In conversation with Tango connoisseur and member of the Melbourne Tango Orchestra, Stephen Cuttriss

Stephen Cuttriss has been praised by the media as one of “Australia’s heavyweight tango musicians” and a bandoneon player who “ignites the sonic soundscapes of Argentina on this unique instrument. He explores the roots of both urban tango and rich rural folk traditions" - Photo Stephen Cuttriss (with kind permission by Stephen Cuttriss)

Currently based in Melbourne but with a past in Brisbane and with a habit of regularly visiting and spending time in Buenos and Argentina, Cuttriss has shaped his career around the tango and performed at a number of important venues in Melbourne and beyond, including at the Melbourne Recital Centre. On 13th July, 2019, in a warm and intimate setting, Cuttriss and band delivered a faithful rendition of the Argentinian tango during an evening dedicated to Tango Mania, at Open Studio in Northcote. Sydney singer and pianist Emily-Rose Šarkova also joined up for this well attended event, captivating the multiethnic audience with her feisty spirit and musical skills. The majority of the spectators were Argentinians finding themselves brought back to their native lands in mind and spirit. Cuttriss and Šarkova joined forces impressively and were perfectly synchronised, both mastering different instruments while soulfully breathing life into the musical lyrics, which they sang in perfect Argentinian Spanish.

You have a fascinating musical background and research interests. What first attracted you to the tango - with its multicultural origins in earthy and down to earth yet also sophisticated and artistic Buenos Aires?

It is interesting you put it like that because I came from a classical music background. I originally did classical tango but at the same time I was really interested in a more multicultural musical context. I was playing the piano and the accordion. I was playing a lot of European music and then I got to a point where I was looking for something new … I was keen on playing more avant-garde bandoneon [made famous through bandoneon virtuoso Astor Piazzolla ,1921-1992] because I played the accordion and I started to look into some of the more classic repertoires of tango and dance. I thought this was a really nice marriage between the classical refinement of the skills I had and a more culturally embedded music. I was living in Brisbane at the time and found a bandoneon for sale in a random suburb, I bought it and that was the start of the journey.

That was really lucky and almost like a sign of things to come. The tango originated to a large extent among Italian migrants in Buenos Aires (and has both European, native American or indigenous, and African roots). This music is now coming also to Melbourne, a city with a history of Italian migration just like Buenos Aires. Is the city  ̶  and the Italian community  ̶  ready to open up to the new vibes and rhythms of the tango?

[laughs] You know I’m not sure. The primary audience and vehicle for this culture here in Melbourne is the dance community, which is as diverse as anything. There are people from professional backgrounds and from other Latin styles who come together and Buenos Aires is very much the pilgrimage for these dancers who go over there to study then come back. And so there are all these community dance hubs or milongas that happen and out of Australia Melbourne has one of the biggest scenes for the tango. The Italian connection is interesting because I think back in the early 20th century when the dance band thing was big, particularly in Melbourne, there would have been the big community Italian bands who would have been playing some tangos, and a lot of the Latin repertoire was encapsulated into this thing called tango. And so maybe it was not even Argentinian tango that was happening here [but a more local Italian tango within Melbourne] because tango had boomed along with Italian migration.

Yes, that’s interesting. So, the tango did in this sense take off earlier in Melbourne than one may have initially thought.  In connection to what you just said, what would you say is the link between the traditional tango, migration, and the Italian community then and now?

Traditional tango when it developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries happened because of that melting pot. There is a huge Italian population in Buenos Aires and there is no tango without the Italian community. If you want to learn this music and immerse yourself in the style you have to understand how they speak. And they speak in a really distinct way in Buenos Aires. Both lunfardo and porteño, for example, have that kind of nuance and intonation like Italian, and so much Italian vocabulary and there is a strong connection between the phrasing of the music and the way the locals speak. You only have to be in Buenos Aires to feel you can be in Italy … As for later migration I think once the Italian community was assimilated into Buenos Aires, which is now much more globalised, tango, too, has become more globalised and now the migrants coming to Melbourne bring those roots here. Certainly, the emergence of tango here now is a result of there being a resurgence in Buenos Aires. Tango became dormant after the dictatorship in the 1960s and 1970s and it became a bit kitsch, the kind of culture of our grandparents, and then in the 1990s the dance became more localised and popular again and then was quickly followed by the music. I think people getting into it again here is a result of that.

