Reinterpreting Tango Through Speakeasy-Style Milongas With Miami Vocalist Mariana Quinteros

Mariana Quinteros BeLatina

When vocalist Mariana Quinteros left her hometown of Buenos Aires to live in South Florida with her family, she thought she would have to leave behind her biggest musical love — tango. Born in Argentina and popularized around the world by the classic and great interpreter Carlos Gardel, tango has become a well-known if misunderstood genre. Most people, when they think about tango, picture only a dance: a couple, both dressed in black, holding one arm around one another, their other arm outstretched, pointing in the direction in which the two will head as they perform a choreographed march. 

While the complexity of what it really means to dance tango has given way to this simplified image — a dramatic stomp that culminates in a slow high kick by the female partner as the male dips her low into a reverse pirouette — the music itself, even without dancers, is the heart of this genre. It is not uncommon to mention tango and have someone in the group erupt into the “tan, tantantan, tararara, tan, tantantan, tararara…” of cartoons and movies. The other common element in tango imitators is the serious, nearly sullen expressions dancers adopt, an exaggerated mimicry of the neutral expression that the pros often hold. Very few will tend to associate the music with the vocalists who perform it.

“The lyrics in tango are essential and they are like poetry,” says Quinteros, in between bites of her quinoa salad. “And not just any poetry. There are compositions that set the words of (Jorge Luis) Borges — I mean, Borges! — as the lyrics that accompany the music.” (Borges is universally recognized as the father of 20th century Argentinean literature and philosophy, and one of the greatest in the world). So why is it that so many people hum a tune rather than sing a song when they are asked to describe tango? I ask Quinteros: Is it that the lyrics are difficult? 

Quinteros thinks for a minute and says, “Previous generations knew the words, remembered them, and sang them. Their grandchildren recognize the tunes as the music of their forebears and listening to the classical tango can be incredibly evocative and sentimental. But now, I think, many people feel tango lyrics are depressing. That they’re all about loss and heartbreak and darkness. My wife left me. I have no money. I am all alone. It’s difficult to sell it to current audiences, in part, for that reason.” But isn’t American country music exactly the same? I ask her. All about cheating and drinking and feeling blue? And contemporary country music artists sell out entire stadiums! We both laugh and take a sip of wine.

It’s not that tango doesn’t have a fan base worldwide, she explains further. In fact, as a performer in Miami, she has noticed that Cubans, especially the generation who grew up with Gardel, are particularly open to the genre and even accepting of the “new” tango, which innovates on the basic rubric of the classic form. Colombians, too, she says, are intensely interested in this Argentinean export, with the city of Medellín hosting one of the most prestigious tango festivals in the world each year. 

“And Europeans?” I ask, thinking of their penchant for jazz and other creole and American forms. “Oh yes,” she replies, “Europeans are immense fans of tango and new tango borrows a bit from opera, in that it tells a whole, often tragic, story. Tango’s popularity has grown in places as diverse as Turkey and China. Oh, and Japan,” she adds. “The Japanese, despite their cultural and geographic distance from the land that birthed tango, are enamored with the form and deft interpreters of it as well.”

I take a minute to marvel at the far latitudes tango has reached, often broaching cultural and linguistic differences. Turning the page on the notepad onto which I scribble furiously as Quinteros and I converse, I prepare a fresh, blank page, making space to enumerate the various reasons Miami would be a perfect stage for the Argentinean import. If tango sells in Japan and other lands where it is exotic, surely the Latin-cultured, Spanish-speaking audiences of South Florida are devouring it. “You’ll be surprised when I tell you that’s hardly the case,” remarks Quinteros.

Miami, Florida, boasts a community of expatriate Argentineans, which has grown exponentially in the last decades. Disappointed in the political state of their homeland since Cristina Kirchner took power, around 40,000 argentinos have settled in southeast Florida, forming the old guard of immigrants who have grown to own homes and businesses, bringing with them the markers of their unique cono sur culture.

In Miami Beach, the area along Collins Avenue from about 65th to 75th Street comprises a neighborhood popularly known as Little Buenos Aires. Dotted with traditional cafes that serve medialunas (sweet croissants) and alfajores (butter cookie sandwiches filled with the ubiquitous Argentinean sweet, dulce de leche), this area rings with the lilting sounds of the Italianate accent of Argentine Spanish. Former porteños (as the inhabitants of Buenos Aires are called) and Patagonians alike congregate along the beach with their mates, gourds in which Argentineans brew and sip the strong green tea that fuels an entire culture, much like coffee fuels Americans.

One would think that this backdrop would be ideal to stage the tango renaissance, which skilled musicians like Quinteros and her partner, the famous composer, and interpreter Aníbal Berraute, are prepared to bring. But after five years of investing capital into larger venues, which provided them little by way of production assistance, leaving the team and their band and dancers to dip into their own pockets to procure sets, costumes, and lighting, the two have begun to target other parts of the peninsula and the country at large.

“There is no casa de tango in Miami, the way you would find in multiple other cities, including New York, Medellín, Paris, and, of course, Buenos Aires. Aníbal found much greater support in México, where he lived and performed for a decade.” 

“You must be joking,” I say, when Quinteros tells me that they have found it easier to sell out multiple nights of shows in large venues in places like Ft. Myers, Tampa, and Jacksonville than it is to drum up a pronounced turnout at gratis events in public spaces in Miami. Recently, she and Berraute have been contracted to play spaces in cities on the West Coast of the United States and in Washington, D.C., where the audience includes, but isn’t limited to, argentinos.

