Buenos Aires – the Tango Bar

 Hobart to Buenos Aires – 27 and 28 October 2000

Our departure from Hobart is made notable by a very smooth group check-in at Qantas and by TSO Board Chairman Peter Underwood and wife Frances coming to see us off.

The previous flight into Hobart is delayed and consequently we are late arriving in Melbourne, where Qantas staff have transferred us to another slightly later flight, meaning we have to reissue all boarding passes, which takes a moment. I deal with this at the gate lounge whilst Julie handles an airline steward who is reluctant to allow instruments on to the new flight as hand luggage. Fortunately, Julie has kept an old fax from Qantas giving TSO players permission to do so.

Friday evening in Sydney, and a small group of us go to Wokpool, Neil Perry’s second signature restaurant – excellent food. Peta Williams (Australia Council Music Fund) and Siobhan Lenihan from Symphony Australia come to farewell us.

Check in at Sydney Airport International Terminal is smooth, although Don Bate is a bit of a sight. Apparently he’d purchased a new one prior to the tour and was about to get into a taxi to travel to FCH to join the tour when the zip on his new case gave way. He turns up (only a few minutes late!) carrying a very sad looking red vinyl bag. In Sydney he purchases a new case and repacks it at check-in (see picture).

The flight to Buenos Aires is 14 hours, with only a short stop-over in Auckland (during which Doug Mackie manages to clear customs, meet his relatives and still get back on the flight with time to spare!) Some of us even manage to sleep on the plane and arrive feeling ready to take on Argentina.

We are greeted at the airport by two representatives of Mozarteum Argentina, the organisation that is presenting the TSO concerts in Argentina. Helga travels on my bus and strikes fear into all of us by explaining the various dangers of travel in her city of 13 million inhabitants – muggers who spray mustard on their victims to cause distraction and confusion, instructions not to venture outside the Hotel at night alone, warnings of dodgy telephone card scams, currency crises and more.

Buenos Aires is a sprawling metropolis. The city centre contains many once-grand buildings and boulevards that have clearly fallen victim to the nation’s turbulent political, financial and social history – it is a city that generally looks down at heel. This impression is repeated at our hotel, which is close to the main shopping and tourist areas as well as the theatre in which we will perform on Tuesday. Whilst it is clean and comfortable, the Hotel Continental has clearly seen better days.

On a quick walk around the city the first thing that stakes me is the stunning brass doors on many of the larger buildings, particularly banks, and the stunning wrought iron screens and gates that are everywhere — I’ll be making a study of this very personal interest with my own camera later, but can’t resist a couple of shots here.

We check out a restaurant that has been suggested by Mozarteum personnel, but find it to be touristy and expensive, so decide on a smaller local steak house where there is no English spoken, but the food, especially the huge steaks, are stunning. One of our group experiences minor embarrassment when it appears that a 20 peso note he hands over turns out to be counterfeit – a risk in this very nearly bankrupt country which is trying valiantly to peg its own pesos to the value of the American dollar in a strategy that is reportedly showing signs of strain.

A group of us join David Porcelijn and venture – purely in the interests of cross-cultural musical exchange – to a tango bar on the other side of town. After a short ride in a small fleet of the very small Fiat taxis that populate the city streets (during which I get to utter the immortal phrase ‘follow that taxi’ by way of instruction to the driver, who it transpires shortly afterwards has no English whatsoever), we pull up at La Cumparsita.

It is a small shopfront with a few tables and chairs and a tiny stage across the corner. The music however is wonderful – two bands consisting of bass guitar, piano, bandolino (a type of accordion), and occasionally violin, as well as numerous singers belt out tango classics that in any other circumstance or location would sound kitsch with a passion and skill that is nothing short of totally captivating.

Musically they are skillful and original, teasing the small and mainly aging audience with flourishes and unexpected chord changes at every turn. An impossibly attractive young couple give dazzling displays of tango dancing that manages to utterly embody the dual themes of sex and death that give the dance its emotional base. The couple break up and each invite audience members to join them, and I’m unable to reach the heights of their display, but none of us disgraces ourselves, either.

Tired but exhilarated by having danced the tango in an authentic Buenos Aires tango bar only hours after getting off the plane, we stagger back to the hotel at around 3.00am local time, for some much needed rest – but not a big sleep in. There is still much to explore in Buenos Aires before we drive to the nearby city of Salta for our first performance on Monday evening.

Tango dancers, San Telmo, Buenos Aires
Tango dancers, San Telmo, Buenos Aires

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