Tango in Your Face: El Pulpo, New York’s Own Tango Crooner

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August 8, 2007

In the dim wine cellar of an Italian restaurant in the East Village, a man clings to the microphone, gesturing spasmodically. His face cringes, his knees seem to give way, as he pours his heart out with every sad song.

His smoky voice sings about women and other vices that can ruin a man’s life: thoroughbreds, alcohol, gambling, knife fights.

“Tango is sad music from Argentina,” El Pulpo tells his rapt audience. “Happy tangos are like Santa Claus, they don’t exist.”

Meet New York’s very own cantor de tango, Héctor Pablo Pereyra, whose friends back home nicknamed him El Pulpo (The Octopus) when he was a stage actor a long time ago.

Pereyra, 41, is an authentic product of porteño culture who longs for grimy spots like Chino’s bar in Buenos Aires, where old-timers passionately sang the saddest tangos with the ugliest voices. But he began performing after arriving in New York eight years ago.

“I started singing because I missed tango,” he says.

During an early Pulpo performance in 2001, Adam Tully, a classically trained guitarist “obsessed with tango,” was in the audience.

“He was a little bit crazy,” says Tully of that first impression. “He has a very strong artistic vision that grabbed me.” So much so that Tully brought Pereyra along as a guest singer to his 2002 Carnegie Hall debut.

Tully and Pereyra then created an ensemble which, in the tradition of tango greats like Carlos Gardel, backs the singer with nothing but guitars. The music draws on that early tradition, but Tully’s arrangements sprinkle some jazz on top. Dan Lippel on acoustic guitar and Dave Nadal on electric guitar complete the lineup.

The result is what Pereyra introduced recently as “the evil, mean, and sometimes controversial, Zvi Migdal.”

Controversial, indeed. The band is named after a Jewish criminal gang that trafficked women from Eastern Europe to Buenos Aires brothels a century ago, a delicate subject for the Argentine Jewish community.

That’s the reason the group has been barred from performing at the Argentine consulate, says Pereyra. A consulate spokeswoman said she could not comment because the Cultural Affairs officer was on vacation.

It’s not that the band endorses crime or the exploitation of women, Pereyra says. He wanted a name in line with the music’s underworld origins. “I’m not interested in telling the world the PC version of tango,” he says.

The Zvi Migdal performs Sundays at Via Della Pace restaurant at 48 E. Seventh St. The shows come with a free lesson in Argentine angst and tango philosophy, courtesy of El Pulpo. He explains tangos’ sad lyrics, reminisces about his music-loving father, cites Jorge Luis Borges, or rants against President Bush, cops and whatever he feels like.

When the music starts, Pereyra — a digital artist and video producer by day — gives a performance that’s part rock frontman, part tango crooner. “I don’t have the voice to be a traditional tango singer,” he says. “I try to pronounce the phrases, say the tango, and in that way it resonates inside me.”