Thursday, May 18, 2006

¡Qué quilombo!

Quilombo is word I try to use whenever in impolite company. It is somewhat less delicate than “a mess,” but just as common; perhaps a touch gentler than “a shitstorm,” which is an unjustly neglected word in English.

It is a word of African origin that came into lunfardo, the old school, urban slang of the River Plate, by way of Portuguese. Originally it meant “brothel.” There is probably a very good story, now forgotten, that initiated this shift in meaning from “brothel” to “mess.” Use your imagination.

It is in the quilombos at the end of the 19th century where that emblematic dance of Buenos Aires emerged, and not surprisingly, it too took on an African word passed on from Portuguese: tango.

Originally turned off by all the strutting and phony seductiveness of shows and street performers, I had no interest in trying to learn tango. It seemed a nostalgic, stilted recreation of something that in its origin was spontaneous and sordid – and apparently danced by only men.

Then a few friends took me to a milonga in the center. Not a glitzy place, not one of the famous milongas. There was a small, square dance floor, surrounded by tables. Most people were in their fifties and sixties. A few younger, quite a few a bit older.

As the music started, couples took to the dance floor, mulled around, chatted and finally, as the rhythm kicked in, they began to dance. There were no leg kicks, no sequins, no smirking beneath a fedora. None of that. In fact, the most noticeable thing was not visual, but audible: feet sweeping and scraping across the wooden floor. And, man, some of those viejitos had style: eyes closed, faint grins, small, precise steps and spins.

That I wanted to learn.

A few months ago, my Italian friend Enzo invited me to a class in a bar in Palermo. I was a bit apprehensive, but it turned out to be an unpretentious, friendly environment. Carlos, the teacher, is a warm, hyperkinetic man in his late 50s with bright blue eyes and floppy white hair. He taught me some basic steps and then passed me off onto an extremely patient girl.

Each class I spend a few tangos trying to remember what I learned the last class and have forgotten over the course of the week and then, once I get comfortable again, Carlos or one of my dancing partners gives me some advice, perhaps teaches me a new variation.

I still have a long, long way to go before I can consider myself a proficient dancer. But even now, even with basic steps and a fair bit of fumbling, I feel it.

Last Friday I had some folks over and, as the bottles of wine emptied, what started as a mellow party degenerated into a quilombo. No, not a house of ill-repute, but a vibe with just a touch of descontrol. Someone put on a CD of Pugliese, pushed my dining room table aside, and we were off:


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The touchstone I use on slang was taught to me in Mexico by a young man explaining the meaning of a few new words I had learned. He broke them down into two groups: ones you can say in front of your mother...and those your can't.

Quilombo is one you cannot use in front of your Mother without risk of getting slapped. You can, however, use another lunfardo trick and reverse the syllables, "Bilonqui". That form can be used in the presence of blue-haired ladies everywhere...sometimes elicting a titter.

You're right about the brothel meaning but it has one even older: slavemarket. Through all its permutations it retains its core, some thing or place which is raucous, unrestrained, and basically bad.

Nice post,

2:00 AM  
Blogger Brandán Buenosayres said...

My cheeks are still smarting.

10:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Quilombo was a safe, isolated region in Brazil where slaves that escaped sugar plantations (engenhos) and ranches (fazendas)could live free and in peace. In 1630 a large region between Alagoas and Pernambuco was called, Quilombo dos Palmares. It lasted about 70 years, it become such a magnet for escaped slaves that was ultimately destroyed.

1:48 PM  
Blogger chematuco said...

che, congrats on the tango lesson, i've been 3 years trying to get my arse into gear and to start learning. maybe at some point i'll get around to it, until then i'll just have to continue with my false feeling of superiority for not having fallen into the tango tourist trap.

7:33 PM  
Blogger Brandán Buenosayres said...

Che Matuco, starting is the hardest part. And if your waistline at all approaches Diego's former girth, then it may be a matter of life and death.

6:28 PM  
Blogger Satamarina said...

la mesa la corrí yo!!!!!!!!para bailar otras cosas, no tango!!

quilombo hubiese sido si me dabas pelota amebita mía!!!!

cómo va usa?

la hereje

2:49 PM  
Blogger Deby N. said...

You should come over sometime, my living room is usually full of dancers on a given Saturday before we go to a milonga. (and to chematuco..tango only becomes a tourist trap if you let it.)

10:48 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I agree with Yanqui Mike on the merrits of this post which, although I write LOL in things like CHAT and email, I rarely actually 'laugh out loud' when reading sliently and alone. But I did twice reading through this post.

And its so ironic... I actually fell not only into the tourist tango trap but for a real live actual tango dancer! Needless to say that didn't work out very well and my interest in Tango has all but subsided.

Now I'm preparing to motivate to take a salsa class instead. Que QUILOMBO tambien! Gringos just weren't made for dancin'...


(finally linked up to your blog... )

1:19 AM  

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