small, compact man in a black pinstripe suit and shiny shoes seizes the microphone. 

You must understand that everything about ‘Los Laureles’ appears in time-lapse, so even the microphone dates to the 1950’s, it’s platted cord extending from the radiogram plug. In his hand is a single sheet of paper bearing names in a neat hand - those who are to be called to perform. At this moment, we are transported back to the 1930’s and 40’s as one-by-one traditional silver tango singers, and young handsome men with slicked back jet-black ponytails arrive to sing their favourite songs. A lone guitar player sits to one side, the warmth of his accompaniment visceral in quick moving fingers on the fret. 

Just like the projected images of old film that flicker on one wall, the evening turns sepia; time slows to walking pace; a little shudder of a breeze moves dropped blossom from branches in the boulevard; yet another police car sales past - quietly as if not wishing to break the spell. Small groups of local men and women occupy outside tables to enjoy both song and night air. I feel that time is rolled back, and with it, I sway like a seaweed frond in a moonlit swell. Time now has no significance or meaning.

 

We dance, just the odd couple of dancers to accompany the singers, our movement directed by their orchestration; we express in dance what they sing. I feel a touch to my arm and turn. A young man stands before me and speaks in Castillano. Will I dance a tango with his mother? She has not danced since his father died, and apparently I remind her of him. She is tiny, but in tango this matters not. As we dance she comes alive with memories,  fitting for a night at Bar Los Laureles. Her face is wreathed in smiles as I take her back to her seat and give her son a hug. The pinstripe man reaches the end of his list,  and we feel a sense of loss. It is as if another century is stealing back its place. 



Outside, a taxi waits, it's meter ticking. We board and speed through Barracas streets, now deserted and in shadow from the moon. Then there is the moment that we cross 9 de Julio, the road that divides the city. This tells that we are nearly home. Bar Los Laureles seems a distant dream, but most definitely one we shall remember. 




Thursday, 4 January 2018

Maldita Milonga with Lucia y Gerry







It is Wednesday night. For those living in, or visiting San Telmo, this is the night for Maldita Milonga at Peru 571. 

Dressed casually, Moneypenny arrives promptly at 2230 hrs. Today temperatures have reached the mid 30’s and it is still warm from a day of uninterrupted sunshine. Helpfully, a Buenos Aires breeze whips lazy pools of daytime air and spins them into the darkness.

Stephanie and I join Moneypenny on the stairs to descend to Defensa, and then to wind our way through the San Telmo streets, passing cafés, restaurants and bars to which the early night revellers have repaired. There is a softness about the evening. San Telmo is unhurried. Few cars pass, here a taxi sails by looking for a fare, now colectivo 24, then a lone cartonero pushing his trolley of boxes. We walk in silence, soaking up the evening, from an open doorway hearing the sound of jazz, voices laughing, glasses chinking. A jacaranda tree, now almost devoid of purple flowers, is in full leaf swaying gently to what appears to be the same tune.

Maldita Milonga is one of those ‘must-do’s for visitors to Buenos Aires. It is a milonga with a difference: that difference being El Afronte - a very different tango orchestra. Those of my regular readers will recall my blog from November 2015 in which I recorded Sara’s last tanda in Buenos Aires. It was here at Maldita that Sara experienced the full energy of a tango band for the first, and the last time. Her final Facebook post read, “We sat directly in front of four passionate, highly energetic and totally absorbed bandoneon players. I felt as if my whole body was electrified, especially when they played their final Pugliese track, La Yumba! The effects of the powerful live music felt indescribably healing”.


Tonight we are meeting with friends at Maldita. Friendship is a privilege, and few come more handsomely than Lucia and Gerry  They are arguably Buenos Aires’s most authentic tango teachers and delightful people. As tango’s Golden Age came to an end, tango was forced into concealed recesses of ‘underground’ milongas by governments that feared public meetings of any kind. The famous milonguero Oscar Casas managed to collect the reminiscences of old milongueros (teenagers in the late 1940’s and 1950’s), and his set of lunch-time video recordings captured their stories about tango. 

