Never a Last Tango

Loyal to this music of memories, traditionalists keep the faith at Gaucho's Cafe

Gaucho's Cafe is an unlikely name for a tango palace. Gauchos, cattlemen who live in the countryside, are not from Buenos Aires and do not dance tango. But in Argentina, Quiroga was a singer of country music. He recorded several albums with a popular group called Ecos del Ande. Then he went solo as a club singer and started performing tango as well as the country music of different Argentine regions. Now, at 60, he has thick eyebrows that look like smears of black shoe polish, and long fingernails on his right hand, which he uses to strum the guitar. On weekends, in between tango sets, he plays folksongs called cuecas with another guitarist, while Hector Perez bangs a bombo leguero, a South American drum made from a tree trunk.

It was about a year ago that Quiroga decided that Miami was lacking a venue for tango. Although tango classes in the area were easy to find, and Jorge Nel was holding occasional Saturday night parties with an orchestra, there was nowhere to consistently hear live tango and dance to it -- not since Carlos Gardel, another restaurant on Eighth Street with live tango, shut down more than a decade ago.

"In Miami, we needed a place that was complete," says Quiroga. "A place where people can dance, and where they can come and listen to a tango, and talk about tango."

He enlisted Perez, who is a friend from Mendoza. Stefano was another long-time friend. Barrios heard about Gaucho's and showed up one day with his bandoneon. During their weekly celebrations of wine, women, and song, with Quiroga telling bad jokes, they're like an Argentine version of the Rat Pack, in their own humbler version of the Sands in Las Vegas.

"The thing about this house is that it has identity," Quiroga asserts. "Argentine identity cien por ciento [one hundred percent]. You know why? Because if I go to a Chinese restaurant, I want to eat Chinese food, in a Chinese dining room, and listen to Chinese music. And if an Argentine comes out and starts singing in Chinese, I don't think it would be very good. So I make sure that everyone who works here is Argentine, and everything we do here is authentically born in our country. I would never come out and sing any song from a country that wasn't mine." He gets up to point out an Argentine flag in a glass case, which is for sale along with bottles of wine from Mendoza and packages of mate leaves. The only thing in the restaurant that is not completely authentic, Quiroga acknowledges, is the meat. The steaks are from Nebraska. Because of a historic case of hoof and mouth disease in Argentina, Argentine beef has not legally been imported into this country since before 1930.

While Quiroga doesn't mind cashing in on the current tango hype, the atmosphere at his restaurant is not one of fancy dancers or fashion seekers. Gaucho's Cafe has a populist feel that evokes tango's working-class roots rather than its sexy cinematic image. The same people, mostly Argentines and Cuban Americans, show up every weekend.

On this evening, a Tuesday, Perez is on the dance floor, as is Quiroga's daughter, Jimena, a pretty brunette with a Kate Moss figure. Jimena works as a waitress in the restaurant, but she is also Perez's teaching assistant. At the moment, she is trying to maneuver a rather uncoordinated young man across the dance floor. He keeps tripping over her feet.

Perez is having more success with his partner, who is easily swiveling her hips so that her foot, dangling from her bent leg, swings in and out between his legs. Their foreheads are touching, but their bodies remain about six inches apart, as the couple walks backward across the floor, then lurches forward again.

Later, taking a break, the instructor is eager to offer the secret to his success with his pupils. "I'm a guy who, when I dance, I make the women stand out," he confides, whispering. "A lot of teachers show off, but I want to show them off."

At a long table in the middle of the room, Ricardo Fantasio, one of the restaurant's regulars, sits with his family. His eleven-year-old granddaughter and nine-year-old grandson are taking lessons from Perez. Fantasio, a dapper gentleman with slicked-back hair and a mustache, takes out a duffel bag. He has brought his bandoneon. This one is varnished wood, not lacquered, and is slightly different than the one Barrios plays. A metal plaque on one end reads Bandonion in ornate lettering. Elsewhere, it is inscribed Alfred Band.

A retired magician and maker of magic tricks, Fantasio got the instrument from a friend who collects old jukeboxes. The bandoneon had come in a shipment of used jukeboxes and gum machines from the Midwest. Fantasio traded a book for it. He opens a folder that contains what little documentation he's been able to compile on the bandoneon. He believes that Alfred Band must have been a brother or son of Heinrich Band, and that the instrument was one of the first bandoneons, dating back to around 1860. It's an awe-inspiring sight for a tango fan. Jimena's dance student comes over to take a look, and his mouth hangs open. Fantasio slips his hands into the straps and moves the bellows in and out, and the bandoneon moans. Then he puts his little piece of history back in the bag.

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