Argentine singer Sandra Luna is a hard-core tanguero’s delight. Her voice — strong, passionate, manly — represents the genre’s macho bravado in all its splendor.
“I’m not really into the concept of tango disguised as a woman,” she says in the lobby of a Hollywood hotel. Dressed in an elegant beige outfit with strikingly pointy black shoes, Luna talks about her album “Tango Varón” (Male Tango) in the typically staccato, aggressive-sounding Spanish of the Buenos Aires barrios. “You don’t need to become all feminine just because you happen to be a female who sings tango. I’m drawn into what I call the real thing — the visceral tango.”
Today Luna stands at the epicenter of a widespread revival that has brought new life to the quintessential Argentine song style. Electronic-music collectives such as Gotan Project and the Bajofondo Tango Club have made tango hip again, while a new generation of performers is breathing life into a movement that appeared moribund not so long ago.
From the gutsy style of Luna to the androgynous presence of Adriana Varela, the technically seamless vocal prowess of María Graña and the jazzy undertones of María Volonté, women are at the core of this revival.
Luna’s life seems to have been inextricably linked to the spirit of tango from the day she was born 39 years ago in the working-class Buenos Aires neighborhood of Villa Insuperable.
She began singing professionally at 7, making frequent radio and television appearances against the wishes of her father. Four years later, legendary bandleader Héctor Varela hired her to perform with his orchestra at the seedy tango joint Mi Club. She was too young to be allowed into the club, but the local chief of police issued her a special permit after the 11-year-old Luna told him all about her professional aspirations.
Her reputation as a cantora grew, and eventually she was given protection by members of the neighborhood’s dangerous soccer gangs, who would routinely escort her home from the bus stop on the nearby General Paz freeway.
Now she’s at the forefront of tango’s resurgence.
“It’s not a nostalgic movement anymore,” says Volonté, speaking from her home in Buenos Aires. “There’s a wave of intense experimentation, of opening new paths. Tango is very much a modern art form these days.”
Volonté is a good example of an artist who is respectful of her roots yet not afraid to go beyond musty old formulas.
When she’s not on tour, the singer can be found performing every Thursday evening at Café Tortoni, one of the most venerable live music establishments in Buenos Aires.
But Volonté is no purist. Her musical concept is refreshingly broad, incorporating pop balladry, touches of jazz and Brazilian formats such as choro and bossa nova.
“Not too long ago, the stuff that I do was looked at with a raised eyebrow by the tango establishment,” she points out. “Now those same innovations are cherished and defended.”
A special place for women
Tango may have a reputation for being one of the most macho genres in Latin music, but the female voice has occupied a place of honor in it since its inception.
Born at the turn of the 20th century in the bars and brothels of Buenos Aires, tango expressed the nostalgia of the European immigrants who had recently arrived to South America looking for a new future.
“Women were central to this aesthetic from the very beginning,” explains Volonté. “It took a special kind of woman, strong and passionate, to survive as a performer in those intense times.”
Tango’s most unusual female performer may very well be Tita Merello, who died in 2002 at the age of 98.
Think of Merello as the original Latin rapper, a humorous performer who would sometimes recite her lyrics instead of singing them, mimicking the accents and idiosyncrasies of the characters in her songs. On her many recordings, which are available as imports, Merello can make you laugh with her hilarious observations on working-class life in Argentina, then break your heart with her uncanny ability to evoke bottomless pain and regret.
“She brought an actor’s flair to tango,” says Norberto Vogel, a pianist and bandoneón player who has accompanied singers such as Volonté and Susana Rinaldi. “She recorded all these anti-macho songs that are really funny. One of the genre’s first feminists, if you wish. And she definitely did not have a melodious voice. She supports the theory that tango is not meant to be sung, but rather tell a memorable story.”
“I wouldn’t dare cover any of Tita’s songs,” admits Luna. “She put her stamp on those tunes. Her style was just too strong and perfect for them.”
The style spectrum
The tango scene is particularly fragmented these days, which results in the more idiosyncratic artists such as Varela being criticized by their more conservative peers — even though it was her husky voice that achieved the greatest popularity in the ’90s.
“I can’t really think of Varela as a singer,” says Luna. “She’s more of a performer to me. Tango is not just a street genre — there’s also an academic side to it. If you want to sing it the way it’s supposed to be done, you have to study.”
Whether a purist like Luna is more valuable to contemporary tango than an unconventional talent like Varela remains to be seen. Both artists underscore the contribution of women to the genre.
“If there’s one element that unites all of these new singers, it’s their strong connection to their own emotional lives,” concludes Volonté. “There’s a side to tango that’s deeply feminine. It evokes the joy of surrendering yourself to romantic passion.”