If you go to 6.15 in the Almuerzo Milonguero Part 4 video you will hear reference to ‘La Flaca Lucia’. This is Lucia Seva - who became their very favorite milonguera. Alito says, “She lives and feels the moment” Neli replies, “Yes, that is a milonguera!” What better reason could there be to learn from the only living link that carries the traditions between then and now? 

These days, whilst coaching more experienced tangueros in the ‘milonguero style’, Lucia and Gerry also successfully steer non-dancers and new tangueros on their tango journey to tango competence. As part of the experience, they escort their students to a variety of authentic milongas, of which Maldita is one. 

We join Lucia y Gerry and their students at the table marked ‘Reservado Lucia’ - which is all that is needed in San Telmo. Some students have come straight from their tango lessons in Balcarce. New dancers will be taken to the centre of the pista to get their first feel of a milonga; the more experienced tangueros will be introduced to some of the lesser-known codigos. 

I receive a hug from Gerry, who I first met in 2007 on my extended visit to Buenos Aires. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of the tango orchestras, and one of the larger collections of popular and obscure tangos. Chatting to Gerry takes one back to the 1920’s to1940’s - the golden era of tango music, when orchestras toured the regular salons in the city, and milongueros only ever danced to live music.



Shortly, Gerry and Lucia take to the floor surrounded by coloured marker lights. From a dark corner, Gerry checks with a following tanguero, and receiving a nod of approval to enter the pista. Theirs is not the stage-effect tango of performances; it is keyed to the floor, in close embrace, totally connected and seamless. No show is necessary. The joy of watching is to see tango as it was always danced - and within the milonga, always should be. Within moments, they slip from view. We crane our necks to catch further glimpses, but they have gone, swallowed up by a turning tanda. 

It is now 11pm and movement on the stage behind us foretells the arrival of the orchestra. A tanda finishes; suddenly there is darkness. I count the seconds, then the crash. Lights burst into a host of colours - bright intense, and sallow dark. The shadows are ripped away and there is the orchestra - tonight eight performers, fronted by two bandoneons, with three violins/violas, cello, double bass and piano. Within four more seconds the singer Marco appears. He has sung with the orchestra for over a decade and is an integral part of their sound. 

El Afronte are not for the faint-hearted. Their sound is magnificently aggressive. Each instrument takes its share of percussion, so that their songs pulse with primeval energy. We feel the reverberation through the floor and it rises almost to the chest. Anything that will resonate does so. The bandoneons grind their way, and violins chase to catch up. At the end of the first song dancers take to the floor. Theirs is a different tango - one that expresses angst, sorrow, joy and decision. 

  

With an emphasis on Pugliese style, this orchestra is not the easiest to mark. Inexperienced dancers find themselves beached during changes of rhythm - or those moments when the music moves from bright-light to dark-obscure. Tango music has always had this quality, but El Afronte magnify the contrast to a point that requires total dance-absorption-awareness. Those that dance well to the performance are those experienced in the dramatic art of tango; accompanied by those who cannot spell the word ‘disinhibition’.  

Stephanie and I watch; but no El Afronte performance would be complete without dancing a tango. We select a quieter song that offers less drama and feel our way out onto the pista. At this moment we sense that we have truly arrived in Buenos Aires. Laura, Maldita’s organiser smiles from the shadows. We hold in close embrace. Stephanie’s Katrinski flats caress the floor. And I breathe in the moment.


We will stay until almost the last tanda played by the DJ following El Afronte’s departure. It is now 2.0 am. We reach the bottom of the staircase and the streets of San Telmo are deserted. Distant is the sound of a siren, wailing on limpid air. I link arms with Stephanie and Moneypenny as we walk the length of Peru towards Independencia and home. 

