Christophe, the new album is called 'Tango 3.0'. It's of course Gotan Project's third album, but the title also refers to the world of software. How did you upgrade Gotan's sound?
Christoph H. Müller: "With that title, above all else, we wanted to illustrate the continuation of the Gotan Project story. We wanted to do something different and progress even further in our experimentation with tango music. In using the 'Tango 3.0' title we wanted to show the link between the old, the tango, and the new, the future of the World Wide Web, which is now running at version 2.0 but one day will be upgraded to 3.0, this way symbolising our desire to carry the tango sound into the future."
Your collaboration with Philippe (Cohen Solal, red.) started when you established the ¡Ya Basta! label together. Roughly translated, ¡Ya Basta! means "Enough already!"; what were you reacting against?
Christoph H. Müller: "Back then, Philippe had just finished reading the novel by the same name written by Sub-commandante Marcos (Rafael Guillen Vicente aka. Sub-commandante Marcos is the primary leader and spokesperson for the EZLN, an armed resistance movement, mainly operating in Chiapas. Caucasian and of Spanish origin he swore to defend the rights of Mexico's indigenous people and fight social injustice, this way also linking him with the international anti-globalization movement, red.) and was fascinated with the character, but apart from that, it was also a reaction at what was happening in the world of electronic music and more specifically the house scene. House had become uninspired formula music and we wanted to try something different, so we said: "Enough already!" and started our own label ¡Ya Basta!, experimenting with a mix of electronic music and exotic elements like we did with Boys From Brazil, for example."
Boys From Brazil was relatively successful and at one stage even Coca Cola used one of your songs for one of their adds. Why then the sudden change from Brazilian rhythms to the Argentinean tango?
Christoph H. Müller: "All of that really started with our encounter with Eduardo (Makaroff, red.). As an Argentinean living in Paris, he had been looking for a way to develop the tango for some time when one day he walked into the ¡Ya Basta! studio. I was an admirer of the work of Piazzola (Astor Piazzolla, born march 11th 1921 in Mar del Plata and passed away on July 4th 1992 in Buenos Aires, was an Argentinean bandoneon player and composer. He's considered to be the most important and influential tango musician of the second part of the 20th century, red.), but didn't really know much else about the Argentinean tango. The fact we could start from zero really intrigued me; no one had ever tried this before, so we were facing a real challenge. In comparison with the more varied and antagonistic tango, the Brazilian rhythms we used for Boys In Brazil were simpler and more binary in structure."
Was that band name taken from the film by the same name ("The Boys From Brazil", Franklin J. Schaffner, 1978, red.)?
Christoph H. Müller: "Yes, absolutely, a somewhat lesser known film from the seventies, but the name also referred to the fact we were two guys dabbling with Brazilian rhythms."
Do you guys always work with the same team of musicians, both on stage and in the studio?
Christoph H. Müller: "Gotan Project are basically three guys who compose and conceive the music, complemented by an extended crew of musicians that has remained unchanged for the three records: Nini Flores on bandoneon, Gustavo Beytelmann on piano and Cristina Villalonga who is the voice of Gotan. Strangely enough though, they never accompany us on stage, so for our live shows we work with another team of musicians. There's a big difference between working in a studio and playing on stage and it's been a true challenge to transform Gotan Project from a studio project into a live act. Instead of just playing concerts, we opted to do real shows featuring video projections, a scenography and a matching dress code. I think I can say we succeeded as these days our stage shows have a certain reputation."
That visual aspect you just mentioned was present from the very beginning. Is that mainly an extension of tango culture or an expression of your personalities?
Christoph H. Müller: "A bit of both, really. Tango music incorporates an important visual element and because we're all big fans of film music - in fact we've all already worked in different film projects - we wanted to integrate that element in Gotan's music. Apart from that, we work with Prisca Lobjoy, a visual artiste who designs our album sleeves and puts together the video projections we use for our live shows."
Eduardo, where did the fascination with style and etiquette in tango have its origins?
Eduardo Makaroff: "Tango music first appeared in the suburbs of Buenos Aires and Montevideo. A bit like hip hop and rap, this music also started in the underground music scene, but quickly became Argentina's primary form of cultural expression. In the beginning of the twentieth century the tango was exported to Paris, where for a period of time it became all the rave. This consecration abroad made it reappear in Argentina as well and this time it became the country's official music. A very important figure in the history of tango was Carlos Gardel, who was a bit like Argentina's answer to Frank Sinatra. When he started out in the tens and twenties, he used to dress up as a sort of gaucho deluxe (Gaucho is a term commonly used to describe residents of the South American pampas, chacos, or Patagonian grasslands, found principally in parts of Argentina, Uruguay, Southern Chile, and south-western Brazil. There are several conflicting hypotheses concerning the origin of the term; it may derive from the Mapuche "cauchu", meaning "vagabond", or from the Quechua "huachu", meaning "orphan", red.) and I believe this image might have contributed to Argentineans having the reputation of being wealthy, elegant gentlemen. Also, compared to many other South-American countries, Argentina has always had a rather large middle class."
Compared to other Latin-American music styles, tango is far less festive. Do Argentineans have a different mentality than other Latinos?
Eduardo Makaroff: "Yes, and I think one of the reasons for that is that the Argentinean people stem from a mix of immigrants from all over Europe. Buenos Aires is often referred to as the "Paris of South-America. I have to add, though, we also have our own form of festive music; carnival music called murga (In murga, disciplines like music, theater en dance are combined. The genre developed in the Rio de la Plata region, the borderlands between Uruguay en Argentina. Even though murga has Afro-American roots, it's still mostly a fusion of different elements from various cultures, red.). I wouldn't go as far as to say tango is sad music, but it's true that it's music without percussion and it's rather nostalgic and sentimental in character, properties you will also recognise in the average Argentinean."