Yes, so kind of from kitsch to hip. And it is fascinating that Finland, of all places, really embraces tango as well.

It’s like a national music in Finland. When tango boomed in Paris and in Europe in the 1920s it also did so in Finland and I think the nostalgic, melancholic feel of tango became a vehicle for the kind of literature and lyricism that was coming out of Finland at the time and they developed their own model and tango repertoire, different to Argentinian tango. It’s pretty amazing. And going back to your question, that early tango and the melancholic nostalgic feeling in the lyrics and music really was there to express migration and arriving to new places, and the labouring classes and living in the ports while remembering the old country.

Yes, that’s a good point which brings me to reflect on other uses of the tango. The music and dance serve many changing functions. There has, for instance, been a resurgence of the tango in the last decade also amongst younger aficionados. Tango has also been used in therapy to help people come together and bridge mutual disharmonies. Do we need tango to better cope with life’s many ups and downs?

I think the resurgence of the tango in Buenos Aires was a youth-driven movement. There is a funny saying that tango has become the new rock music, a new vehicle for protest, and alternative music [expressions], and there are many underground tango clubs which are youth-driven and I was really attracted to the tango also for that reason. I saw all these young people that were part of this musical and cultural revival. But then there have also been studies around tango used in a more therapeutic sense, as a music used with people suffering Alzheimer’s disease, etc. Engaging in tango is a kind of retromania  ̶ a way to reach back to the past while connecting with the present.

And tango can also be quite ranchy and sexual.

Yes, perhaps more sensual than sexual. And maybe in a place like Australia there is a different understanding of physical attraction between people compared to in Latin America. There the tango is all about coming together in an embrace. It can be sexual but I think, above anything, it is sensual.

Yes, and that makes tango very sophisticated. You have dedicated your doctoral research (Cuttriss’ thesis is entitled Siglo XXI: The Revival of the Orquesta Típica in Buenos Aires) to exploring the tango and have profound insight and knowledge into this tradition, music and dance, even life-style, in a sense. In terms of your now completed thesis, how do you straddle the inherent differences between academia and the more feeling-based or emotional qualities of the tango?

Yes, that’s interesting. I guess my field ̶ which is ethnomusicology ̶ is a more qualitative discipline and so I went and talked to people, interviewed them and listened to their experience. So, I think as far as the wedding between academia and that kind of lived experience of being in that space, it worked quite nice.

Stephen Cuttriss (with kind permission by Stephen Cuttriss)

Tango is running through your veins. Where does your passion from tango come from?

I was always attracted to Latin American music and music from other places but, above all, this idea of music and dance. I was always interested in that kind of community dance tradition in a cultural setting.

Given that the tango embraces so many different themes reflecting the human condition with its many griefs and sorrows but also happiness and joy – including sexual freedom and liberation – when you perform or interpret the tango would you say you yourself take on different personalities depending on the piece you play and the beats and rhythms of this song or piece?  

Now that’s interesting. Well I think now, like we were saying ̶ with the kind of youth-driven revival the tango can be quite edgy and I think that is something people don’t really associate when they hear it. There’s a bit of a juxtaposition between the old nostalgic type of tango [and the new vibes] and certainly for those of us who can understand what the songs are all about that definitely gives much more of a depth to the [tango experience].

Do you think the older generation, who is perhaps more used to the traditional forms of the tango, takes offence when they hear the new tango vibes or that they are, on the other hand, somewhat allured by the new interpretation of the tango?

From my understanding and the dance in Buenos Aires in the 1990s and early 2000s when the tango music started to come back it was actually a really nice space for intergenerational connections and understandings, so you had the old generation who grew up dancing really traditional tango in the 1950s and then these new people coming in and really pushing the boundaries and who really mixed those kinds of forms of information. But certainly, tango has always been a music where traditional, conservative and progressive have clashed or met.

What are the main instruments used in the tango?

The bandoneon or type of accordion, which is the squeezebox or the button accordion, which is a really interesting instrument as it was built as a portable church organ in Germany. Somehow during that period of mass migration in the late 1900s sailors brought it to Buenos Aires and it went from the churches into the brothels in the ports where tango was born. And people say the tone of the instrument has this very melancholic sound. There’s a lot of songs about the crying tears of the bandoneon and it being the voice of the migrants and so it became appropriate for tango and really that is the only place it gets played. And beside that you have violins, piano, double base, guitar and voice. This is very important because there is a whole history of artistry and lyricism and poetry around the function of the voice in Buenos Aires. And then there is the percussive effect of double base and piano [which makes up for the lack of a  drum in traditional tango]. And within tango  ̶  which in 2009 was recognised by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage  ̶  there are three dances: tango, milonga and waltz.  

