Cuarteto Tanguero’s CD Guapeando
Billboard Top 10 duo Ben & Winnie approaches tango like no one else. Distilling the raw energy of a full tango orchestra into intimate duo arrangements for Ben’s bandoneon and Winnie’s piano, they add their own unique arrangements of traditional pieces to create music that’s both connecting and inspiring – and they do it barefoot. For Ben & Winnie, tango isn’t just a style but a vehicle to galvanize social change, initiate climate action, and build social awareness.
The two originally began performing together as members of Cuarteto Tanguero before deciding to branch out on their own and rebrand as a duo. Together, they tour extensively, performing regularly at milongas and tango festivals around the world. Ben & Winnie always give their all when they play for dancers and listeners — those who can come to their shows, as well as those who cannot. With a mission to make tango accessible and share artistic expression with disenfranchised audiences, the duo regularly puts on voluntary shows and educational workshops at prisons, schools, hospitals, dementia homes and assisted living facilities.
Bandoneonist Ben Bogart is a proud graduate of the Berklee College of Music (USA) and the prestigious Orquesta Escuela de Tango Emilio Balcarce (Argentina). Living in Argentina for many years, he has performed with the best in the field: Nestor Marconi, Rodolfo Mederos, Carlos Lazarri, and Marcos Madrigal. As a soloist, Ben has the full range of performance experiences, from opera, choir, and orchestra to string quartet settings.
Pianist and composer Winnie Cheung enjoyed her musical start as a pianist at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts. Some years of adventurous traveling later, she settled with composition/piano degrees from both the University of Chicago (B.A.) and the Eastman School of Music (M.M./D.M.A.). After studying with Augusta Read Thomas, John Eaton and many others, Winnie has had her voice heard through her compositions and piano playing in many parts of the world. With tango, she is finally able to combine and express all of who she is: a global musician with the power to integrate, and with Ben Bogart, “to make the world a better place, one tango at a time.”
The Barefoot Bandoneonista: Ben Bogart and Winnie Cheung take audiences on a journey to the heart of tango while treading lightly on the earth.
Bandoneon player Ben Bogart and pianist Winnie Cheung explore the expressive range of tango music on their Tiny Footprint Tango Tour. “When we take the stage, our job is to transport you to a different place: wherever ‘tango’ is for you,” Winnie explains. The duo performs pieces from tango’s formative years in Argentina in the 1920s and the later “Big Tango” sound of the Golden Age. For all that history, tango is also a contemporary world art, so the duo is just as likely to play pieces composed last year.
As their music takes listeners to times and places where tango rhythms rule, Ben and Winnie lead the way barefoot. Performing shoeless is one of the many little choices that Ben and Winnie have made on the Tiny Footprint Tango Tour to spark conversations on big issues. “As musicians, tango is our voice. It’s the tool we have to address the issues that are most important to us,” explains Ben. “And right now, that is climate change.” From collecting for carbon emission offsets instead of putting out a tip jar, to complementing major tour dates with outreach performances in non-traditional settings like retirement homes, Ben and Winnie are committed to making tiny footprints that add up. “We’re seeding our performances with nudges and conversation starters rather than preaching,” says Winnie. “Music, especially a global art form like tango, reaches people in a way that words can’t. We hope that noticing all the choices we make on stage will inspire audiences to think about the little choices they make that help or harm the people and the world around them.”
Two barefoot performers may leave tiny footprints, but the sound the duo creates together is powerful, and true to tango’s roots. “It’s popular music in the original sense of the word,” Winnie elaborates. “It’s the music that working people played after hours and on the weekend, any place they could and in any combination from a single musician to a large orchestra.” Ben plays melodies and chords on his bandoneon, the accordion-like instrument that gives voice to Argentine tango’s melancholy mood. Meanwhile, Winnie’s piano is the percussion section providing tango’s characteristic, insistent rhythm—there are no drums in the traditional tango sound.
