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Tango and Cash: Gotan Project’s Philippe Cohen Solal

The electro-tango superstars celebrate 10 years of Argentinean steak with a DJ gig at Prince Charles on Nov 17. Exberliner did the dip with go-getter Solal in February 2007.

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Photo by Roberto Berlim (Wikimedia Commons)

The electro-tango superstars celebrate 10 years of Argentinean steak with a DJ gig at Prince Charles on Thu, Nov 17. Exberliner did the dip with Gotan go-getter Philippe Cohen Solal in February 2007.

During the 1990s, Paris-based DJs Philippe Cohen Solal and Christoph H. Mueller were doing quite nicely in the house music world with their Boys from Brazil project.

Still, neither could have imagined that the fusion of tango and downtempo they (along with Argentinean guitarist Eduardo Makaroff) forged in the Gotan Project would conquer the coffee bars of the world early this millennium. Though one could argue that their style has pollinated to the point of ubiquity, the group is serious about its aims, utilizing some of the top tango musicians in the world.

The 45-year-old Cohen Solal is an autodidact on the subject of tango, and maintains a serious political edge; it’s not his fault that Gisele Bunden needs background music when she’s in the bathtub.

Gotan Project celebrate 10 years at Prince Charles Club in Kreuzberg on Thursday, November 17.

Your mix of high and low culture is an apt one, as tango was originally the music of both artists and criminals.

Yeah, it’s true. People have the wrong idea about tango music. It looks like a music for people who are really politically correct – an old music, very respectful, for old men. But if you go to Buenos Aires and meet the real tangueros, the people who were living their life for tango: most of them are cocaine addicts. They are much more wild in their life than a lot of rockers in the UK.

And it started, like a lot of street music, with African roots, from the African community in Argentina. And after it was mixed with Europe and immigration from Europe. But it was from the bad boys, from the harbor of Buenos Aires.

But because it was so successful in Paris at the beginning of the 20th Century, it came back with all of the chic and the glamour of Paris to Argentina – it was accepted by the bourgeoisie. In the 1940s the music was played by the Germans, by the Nazis, you know. They were dancing to tango. It was a kind of conservative music, that the people associated with Peron liked.

Eduardo, who is about 50 years old now – when he was 20 it was not so cool to listen to tango music. It was cool to listen to English and American rock music. Now, tango is a beautiful music and it’s totally far from politics. When you have some place or music with a long history, the history is not black or white.

But you manage to add a political edge to what is often considered chill-out music. The name of your label, Yo Basta, is a nod to Subcomandante Marcos.

House music was a very hedonistic music, and after I started to do house music in 1989, the message had to be very positive because when you’re in a club dancing, sometimes with a pill, you want to have very positive messages in your ears.

But after 10 years of that I started to be, “Ok, we continue like that and we lose our brain”. Or we continue to dance – because I really love to dance – but we bring some messages to the dance floor.

Was tango the vehicle for this? Argentina has had a pretty rough-and-tumble history.

Our first album (La Revancha del Tango) was in a way the soundtrack to the 2001 economic crash in San Juan. We released the album in October, and the crash happened in December. And I know because “El Capitalismo Foráneo” played a lot there at this time. Because it was exactly what happened, you know. The foreign capitalism just sucked the blood of this country – with the help of the Argentinean government, I have to say.

That said, I was completely ignorant of Argentina when I started the Gotan Project. And, funny thing, Eduardo was totally ignorant about all the electronic music culture – he couldn’t make the difference between hip-hop and house music. So we made an exchange of information together, and it was really interesting.

As we started to read books about tango we discovered the old messages and the elements coming from the history of Argentina: hence a track like “El Capitalismo Foráneo” with the voice of Evita Peron, or “Queremos Paz” with Ché Guevara. 

It was also me who pushed Eduardo to do a song about the people who disappeared during the dictatorship, a song called “Época”.  I said to Eduardo, “You should write lyrics like a love song, but about a time when the people are disappearing. It can happen in a love affair, but it happened to your country, with the young people who died.” The non-Argentinean part of the band really pushed to be closer to Argentinean culture and history.

With that in mind, how do you feel about being lumped in with the Model Music of Hotel Costes and the like?

Frankly, I think it’s quite different. The lounge thing is just nonsense, you know. It’s true that Gotan Project was inspired by some masters of downtempo, like Kruder and Dorfmeister, maybe Massive Attack for the soul thing, because tango is the soul music of Buenos Aires.

But, we were also rarely played on radio and luckily there were these lounge places where they played Gotan Project. It’s great that they play my music along with horrible music (laughs). Any good music can be played in the lounge bar. You can play Johnny Cash. You can play the Rolling Stones and the Beatles – they’re great in a lounge bar, you know.

Originally published in Feb 2007.

La Revancha en Cumbia: 10 Years of Gotan Project, Thu, Nov 17, 20:00 | Prince Charles Club, Prinzenstrasse 85F, Kreuzberg, U-Bhf Moritzplatz