Saturday, July 7, 2012

Taking liberties with Libertango

Did you ever have to go digging into academic journals for research? Then you know of their prison romance with language: the overuse of overlong words and arcana, words bent, twisted, and hammered into misuse, and language generally used as camouflage. From my experience, art journals are some of the worst offenders of all. (Once, a professor red-inked a friend's paper to "eschew sesquipedalianism." Or said another way: Try using smaller words and bigger ideas. Indeed.) But, if you do have to slog through the art journals in the course of your career then I recommend the Dadaist and Surrealist periods as some of the cleverest noodlings ever committed in the service of Ivory Tower shop talk. A favorite image of mine comes from French poet Comte de Lautréamont AKA Isidore Ducasse: As beautiful as the chance encounter on an ironing board of a sewing machine and an umbrella. For me, a description of how the beauty of words and images of art can, in the best circumstances, make both order and logic irrelevant.

A sewing machine and an umbrella in this case are not unlike the collision between Astor Piazzola and Grace Jones: He being the master of the Nuevo Tango (a mix of tango with jazz) and a demigod of Argentina (so you'll hear in the video below)—and she being the Jamaican-born dance club diva, actress, model, muse, proclaimed friend of Piazzola, erstwhile scenemaker, and general all style bombardier. Libertango is far and away the most most significant tango ever composed, having found its way into about 500 different recorded releases (according to Wiki). This lyrical version, dubbed I've Seen that Face Before, was a hit for Jones in 1981. Well beyond the tango, Libertango is, to my mind, quite likely one of the greatest melodies ever written, anywhere. As a dance, the tango can be like the Kama Sutra on stilts. As a rhythm, its roots are both of Europe and Africa—Africa being the key ingredient to any dance with a sexy wiggle in it. At times the tango takes on a marchy 2/4 beat, but it's a march that walks with a hard on. Though, it's a sexiness that can't be separated from the images of the dance. What Grace Jones did with her version here—the more rigid tango-iness smoothed out, its hide retooled like a vaquero's leather bandolero, and all of it pierced through with an electrocuted club beat—leaving behind a teasing amount of the original melody but with just enough of its own substance to keep things at an intriguing throb. Kind of like the joke comparing sex and pizza: Even when the song is bad it's still pretty good.

Jones was 61 at the time of this performance. Her near golden age voice is still punchy though it ventures closer to Rock of Ages territory than it might've when she still wore a fade. Even still, she seizes the stage with a lusty bravado that her younger peers would have to admire. And fer crissake!, this grandma is wearing a thong!

During her peak in the 80s Jones created a niche for her take on dance club music that drew on slightly more hipster source material—Iggy Pop, Roxy Music, The Pretenders, Edith Piaf—as well as a battery of horny entendre-loaded, synth drenched joints of her own. With her Jean Paul Goude get-ups, iconic style, and ever-present chat show spectacle, she cut a refreshingly notorious figure. If you care nothing for her music, you've still got to admire her durable and unshrinking image.

Here, below, is a more traditional take on the Libertango melody presented in a geeked-up, dry hump musical fantasy. (Here, Yo Yo Ma's even more straight ahead version—minus the hump.) The jagged and yet hypnotic quality of the Libertango melody brings visions of crotch-grinding and high slit leg flashes while still needing nothing of the tango itself to melt all on its own. The song is utterly universal: I can't imagine how anyone, anywhere couldn't love this tune. Just can't. Surrender and just dig it.

That Kama Sutra on stilts in case you need reminding:

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