Tango City USA

Photo by Naomi Johnson

Photo by Naomi Johnson

Inside the dance hall at Eleven on Grove in downtown Asheville, the walls are a glowing, rosy pink; outside the windows, the sultry summer dusk is peacock blue gradually deepening to indigo. On the dance floor, under the mirror ball, couples turn in restrained synchrony, now a slow slide, now a quick turn. Their faces are serious, eyes downcast, posture erect, a hand-wide gap between their bodies — this is old-school sensuality, circa 1930, complete with fedoras and t-strap pumps. And over by the bar the band plays with a similarly poised focus, golden light gleaming off the polished wood and ivory of their instruments as they create the distinctive, plaintive sound that is Tango: part klezmer, part flamenco, part waltz, a touch of African percussion, a bit of mournful Italian violin.

It’s the Asheville Tango Orchestra, and they’re an orquesta típica, explains founder and director Michael Luchtan — a traditional Tango sextet made up of piano, two violins, double bass, and two accordions. This configuration harkens back to the golden age of Tango, in the vital musical melting pot that was Buenos Aires in the 1920s and ’30s. During that era, the frontier of Argentina was

Photo by Naomi Johnson

drawing workers from around the globe, many of whom brought the musical stylings of their homelands. They started playing — and dancing — together in the slums of Buenos Aires, and the rest is history.But outside Argentina, most Tango dancing has been done to vintage recordings spun by a DJ, explains Luchtan — so it’s a rare privilege to dance to a live orquesta tipica. “Maybe in New York, or San Francisco,” he explains modestly. “But it’s very unusual for a place this size.” He founded the group in 2010, at which time Asheville already had a thriving Tango scene, thanks in part to Karen Jaffe’s well-attended weekly TangoGypsies dance classes (Jaffee is also the hostess of this milonga, the correct term for a Tango concert and dance). And the Orchestra has been fortunate to be able to tap into Asheville’s deep pool of musical talent in a variety of genres: Pianist Daniel Weiser and violinist Amy Lovinger both play with the Asheville Symphony; violinist Lew Gelfond plays in a staggering variety of bands, ranging from bluegrass to swing to classical ensembles; accordionist Sparrow Pants is frequently seen busking around downtown.

The group plays a repertoire of classic Tango tunes as arranged by legendary bandleaders from the Golden Age: DiSarli, Biagi, d’Arienzo. And they’ve recently further upped their authenticity quotient by acquiring a bandoneón, the German-style wooden concertina with buttons (rather than keys) favored by tango traditionalists. Accordion player Patrick Kukucka is bringing modern technology to bear on this traditional instrument by studying via Skype with instructors in Argentina. It’s a bit of a coup, since in an effort to preserve Argentine heritage, the export of the instrument has been banned.

According to Orchestra manager Kehren Barbour, Asheville’s strong Tango scene has also made it part of the national (and international) Tango-enthusiast circuit, with tourists seeking out milongas to round out their Asheville experience. She beams as she describes the charms of the Tango form: “It’s just magical and funny and real. And this is music that my grandmothers might have listened to!”

Indeed, there’s a bit of a time-warp feeling to the milonga, a spell only occasionally disturbed by a guy dancing in cargo shorts, a girl wearing sneakers with her dress. But if you squint, and let yourself get a little dazzled by the mirror ball and the light off the dewy martini glasses, you could swear you were somewhere far from North Carolina in both space and time. Somewhere exotic, sultry, and way, way down south.

Photo by Naomi Johnson

For more about the Asheville Tango Orchestra visit www.ashevilletangoorchestra.org. For information about TangoGypsies dance classes visit www.tangogypsies.com.

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