Listening to the Music


I almost never dance to Pugliese. When they play it, I usually take a break, and sometimes I use it as a chance to film. As a result, I've ended up with a lot of video of people trying to dance to Pugliese—but none of it's very good. The problem is that most of his tangos are so difficult. For instance, the Gallo Ciego in this video is one of the most powerful tangos ever recorded, but you could argue that it's just not appropriate for social dancing. What can you do with music like that in a crowded milonga? Maybe if you were Miguel Zotto or Gavito, you could spend a week and choreograph a stage performance to it. But who would want to get up in front of an audience without rehearsing, and just see what happens? Well... Tete would. And he's probably the only one who could get away with it. Here are Tete and Sylvia dancing to Gallo Ciego:



¡Que musica! ¡Que pasión!  No one else moves like Tete—and no one is more interesting to watch. He's like a great athlete: sometimes he’s good, sometimes he screws up, and occasionally he hits a home run (the home run is the part between the two arrows—we'll discuss it in a minute).

I'm always drawn to the way his feet touch the floor in this video. They seem to do something different every time he steps. Sometimes he stomps, and then he flexes them and rolls onto a heel or a toe, caressing the floor. He moves lightly on his toes, and then sinks back down—like he's tiptoeing over obstacles and then sinking down for stability. And look how he pauses. He freezes like a big... (dare I say it?)... he freezes like a big fighting rooster—moving to the front and then back, stalking his prey. Sometimes one foot floats just above the floor, and there’s no movement for a second—then he stalks forward again. Every move is intentional and intense. He has total control.

The really interesting thing here however, is what he does with the music. About two thirds of the way through the video, I put a dotted line between two arrows  ^---^  just below the slider. I can’t describe exactly what the music does there, but I think it’s the most dramatic part—and also the most difficult to dance to. It’s a place where the compás is covered by some bandoneon melody, and then by violin strings. Stage performers would probably highlight the intensity of this part with big acrobatic moves. They might separate and use a lot of leans, leg kicks, and dramatic poses. But Tete stays within the parameters of social tango. Everything he does can be done on the floor of a milonga (at least by Tete), and it can be done without bothering anyone. He and Sylvia maintain the embrace and interpret the music solely by flowing around the floor—feeling the music in real-time, and using their feet and bodies sparingly. Tete is a very, very talented man. For me, at least for the part between the two arrows, he owns this music.

As for the music itself, I was planning to add a page about Gallo Ciego in Chapter 4, but let’s talk about it here instead. Several years ago, a friend showed me a tape of a PBS television show. It was of a famous tango couple performing before a symphony in the U.S. The music was Pugliese’s Gallo Ciego, and the whole thing was presented as very high-class stuff. The PBS announcer on Great Masterpiece Performances, or whatever it was, spoke in hushed, pretentious tones, and the audience was full of fancy people in tuxedoes and gowns. They were getting a dose of culture, and I could picture them the next afternoon drinking tea, pinkies in the air, discussing what a marvelous night they’d had at the symphony. But in fact, they were listening to music about a chicken, and the sophisticated guy dancing in the tuxedo was from a side of town most of them couldn’t even imagine.

I’ve been told in the milongas that Gallo Ciego* is about the cockfights that used to take place in the neighborhoods. Sometimes one rooster would be blinded, but would continue to fight—hence the title, “Blind Rooster”. (Gallo Ciego is also the name of the club where Alej began dancing.) We’ve already talked about D’Arienzo’s amazing “cows walking” compás in El Cencerro—but if you hit the play button and listen again to Gallo Ciego, you'll hear a different animal:

ba DUMP... ba DUMP… ba da… ba DUMP… ba DUMP... ba da...

Pugliese's compás is the sound of two fighting cocks stalking each other! And his music continues on through the maiming, and finally, the violent death of one of the animals. He packs sorrow, pity, violence... and maybe even a few chicken squawks into this one. Not a bad job by the Maestro.

Gallo Ciego is a beautiful tango, but I think it’s used too much. Everyone wants to rehearse it, and turn it into a show. A few of the best couples are spectacular, but most of them have about as much entrega as a Kung Fu movie. If you've seen one, you've seen 'em all... except for this one. Let me try to explain:

Look at how Tete moves. At first he's hesitant, as if he’s feeling his way. But then, if you look closely at his face when the violins soar (between the arrows), you’ll see him smile for just a moment. Pretty strange… to smile right in the middle of Pugliese’s mayhem. A performer would never do this. Could he be feeling a sense of irony because he's a boy from the arrabal who's getting paid to fly to Europe and do the Chicken Dance? I don't think so. I think it’s because he’s a milonguero. This music is very strong for him, and he smiles at the place where he and Sylvia are really connected to it. (D'Arienzo used to do the same thing—sometimes even bursting out in laughter on stage at the most unusual times, because the music just seemed to overwhelm him). These are very nice moments—and here you can actually see Tete finding the thing that those of us who go to the milongas every night are looking for.

So anyway, there are a lot of spectacular Gallo Ciego performances out there—and a few of them are by some fairly polished and talented performers. What's so special about this one? What makes it different, other than that it's a little rough around the edges?  Simple:  In this video, you are looking at a man who is listening to the music.


*I'm not sure where I heard this, but it may have been from Ismael (the milonguero in the first video of this chapter). One time Alej was dancing with him, and she notice his hands were all scratched up. When she asked him about it, he laughed and said he keeps chickens for eggs, and his rooster got him.