June 20-25 was my third time at the Festival International de Tango Medellín, a festival I like for its musical programming, its focus (in the city of Gardel’s death) on singers, and the window it opens on the city’s tango culture, which values professional distinction and amateur achievement in equal measure. There are competitions for dancers and singers (the latter is particularly enjoyable); an academic program (including a presentation, this year, on tango and fútbol); concerts by local, international, and Argentinian artists; milongas; and tango themed restaurants, bars, and cultural centers to go to in off hours. “Festitango” is city sponsored, foremost for locals and mostly free; a dance tour with lessons and lodging is, I think, privately run.

The principal music venue is Plaza Gardel at the airport where the singer was killed in a crash in 1935. Tribute is paid to him annually, although his statue is swallowed up, ironically, by the temporary stage. The 2017 theme, however, was “La cumparsita”, the iconic tango celebrating its centennial, with numerous versions played by the bands and its lyrics heard from the singers. It did not permeate the festival, as Gardel tends to, but knowing that it would be heard each time, in a different way, lent an anticipatory rhythm to the festival as it unfolded.

Singers this year ranged from young autodidact Nahuel Pennisi and seasoned veteran Guillermo Fernández with Orquesta Filarmónica de Medellín at the Tuesday opening to Inés Cuello (pictured in the photo) and Lucila Juárez, with sharply contrasting styles, on Saturday. The diversity of vocalists was a reminder of tango’s own. Tradition feeds the life force of invention; tango is an inheritance, its bequeathals a basis for innovation and style. 

Pennisi plays the guitar flat on his lap. Its altered sonorities blend with a voice that made me think, right off, of folk, and indeed that is Pennisi’s forte. Gardel started that way too; the obscured statue depicts him, guitar in hand, almost in that vein. Think of a wind, seeping into crevices, whipping the tops of trees, rising and falling, and you’ll have some idea of what Pennisi draws out of tango. Fernández, singing after him, was quite the opposite, urban and sophisticated, with the savvy of an entertainer. There’s a bit of Sinatra in him, and I’ll bet he knows it. He lets nothing go flat; the next song, better or not, must always seem so; a local reference (substituting “Medellín” for “Buenos Aires” in a lyric) or word of flattery (“esta ciudad tan tanguera”) is always at hand.

On Saturday the crowd protested the end of every act as though objecting to mortality itself. The orchestral opener, Che Tango, from Medellín, primed the pot with its resident singers and musicians. Then Inés Cuello came on, then La Juárez, then Orquesta Típica de Angelis. The only good reason for any of them to end was that one of the others was there to follow. The orquesta típica, with its debonair singer-host Rodrigo Perelsztein and finely tempered arrangements, got away with going last by getting people up and dancing and letting the night segue into a DJ run milonga.

I hesitate to call Inés Cuello’s voice “big”. It doesn’t fit her; it is too crude a word. Hers is expansive; better – it is generous. Starting with “Nada”  and ending with “La cumparsita”,  she let us into  tango, wrapped us in it, invited us to its glories. Her a capella of “Adios Pampa Mia”  brought all Medellín – so it seemed – to its feet. That she can sing tango campero  in a backless gown, spread with sequins like a midnight sky, says something about her specialness. She sang “Alfonsina y el mar,”  a zamba, that way too, to a solo piano, with rapturous simplicity. Cuello soars, in its purest meaning; she takes flight; and I think she can land anywhere she wishes.

She has a tango stride that’s not about show; glamour that isn’t flash. What Tynan, the theater critic, called “high-definition”, she has, but she’s not a diva, for that would set her apart, and she is with who she is with, audience or orchestra (Quinteto F31 accompanied her, superbly). No rough edge escapes her polish, no ear or eye the offering of her art. She’s not tied to the street, the barrio, or the countryside, but doesn’t leave them behind either. It’s as though she carries a culture with her and infuses it to the place she’s at. I thought watching her that she could take Europe, if she wants it, and her own continent too, revitalizing tango for a mass audience as Portuguese singers in recent years have done for fado.

With Lucila Juárez, Saturday went from glamour to glam, stardust to a knife edge. The ambiguous fashion sense she shares with her band throws back in part to ’70s-’80s rock/pop. They look New Wavish. But they are, more importantly, creatures of the present, when gender is in flux and its construction a tool of personal expression. La Juárez, as she is called, has humor and bite. She downed aguardientes passed from the crowd and tossed out banter that dangled like the tassled epaulets of her jacket.

She goes at times to the edge of a squeal, but stops before it might grate. It’s a daring sort of vocal poetry, dependent, I think, on the audience knowing the songs in their traditional renditions. I would say hers was the punkiest “Malena”  I’ve ever heard, except I haven’t heard a “Malena”  before that was punky at all. Her “Naranja en flor” was definitely the jazziest, leading the audience in a counter rhythm to a tango notable for its talkative and wistful melody. She is well aware of what is owed to the past, personally and artistically. Her part of the concert, along with a panel discussion two days before, was in homage to her late father, Rubén Juárez. More than once she was in dialogue with the bandoneón, not just the instrument onstage, but his, in video and sound.

On Sunday, the festival culminated under a downpour that brought out the umbrellas and made it all the more festive. The pianist-composer Pablo Estigarribia was in the spotlight, first as guest director and accompanist for Orquesta de Tango Red de Escuelas de Medellín, then with Trio Lavellén along with Victor Lavellén (bandoneón) and Horacio Cabarcos (double bass), joined by the singer Alicia Vignola. As playful and precise as when I saw him last month in New York, he brought the student orchestra to a full swell and, with the trio, gave the festival its most memorable rendition of “La cumparsita,”  honoring its history, as the festival did for tango as a whole, with exacting and innovative flourishes.

To follow the Festival Internacional de Tango de Medellín click here.

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