GOTAN PROJECT at the Opera House (735 Queen East), Saturday (October 25). $25. 416-870-8000.
There are few sounds that haven't already been hoovered up by dance music. Whether it's the beat-heavy rhythms of Brazilian samba and Afrobeat or less likely styles like Finnish jazz, Chinese folk music and Bollywood breaks, they've been sampled, stolen, reworked and recontextualized.
Gotan Project found one of them.
The Paris-based trio is the first group to bring the seductive sound of Argentine tango to the contemporary dance floor. Mixing acoustic instruments, 3 am vocals and wheezing bandoneons with softly shuffling house beats, their La Revancha Del Tango disc knocks the stately milongas of Astor Piazzolla into the 21st century.
The result sounds organic, a little unearthly and entirely unlike anything else. And it's caught on. La Revancha Del Tango has gone from being a cult underground hit to a mainstream success that's sold almost a million records and become the sophisticated café platter of choice around the world.
One explanation for the fact that no one thought of it before them is that so many others had already discounted the music.
"I was completely ignorant about tango before working on this project," admits Gotan Project founder Philippe Cohen Solal from a Vancouver tour stop. "I thought it was old music, which is completely wrong. We've travelled all over the world with this, and in every city there are young people dancing tango every week."
Cohen Solal's goal was to make a record that would appeal specifically to these dancers but also take the music further out.
"We could have put down a dance loop and asked a bandoneon player to improvise over it," he reasons. "That would sound like tango and a bit Argentine, but it wouldn't be very interesting, because it would have been a collage. We wanted to go deeper into the music of Argentina and also get involved in the whole culture of tango, from the images and the fashions to the politics.
"The good thing is that because we were the first to do this mixture, there were no rules. We can do exactly as we want and what we want to hear."
La Revancha Del Tango sounds like an Argentine record, not like a record made by three Paris electronic music heads. Even though dub echoes and plenty of obvious studio tricks run through the tracks, cuts like Triptico and El Capitalismo Foráneo sound live and keep their rootsy appeal.
"We wanted to keep that raw sound," Cohen Solal confirms. "All the sounds we use are quite dirty, and we mix the feel of the acoustic instruments with the abstractness that a computer can offer to make it dreamier and dubbier.
"We were also inspired a lot by film music. We all do soundtrack work on the side, and that creeps in here. The music reminds me of the atmosphere of an Almodóvar film. Almodóvar is obviously Spanish, not Argentine, but he has that same sophistication and decadence."
As much as La Revancha Del Tango draws on Argentina for inspiration, it's clear that the album could only have been made outside the country. Tango is like religion in Buenos Aires, where entire television and radio stations are dedicated to the music.
The real test of Gotan Project's authenticity will come when they bring their new tango swing to Argentina early next year.
"Last year we were DJing in Buenos Aires. I was in a taxi coming from the airport," Cohen Solal says, "and said to a friend that maybe it was time to change some of the rules in tango music. The taxi driver just stopped, turned around and said in a tough voice, 'Tango will always be tango. There can be no change.'
"Our record has been bootlegged heavily in Argentina. That's a good thing, because it means people are excited. The man in the car aside, I think people are excited about something new. It's not pure tango, because there is no pure tango. Tango is already a fusion of African and European music.
"This goes just one step further."