How come you chose to specialise on an instrument as complex and sophisticated as the bandoneon?  

I think the bandoneon is the quintessential instrument in tango. It’s the symbol of tango. It is a very expressive instrument almost in a kind of singing style and it allows for this very percussive, almost violent attack or way of playing. The reason I picked it up was firstly pragmatic because no one else in the country was really playing it and, also, I have always enjoyed learning about a music culture through the bandoneon, and it’s nice to be able to express like that, especially because I was a piano player which means you don’t have that breadth of expression and so it is nice to go to something else that does.

Do you feel equally much in touch with the tango through words and song, or music alone?

I think definitely both, and I dance as well… because I’ve had the experience of being in the scene in Buenos Aires, being a part of the lived experience and the social aspect of the city. I think that is what I channel through it and I want to bring back that feeling here when I play. And luckily a number of musicians in the Melbourne Tango Orchestra are from Argentina and have been through that cultural space.

Do you prefer to play in larger or smaller venues? Does the atmosphere during your performances change depending on the size of the venue?

Yes, for sure, and the music matches the size of the venue. We have a concert coming up at the Paris Cat on 16 August and that is a really nice quite bohemian space, urban and inner city. It has a kind of Buenos Aires feel and the orchestra allows for much more of a cabaret style experience. And then we are going up to Sydney to the City Recital Hall again with the Saxophone Quartet in September.  

Could one say the tango is a metaphor for the urban spirit of Buenos Aires, or even multicultural and multiethnic Argentina as a whole?

From my experience in Buenos Aires and also in the Melbourne scene I think tango is a really interesting way for understanding the craziness of the contemporary world. In urban spaces you have such diverse audiences coming together but wanting some kind of intimacy with other people and you can kind of live out some kind of persona or lived experience in a safe space and with a safe connection. And the tango is a beautiful vehicle  ̶  maybe it has always been a vehicle for that chaotic way of understanding the modern world of being a migrant, [ever since] the early 20th century Buenos Aires, as well as an understanding of contemporary afflictions now, etc. And maybe that is why tango has undergone a revival in the 21st century, because we are a bit disorientated now so people are always looking for that form of connection.

Where does the nostalgia that emanate from the tango music come from?

I think it is linked to a lot of rural migration in Argentina with personalities like the gaucho from the rural countryside who were pushed to the urban fringes to find work, and they are big characters in the tango, especially the lyricism relating to a yearning for what life used to be in the wide open space of La Pampa and then you’ve got the migrants yearning for land and there was a lot of economic turbulence among the working classes. I think this is a kind of imagined nostalgia for what Argentina should have been.  

What are some of the main benefits the Italian community here in Melbourne will draw from the tango and do you think they will feel closer also to their Argentinian heritage if they get involved in the tango scene here as well?

I think there’s that tradition when the Italian community here in Australia, especially in the early 1900s, really was the centre of the dance band tradition and we still had big Italian orchestras  ̶ there is a nice connection between what we do as tango dancers which has a link to that and it is kind of a revival of that, not to mention the Italian connection with the tango. That would be a nice way for the Italian community to be involved again in that space.

What is your final message to our Segmento readers?

Find a tango class and start dancing because there is nothing nicer than connecting with someone to live music and to the feelings and sentiments of tango. So yes, find a class and get dancing! And learn some lunfardo  ̶  it presents a nice connection between cultures, and there is that old Italian mysticism that still exists in Argentina today.

Grazie mille, or should I say muchas gracias, and thanks for your many insights!

Jytte Holmqvist

Jytte Holmqvist is a movie enthusiast with a doctorate in Screen and Media Culture from the University of Melbourne and a keen interest in contemporary Spanish and Italian culture. She has established a publishing record and presented at conferences nationally and abroad. Her interest in Italian film began in earnest at the University of Auckland when in the paper Italy on Screen she explored films by Fellini, Rossellini, De Sica, the Taviani brothers, and Pasolini - to mention but a few. With that grew a love for Italian cinema and the fascinating world that it opens up to the viewer.