With thanks to Lucia Seva for the photos

Monday, 25 December 2017

Christmas Day in Buenos Aires




No city is ever silent. At quiet times, they sit and wait; only to burst into momentary flurries of activity at the slightest excuse. 

It’s the morning of Christmas Day in Buenos Aires. The rubbish lorry has just departed, having ground its way along Defensa, the clattering of bottles now receding into the distance. The city’s hum, always present, is this morning the white noise of air conditioners preparing for a drippingly hot day.

Last night was different. Whilst in Europe, cities go wild at New Year in the expectation that the next year will be better than the last, here in Buenos Aires it’s the arrival of Christmas that urges Portenos to ignite their celebratory firecrackers and fireworks. It starts at midnight, or minutes before for those with urging children. At first, just the occasional small flash and bang of a firecracker followed by a puff and smell of spent black powder in the air. Then the turn of the local gatherings, with dozens of fireworks lifting from the centre of each street bathing groups of neighbours in blue and silver light. Eventually, the large civic displays take to the air, and the skyline of Buenos Aires is turned from ink to glitter in a thousand explosive orbs.

The displays go on into the night. At 1245 hrs a huge display erupts from San Lorenz, one of San Telmos’ tiniest streets leading below from Defensa. As each rocket explodes another follows, and for four minutes the sky glistens with coloured sparks and showers.

Retiring from the roof, I pull the shutters to muffle the sound of distant explosions that continue across the city. Below in contrast, harmonious voices of a group of families and friends sing folklorique to the accompaniment of a guitar; and the scent of their asado lifts on a sudden breeze.

Today, it's Christmas. Sparrows chirp, and the resident green parakeets fly boisterously across the roofs. Otherwise, there is a gentleness to the start of the day. A shutter lifts, morning sun flashes on a distant window, an early morning cat sprawls out on a warm ledge. I fold the windows back, sip tea, wait for Stephanie to wake, and the day to begin.




Sunday, 24 December 2017

Christmas Eve with Empanadas




The door is open at El Gauchito and Juan leans against the counter. It is like entering a very small cave, enough seats for six or seven ‘flacos’, or four to five ‘gordos’. The tiny room is festooned with photographs and newspaper clippings. Four glass shelves bear piles of freshly made empanadas - carne, pollo, jamon y queso and caprese. Behind the shelves is the counter, and rising above it, steps lead to the place where the empanadas are prepared - ‘empanada heaven’.

  

Every centimetre of the wall is covered and every shelf crammed. A TV flickers the news in one corner where the wall meets the ceiling. ‘Aladdin’ - alias Nachito, returns for the evening shift. His large athletic frame fills the doorway and a firm hand shoots out in greeting. “Oh, the best empanadas in Buenos Aires? - thanks for the review”. We hug too, for a handshake simply does not convey the importance of the moment. 



Within seconds, our bag of hot empanadas appears from a hand down the stairway, we pay and exit into a street still warm after a hot day, despite the evening air. Independencia is busy with office workers returning from late shopping trips and carrying small parcels. At the corner of Bolivar, seated on a small stool, a street vendor sells posies of cream gardenias from her plastic bucket. Traffic bunches at the junction before flying on to the next set of lights. 

We return to Defensa, climb the 40 or so stairs to our apartment which is now caught in silver moonlight. The rooftop table is set, the Portillo Malbec is aired, and the empanadas are laid out. 

Whilst two forks are set, there is only one way to eat an empanada. Taking a gentle, but firm hold, lift a corner to the mouth, then the bite/suck, followed by a stroke of the chin with the back of the hand to wipe away the juices. The Portillo tastes rich, peppery and full. A single string of Christmas lights twinkle and Stephanie’s eyes flash a moment of satisfaction. 

“Happy Christmas”, I say. ‘What better way to spend a Christmas Eve?”  Stephanie just smiles and lifts yet another empanada to her lips.







Tuesday, 12 December 2017

It’s time to talk about Katrinski


Women, shoes and tango; three words that go together well. To these, those living in, staying at, or visiting Buenos Aires should add a fourth - ‘Katrinskis’.

