BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — As a sold-out crowd in Buenos Aires' historic opera house erupted in applause, veteran tango singer Virginia Luque took the stage backed by some of her country's greatest musicians.
The applause trailed off, and a few flirtatious whistles rang out. The 78-year-old was used to such attention, having starred in nearly two dozen tango-themed movies since the 1940s.
Nonetheless, Luque looked moved by the response and purred back to her invisible admirers, "Todavia, puedo." "I still can." She and the rest of the band went on to prove just that during an epic rendition of the tango classic "Buenos Aires Song."
Since forming five years ago, this super-group of tango legends called the Cafe de los Maestros has shown the world that its musical powers remain as potent as ever as its members passionately play the long-lost hits of tango's golden era.
Several of the maestros, such as Luque, came out of retirement to join the project, which culminated in the August 2006 performance at the Teatro Colon. With some members already in their 90s, a few of the maestros have died since joining the group.
Their work is featured in an award-winning double album and a just-released documentary that's won accolades at film festivals around the world. Many have compared the project to the veteran Cuban salsa group the Buena Vista Social Club, which also was the subject of an album and a documentary.
Musician Gustavo Mozzi, who helped produce the Argentine record, said the Cafe de los Maestros wasn't just about "rescuing" the genre's classic voices but also about showing off its continued vitality. About a dozen of the maestros did just that last month at a well-received performance in the historic Salle Pleyel theater in Paris.
"This wasn't a melancholic or nostalgic project," Mozzi said. "It's a vital work that's about this music's roots but is also thinking about the future of the genre."
For violinist Fernando Suarez Paz and the other maestros, however, the project was a bittersweet affair. Many of them hadn't seen each other in decades and were conscious that this could be their last time working together, they said.
"This is paying homage to these people not when they've already died but while they're still here," said Suarez Paz, 67, who's played with luminaries such as tango composers Astor Piazzolla and Jose Libertella. "We want to enjoy them in the last years of their lives."
The group was the brainchild of Gustavo Santaolalla, the California-based, Argentine-born musician who's found international success since leaving his home country in 1978. He's won two best soundtrack Academy Awards and has produced the albums of some of Latin America's biggest stars.
In starting the Cafe de los Maestros, Santaolalla wanted to capture the allure of tango during the mythical 1940s and 1950s, when Juan Peron was the president and the music was the country's most popular genre.
Santaolalla recruited Buenos Aires-based Mozzi to help out, and the two went looking for the musicians behind those classic songs, in Argentina and in the Uruguayan capital of Montevideo across the River Plate.
They found a hall of fame of tango stars, such as legendary player Leopoldo Federico, who wrote some of tango's greatest songs but hadn't performed regularly onstage in decades.
To honor the music's African roots, Mozzi and Santaolalla invited Uruguayan singer Lagrima Rios into the studio, a black musician who sings to tango and to the percussive, Uruguayan genre candombe.
"We wanted to rescue the voices that were the founders of tango and were fundamental to the story of this genre," Mozzi said.
The pair also sought to revive the genre's most beloved tunes, many of which were long lost and available only on scratchy vinyl recordings.
They asked conductor and piano player Osvaldo Requena to transcribe nearly two dozen songs from the old records, a task that consumed endless hours.
"Some of this music hadn't been played in a long time," Requena said. "It was like remembering a system of life that's not there anymore and friends who are no longer with us."
Even as the Cafe de los Maestros worked to rescue the history, more of it was disappearing.
Rios and two other maestros passed away after the group finished recording in 2004. The Teatro Colon, one of the world's greatest opera houses, closed indefinitely for renovations shortly after the group performed there.
That sense of loss, however, seemed to feed the musicians, Suarez Paz said.
"Tango isn't happy music," he said. "It comes from melancholy."
For the film's director, Miguel Kohan, watching the maestros at work conjured images of a lost world unknown to most Argentines — including himself — of tango orchestras broadcast by radio across Buenos Aires and of giant tango clubs crowded with dancing couples.
The film, which doesn't yet have a U.S. release date but is scheduled to open in the United Kingdom, France, Japan, Brazil and elsewhere, depicts that world through old photos and clips and tales told by the maestros as they walk the streets of the Argentine capital. And, of course, the songs live there, with their tales of doomed tango dancers, Carnaval revelers and cafe intrigues.
"Tango has its own cultural system, with its own codes and its own universe," Kohan aid. "It was a discovery, or a rediscovery for me, and I feel privileged to have been there."
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