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World Music Features

Gotan Project

By David Oancia Prieto
Published September 9, 2005

A cadre of French musicians is turning the tango on its head. Gotan project resonates with a heady mix of open-minded experimentation and songwriting skills in the tradition of Serge Gainsbourg.


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After toiling away in secret laboratories, a cadre of French musicians has suddenly emerged onto the international scene with a project that is turning the tango on its head. It's called the Gotan Project—the name is a scrambled form of "tango"—and it resonates with a heady mix of open-minded experimentation and songwriting skills in the tradition of Serge Gainsbourg. Gotan is a collaboration between Philippe Cohen Solal and Christoph Müller, veterans of the Electronic scene, and a host of Argentine expats, including old-school Latino rocker Eduardo Makaroff. Their startling debut, La Revancha del Tango, a dance music/dub/tango fusion, is being hailed as a new trend worthy of note.

"Paris' multicultural aspect is something that really informs our music," explains Cohen, who has worked as a musical supervisor with film directors Lars Von Trier, Bertrand Tavernier, and Krysztof Kleislowski. "But the connection between Paris and Buenos Aires is extremely strong. It's no accident that there are so many Argentinean musicians here. During the Argentine dictatorship there was a huge immigrant community and one of the most famous tango clubs in the world, Le Trottoir de Buenos Aires, became a mainstay in the city. Since the 50s, Paris has become the world's second tango capital."

Strange as it sounds, the Gallic capital can lay claim to revolutionizing Argentina's national music. While the style was born in Buenos Aires' slums, in particular her brothels, South Americans didn't accept tango until the French placed the music within their art halls. Soon thereafter came a slew of Argentine musicians who studied with French classical composers only to apply their findings to their homeland's music. "The tango scene in Paris is much more experimental than Buenos Aires," he adds. "In the Argentine capital, the music is much more traditional, folkloric. In Paris, the musicians want to experiment, make something new."

Among the aforementioned compositors was a young bandoneon player named Astor Piazzolla, who studied composition and harmony with Nadia Boulanger, only to have her rebuke his classical European leanings in favor of the Argentine style. His subsequent synthesis of avant-garde European classical music, jazz, and tango, which became known as Nuevo Tango, is still influencing musicians the world over. Especially Gotan Project. "Astor Piazzolla is God," says Cohen, chuckling. "Those records he did with Kip Hanarahan inspired us in more ways than we can imagine." The other half of the equation lies in the beats. Drawing deep from dub reggae and electronica artists like Thievery Corporation, the rhythms are thick and juicy. With a floor-shaking bass anchoring everything, the tango elements like the bandoneon, violin, piano, and voice fit like a glove. The uniting force comes from the Argentine music's African percussive elements: Cohen and company use the struck sounds found within the music to trigger dub effects, creating a similar sense of space as found on all those 70s Jamaican studioscapes.

There is precedence for the fusion. Grace Jones worked with the reggae rhythm section Sly and Robbie on the Piazzolla composition Libertango, which became a hit on Francophone dance floors the world over. "We knew the track," says Cohen, "but we didn't go<