How do you know how to play tango?

“How do you know how to play tango?” was the question that a young violin student in Medellin Colombia asked me in masterclass. To be honest, I was expecting someone to ask that at some point but thought no one had the guts to ask. They had all been at my concert the night before, after all. I could tell that he didn’t ask me as a challenge, he was truly amazed at how this woman, me, in front of him, wearing cowboy boots, not from Argentina or any Latin American country near by, who lives in the US, could ever know how to play tango like a “real” tango player.

I chuckled to myself because I run into this all the time and I find it amusing to see how I constantly surprise people. But for the first time in my tango life, I felt that I had a real opportunity to open a young mind from preconceived ideas and old mentalities. There is a lot of prejudice out there that only male violinists from Argentina know how to play tango therefore no one else can. It’s the same in Italy. Only Italians know how to sing Italian Opera. I can take it one step further. I can totally play Paganini’s caprices perfectly because I’m Italian…HA!

I never wanted to be a tango violinist. I only ever wanted to play tango for myself. I can’t remember the first time I heard a tango, but growing up in Italy I was exposed to a lot of dancing and singing. Tango was in there too. I grew up going to sagre (local festivals) every summer eating, drinking, dancing, and listening to bands with accordions playing. I didn’t even know what a bandoneon was until I was 27. I had only ever seen accordions play tangos. I didn’t realize there was a difference. Silly me.

As a classically trained musician in a classical world, when I performed, I felt strangled and controlled by the people and their constant judgements surrounding me. Funny enough, the tango world isn’t much different but it doesn’t affect me the same way. I believe it’s because tango speaks to me in a way that I am able to be myself while playing. It is one of the most natural emotions I’ve ever had while playing the violin. And with being yourself comes freedom. Freedom from prejudice and judgement.
Feelings and politics aside, how is it that I know how to play tango?

But to answer the real question, I could get all romantic and poetic and say “it’s all in my heart” but in reality, it’s all my ear. I have to thank my classical training for that fabulous ear that allows me to play any genre of music I want to play. The hours of ear training, listening, and practicing all contributed to me being able to play tango. If you close your eyes and listen to me play you have no idea that I’m not from Argentina and that I’m not a man. I play and feel the music like if it has always been a part of me. All this is really to say that tango doesn’t belong to one nation but it belongs to the world.
I also have my favorite sarcastic answer. Are you ready? Argentinians are from Italy and/or have Italian heritage, therefore tango is really Italian and since I’m from Italy, I know how to play tango.

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