Twelve people walked out well before the show ended. One, a woman in white linen and a hat, left two songs in. But of those who stayed for the entire concert in a poorly ventilated room at the University of Cartagena, about half gave the Diego Schissi quintet a standing ovation for their performance, which, in its audacity, was almost the equivalent of the Sex Pistols playing in the lobby during intermission at Aida. There was elegance in Schissi’s cacophony of bandoneón, violin, piano—he uses the tools and even the tics of tango—but it was still a cacophony.
Schissi is one of the most skillful and celebrated interpreters of the Argentine cultural inheritance working today. Still, it’s difficult to imagine a more polarizing performance at the Seventh International Music Festival in Cartagena, Colombia than his. Held every January, this year, the weeklong event exalts baroque Italian music in a former slave port best known for its African-derived rhythms, mapale, champeta and the salsa of Joe Arroyo, all of which are conspicuously absent from the program and conspicuously present in the city’s cobblestoned streets.
Instead, director general Antonio Miscena brings almost a hundred musicians, mostly Italians, several of them stars, to the whitewashed chapels and gilded theaters of the walled old city, where they play for the country’s elite, many of whom travel to Cartagena from Bogota to wear light cotton shirts called guayaberas and listen to Vivaldi.
Into this reverent scene comes Schissi, an Argentine provocateur, one of just two acts—the other, an amiable Brazilian duo performing South American standards— that veered from the classical, both part of the festival’s short Latin American series. He does not come softly. Schissi and his gang of four stalk onto the room’s small stage in white shirts and black pants (the baroque players wear black on black) and begin to play new music from the new world at a festival selling old music from the old.
Though Schissi’s repertoire includes a few gentler compositions, he strikes, instead, with thunder: it takes just seconds for his atonal piano glissando to crash into a sprightly violin melody, creating a cyclone from which that melody eventually reemerges—sun in the storm—only to be sucked under again and again. Some in the audience, perhaps expecting “La Cumparsita,” begin to look for the door. The next song, an ode to tango adventurer Astor Piazzolla, hums with momentum, suspense and humor, the score to an imaginary movie about the icon’s early days as a street fighter. Definitely an avant garde film, perhaps Wong Kar Wai meets Antonioni.
Hours before, Schissi, 43, gave the first press conference of his life downstairs in the university’s palm-lined plaza, discussing his dysfunctional but intimate relationship with tango. It won’t be his last. For many, the tango is frozen in time, a set of rhythms that provoke the precise mince of a man and a woman across a lowlit stage, a scene that replays itself around the world as the popularity of the dance continues to grow. But tango music itself has never calcified. In the 60s and 70s, Piazzolla, the controversial virtuoso, drew on jazz and classical influences, hatching a sound that was tango, freed from the limitations of the dancer. As a result, Schissi is part of a generation of Argentine musicians who feel no obligation to the dancefloor (though Schissi has collaborated with choreographers, the average amateur tanguero would be lost in his intricate rhythmic patterns).
Like Piazzolla, he’s sopped up the music around him: alongside artisans of tango like Horacio Salgán, Schissi cites the Argentine rock heroes Charly Garcia and Luis Alberto Spinetta as his favorite composers, and their D.I.Y. cheekiness marks his work. He studied jazz performance at the University of Miami, and lived there for seven years, until 1996, playing jazz and salsa with the likes of Tito Puente and Nestor Torres. In the new millennium, Schissi rediscovered his country’s beloved music at a time when it had fallen out of favor. His work, though worrying to traditionalists, is resuscitating its reputation.
Tango comes in three forms: the tango itself, the vals (or waltz), in ¾ time, and the quicker milonga. For his 2010 album, Tongos, Schissi created three congruent styles: the tongo, the canción and the liquido, and he employs many of the elements of tango: the emphatic “yumba” sound of the bandoneón, the chicharra (or cicada) scratch of the violin, the glissando of the piano. But the tongo is his own mutation. In Argentine street Spanish, tongo means mischief or deception; Schissi’s music, just a vowel away from tango, flirts with its conventions but never goes home with them.
During the press conference, Schissi is diplomatic, even declining to attack electronic tango, an easy target. Onstage, no longer ambassador, he is artist, playing difficult, even cubist music that creates tension, occasionally without a clear release. But the quintet crackles onstage, conjuring different densities of sound from spaciousness to claustrophobia. They ignore the printed program entirely. The double bass player, Juan Pablo Navarro, strikes the strings until half the hairs on his bow split. The fan above the stage isn’t working, and Schissi and his group are soaked in sweat by the end, looking like scraggly rebels in a basement club.
The Italian baroque period was one of constant innovation, which is why, centuries later, Caribbean cities hold festivals in its name. If Vivaldi, Verdi and Pergolesi had attended the event in their honor, they probably would’ve skipped the tepid performances of their own greatest hits to watch Diego Schissi in a hot room in the Cartagena afternoon.