How Argentinas gravel-voiced crooner put the soul back into tango for the rap generation

Daniel Melingo who reinvented the music for a young crowd is on his way to the UK

Halfway though the concert, Daniel Melingo dramatically removes his left shoe to extract an imaginary pebble mentioned in the lyric he is singing. The shoe stays off for the rest of the night, much of which Melingo spends on his belly swimming across the stage, arms flapping loosely like a drunkard, as his breathy basso voice infuses the hall with that heady mix of disillusionment, longing and betrayal that is the hallmark of Argentinas soul-searing tango music.

It has been said that listening to Melingo is like watching a Federico Fellini movie with your eyes closed. The circus elements beloved by the Italian film-maker are all present the barrel-house music, the burlesque comedy, the soppy southern European sentimentalism.

Then there is the persona Melingo has invented for himself, a black-clad, rumpled-up, Chaplinesque vagabond that the singer has used to make tango cool again for a new generation of Argentinians raised on rap, hip-hop and the South American tropical cumbia rhythm.

My mothers side of the family were tango people, says Melingo, sitting down to talk at a cafe in the tree-lined neighbourhood of Villa Ortzar where he lives, only a couple of days after his barefoot antics while performing his new album Anda at a vaudeville theatre in downtown Buenos Aires. But on my fathers side my grandmother sang opera. One of my first musical memories is listening to Ravels Pavane for a Dead Infanta on the radio with my grandfather holding me in his arms.

His expressive eyes darting animatedly beneath bushy, grey eyebrows, Melingo lists off the stops on his European tour next month Cologne, Lisbon, Paris, Antwerp, Zurich, among others, including a gig at Londons Jazz Cafe.

Often compared to Tom Waits or Nick Cave because of his below-the-floorboards vocal register, Melingo did not initially set out to lure young people back into Argentinas tango halls to retrace the complicated, embroidery-like steps their grandparents once cut when the tango was still young. But there has been a surge of interest both at home and abroad, partly due to Melingo and partly to fusion projects such as Bajofondo and the Gotan Project, which combine tango sounds with modern urban electronic beats.


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People dance the tango at a Milonga in downtown Buenos Aires. Photograph: Alamy

His career began as a rocknroll star in two of Argentinas biggest 1980s bands, Los Twist and Los Abuelos de la Nada, who shot to fame with the exhilarating cultural liberation after the collapse of the countrys 1976-83 dictatorship, under which some 30,000 people, most of them young, had been disappeared in military death camps.

It was very hard to be young in that ferocious era, says Melingo, 59. We survived like cockroaches, indoors, creating antibodies out of aesthetic ideas. Artistic expression was heavily curtailed under a regime that not only killed young people for their political beliefs but also censored their artistic expression and persecuted them for the length of their hair, dragging them by the bus-load into police stations to have it shorn off.

Many artists escaped abroad, others went into internal exile, putting their careers on hold until the return of democracy. We became masters at writing in-between the lines, describing poetically and metaphorically what was actually happening.

A classically trained musician who, aside from singing, plays the clarinet, Melingo was never far from the limelight after that initial post-dictatorship boost. Yet it wasnt until 1997, when he turned 40, that the memories of his tango-dancing mother led Melingo to turn his talents instead to the music that some define as Argentinas equivalent of the blues.

After a brief stint hosting a television show where he invited rocknroll buddies to play old tango tunes, Melingo made an abrupt career change. I had to relearn everything at the age of 40, study tango technique, take singing lessons.

In the process his voice seemed to drop by octaves as he began to deliver songs almost in a whisper.

His tango guide has been 79-year-old Luis Alposta, who wrote the words for classic songs by Edmundo Rivero during the 1970s. The timbre and colour of Melingos voice correspond to what is traditionally known as a tango voice, says Alposta of his younger friend. He sings as if he was talking.

The release of his first solo album in 1998, Tangos Bajos, catapulted Melingo into an international career that surpasses that of any other current Argentinian musical artist, especially in France, where he will be playing the Thtre des Bouffes du Nord. Melingo has his own explanation for his success far from home: Tango in Argentina is like ice for an Eskimo, you dont notice it even though its all around you. But outside Argentina, people really sit up and listen. In a welcome surprise, Melingos incessant touring brought him into contact with his ancestral musical roots when a Viennese woman, Daniela Melingo, sought him out at one of his concerts in Austria. She turned out to be his second cousin, descended from a brother of Melingos Ravel-loving grandfather. She told me our family came from the Greek island of Zakynthos, which had been the birthplace of rebetiko, an anarchic-illiterate musical movement to which my grandfather belonged, Melingo says.

The influence is clearly noticeable. At the concert in Buenos Aires the musical mood subtly shifted from tango to rebetiko, from Buenos Aires to Zakynthos, Constantinople and Asia Minor, with Melingo the restless vagabond, those flashing eyes now invisible under the tilted brim of his black hat, proudly strumming his grandfathers tiny balama (a Turkish lute) as he meandered up to the microphone to sing.

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