The music man of Villa Urquiza
By Alberto Paz and Valorie Hart
Copyright (c) 1997, Planet Tango. All Rights Reserved
Couples, mostly in their senior citizen years move with an attitude of having been there before. They take a place on the dance floor, they proceed to embrace, and they begin to move through paths that seem very familiar to them. Younger dancers, out of respect for the elder, wait until the first flow takes over the floor before entering themselves to jockey for a place. As the music progresses, the multitude of shoulders and heads seem to move ever so orderly, yet showing a disconcerting unpredictability as to where they will move next. When the music ends, everybody stops at the last beat. Soon another song plays but nobody moves, except to discreetly glance at the people around them or to engage in private small talk with each other. Suddenly as on cue the human mass begins to move around, forming circular human layers that cover the entire dance floor in the shape of the rings of an onion.
Those who pay attention see this ritual repeated three or four times until a total different musical melody seems to sweep the dancers off the floor. An invisible curtain has ended the tango act in four songs. If you happen to be at Club Sunderland on a Saturday night, you will hear a voice through the loudspeakers thanking the dancers, “Gracias señores bailarines!”
It is sixty year old Felix Picherna, the dean of deejays in Buenos Aires. For the last ten years he has enjoyed the bonanza the Argentine tango has brought to Buenos Aires, becoming a very well respected and popular “musicalizador.” We have been followed him for a couple of weeks before we asked him for an interview. “Meet me for lunch at Sunderland,” the voice on the phone says. “I eat there every day,” he adds, “I get there by 1 pm.”
Crossing Buenos Aires in an automobile during lunch time can last a lunch time… It’s 2 pm when we finally arrive at picturesque Club Sunderland in Villa Urquiza. The lunch crowd in the dining room looks like the whole neighborhood is there to eat. Red sweater, eagle eyes, Picherna spots us from a pay phone in one corner of the ample room and points to a table. We take our seats and a series of exchanges take place between our host and the waiter. A few minutes later the table is styled with red wine bottles, sparkling mineral water, and fresh bread. The air fills with the scent of T-bone steaks, and heaps of crisp and colorful salad contribute to the mouth watering experience. Topping it off “papas fritas,” the Argentine version of french fries.
Felix Picherna wanted to be a telegraph operator. He was 14 and soon found out that his chosen vocation did not have much of a future. He then turned to electronics. Later he worked on the first black and white TV sets just beginning to become popular in Argentina. Those who may laugh at the notion of tango being a way of life would be baffled to hear Picherna say that his life is a tango.
At age 8 he used to sing Remembranzas. By age 14 he could hum all 900 tangos from Gardel’s repertoire. He remembers the “conventillos,” tenements that lined up what is today Avenida 9 de julio where he grew up. In the years 1942-43, one could be nurtured by the tango because life was a tango. He sold newspapers and magazines along Calle Corrientes earning enough to buy a “cafe con leche,” the hot milk with a shot of coffee breakfast for poor kids. “Every 100 meters there was a tango place,” he says. “I realize now that I saw the Miguel Calo orchestra, the Roberto Firpo quartet. I heard Fiorentino sing with the Jose Basso orchestra.” He witnessed the first presentation in public as a soloist of recently deceased tango crooner Alberto Moran at Cafe Nacional. Without realizing it, he may have sold newspapers to Juan D’Arienzo and Anibal Troilo.
He earned first salary at age 11 working as an extra in a play at Teatro Colon. One day, as he juggled a ball outside the theater, the manager sent him out to buy cigarettes for a generous tipper. Later he found out that the generous tipper was none other than tenor Beniamino Gigli.
His tango learning began at age 15 at Club Pinocho practicing with other men. In those days women were not allowed to socialize and practice with the men. He learned to dance tango, milonga, vals and jazz. With another kid, they began to recognize the sounds of different orchestras and to memorize the titles. He claims to be able to recognize 3,500 tangos in his head.
Gardel marked an entire period to the youngsters of his time. Gardel was a mystery. His life, the way he was, the way he dressed and the way he sang. It is hard to explain. Life in the conventillos was a reflection of the tangos that Gardel sang. The minas, percantas, pungas (women, prostitutes, pickpockets) were ever present in his life. That’s why he never took the easy way out of vices and temptations, except perhaps for the cigarettes that were very appealing to the young kids hia age.
