Los Tangueros del Oeste play many traditional styles of tango, but it’s their ability to flavor the arrangements with subtle hints of flamenco, hip-hop and electronic music that makes them unique. The group’s leader, bass-player Sascha Jacobsen, is modest when speaking about their style. “We’re just an average Bay Area electronic, flamenco, tango band,” he said. “Tango purists might look down on it, but there is a lot of creativity going on in tango right now, especially in Argentina. This is our contribution to the evolution of the music. I think we are the only electro-tango band based in the U.S.
“Tango was developed in the barrios of Argentina at the beginning of the 20th century. The music is a combination of the immigrant music that came to Argentina from Europe and Africa. There’s also an influence from the indigenous people and folk songs of the gauchos—Argentine cowboys. There’s a strong feeling of nostalgia in the presentation, and there’s a sexual and sensual energy in the music and the dance. In Argentina, the lyrics, dance, music and poetry are part of a complete art form. There are even tango paintings. It’s like flamenco; an all-encompassing lifestyle you can immerse yourself in. I’ve been studying tango for about 15 years, but some people have been studying it for a lifetime. You can do a deep-dive into the music and traditions, and be happy drowning in it.”
Los Tangueros came together four years ago. They honed their sound playing clubs, concert halls and milongas—tango dance parties that take place every night of the week. El Valenciano, in the Mission District, has hosted a weekly milonga for more than 20 years. When everything came to a halt during the pandemic, Jacobsen decided to use his time to produce Alma Vieja (Old Soul,) the band’s debut album.
Jacobsen had recorded albums before, but creating music during the lockdown had its unique challenges. “Some of the players—Argentine pianist Pablo Estigarribia and Puerto Rican violinist Ishtar Hernandez—went home to wait out the pandemic,” he said. “I was able to record Ishtar safely, before he left, masked and socially distanced. For everyone else, I recorded bass parts and wrote charts for the songs and sent them out. They did two or three takes on each song, in their own studios.
“I picked the best parts of each version, edited them together and sent the results to Charles Gorczynski, our bandoneón player, to mix. He put them together to sound like a cohesive band. As we went along, we were adding and subtracting drum parts and ambient touches with our sound designer and beat master, Daniel Riera. I sent each new mix to everyone to get suggestions and input, continually evolving the sound. I’m super proud of how it came together.”
The songs on Alma Vieja showcase the band’s excellent musicianship and the adventurous arrangements they created. “Reflexión” opens the album on a somber note. Bass notes and rippling arpeggios from Estigarribia’s piano support Gorczynski’s bandoneón as it states the solemn melody. Hernandez plays a melancholy counter phrase on violin as the tempo picks up, then slowly returns to its original sedate rhythm. A relaxed electronic drum loop moves “La Mascara (The Mask)” along, adding brief fills to the conversation between the bandoneón and violin. Estigarribia’s piano brings a bit of sunshine to the shadowy improvisations Hernandez plays to intensify the forlorn mood.
“The idea was to take inspiration from the tango recordings of the early 1900s to create modern tangos,” Jacobsen said. “At that time, the music was primarily guitar, violin and flute. Some of the great tango standards were written then, including ‘La Cumparsita,’ the most famous tango of all time. It includes the riff that is synonymous with tango for people who don’t know the music. It’s still played every night at the end of almost every milonga around the world.”
Jacobsen couldn’t imagine Los Tangueros developing anywhere outside of the Bay Area. “We have a fantastic music scene here,” he said. “There’s always a lot of cross-pollination going on. Musicians are open to experimentation and exploration. I regularly play with people into salsa, jazz, classical, flamenco and Americana, as well as tango. Audiences are open to all kinds of music. That’s what makes it a great area for musicians and artists to practice their craft.”