It Takes Six to Tango

After performing in Argentina, the rapidly growing Pitango group brings its exotic show to the Israel Festival next month.

It all started by chance. Several years ago in Tel Aviv, a young computer person named Amijai Shalev listened to a disc of tango music and was swept away. He bought a bandoneon - a kind of Argentinean accordion, one of the more expensive bargains to be found in Israel - and started learning to play, note by note, chord by chord. At the same time, in Berlin studying for a master's degree in music, young contrabass player Rinat Avisar also fell in love with the world of tango.

Upon her return, Shalev was given Avivar's telephone number, and two years ago this connection produced the new group, Pitango. The pair were joined by violinist Adrian Justus and pianist Shachar Ziv, and accompanied by two dancers, one male dancer and one female, they gave a dazzling performance entitled, "Tango from the Soul."

"Now we've already grown into a sextet," says Rinat Avisar ahead of Pitango's new show that features in the Israel Festival (Holon Theater, June 4, 9 P.M.; Jerusalem Theater, June 5, 8:30 P.M.), "with another violinist and a bandoneon player from Argentina, and three pairs of dancers instead of one, as well as a professional dance troupe and a singer; it's become a real show."

The Bialik of tango

Tango has assumed a central role in the World Music scene, which has been increasingly popular since the early 1990s, and draws a diverse audience - but this does not explain Pitango's daring leap: Within two years it changed from an endearing quartet taking its first steps to a professional troupe able to mount a large-scale production with directing, props and costumes on a select stage such as the Israel Festival.

"The turning point was our trip to Argentina," says Avisar. "Some discs with our performances on them ended up there and somehow reached Horacio Ferrer, the director of the National Tango Academy of Argentina in Buenos Aires. He invited us to do some supplementary studies there."

It is no wonder that the name Horacio Ferrer opened doors for the quartet: Ferrer, born in 1933, is one of the fathers of modern Tango. He has written texts for the modernist Tango pieces by Astor Piazzolla - the most famous of which is certainly the 1967 work, "Maria from Buenos Aires." A writer, poet, tango researcher, radio and television personality and bandoneon player, he is a major figure in the cultural life of his country, "like Bialik, a national writer there," says Avisar.

Ice to Eskimos

The month-long stay in Buenos Aires, financed with the help of the America-Israel Culture Foundation, the Foreign Ministry, the Education Administration and the Mifal Hapayis national lottery, sent Pitango surging ahead. "The goal was to study, and we studied all the time," says Avisar. "You learn from everyone there. From the cab driver's radio in the morning, from the city streets where people sing and dance and play tango. And every night for a month a different tango concert - one out of the huge selection available there," Avisar says.

Isn't the tango a little monotonous? Don't you tire of it after a while?

"I discovered there that the fault lies not with the style, but with the implementation. Sometimes after 10 minutes it's already boring, that's true - but with the good ones, the excitement never ends."

How is your repertoire built?

"From arrangements that usually come from Argentina and that we change during rehearsals using the market method - everyone throws out something, tries, suggests and pushes, and after many, many rehearsals, after the sections are turned upside down, the program is born. That is what's nice about tango, that you can play with the arrangements, change harmonies and rhythms and perform the same pieces on a solo bandoneon as well as with a quartet or an orchestra and singers. That's why you don't get sick of it."

Professional teachers taught most of the classes in Argentina. Avisar says, "We set up a month-long course of study, lived together in the same apartment and took classes with the greatest teachers there. This music does not stem from a written tradition and that's why you have to learn it in person, firsthand, and find older teachers who have a lot of experience.

"There are many effects in playing, for example, that I could hear on the recordings, but it wasn't possible to imitate them and understand how to produce them, except from face-to-face lessons and firsthand demonstrations. All the percussion, the dancing, producing sound from all the instruments - only there did we understand where they come from."

Nine concerts grew out of the two concerts Pitango was invited to give in Buenos Aires: "It was like selling ice to Eskimos, so to speak," says Avisar, "but still we had something to offer: the classical discipline and the technique of Western classical musicians. The combination interested them very much, and they also learned something - they even said they'd never heard of such an approach to tango before."

Avisar is indeed a classical musician - she studied at the Rubin Academy of Music and Dance in Jerusalem and is the principal contrabassist in the Israel Kibbutz Chamber Orchestra and a member of the Tel Aviv Soloist Ensemble. She also freelances with other symphony orchestras in Israel; but other styles also appeal to her.

For example, open improvisation - she plays with the avant-garde Tel Aviv Art Ensemble - or contemporary music, with the Musica Nova ensemble. In tango, she says, the contrabass is an important instrument and an essential part of the composition.

Is it still unusual to find women playing this instrument in the symphony orchestra, as it once was?

"The truth is, yes. On the street, I encounter surprised looks when people see me carrying the instrument on my back, and it even happens with orchestras. For example, in Germany, when I was completing my studies and I played for a year with the Radio Orchestra of Hamburg, I was the first woman in the group. I heard that the woman who was hired on a full-time basis after I left was really given a rough time."

They say bassists are the least frustrated players in an orchestra because they were not taught to be soloists and from the start expected to be group players.

"Yes, I think that's true. They are more relaxed from a social point of view, there is less pretension and they are also the smallest group of all the sections in an orchestra, and that also helps."

At the performance in the Israel Festival, "Tango Sin Fronteras" (Tango without Borders), guests from Argentina and Israel will participate, including the singer Mariel, violinist Guy Figer and oboist Yoram Lachish. The show is directed by Argentinean dancer Ricardo Calvo, who has built up a veiled plot.

"The show starts with a classical tango that was danced only by men," says Avisar, "and then a woman enters the story, with all the conventions about the seduction of dancing and singing the tango, and that's always exciting and full of pathos. The second part is more dramatic and emotional; the third part, with music by Piazzolla, is more intellectual and modern, and the fourth part is the finale."

And the name of your group - it is reminiscent of the pitango fruit as much as it is of the dance.

"The tango is like the fruit. Some people are immediately swept away by its allure, they love the richness of its flavors, the bitterness, the sweetness and the acidity all combined together, and there are others who are put off by it. My grandmother has a pitango bush in her garden and I always saw across these two opposite extremes: those who are addicted to it and those who will taste it once, and only once."