I don’t mean to insist, I tell her, but I find it so strange that with a demographic that not only understands the language but also finds itself culturally connected to this sentimental music, their troupe’s greatest successes seem to almost require a lack of profound familiarity with the genre. 

“I wouldn’t go quite that far,” she reflects. “I can’t say that I am certain about why our own people aren’t the one to turn out in droves to our local shows — if I did, I wouldn’t have to travel to perform — but I think it has to do with a habituated method of consumption. Argentineans are tangueros, no doubt about it, especially porteños, because we originated the arrabal.” (For those of us unfamiliar with this essential term of tango, arrabal is something like the exclamation of the Latin jazz bandleader — sabor! — which birthed the “tasty” umbrella term salsa, given to the many forms of high-energy Cuban and Nuyorican beats. When I suggest the comparison to Quinteros, she smiles and says, “close enough”). 

She continues: “The porteño spirit is an arrabalero spirit by definition and tango equals the arrabal. The heart of tango is its key instrument, the bandoneon. But the porteño, much like Argentineans from the provinces who come to the city to see tango performed are used to a particular style of show. And the younger generations, those who don’t get misty-eyed at the mention of Gardel are far less connected to the musical composition. They may want to see a dance performance of tango or even dance it themselves, but won’t be moved by the music and the singer. That’s why our milongas are so much easier to sell out than these large scale spectacles, like our ‘Forever Tango’ revival at the Broward Center for Performing Arts. Big venues like that one perhaps make more sense in the context of musical forms that feel less… intimate. Like rock and roll.”

Armed with chamber orchestras instead of symphonic giants or even a single piano, Quinteros, Berraute, and the rest of the company channel the magic that tango giants like Miguel Arrabal, who with his Dickensian name brought tango to Broadway in the 1950s.  They have scaled back the size of their concerts, though not their quality, by reinterpreting classical tango, modern compositions by masters like Piazzola, and engaging new giants, like Gabriel Mores, grandson of Mariano Mores, one of the legendary symphonic tango composers. 

Showcasing the novelty of young tango composers like Berraute and Mores, those who in Quinteros’s words are a “reforming, deforming, transforming tango,” is part of the company’s mission. The other is to make tango relevant by giving it the update audiences crave. Milongas serve as one of these tools, because of their structure and emphasis on audience participation. It also helps that they are financially a great deal, since a ticket holder first receives a tango lesson from the professional dancers who will later perform along with the musicians, and then is invited to show off her newfound skills on the floor while the company performs onstage, the dancers still modeling the steps. 

Putting extra effort into the wardrobe and costume changes, the lighting, and the other elements of showmanship have also helped to drum up younger audiences, accustomed to these trappings as a part of their favorite spectacles. A recent collaborator of Berraute and Quinteros, the Colombian champion tango dancer, Jorge Nel Giraldo, is known as Mr. Tango. He has created a special line of dance shoes and of the vibe which dancers lend to a tango concert. The lively dancers, usually between one and three couples, accompany the chamber orchestra and the vocalists and help to draw audiences of culturally savvy snowbirds, music lovers, and other international audiences centered in South Florida.  

This sounds like a lot of extra work, lots of lipstick to invest in a pig who, by any measure, should stand alone, I suggest to Quinteros. “Do you ever become frustrated or think of switching genres.” She smiles softly and shakes her head, no. “I often perform different types of songs, depending on the venue and the audience, sure. I like to interpret ballads and jazz standards, but my heart beats to the melody of tango.” I nod, encouraging her to continue.

“My father, who took me to a Pavarotti concert at the age of 7, was the planter of the seeds. He would listen to Gardel, to Piazzola, to all kinds of music, and weep. I will confess that for years after I had married myself to music after I knew I would become a singer, I was not yet set on being a tango singer. To the vocalist, tango is less a type of music and more like a latent virus, we carry in our body, which doesn’t manifest until about age 30 or 35. It was around that age that I began to focus on tango and most of my colleagues also started somewhere else.”

How beautiful and personal that your father was, in a sense, your first music teacher, I confess to Quinteros. “He was,” she agrees, “and though he played many types of music for me and though he passed away while I was still young, it was through tango that I feel most connected to him. Something about our porteño music, about its lyrics and its timbre… it brings me closest to my dad.

I see why you persevere and prefer tango, it’s now quite clear why you would invest the extra effort into finding spaces for the new tango and for your passion, I say, and she nods, somewhat melancholy. “I won’t give up on it. In fact, I am currently recording an album and our company will continue to find our ideal venues, regardless of whether we need to travel or stay local. In fact, the month of March this year will be a big one for us, with performances planned on the west coast of Florida and our return to Washington, D.C., one of our preferred stages.” I make her promise to keep me posted on the release of her album and her upcoming performances, not only the big ones but those solo moments, just Quinteros and a piano, on the tiny stage of an Argentinean asadero or in the center square of Little Buenos Aires.

Wrapping up our chat about tango, we begin to turn to other topics, mundane ones, like weekend plans and holiday gifts. I ask her whether she had an afternoon mate yet or if she’d like to join me in a post-prandial cafecito. Seguro que sí!” she says, before adding, “pero con alfajor.”