Saturday, March 2, 2013

Keith Elshaw and Totango Restoration Project

I was a typically clueless tango beginner then, experincing a sweet and at the same time painful period of learning and mistakes. Montreal was my third (a charm!) out-of-town tango trip, barely a month after a memorable outdoor milonga at Denver Cheeseman Park turned me, at last, into an insatiable tanguero. I finally grasped this awesome idea of communicating without words, the metaphor of a secret society where one needs no language but the body language to be accepted and understood. This fascination was cemented in Montreal, where some ladies spoke only French so we truly did not share any spoken language (all I could remember in French was "bien" and "encore")
Beautiful Cheeseman Park milonga, from Denver Festival website. My tale of "falling in love with Tango" at this magestic hilltop collonade has made it ( in a super-condensed form) to the pages of Denver Post :)
Keith Elshaw DJing
It was a small milonga in the Eastern, Francophone part of Montreal where I met DJ Keith and talked about his tango restoration project (and many other tango things, some of which I was too ill-prepared to absorb then). I don't recall what he played, but I won't ever forget how he talked. I remember Keith as a sage, a drunk, talkative philosopher with an unforgettable timbre of voice. At the time I was fascinated by the underappreciated and tragic history of Russian and Eastern European tango music ... about imprisoned Leschenko dying in the malarial swamps ... about Strok banned from composing, earning his living as a private piano teacher ... about Rosner loosing his teeth to scurvy in the camps of Kolyma, and re-learning to play trumpet with dentures ... about Petersburski making it, against odds, to Buenos Aires, then returning home to die. Actually I'm still fascinated by it. And on that rainy night in Montreal, the connection has been especially close, because just a night before, and just a few blocks West, a nuevo DJ, having asked where I'm from, threw an Oscar Strok classic into the next tanda.

There is a lot of quality issues with many of those antebellum records, and Keith was like, absolutely, get me the LPs or even high-bitrate files, and I'll restore it. But I couldn't find anything worthy for him. And I didn't visit Montreal again, alas. Fast-forward several years ... and a routine music search refreshed, in my mind, a fascinating story about the pioneers of the tango renaissance which I almost forgot.

Keith told me that he had decades of experience as a sound engineer and a radio DJ. It turns out that he started DJing at a small-town radio station when he was 13. In 1972, at the age of 22, he's become a rock DJ at a leading music station in Toronto. Judging my the memoirs of the contemporaries, half of Ontario would recognize his voice. Keith fell in love with tango in 1989, when the show of Juan Carlos Copes had almost-daily performances in Toronto for many months. He went to see it again ... and again ... after dozens of nights, he wasn't a mere Copes fan anymore, more like a family friend eager to absorb everything tango.

It has to be mentioned that Juan Copes's troupe has always been a family affair. His partners over 60 years of his tango carreer have been a succession of the three ever-younger sisters Nata, Maria, and Cristina, and finally, his daughter and apparent namesake Johana. Nata was the girl who famously told Juan, then a competitive non-tango dancer, that he must learn to dance tango first if he wants to dance with her. And learn he did! But soon he ended up dancing with (and not much later, marrying) her younger sister Maria, who at fisrt had to be smuggled into shows because she was still underage and thus not allowed into clubs. Juan Copes was training to become an electronic engineer but everything changed when, in 1951, they won a national championship, the classic Dark Horse way. The post-Golden Era tango establishment of Argentina was growing ever more stale, with state committees, the generals and the mobsters alike exerting their protection, rigged contests and patronage appointments. At a 1951 championship, the jury gave prizes to other couples, but then the audience erupted in uproar and ... the unthinkable happened, the judges reconsidered! Suddenly, Juan and Maria were free to pursue a very different carreer.

The other high point of their Argentine years has been a performance at Canaro's farewell concert. But soon, the government of Peron fell, and the old allegiances and protections have become liabilities, and there was no good work left for the Copes couple in Argentina. In their quest for good living, Juan has done an icredible lot to open the world to Argentine tangueros, and to open Argentine Tango to the world (although he never ever counted on AT's becoming a social dance!)

Juan Copes's first idea was to remix the Parisian tango success of the Belle Epoque, and to teach the eager Europeans how to dance again. But the 1958 Europe just wasn't its old grand self, still reeling from the wartime destruction, already crazy for the rock and ready for the Beatles. And teaching choreography to the French professional dancers was a failure. I say "choreography" for a reason, since for Copes, learning tango was all about painstakingly memorizing steps and combinations; he's famously told to have insisted that the Argentines must never teach the foreigners to lead and follow, lest the world outcompetes the compatriots. Still the European foray of Copes yielded something incredibly valuable to the future rebirth of tango: the music of Astor Piazzolla. By mid-50s, Piazzolla thought he turned the page on old tango, but Juan Copes gave him a job and rekindled his love of tango ... and the new tango emerged, to mesmerize a generation of musicians who would later turn into the first dancers of the reborn tango diaspora.
Johana and Juan Carlos Copes in 2007.
From Johana's blog

But Copes was done with Europe. He found success in America with "Tango Argentino" on Broadway. He invented the now-cliche Borges-cum-bordello, knives and sexiness forms of scenic tango, and he introduced milonga to the scene, as a fiery dance atop a stool. Then followed Vegas, Borscht Belt, dozens of American cities. The flodgates were open! Now the talented Argentine tangueros could make living abroad, unconstrained by the written rules and the shackles of patronage and the downward economic spiral back home. The only true constraint of the nonverbal language of tango, as with any spoken language, remained the requirement of mutual intelligibility between partners - in effect, the ossifying art form has been suddenly set free. To this date, worldwide tango owes its organic lack of organization and its diversity of style to the anarchic urges of this era, which culminated with the nuevo revolution of not just stylistics, but also the analysis and teaching technique.

And as I said, in 1989, it was Toronto. And soon, Keith Elshaw started taking classes from Cristina Rey, Maria's younger half-sister (who was two or three years younger than him, but danced in the revue of Copes for 35 years already,having started at 13!). When Copes had falling out and divorce with Maria, he continued dancing with Cristina, who was 14 years younger than Maria. After a couple of  tumultous years, Maria rejoined the ensemble, until Juan's daugher from his never-quite-discussed Anglo marriage took her place as the maitre's principal partner. Johana started dancing with her father's group in 1993, at the age of 14. In a recent El Tangauta interview, Johana said that they still go together with her octagenarian father toTango Porteño almost nightly, but that it is "a complicated love-hate relation" - and that with a company of friends, she'd much rather dance nuevo.

  Several years of classes which Keith took from Cristina Rey, memorizing steps and choreographies, didn't make him a confident dancer; Keith credits Gavito for opening his eyes and starting him on a tanguero path. But Keith ended up marrying Cristina, and in 1994 they started the first regular milonga in Toronto! And for years, Juan Copes let Keith DJ at Juan's annual birthday bashes in Miami. But then came a divorce, and an escape from Toronto to Montreal, a European and Romance city with a vibrant tango scene which reminded him so much of Buenos Aires querido. And this time, it wasn't just dancing and DJing! Keith turned his decades of experience with sound records into an amazing, ambitious project which restored thousands of old AT tracks, not just fighting the noise, the defects, and shifted tempos, but  also reverberation and faux stereo effects and what not! A detailed description of his approach, with sample tracks, can be found on Keith's site, This monumental collection is a true life legacy of an old DJ who fell in love with tango. But most of it accessible only on a wholesale basis, and not that many people have experienced it firsthand. In fact, I would absolutely love to hear from those who can review Keith's project and its results!

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