Tango became a calling for Ben and Winnie after they each explored other musical genres. Ben trained as a jazz musician, studying saxophone and touring professionally, but he found tango culture increasingly fascinating. First, tango dance was just a hobby, then he found himself running a tango studio. There a student put a bandoneon into his hands, and Ben felt the two halves of his creative life click into place. The archetypal tango instrument is capable of any kind of chord, which appealed to Ben’s experience with the complex chordal structures of jazz. As he filled the bandoneon’s accordion-like bellows with air, Ben realized that, like the saxophone, it makes expressive music by passing “breath” over reeds.
Ben has been committed to tango music ever since, spending years in Argentina studying with masters of the living tradition. “In Argentina, it was so easy to find information and have conversations about the bandoneon and tango,” Ben says. “I returned to the US to keep the conversations going. I felt I had learned enough to help others not feel isolated like I had been when I started learning the bandoneon on my own. My goal is to create great tango music, through my own performance and by helping others perform great tango music.” Winnie is quick to add, “Ben won’t say this about himself, but he was instrumental in bringing the local art form of Argentine tango music to this country and turning it into a global art form. He helped tango music catch up with the dance form, which has been loved around the world for decades.”
Ben’s zeal led to the foundation of the non-profit organization Tanguero Inc. that serves as an umbrella for many music-making projects: for the current duo’s tour, the ensemble project Cuarteto Tanguero, teaching tango music one-on-one, leading annual tango workshops, publishing and distributing music. All these projects have a common mission: make the world a better place, one tango at a time. Tanguero Inc. sums it all up in one simple phrase: more tango!
It was at one of Tanguero’s summer workshops that Winnie became a convert. A classical pianist and a composer of modern music, Winnie earned a doctorate at the Eastman School of Music. The musical tradition she was trained in privileged the written score. “That tango workshop was my first exposure to a popular music tradition in which players shape the music each time it’s played, and the only rules are passed on from teacher to student. The music is alive rather than being frozen in the score.” Winnie also appreciates the different role the piano plays in tango: “In the solo and chamber classical music repertoire I had been playing, the percussive sounds that piano is capable of are rarely used. The situation is reversed in tango ensembles, where most of the piano’s role is as percussion.”
Winnie’s tango epiphany, like Ben’s, has taken her down new roads. She joined Cuarteto Tanguero, Ben’s four-piece band that has played tango music around the world, from the Louisville Tango Festival in Kentucky to stages in Taiwan, Macau, and Hong Kong. Their 2018 album Guapeando hit the top 10 on Billboard’s World Music Chart. In Cuarteto Tanguero’s early years, the group focused on exploring the history of the tango music repertoire, working with older musicians and recordings to reconstruct the lost history of tango. As Ben explains, “Argentina’s military coup in the 1950s led to stagnation and isolation of tango culture in its homeland for 30 years. Now after a period of reconstruction, re-evaluation, and re-connection with tango enthusiasts inside and outside Argentina, tango music everywhere is finally able to move on from that break in continuity.”
Ben, Winnie and their Cuarteto Tanguero comrades tapped into a rich vein of music that had long been invisible to the U.S. tango community- maybe because a particular piece didn’t make the jump from analog to digital media, or it never got distributed outside of Argentina, or it was passed from musician to musician without ever being recorded. “Now that we’ve explored that history of music-making,” Ben says, “we feel more free to focus on tango as a medium of self-expression.” And that’s where the Tiny Footprint Tango Tour takes over: with skilled musicianship and a deep respect for tango’s past, Ben and Winnie give tango music a fresh energy and a new message about the impact individual choices can make on the wellbeing of everyone.
“Tango is a heritage owned by the world,” explains Winnie, “It’s deeply Argentinean, but it can be a global art enjoyed by everyone on this planet.” Ben continues, “Originally, tango was one way that poor people in Buenos Aires reacted to dire threats to their survival. We are keeping an important strand of the musical tradition alive when we extend the contemporary conversation around tango to include positive social impacts. We may not be experiencing the same desperate economic situation, but climate change is a threat to everyone’s survival.” After a Tiny Footprint Tango Tour performance, you’ll agree that what the world needs now is more tango.