MEDELLIN, Colombia — When Latin music aficionados think of Colombia, they usually think of the Cali’s steamy salsa clubs, the drum beats of the Atlantic coast’s Cumbia or the nostalgic ballads of accordion-based Vallenato. Tango normally doesn’t make the list.
But in Medellin, a tango culture has remained so vibrant for decades that the city is widely considered to be the world’s tango capital after Buenos Aires. After Carlos Gardel, the Argentine godfather of tango, died in a plane crash in Medellin, the city cemented its obsession with tango.
Today, there are dozens of tango schools and halls and Medellin has seen its home-grown professional dancers take prizes at international tango competitions. This June, the city will kick off a world summit on tango on the anniversary of Gardel’s death — there’s also a museum in Medellin that pays homage to him.
Residents of hillside barrios sometimes turn cracked asphalt streets into a dance floor — every year, the street named after Gardel is closed off to make way for dancers to put their heels to the pavement of Medellin’s working-class barrio Manrique.
To find one of the epicenters of Medellin’s tango culture, one has to follow an otherwise dark and quiet street in Medellin toward the sounds of old-world music, clinking glasses and the murmur of laughter as they waft out the open windows of the Salon Malaga.
Inside, the occasional 20- to 30-year-old sits amid an older crowd who relish hearing the sounds of tango and bolero, watching professional dancers swiftly move their feet across the long hall, and as the night goes on, taking to the dance floor themselves.
The Salon Malaga is an institution of sorts, drawing a loyal crowd since opening its doors in 1957. The salon’s owner, Gustavo Arteago, has amassed an impressive collection of albums featuring tango, bolero, pasillo and bambuco. “Today, there’s more than 7,000 albums,” said Cesar Arteago, the owner’s son who now runs the popular spot. “It’s considered one of the best collections of old music in the country.”
Setting foot in Salan Malaga is like stepping back in time with patrons living fully in the moment.