On my first visit to Buenos Aires, an expatriate American that I became acquainted with said to me that the city had a “theme”, which he smartly suggested to me was “nostalgia”. He pointed to the Kennedy-era cars on every block, the coffeehouses with their bow-tied waiters, the grand Parisian architecture, and, although he scarcely needed to say it, the perdurance of tango in the image of the city. I’ve been back several times since my friend made the observation, and despite the changes that are evident – fewer ’60s cars, pervasive construction, the closing of coffeehouses like the Richmond, the youthening and internationalization of the tango crowd – it seems to me that it still holds.
Nostalgia in Buenos Aires is juxtaposed with a cosmopolitan urge to modernize that barely exists here in the states, but somehow a balance is struck with the old sensibilities. Tango is danced in high-ceiling halls to the strains of the orchestras that, one fancies, once held forth on their stages. The most nostalgic of the dance halls that I have experienced is the Niño Bien, housed in Centro Región Leonesa, which honors the culture and descendants of a region in Spain. You enter on the ground floor, where there is a restaurant, walk up the stairs and come to the grand ballroom, where the milonga is held on Thursday nights. It resembles a spot I know in Astoria, Queens, called Circulo Español, housed in what used to be a Moose Lodge, but long the home of a Spanish social club with a restaurant on the first floor and a stair that leads to a ballroom where, on Sunday nights, there is a milonga called not Niño Bien but the Astoria Tango Club.
Yesterday evening, in an event billed as a return to the great orchestral traditions of the Golden Age of Tango, the club celebrated its first anniversary. The tables overflowed all the way to the normally unused balcony, waiters jostling dancers on the packed floor as they squeezed by with their trays, men buttoning their jackets to dance, and women trusting them to deliver them safely to the end. This too is reminiscent of Niño Bien, which at high season is like a chessboard with too many pieces, working their way tactically around the board. The anniversary in Astoria picked you up like a teleporter merged with a time machine. There was even a ten-piece orchestra, including two bandoneóns, pulled together for the express purpose of reviving an Argentine tradition in this North American outpost.
One can occasionally dance to tango orchestras in New York at big riverfront concerts, but the Octavio Brunetti Orchestra produced a sound I haven’t heard before in the city, due to the musicianship, to be sure, but also because they were playing indoors. The classic Queens ballroom became the eleventh instrument through which the compass of the music resonated, insistent, big, nostalgic, great. Astoria’s host and its impresario, Mariana Fresno and Hector Pablo Pereyra (“El Pulpo”, who sang with the band), deserve great credit for pulling this off; it was the Astoria Tango Club’s birthday, but it was we who received the gift.
Click here for more on the Astoria Tango Club.