MusicMusic Features

Athens Tango Project’s Worlds of Sound

It’s a hot afternoon, with temperatures in the high 80s. But inside the WUGA TV studio on the university’s south campus, the air conditioner is on blast, and Athens Tango Project’s Laura Camacho, stationed behind her standup bass, can hardly be seen under her layers of clothes: black leggings, a long purple shirt, a loose-fitting, sparkly silver jacket and a scarf.

Next to her, violinist Daniel Allen plucks and bows idly at his strings as the group waits to soundcheck for a filming of the “It’s Friday!” show. The hushed studio is almost uncomfortably cool, but when the band launches into “Bossa Dorado,” a bossa nova standard composed by French guitarist Dorado Schmitt, the room seems a little warmer.

Athens Tango Project was founded by Camacho in 2012. Having left Buenos Aires, where she was a veteran of tango music circles, to study upright bass at UGA, she found she missed the music that felt like home. Athens Tango Project began as an effort to fill that space.

Since its founding, Athens Tango Project has come to serve many purposes for the many people who have come and gone as contributors. Anchored by Camacho, the group has taken on a flexible identity, allowing musicians to take turns playing gigs and take long periods of time off without compromising the project as a whole.

“The name makes the group flexible,” Camacho says. “We just want to invite musicians to come learn tango.”

Most of the musicians who have taken her up on that offer are students at UGA’s music school. Given their diverse backgrounds, the group has become something of a big tent, genre-wise. Its main offering, of course, is tango, but it also incorporates bossa nova, jazz and even the occasional dash of rock. 

Violinist Allen believes that’s how it should be. “I find tango really intriguing, musically, because it’s a singularity that comes from lots of worlds,” he says, citing composer Astor Piazzolla, a man who, for many, embodied modern tango’s eclectic influences. “Everybody claimed him as their own. Classical music claimed him. Tango claimed him. Even rock claimed him.”

The members of Athens Tango Project appear to value that same crossover spirit. Mention the words “world music” to them, and you’ll see their backs stiffen—Camacho’s especially.

“Athens is a rock town,” she says, explaining that Athens Tango Project, Grogus (with whom ATP will play a May 17 show at the Melting Point), Kinky Waikiki and others get lumped under the “world” heading, even though they make different styles of music. “I don’t think you could call what we all do part of a ‘world music scene’ just because we all have a foreign element.”

Questions about where Athens Tango Project fits into the greater scheme of things aside, the members of the band do seem keenly aware of how their music functions: primarily, as something to dance to.

Interestingly, though, none of the musicians in the band say they had any interest in learning to dance tango themselves. “There are too many white boys in the band,” pianist James Perkins jokes.

But the music itself, in Allen’s understanding, is a dance of its own. “There is the musical construction of the dance, so there is an awareness—‘Do people dance to this?’” Allen says, citing time signature and tempo as important elements.

“Sometimes we’ll play something in rehearsal and really like how it sounds, and then we realize you can’t dance tango to it,” Perkins says. 

Such non-tango tangents are one of the natural risks of undertaking a project with musicians more well-versed in jazz and other styles than its titular genre. For now, Athens Tango Project performances consist solely of covers, upon which the group improvises, and those improvisations wind up creating something new.

“’Bossa Dorado’ would never happen back home,” Camacho says of the song the group soundchecked with. “Too much jazz.”

Still, she’s happy to have an outlet for this type of music, which was such a part of her life in Argentina and was so absent from the Athens scene when she arrived. 

“I want to bring what I have to offer,” she says. “It’s just nice to play with people who you can put on the piano and you don’t have to tell them a lot. Having these kinds of musicians with me makes me very happy.”

And, after all, isn’t that the joy of being a part of a creative community? It seems there is real pleasure in not having to explain oneself, in being surrounded by partners who can walk in the room, pick up their instruments and, without having to say much at all, just play.

WHO: Grogus, Athens Tango Project
WHERE: Melting Point
WHEN: Saturday, May 17, 7:30 p.m.
HOW MUCH: $7 (adv.), $10 (door), $5 (w/ student ID)