At age 23 he was asked to DJ at Club Viento Norte in Villa Urquiza. He had already experienced some sensational deejaying at Club Sabores in Villa del Parque. He never saw the face of that DJ but the music he danced to at Villa Sabores can’t be matched, except that modern technology affords a better sound quality. Later on, he started dating, got married and raised a family. He reminisces the pleasure of visiting Miami after his family had raked in a lot of money during the ‘sweet money’ period. Upon his return from Miami, he soon encountered difficulties at home and ended separating from his wife. He faced a new way of life, and for a variety of reasons he decided to dedicate his work to playing music for dancing.
He resorted to the knowledge and talent from his younger years and began to try his fortune as a deejay. Soon if a hundred people were where Picherna played music one night, then 150 would show up the next Saturday.
Through the tango he restructured his life both financially and sentimentally. To this day, he can’t get started in the morning if he does not listen to tangos. “It’s the kind of addiction you get from ‘falopa’,” he smiles using the jargon word for recreational drugs. His experience has become very important these days because there are a lot of youngsters who are dancing tango. He begins to notice that gradually young and older generations people alike stop him after the milonga to praise his music selection. Through the years he draws from his experience and now at age 60 he tries harder than ever to be the best deejay there is.
One of his dreams is acquiring the latest high tech sound equipment and to try to get the 3,500 tangos he carries in his head on CDs. The country’s economy hinders his wishes. About 20% of the downtown clubs have acceptable sound systems. Many times Picherna, who doesn’t own a car, rides the bus with a briefcase full of cassettes and his own cassette player which he uses to enhance the delivery of the music. He makes a point to single out Club Almagro and DJ Horacio Godoy who works with very modern equipment.
For a man riding the wave of popularity, rather than listening to himself talk, Picherna is curious about the state of the tango abroad. He wants to know whether in the USA there is a revisionism of tango, the way it is happening in Buenos Aires, where 18-25 years old are coming out to join the very old. He remind us that a couple of generations were lost to the tango. He wants to know if the dancers in North America are mostly Latinos with an Anglo minority. He gets taken aback when we say that Hispanics like the sentimental aspect of the tango song and are more interested in what food will be served rather than who’s the deejay at the milongas.
He is even more perplexed to hear that the great majority of Americans who are into tango, are for the most part dancers. He clarifies that there is no racial undertone intended and says, “The Anglo dancers tend to take things more seriously but although they approach the tango with passion, they still use the Latin feeling as a point of reference.”
He’s also intrigued by the Europeans that come to Buenos Aires. “They are very serious. They know the date of the first recording of Mala junta, the first one that Pugliese recorded. I hear Mala junta, I dance to it, but heck, what do I know about the date it was recorded by Pugliese,” he concludes.
It comes as no surprise to him that some foreigners get bored quickly with the younger music groups that travel abroad. Obviously it is a thrill to hear a young man playing the bandoneon, or to hear the old sound of the flute, but the novelty stops soon when the promotional hype attempts to define some of these groups as “heirs” of the legendary musicians of the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. Most of the European and American dancers have done all their training and have walked their miles to the sounds of the best recordings of Troilo, Tanturi, Di Sarli, Pugliese, and many other giants of the music.
“Indeed,” he nods, “I’ve heard veteran dancers say, let’s take an orchestra, D’Agostino with Vargas for example, that everybody likes. Perhaps the rhythm was not very danceable but it fulfilled the desires of the dancers. If D’Agostino and Vargas were alive today in 1997. If they had the same musicians, the same instruments, they couldn’t record Tres esquinas the way they did it 50 years ago. Because there is something missing, I’m not sure if foreigners can understand this. The tramway no longer runs, the Lugones street where Sunderland is located at, was a dirt road in those days, the musicians had things with which to get motivated. What motivates them today? A car racing at 200 km/h? It’s good that all that existed. It was quite an era. It’s like Beethoven’s Fifth, it happened once and forever. What happened in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s with the tango, was a once in a lifetime happening, and it will never happen again. We are lucky because everything got recorded and today we can enjoy it all. The 1941 Troilo orchestra for example. The Americans have not been able to recreate an orchestra like Benny Goodman’s. There has been only one Louis Armstrong. Where did they get their motivation from? That is my humble opinion.”
