Born in the brothels and squalid backstreet bars of Buenos Aires, the Argentine tango first appeared more than a century ago as a musical expression of disillusioned and lonely immigrants newly arrived from across the Atlantic. The pensive, often sentimental music soon bred a passionate, seductive dance that rankled authorities and church leaders as it spread to the more affluent segments of Argentine society. By the 1920s, fueled in large part by its reputation as a subversive dance, the tango quickly spread to New York, London, and Paris; it wasn't long before tango clubs appeared in major cities all over the world.
The new European or “international” style of tango dancing, with its exaggerated postures and rapid head jerks, actually bears no resemblance to the original Argentine tango, which relies on sensual fluid movements, intricate leg work, and close body contact. After several years of decline, the traditional Argentine tango has recently undergone a tremendous rebirth, as touring productions such as Forever Tango and Tango Argentino have introduced the art form to enthusiastic audiences worldwide.
Creating the sound of a true Argentine tango ensemble is no mean feat for a desktop musician. For starters, tango music always includes the reedy sound of the bandoneon. A small accordion with an array of buttons on each end, the bandoneon is notoriously hard to play and not easily imitated.
Fortunately, Big Fish Audio has opened a door into the world of the Argentine tango with its new sample CD, Play the Tango ($99.95; audio CD). Play the Tango's first half mainly consists of short phrases performed by a three-piece ensemble of Argentine musicians. The bandoneon, piano, and acoustic guitar work well together, forming a tight combo that offers tidbits of tango ranging from energetic and upbeat to graceful and nostalgic.
After a nicely performed introductory demo track, the CD offers seven characteristic phrases that typically last 10 to 14 seconds. Each phrase is presented in six keys: A minor, A major, C minor, C major, F minor, and F major. (The last phrase is only in the minor keys.) In addition to the combo performances, individual instrument parts are broken out in each key, so you can easily mix and match any parts within a phrase. Joining together different phrases is a bit trickier, because each phrase is in a different tempo (from 110 to 175 bpm).
Following the main phrases, Play the Tango offers four short openings (one to four seconds long) and three great endings (four to seven seconds long). As with the phrases, the openings and endings are presented in various (though fewer) keys and with the individual instruments broken out.
The CD's second half provides individual bandoneon notes for creating your own multisampled instruments. Short notes, sustained notes (five to six seconds long), and sustained tremolos (six to eight seconds long) are provided in separate groups for the left and right hands. The left-hand notes cover a 35-note range, from C1 through B3. The right-hand notes cover a 38-note range, from A2 through B5.
The set of samples offers a rare chance to create an excellent bandoneon patch. The digital recording is clean, and the mic placement is close enough to capture the breathing of the instrument — nice. Several samples of bellows sounds are also included on the disc along with a string of fills and ornaments. The tremolo notes are especially valuable because that characteristic effect cannot be properly emulated with a keyboard's Mod wheel and LFOs.
Tango bands often have more than one bandoneon player, so adding your own solo part on top of the combo phrases or thickening the texture with added chords would be entirely appropriate. Furthermore, large tango ensembles may include woodwinds, strings, and other instruments, so the phrases on the CD could serve as the underpinning of a more complex arrangement.
Unfortunately, the CD's documentation lacks explanatory text and doesn't offer a hint about properly using the bandoneon samples; it doesn't indicate any timings for the phrases either. Nevertheless, the dramatic piano, supportive guitar, and soulful bandoneon are nicely performed and well recorded in stereo, providing desktop musicians with a welcome chance to delve into the exotic world of the Argentine tango.