Fernando Otero on tango and the sound of Buenos Aires

Monday, March 2, 2020 - 14:33

The Latin Grammy-Award-winning Argentine pianist, vocalist, and composer Fernando Otero has recorded no less than 16 albums as a solo artist. A performer since childhood, Otero found his voice as an artist when he began to incorporate the sounds of his home city, Buenos Aires, into his compositions.

Ahead of his planned Purcell Room concert in April – when it is hoped he will join us to perform his own compositions, alongside works by Piazzolla and Ramirez, with special guests including singer Ann Liebeck – Otero spoke to us about his musical upbringing, the inspiration of Buenos Aires, and the perfect tango to play to a martian.

What do you like about the music from Buenos Aires?

What I really like is that the music of Buenos Aires allows me to express myself in my native language. It offers a generous vehicle for expression, in which I feel truly capable of portraying ideas and emotions, and conveying inner voices.


Has the sound of Buenos Aires always influenced your music?

As a child, I liked to record music in the bathroom, where I could get a natural reverb sound. I had two sound recorders that I used for overdubbing – it was all low quality, of course, as a result of dubbing and dubbing, adding tracks in the bathroom with a guitar. I’d stay there, singing, playing guitar or small drums – whatever instruments I could get in there, basically. And though I did enjoy other music genres during my childhood, when my mother heard the first results of my work as a ‘bathroom producer’, she had no doubts. She told me, “this is kind of weird, but clearly music from Buenos Aires”.


Your family were always encouraging of your music, then?

Yes, I was reared in an environment steeped in music and the arts. Though my father, an actor, passed away when I was very young I was brought up by my mother, Elsa Marval, an internationally successful opera singer. My parents were first generation Argentines. My grandparents had emigrated from the south of France, and my grandmother had also been an opera singer. 

Music at home was very natural. We had a piano, and everyone was singing and playing – my mother, my sister, me. I didn’t think about being a musician; I just was a musician. I remember being a musician all my life. I never thought about doing anything else. 

But tango was not always the big pull when it came to musical styles. And wouldn’t be my mother’s first choice. Listening to Pugliese, I first found tango to be merely a useful compositional vehicle; a jumping-off point for a sound which merged the improvisatory thrill of jazz within a more formal, contemporary classical structure.


Music at home was very natural. We had a piano, and everyone was singing and playing – my mother, my sister, me. I didn’t think about being a musician; I just was a musician. 
Fernando Otero

Is there one piece of music that, to you, represents tango at its best?

‘La Cachila’ by Eduardo Arolas. In that piece you can find all the different aspects for me that cover what Tango is. If I had to show tango to an alien from Mars, I would play them this piece. Arolas has this huge legacy, and after listening to his works it is clear that he’s one of the key composers and bandoneon players to define tango as a style at the beginning of the 20th century.

It’s a very imaginative composition, ‘La Cachila’, and I do wonder how such a sophisticated harmonic and melodic piece was received upon its release. Arolas appears to have been working towards a contemporary piece that acknowledges both his European contemporaries, but also the emerging tango idiom.


Nada Mas Trio - La Cachila by Eduardo Arolas


Are there any albums, or even books or films, which you think really represent tango?

I remember back when I was a teenager, purchasing an album by the Orquesta de Osvaldo Pugliese when I was wandering in Corrientes Avenue in Buenos Aires. For teenagers of my generation, tango was considered a music only old people listened to, but that album displays a very emotional soundscape, I had not appreciated until then. 

Jorge Luis Borges’ book, El Aleph, is a fascinating description of the mindset, the psychology and personality, of Buenos Aires natives that enabled them to conceive the musical style of tango. In terms of films, I remember once watching scenes starring Tita Merello. She’s an actress, singer and dancer who shows a tremendous sense of humour, mischief and imagination.


And if your compositions were not based on the music from Buenos Aires…?

Well, surely I would be someone else. I did try hard to be someone else, I did everything I could, gave it my best effort, but it didn’t work.

When I began studying music, one of my teachers encouraged me to explore developing something using the roots and sounds of tango. Not necessarily tango itself, but some of the music I heard as a child, the sound in the streets. I started working with a bandoneon player and our first project was called X Tango.

Although the first stimuli came from my teacher’s advice, from X Tango I quickly identified myself with the use of Buenos Aires as a vehicle, and I would soon find many points of intersection there with other genres of music.


Can you tell us about the concert you had lined up to bring to Southbank Centre?

Part of the repertoire comes from the 2017 album Solo Buenos Aires, which comprises a collection of songs written during the first half of the 20th Century in Buenos Aires. There will also be some of my compositions from other albums, plus songs by Ariel Ramirez and Astor Piazzolla, sung by soprano Ann Liebeck. 

As both my mother and grandmother were lyric sopranos, I’ve a strong connection with classical female voices. I grew up listening to their colorature and enjoying their timber and repertoire.


Fernando Otero & Victor Villena - Página de Buenos Aires (live)


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