More and more foreign visitors in Buenos Aires had begun to recognize his voice, his words of appreciation after a tanda, but above all, they are appreciating the creativity of a man who is in charge of getting hundreds and hundreds of very demanding dancers onto the dance floor night after night. His musical delivery is not predictable, his selections are not played in an expected order and somehow he is like an artist creating on the canvas of the dance floor. Showing a genuine sense of modesty, he acknowledges the compliment. Saving the considerable distances, he suggests, it’s like when Gardel sang or Maradona improvised a play. I improvise with the music on the spot based on what my fantasy of life expresses at a particular moment.
He claims to remember up to 3,500 titles in his head, a gift he feels very fortunate to have because, for example, he will remember from our conversation that I like Tanturi with Ortega del Cerro (who was Tanturi’s first singer) and the next time I’m in Buenos Aires he’ll play Tanturi with Ortega del Cerro for me.
This is the spark he carries over from his childhood when being very active and mentally alert allowed him to earn a living by gaining the sympathy of the people. I wish I would have used that talent for financial gain, he admits, but God gave me something better instead. He refers to his health. In ten years of activity he has never missed a day of work, working almost every day of the week. I thank God for a hearty health, he repeats very seriously. Of course at age 60, his eyesight and his stamina are not as good as they were many years back, but he continues to provide the basic element for the enjoyment of the dancing crowd: the music.
He has been thanking the dancers at the end of every tanda ever since a very hot summer night, seven or eight years ago when the unbearable heat boosted the attendance at an outdoor milonga at Club Estudiantes del Norte, in the neighborhood known as Saavedra, not too far from Villa Urquiza. That night he played music for his largest crowd ever, 508 persons. During the course of the evening he noticed the presence of a very young, good looking and already extraordinary dancer. He then made the following announcement: Tonight, we’re honored to have the presence of a great tango dancer at Club Estudiantes del Norte. Making his triumphal appearance here is the Blue Prince, Miguel Angel Zotto. Thank you very much señores milongueros! A lady approached him and reminded him that the gentlemen dancers had partners and that she was one of them. He then rephrased the salutation that has become his trademark to this day: Thank you very much dancing couples!
He jokes about sometimes attempting to greet French and German visitors in their language but his vocabulary is very limited. He reaffirms here his admiration for Carlos Gardel, who sang tango Los Indios from Francisco Canaro in Guarani, the indigenous language of Paraguay. The versatility of Gardel’s talent was also shown in the vals Perfumes de Oriente, sung in the Arabic tongue, Hija de Japonesita in Japanese, and of course many regional songs from the Argentine folklore. For Felix Picherna, the image of Gardel is frozen at a time when the 30 year old singer was singing all the tangos we hear today, accompanied by just two guitar players. Ventanita de arrabal for example is one of the greatest legacies of the Gardel who later became commercially popular around the world.
This conversation is taking place while we partake of a very traditional ritual among Argentines. We’re having a leisurely lunch at Club Sunderland, and the sizzling steaks brought by the waiter momentarily become the subject of our conversation. Argentines are very proud of the freshness, tenderness and flavor of their meat, and Picherna is curious about the dietary habits of Californians. He thinks that what makes the USA a great country is the use of two words: United States. Unity creates strength, says a very popular refrain. Jose Hernandez immortalized the thought in his classic book Martin Fierro: may the brothers be united because that is the fundamental law, since lacking unity will lead them to be devoured by outsiders. A toast for unity and for the great future of Argentina closes the short digression.
Carlos Di Sarli is his favorite orchestra. Felix Picherna repeats what he has said on television and often at Confiteria Ideal. Pugliese was a carbon copy of Julio De Caro. What happened is that the pupil transcended the teacher with a different set of technical elements not available in the ‘20s. Troilo is akin to Julio De Caro. D’Arienzo before 1935 was one of a bunch of neighborhood orchestras. When a young kid named Rodolfo Biagi joined D’Arienzo at the piano, there was a dramatic change in the sound of the orchestra that brought a new life into the tango dance. Another orchestra dubbed the All Stars owed its success to the existence of a 23 year old bohemian known as the Chopin of tango , pianist Osmar Maderna. Without him Miguel Calo would not have reached the popularity he has enjoyed.