For the song 'Rayuela', you used verses taken from the works of Julio Cortazar.
Philippe Cohen Solal: "Julio Cortazar is one of Argentina's most important writers. He was born right here in Brussels and for quite a while he resided at 4 Rue Martel in Paris, exactly the spot where Gotan Project started as well. The song is meant as an homage. With Gotan Project we've always tried to surpass the boundaries of tango music and also talk about things like Argentinean history and culture. In his novel "Rayuela" ("Hopscotch", red.), Cortazar invites the reader to read each chapter in another way."
Christophe, you recently composed the soundtrack for the movie "El Gaucho", drawing on lesser known Argentinean music styles like milonga and zamba (The milonga can roughly be split up into two subgenres: the milonga campera, of the country, and the milonga urbana, of the city. It's from that last subgenre that the tango eventually developed. According to a study by Argentinean ethnomusicologist Quintín Quintana, the milonga was originally a reinterpretation of the candombe, as it was originally played by the black inhabitants of the Brazilian country. It has its origins in the 18th century, when gauchos started playing it on their guitars or vihuelas. Zamba is a music and dance genre that has its roots in the Creole community in Peru. Zamba is played in 3/4 time on instruments like the vihuela and the bombo leguëro, an Argentinean drum, red.). Are they very different from tango?
Christoph H. Müller: "Oh yes, the rhythms are totally different. The film is situated in the south of Argentina, in Patagonia and tells the life story of a gaucho who travels from village to village with his son to participate in rodeos. The music further illustrates his voyage and is based on folkloric rhythms from rural Argentina."
Eduardo Makaroff: "Argentinean folk music is primarily based on the sound of the guitar and even the vihuela (old instrument of Spanish origin, related to the renaissance lute, but not to the guitar, red.) which was introduced in Argentina by the Spaniards. The folk genre is in full renaissance now in Argentina."
Songs like 'Mil Milliones' are obviously influenced by Jamaican music. Who's the dub lover in Gotan Project?
Philippe Cohen Solal: "Christophe and I both started in the electronic music scene and we've always loved dub. Originally, dub was created in Jamaica by people like Lee 'Scratch' Perry, but it was further developed in the United Kingdom. In a song like 'Mil Milliones', the dub effects allow us to introduce moments of silence into our music. Originally, this track was laden with arrangements and the result didn't please us at all; so much so even that we almost didn't include it on the album. At the last moment we started playing with echo and silence effects, the basics of dub music, and this eventually turned 'Mil Milliones' into one of our favourite tunes on the album and even more so on stage, because for our concerts we reproduce these effects live and that really adds an extra dimension. When we first started working together, we were working on a piece by Astor Piazzola, 'Vuelve Al Sur', which we were trying to mix with electronic music. The result was dreadful though; something was missing and it wasn't until we started experimenting with dub that the Gotan Project sound was really born."
In tango, it's never the accordion that's being played, but the bandoneón.
Christophe H. Müller: "Yes, even if the two are definitely related, they're quite different. The bandoneón was invented in Germany and was introduced in Argentina by sailors. Originally, it was mainly used in remote parishes lacking the funds to buy their own church organ. It's an instrument on which one can play quite complex pieces of music. The bandoneón is a diatonic instrument, which means that each key has two notes depending on if the bellows of the instrument are compressed or expanded and gets its particular sound from its shape and resonance box."
You're also involved in a project of a very different nature called Radio Kijada, focusing on Afro-Peruvian music. How did you stumble upon this still fairly unknown music genre?
Christophe H. Müller: "Rudolfo Muñoz is a long-time friend of mine living in Paris. He's a Peruvian percussionist and that's how the project got started. I already got acquainted with the genre from listening to a compilation by David Byrne ('Afro-Peruvian Classics: The Soul of Black Peru', Luaka Bop, 2005) and I was immediately struck by the fascinating percussive rhythms of this music. Afro-Peruvian music is quite particular because it's ternary rather than binary in structure. It's ancestral music that has remained more or less unchanged over the years. Geographically it's the music of Peru's coastal area and the heritage of the African slaves."
Apart from being a music genre, tango is of course also a dance style. Did television programs like the British Strictly Come Dancing help to popularise tango dancing again?
Philippe Cohen Solal: "Gotan Project has definitely put the spotlight on tango culture again. And one of our objectives with the 'Revancha Del Tango' album was to get our listening audience on the dance floor as well. Where real ballroom dancing is concerned, I think that after years of clubbing and raving, where dancing was a rather individualistic activity, people are once again looking for actual physical interaction. Youngsters will always go in search of a reaction to what their predecessors have done."
Dancing the tango is no easy feat. How would you rate your own dancing skills?
Philippe Cohen Solal: "Well, as this is a written interview, you won't ask me to demonstrate, so I'm just going to say I'm a superb dancer! (laughs) No, unfortunately I don't dance the tango; neither does Christophe and Eduardo has some beginner notions. It's a dance you have to master well or not attempt to do at all. We prefer to focus on the music aspect of tango, but we love the dance as well and each time we are at a milonga (The word "milonga" is also used to describe evenings where tango and milonga are danced, red.) and see all the pretty girls, we painfully regret not having mastered it. (laughs)"