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