What happened with Di Sarli? Perhaps this is a very personal opinion but Picherna considers that Di Sarli did not need to imitate anybody. He created his own school. His personality is still the subject of controversy today. Di Sarli was a perfectionist that could not admit any mistakes. His style was unique although it is important to remember that Di Sarli was a pianist of the original 1920’s orchestra of Osvaldo Fresedo that traveled to the United States. So there is a certain resemblance between Osvaldo Fresedo with Di Sarli on piano and the Carlos Di Sarli that became a success after 1940 with his own orchestra.
The subject pops in and out many times as we jump from subject to subject in the same delightful way as we attack the juicy steaks and crisp papa fritas generously washed down with a 1994 Cabernet Savignon (from the province of Mendoza, of course). Valorie wants to know what Felix’s taste is for contemporary music. Picherna hesitates and attempts to draw an analogy with soccer, the other Argentine passion. After seeing Pele and Maradona what else can anyone expect? A bionic man?
The answer is obvious: there is not much today in terms of orchestras that match or rival the giants of yesterday. “There has been a plateau for imagination and creativity, everything has basically been done in this world,” he says, although he admits that the reach for space and the exploration of other galaxies opens a whole new dimension in knowledge and imagination. That is why he considers that the young should not be told that everything is already done, because they merit encouragement.
And what about Astor Piazzolla?
He quickly volunteers that he is a fanatic of Piazzolla. But for a milonga he is worthless. “Piazzolla was a revolutionary of the tango as an art form,” he asserts. With his work, there is nothing left to be done in this century. He cautions that this kind of conversation is meant for mature individuals and not for young people who may get depressed very easily with this line of reasoning. “Take Pedro Maffia for example. His merit is that he invented a way to play the bandoneon when nobody else did it that way. People who learn today are doing so over existing foundations. Imitation prevails. After 20 years of Gardel’s death, Horacio Deval surfaced as his perfect imitator. If you listened to Deval’s El dia que me quieras from a block away, you would say that is Gardel. Yet, Deval did not create anything, but just imitated.”
Considering that the uncanny creativity of the tango players stopped a while back, then what is the future of tango music? It may sound depressing but in many ways it’s the same as waiting for another Gardel to be born, he responds philosophically. Nowadays many like to dance with recordings of second rate orchestras, namely Lucio Demare, Ricardo Malerva, Enrique Rodriguez, who in their time couldn’t compete with the Puglieses, the Troilos and the Di Sarlis. Faced with this competition, Enrique Rodriguez ended up playing pasodobles and fox trots. Yet, there is a tango, Llorar por una mujer (To cry for a woman), that vocalist Armando Moreno sung with the orchestra of Enrique Rodriguez. It touches the ladies very deeply in a very special way. Moreno had a very melodious voice and Picherna has to play it three or four times at least at Confiteria Ideal, a sort of modern day Lonely Hearts Club for locals and tourists.
For many of us, a tango is a tango is a tango and an orchestra is an orchestra, and so on. For those who lived the decades of the 40s and 50s, like Picherna, the memory of the great tango wars of the 1920s is still very fresh. There is a dark cloud that surrounds the controversy among the traditionalists who followed Canaro and the innovators who admired De Caro. Francisco Canaro was not like Julio De Caro who had a defined musical line and was recognized as a musician. Canaro was a merchant of tango known for his visits to the long line of bars along the port of Buenos Aires, where the Polish, Slavics and German immigrants gathered to feel sorry for themselves. Most of these immigrants, refugees from the European wars, could write a tango like Sentimiento gaucho after a couple of drinks and sell it to Canaro for a bottle of cheap wine.
“Francisco Canaro did not follow a particular musical line,” says Picherna, “he used his increasing wealth to take advantage of the artistic talent in which many destitute immigrants could cry a lost love or a painful separation. This is not to take away the merits of the Canaro orchestra with young Di Cico on bandoneon and Mariano Mores on piano.”
