Think tango and it’s Argentina and sexy Buenos Aires that spring to mind. But Montevideo, capital of Uruguay, is kicking out and claiming its right to be considered at the very least as the “other” tangopolis.
This year the much smaller, more serene River Plate capital (it’s 2¼ hours by hydrofoil across the estuary from BA) celebrates the centenary of La Cumparsita, the most famous tango of all time. Composed by Montevidean Gerardo Matos Rodríguez when he was just 19, it was an instant success when performed at the La Giralda bar, at the foot of the stunning Palacio Salvo on the city’s main plaza, on 19 April, 1917. (If you think you don’t know the song, Google it. Yes, that one: dum-dum-dum- dum-da-da-da-da-da-dum-dum-dum-dum …)
Uruguayans love to tell visitors it’s the second-most-covered song in history after Yesterday. At the new Museo del Tango La Cumparsita, which opened for the centenary on the site where La Giralda once stood, you can click on an interactive map and hear dozens of variations of the song, from Mongolian folk adaptations to classical takes from Scotland and a rocky busker’s version from Ireland. The museum also features original sheet music, working gramophones (tango sounds so much better with scratches), tango-style fedora hats, gorgeous promotional posters from the golden age of tango, and even a little bar where visitors can taste local wines and, on some days, catch a show.
“It’s the sound and symbol of tango,” says museum director Monica Kaphammel. “It’s the living testimony that Uruguay is the co-founder of tango with Argentina, and speaks of a time when the culture of the entire River Plate was sparkling with creativity.”
Local pro dancer and tango teacher Tati Roman agrees: “It’s the most famous tango in the world. The feeling I get when I dance it at the museum is beyond words. It’s a hymn, a national anthem – when you hear it, life stops.”
The celebrations, fortunately, don’t. Uruguay’s Tango Federation has named October the official Mes del Tango (Tango Month), with events including milongas – dance nights, when learners and the skilled share the dance floor. This weekend (7-8 October) the country celebrates National Heritage Day – spread over two days, oddly – with tributes to La Cumparsita all over the country; official sources say, with a typically officious Latin American liking for numbers, there’ll be more than 1,500 events in 400 institutions across 19 provinces.
Montevideo’s main tango festival, Viva el Tango, also takes place this month (13-22 October). Organised by Joven Tango, one of the city’s most respected dance venues, the event is celebrating its 30th birthday and will feature homages to the song as well as competitions for best musician and dancer.
The rest of the year, join local tangueros at the very cool, cluttered Baar Fun Fun. Founded in 1895, it was where many tango legends came to drink and strut their stuff. Relocated to Calle Soriano 2014, it’s famous for its informal evening tango shows and a drink called uvita made from wine and sugar cane. And restaurant/museum Primuseum hosts a superb dinner-show with none of the cheese you get over the water.
• The trip was provided by Journey Latin America