I should make it clear. This blog is inspired by shoes - with no hidden deviance or incentives to hyperbole. Katrinski is just like any other bespoke shoe maker in Buenos Aires, but better. And it is her professionalism, attention to detail, line of sight, shape and form - that makes her shoes outstanding.

Stephanie and I arrive in Gallo on the 29 colectivo and walk to Katrinski’s studio via Soler. Within seconds of pushing the bell, she is there to escort us to her first floor atelier overlooking the street. Her workbench sits just inside the door. Here are her tools: leather shears, mundial tailor scissors, nickel hammers, shoe knives, lining pliers, rasps; and the skeletons of shoes - neat heels and soles awaiting leather uppers. Ranged beneath the window are finished shoes, glistening with style and sophistication. Shoe boxes containing hidden delights mount up the wall to the left.

Over to the right is the leather-trove: a cupboard containing small rolls of the finest hides, fabrics and leathers - some bright, others shimmering. They feel soft to the fingertip, with almost an elastic stretch. They smell divine.



Katrinski (Katrin Urwitz) came to Buenos Aires from Sweden just over ten years ago. Since then she has dedicated herself to making shoes for dancers - up to 8cm heels for tango, and her famous ‘Katrinski flats’ for every occasion. In a previous blog I said that no woman should be without her Katrinskis - for the open air milonga, the time after midnight when feet in heels are exhausted, or simply to walk the city streets in style. 



A first pair of Katrinskis tango shoes constitutes a rite of passage from ‘dancer’ to ‘tanguera’. Today Stephanie selects a high open heel, double cross-over strap style in embellished nude gold. The sample are so light that they seem to float in the hand. The finished shoes will be bespoke-made in three weeks.

As we leave and walk hand-in-hand to ‘La Pharmacy’ bar I boast to Stephanie, “So that’s my Christmas shopping done”, and grin with a pleasure that only us guys will understand. “Now, who’s going to buy the coffee?”



To visit Katrinski’s Facebook page click the link



Monday, 11 December 2017

International Tango Day


It is Monday 11 December, and you will immediately realise the significance - it is ‘International Tango Day’ here in Argentina and across the tango world.

  


Why 11 December? Well it is, of course, the birthday of Carlos Gardel, who had he survived an airplane crash in 1935, aged then 44, would have been 127 years old today. Julio De Caro, tango composer and band leader, was also born on this day in 1899. Luckier in life and death than Gardel, Caro remarried aged 60 and died at the age of 80.

For tango dancers, their legacy is about equal. Without Gardel the singer and movie actor, we may not know tango today. It was Gardel that breathed romance into the music and gave it immortality. In 1928, his sales of 70,000 records in Paris in the first 3 months of his visit, paved the way for his films ‘Cuesta abajo’ and ‘El dia que me quieras’ six years later. Through them and him tango reached an international audience of film-goers and music lovers, where it has remained since.


Isabel del Valle



 Carlos Gardel’s widowed mother, to whom he was devoted  





Romance came at a cost for Gardel. His long-term ‘lover’ Isabel (pictured with him above) was kept secret to preserve his eligibility as a heart-throb. Carlos’ actual sexuality however remained slightly opaque. Later in life he and Isabel separated: she found the love she craved; he remained single to his death.

Julio de Caro was a colossus amongst band leaders, and dancers throughout the world count him as one of their favourites. Without Caro, Argentine tango music would have lost a critical peg that changed and matured the music through the 1920’s and 30’s, and made it accessible to high society.

I am the grandchild of Caro (and maybe Gardel). You, my dear reader possibly the great-grandchild. As such, we remember both this day, and this dance. Later, as the temperature drops at dusk, the streets of San Telmo - and other barios throughout the city - will fill with tangueros. There will be music and embrace. Argentine tango, cherished daily, will receive its annual and deserved celebration.