Felix Picherna has been itching to tell us more about his idol Carlos Di Sarli and finally we manage to focus the conversation on the Lord of Tango. “Carlos Di Sarli was a creator of a very personal style. He had a great personality with a very controversial character. He was authoritarian, a sort of a Hitler-like leader with no tolerance for failure.” One night, about 7 years ago at Club Sunderland, somebody approached Picherna and asked him to play some Di Sarli recordings because Di Sarli’s son was present that night. Like most DJs worth their tanda, Picherna controlled his exasperation for being asked to do the obvious, prepared a tanda of classics, El cabure, A la gran muñeca, Organito de la tarde and Nobleza de arrabal, and went to greet Di Sarli’s son, whom he noticed was not a dancer. He was a mature individual with glasses, Picherna recalls.
– How do you like your father’s recordings?
-The recordings of my father are formidable.
– What do you think about your father?
– Don’t talk to me about my father, he was an s.o.b. Talk to me about Di Sarli, the director and about his orchestra.
Di Sarli disbanded his orchestra from 1948 to 1951 for reasons that nobody really knows. In 1951 he reassembled an orchestra. Picherna was only fourteen but he remembers that night vividly. The master of ceremonies was legendary radio announcer Antonio Carrizo. He introduced Di Sarli’s first theme, Carlos Di Sarli’s first interpretation on Radio El Mundo will be Salvador Felipeti’s Los 33 orientales, and teenager Felix got goose bumps. Di Sarli gave it all he had. The successful run on Radio El Mundo lasted 3 years. One day his musicians influenced by the activism of the Peronist labor unions went on strike. It’s not clear whether the strike was triggered by low wages or by the very difficult personality of Carlos Di Sarli as an employer. It happened then that five violinists from the Teatro Colon approached Di Sarli offering their services and suggesting that the director contract four bandoneon players. From this period, Di Sarli recorded 30-40 Tangos from his initial period including the classic Bahia Blanca using the five best violinists from the Teatro Colon, which was a real feat.
We wanted to know Picherna’s preferences in dancers. He draws another soccer analogy. Pele and Maradona were the greatest of the great. Yet, players today can probably run circles around the monsters of yesterday. Enough said. For a man with very traditional viewpoints, he surprises us with very progressive positions.
He is one of the first DJs who started using a tanda to highlight a parade of aces, Ronda de Ases, he calls it. He’s proud to say that hotshot DJ Horacio Godoy has adopted and improved on the idea, mixing different orchestras with similar styles in a given tanda. But he knows that there are places where his progressive thinking is not accepted. He would do anything to be 25 again. On this particular Friday night, April 24, 1997, in the upstairs lounge of Club Sunderland, an elite group of tango dancers will gather as they do with a religious fervor every week. Among them, names familiar to the world like Jose Vasquez Lampazo and Gerardo Portalea (when El negro stands up to the tune of Los 33 orientales, every single dancer of the newer generation folds). In spite of being close in age with these great dancers, Picherna finds it difficult to modify certain traditions which are followed religiously by these dancers. Like, for example, keeping the “purity” of a tanda, that is a demand that all tangos be of the same interpreter and style. Sometimes Picherna likes to mix Di Sarli with Florindo Sassone (very similar styles), but this particular group of dancers will not accept that. When it comes to milongas, there are certain liberties that he will indulge in, mixing milongas by D’Arienzo and Canaro. But the traditionalist old timers won’t admit “mistakes”, all four tangos of a tanda must be by the same orchestra and with the same style.
In his concept of a Ronda de Ases tanda, he can mix Pugliese with Pedro Laurenz because they are very close in style and arrangements. The younger set in Palermo accepts Picherna’s indiscretions: Amurado by Pugliese, Por que razon by D’Arienzo with Carlos Polito on piano and De puro guapo by Laurenz. He is grateful that the younger dancers will even dance to the Tubatango, while he knows that Portalea would shoot him and throw him out the window if he would dare to do that, upstairs at Sunderland.
The three hour almuerzo comes to an end and we leave with a full stomach and a happy heart. Our souls are richer with the experience of having walked around the memory of a man who chooses to play the music that makes people want to dance. He won’t play Adios Nonino at a milonga but he will play La bordona by Pugliese right after a Ronda de Ases with Calo, De Angelis and Tanturi. By sheer coincidence the sound of Pugliese’s rendition of Zum comes through the noisy comedor. He proclaims with enthusiasm. “What an occasion to have another toast!”