Published at Berkeleyside.com on 05/17/2013

No musical style is as inextricably linked to a particular city as tango is to Buenos Aires. So what happens when you take one of tango’s most acclaimed vocalists and plop her down in the Bay Area? For María Volonté, the result is a burst of inspiration, as she forges ties with some of the region’s finest jazz and Latin American musicians. Which isn’t to say that she’s cut her ties to Argentina. Volonté performs Sunday at the Garden Gate Creativity Center on Claremont Avenue in Berkeley, an early stop on her Wapas tour with Mavi Díaz, the founder of the seminal 1980s all-female Argentine pop band Viudas e Hijas de Roque Enroll. While steeped in different traditions, both women are intensely passionate performers who share a rare gift for self-revelation and playful self-mockery.

Accompanying themselves on guitar, they’ll perform together and separately, playing original material and exploring classic songs by grandes mujeres Violeta Parra, Chabuca Granda and Tita Merello. Volonté’s regular musical partner, harmonica player Kevin Footer, will also join the proceedings (a particularly apt accompanist as Díaz’s father is the late great Argentine harmonica maestro Hugo Díaz).

Mavi Díaz, founder of the 1980s all-female Argentine pop band Viudas e Hijas de Roque Enroll. “Mavi comes from musical royalty,” says Volonté, who’s now based in San Francisco. “Her father was admired all over the world, for his jazz approach to playing tango and Argentine folk music. And she’s a force of nature. When she was 19 or 20 she invented this pop group of girls, very talented musicians, full of wit and social criticism when democracy was coming back in early 1980s, and very quickly they sold half a million records.”

Judging from the video available on YouTube, Viudas e Hijas sounds like confectionary pop laced with a wicked dose of satire. Looking to spread her wings, Díaz earned an international following through her work as a songwriter and producer while based in Madrid, London and New York. In recent years Díaz returned to Argentina and launched an all-womenfolk-rock band “Mavi Díaz and Las Folkies.

The tour reflects Díaz and Volonté’s love of word play. Wapas comes from the multiple meanings of the Spanish word guapa. In Spain, guapa refers to an attractive woman, while in Argentina guapo means tough and street smart. They embrace both identities, and together they’re celebrating the great women songwriters and performers who set the stage for them, from Peruvian folklorist Chabuca Granda to fado queen Amalia Rodrigues.

“Mavi knows the roots of folk music, especially gato and chacarera, but she also has an instinct for pop hits, with all the charge and spirit of pop music,” Volonté says. “I come more from tango, but we have so much in common. There’s this sense of exploration, an openness to experimentation when you encounter other people and embrace the work of other artists. The tour is a natural consequence of the way we look at art.”

Volonté’s eagerness to find inspiration outside the sometimes tightly defined bounds of tango has been evident since she first performed in the Bay Area in 2004 with bebop piano master Larry Vuckovich (to whom she was introduced by globe-trotting Oakland journalist Reese Erlich). Since settling in the Bay Area a few years later, she’s collaborated with some of the region’s most creative artists, including percussionist John Santos, pianist/keyboardist Dave Mathews (now a member of Santana) and Venezuelan-born cuatro master Jacqueline Rago. These days she’s calling her sound world tango, a reflection of her music’s evolution since moving to the Bay Area.

“This part of the world connects you with other possibilities,” Volonté says. “It’s a center of so many things.”

Volonté has been a leading figure on the Buenos Aires scene since her 1996 debut recording Tango y Otras Pasiones (tango and other passions), which was immediately recognized as a landmark and named by a major Buenos Aires newspaper as one of the top 100 tango recordings of all time. Her third CD, Fuimos (we were), was nominated for a Latin Grammy and won her the 2004 Gardel Prize for top female tango vocalist, Argentina’s highest musical award (named after the legendary tango singer Carlos Gardel).

Historically, the tango establishment of Buenos Aires has been resistant to innovation. When composer and bandoneon master Astor Piazzolla launched the nuevo tango movement in the mid-1950s, the music’s traditionalist old guard didn’t take kindly to the upstart. A common saying on the streets of Buenos Aires, “In Argentina everything may change, except the tango,” captures the way the style is seen as an essential expression of the Argentine soul.

These days there are lots of young musicians blending tango with techno beats. But it’s rare to find an artist advancing the form who is so deeply steeped in tango’s fearless embrace of love, obsession and loss. More recently, her albums Yo Soy Maria and Sudestada soften tango’s jagged edges with lilting bossa nova rhythms and lush jazz harmonies. And while she positively revels in the music’s erotic power, she also recognizes its melodramatic sensibility, often covering Tom Lehrer’s hilarious parody “The Masochism Tango.”

“We have this incredible example that Astor Piazzolla gave to all of us,” Volonté says. “Knowing perfectly well the roots, codes and details that make this music what it is, he decided to go after something different, and now Piazzolla is the synonyn for successful tango music. As an artist, there’s the right to experiment and innovate and play with the tradition. At the same time, you still feel free to go back and nurish those roots with the water of your country.”

Andrew Gilbert, whose Berkeleyside music column appears every Thursday, also covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley.