Halfway through the decade of the ‘20s, the period of renovation headed by Julio De Caro, the veterans of the old guard felt the shakedown provoked by what they perceived as the transformation of the tango into “church music.” Meanwhile, the youngsters were treasuring the copies of the new arrangements, the solos, the counter melodies that emanated from the creative talents of Pedro Maffia, Julio De Caro and Francisco De Caro.Francisco Canaro and Roberto Firpo, who were the major exponents of the traditional style 2×4 hot tango of the Old Guard attempted to counteract the popularity of the new generation of trained musicians by opening up their orchestras to young talent like Cayetano Puglisi, Ciriaco Ortiz and Osvaldo Pugliese.
However, around 1924, an entrepreneur with long range vision, began to hire six piece tango ensembles, the typical orchestras modeled after Julio De Caro’s Sexteto Tipico, to provide musical background for silent movies. For the next six years, the movie houses became the cathedrals where the tango was workshiped. Lacking other sources of affordable entertainment, the working class families of Buenos Aires made these movie houses their favorite places to spend their free time. Thus, a large number of the population became exposed to the tango music of Pedro Maffia, Julio De Caro, Francisco Lomuto, Cayetano Puglisi, Osvaldo Pugliese, Elvino Vardaro and many others.
It was in one of those movie houses, that a chubby fifteen year old kid heard for the first time the mastery of the bandoneon of Pedro Maffia, not imagining then that many years later, he himself, Anibal Troilo, would be called the premier bandoneon of Buenos Aires. Troilo would later say, “before Pedro Maffia, there was nobody.”
With a solid reputation as a pianist and a composer, Osvaldo Pugliese was only eighteen when he wrote Recuerdo, the tango that many experts consider the birth certificate of the instrumental tango of greater importance in style and renovation that has ever been written. Because he was not yet of a legal age, the tango was originally registered under his father’s name, Adolfo Pugliese, who had been a flute player at the turn of the century. When Osvaldo reached the age of twenty-one, Recuerdo was published once more with his signature.
The tango was bold and advanced for its time. With a rare melody, extremely beautiful in its harmony and counterpoints, Recuerdo has a variation for bandoneon that it is very difficult to play as it is written. It requires gifted fingering, sound technique and a sense of virtuosity capable of extracting the best out of the possibilities of the music.
The sounds of Recuerdo were first heard in a cafe in the neighborhood of Villa Crespo, played by a modest quartet that was not equipped with the acceptable suitability of execution to extol its musical values. Its premiere went totally unnoticed and it was even retired from the repertoire for lack of interest by the public that frequented the establishment.
By the winter of 1925, the quartet of the bandoneonist Enrique Pollet with Emilio Marchiano and Bernardo Perrone on violins, and Osvaldo Pugliese on the piano, occupied the orchestra pit of cafe A.B.C. With that quartet’s version, Recuerdo would finally reach its true artistic relevance as the archetype of the instrumental tango.
By 1926, the quartet of Pollet changed venues and format, becoming a typical sextet of two bandoneons, two violins, Pugliese on piano and a counterbass. Recuerdo was high in the repertoire of the new orchestra and it was wildly acclaimed by both the public and the tango musicians who night after night dropped by to listen to the excellent interpretations of the Pollet sextet. The public repeatedly demanded the execution of Recuerdo, almost in every set played by the orchestra.
One night Pedro Laurenz was among the selected audience and he requested a handwritten copy of Recuerdo to bring to Julio De Caro, who received it with great enthusiasm. It is widely accepted that De Caro’s recording on November 9, 1926, is the definitive version of Recuerdo, never surpassed, only equaled by Osvaldo Pugliese himself, who in 1944 incorporated Recuerdo into the repertoire of his legendary orchestra with exactly the same instrumentation that De Caro had used eighteen years earlier. Not a single note was changed, and Pugliese even kept the temperamental tempo that De Caro had immortalized in 1926.
Sixty years later, on the stage of the Teatro Colon, towards the end of his glorious career, Osvaldo Pugliese used a new arrangement of Recuerdo when his fabulous orchestra was joined by many musicians that had played for him over a span of forty years. The arrangement and the interpretation recorded in 1986 are a musical tribute to the genius and inspiration of the late Maestro who pushed the envelope of modernization of the Argentine Tango without ever severing its roots.
Captain of the tango industry In memory of Francisco Canaro, who died on December 14, 1964
By Alberto Paz
History does not keep records about weaklings. To name Francisco Canaro is to name somebody who represents the very essence of the development and growth of the tango both as a musician and a director. Few examples of perseverance, dedication and passion for his trade are as evident as in his case.
Francisco Canaro was a promoter and an ambassador of the tango, from neighboring Uruguay and Chile to Spain, France and the United Sates. Perhaps his most important outreach was Japan where Pirincho‘s fertile compositions set the foundation for the Rising Sun Empire’s infatuation with the Argentine tango. His compositions number over five hundred titles spanning fifty years of dedicated labor to the development of the business of tango.
His legacy includes an example of constructive tenacity applied not only to the circles in which he reigned, but also to the rest of the community at large. He was a typical example of a self-made man who rose from a life of misery and poverty with an uncompromising determination. His struggle was primarily motivated by a materialistic purpose, lacking in brilliance and everlasting creativity. Somehow for him the end justified the means, but the hefty benefits resulting from his hard work also trickled down to the bohemian tango movement of which he became the undisputed captain: the fearless navigator that sailed through the troubled waters of unfair labor practices to bring the rights of authors and composers to a safe port.
His critics from the academic halls of the Argentine Tango establishment are quick to point out his lack of artistic temperament. Francisco Garcia Jimenez wrote, because of that, he (Canaro) couldn’t introduce a single note of significance in the interpretation of the music of Buenos Aires. He adhered to a familiar rhythm impressing on it an accentuated sonority.
In other words, no devoted purist would find ecstasy listening to any recording of his orchestra, but for the rest of the world Canaro’s name and sounds will be forever associated with an irresistible desire to hit the dance floor because dancers were whom Canaro played for.
Canaro wanted to be a musician, and intuitively he was one from an embryonic stage. He lacked resources, means, principles and mentors to guide him through the scholastic paths of the art of music. What he had instead, all around him, was the continuous spin that emerged from the popular harmonic sounds and cadenced dances that stuck to his ear, matched his cordial heartbeat, communicated through the lips and incited his sensitive fingers to want to join their legion of interpreters.
A rare mug shot circa 1907 when Canaro first began to make inroads into the recording industry
The rhythms danced at the dawn of the twentieth century in Argentinawere foreign by adoption, but progressively being naturalized.Waltzes, polkas, mazurkas were quickly changing their original threads to enter the vernacular prairie. The European waltz settled in Buenos Aires and became Creole. Soon the mazurkas would evolve into rancheras, and the polkas into chamames, moving deep inside the countryside.
In Buenos Airesanother dance music had been relegated and limited to an obscure underworld. It was the hybrid byproduct of the conjunction of various immigrant rhythms. It possessed the evident genius and silhouette of the city demographics. The tango, music and dance, was explicitly banned from salons and family living rooms and held in disrepute because of its association with back room illegal gambling, bordello waiting rooms, seedy bars and the irrational fear of the characters populating the dangerous empty lots of the outskirts.
This was the state of things when Francisco Canaro was born on November 26, 1888 in San Jose de Mayo, a small city of the Republica Oriental del Uruguay.
It is said that a neighbor quickly noticed the baby’s rebellious fuzz of hair and exclaimed, he looks like a ‘pirincho’ (a South American bird of the magpie family), and the nickname stuck to him for the rest of his life.What also followed was almost fifty years of uninterrupted labor for the music and the tango which set Canaro apart as one of the key men of the history of the music of Buenos Aires.
The signs of fatigue after almost sixty years of uninterrupted professional activity are evident on Canaro’s face in one of the last photographs taken of him before his death
Dodging poverty in a crowded tenement room
The Canaro family, numbering ten between immigrant parents, sisters and brothers, crossed the River Plate and moved to Buenos Aires towards the end of the nineteenth century. They struggled to make the essential ends meet, living in the extreme poverty of a tenement’s crowded room. Barely ten years old, Pirincho took to the streets as a shoe shiner and a paper boy. Entering adolescence, he first graduated to a thick brush wall painting job, and eventually to an apprentice job at an olive oil can factory. There, the dawn of his musical vocation awakened, and with the help of a friend he built a violin with wood and an empty oil can and begun to play the makeshift instrument “by ear.” With the rudimentary instrument he joined other youngsters forming minor groups with whom they entertained neighborhood parties and family reunions. As his musical ambitions continued to grow, at age eighteen he purchased his first violin, an old and beat up instrument with a sound that matched its inexpensive price and the limited technique of its player. However, this made his incipient dream about owning a real violin come true.
Cradle of thugs and tough men
The year was 1906 when he made his professional debut in a remote village far away from Buenos Aires with a trio consisting of his violin, a guitar and a mandolin. This is when he first made the decision to choose the popular music of the tango to entertain those on the dance floor. We all know now how popular and prestigious the tango would become because of his influence in rescuing it from scorn and contempt, and earning it the credential of citizen of the world. But first, young Canaro had to witness the worst spectacle of human behavior at sleazy cantinas and seedy houses of prostitution lined up along the dirt roads that dug deep into the guts of the desolate province of Buenos Aires. A rigorous childhood and the daily contact with thugs, tough guys and dangerous criminals toughened Canaro’s character. His music in the beginning didn’t pretend to please anybody’s ear, but to keep moving the swift legs of the rowdy element that made up his audience.
His adventurous spirit constantly took him to the most remote villages in the province of Buenos Aires. He spent lengthy periods with the trio playing at dances and social events. In 1908 he finally left the boondocks behind and returned to set roots in the capital district of Buenos Aires, joining trios and ensembles that competed for popular acclaim with the likes of Vicente Greco (Rodriguez Peña, El flete), Agustin Bardi (Gallo ciego, Que noche), Roberto Firpo (Alma de bohemio, El apronte) and others. He performed at the legendary cafes of the Italian quarters south of downtown by the mouth of the river, today known as La Boca. He established friendships with Eduardo Arolas, the tiger of the bandoneon (Derecho viejo, Comme il faut) and Angel Villoldo (El choclo, El porteñito).
Stepping up to the plate
From the cafes of La Boca to the garden district of Palermo, well-to-do men mixed it up with the thugs from the arrabals in their pursuit of female favors. Seeking the acceptance of one of those gangs, Canaro wrote his first composition, La barra fuerte (The tough gang), a mercifully forgotten piece that deflated his pretensions of being a composer. That did not deter him from continuing to step up to the challenge of his fellow tanguistas. With a limited education and unrefined manners, he resorted to using a resolute practical approach to test the ground where he would step on, always moving forward. The images of his initial poverty and misery drove him to seek the accumulation of money as his main priority. In that, he foresaw clearly the fortunes afforded by the tango as it captured the imagination, heart and adoration of the mass population. This was also going to be his ticket for admission to the higher strata of society where he become the tango caterer de jour.
Pirincho’s guiding law was to work; to work hard and to earn money no matter how much or how little. He’d rather be the head of a mouse than the tail of a lion. This led him to join his screeching violin to the good bandoneon sound and the inspiration of Vicente Greco. What followed was a successful enterprise that attracted multitudes to the center of the city as the duo made their way to hold court on Calle Corrientes where the tango would become synonymous of the legendary street’s name. Canaro and Greco played to the delight of the best dancers at the milongas of Salon La Argentina located on Rodriguez Peña, steps away from Calle Corrientes.
It was during this period that the record label Casa Tagini produced their first records, a milestone of sorts in tango history. Seeking a catchy slogan, Vicente Greco coined the phrase Orquesta Tipica Criolla to identify the group. This denomination, Typical Creole Orchestra, with the Creole later dropped, became the defining phrase to identify any group that interpreted Argentine tango with authenticity, the Orquesta tipica.
Eventually Canaro moved on and out from the shadow of Greco to join an intuitive pianist named Martinez in a trio that began playing at Teatro Olimpo. They soon converted it into a dance academy of tango con corte led by another legend, Benito Bianquet, better known as El Cachafaz. It was there that Martinez wrote a tango of fresh inspiration and named it Canaro as a show of appreciation to his friend and colleague. The name Canaro flying on the wings of a catchy melody became a household word. Meanwhile Pirincho continued bringing water to his windmill.
Los bailes del internado
On September 21, 1914, marking the beginning of the Spring season, the students of the Medical School called him to headline the first Baile del Internado. These were lavish balls organized by the interns of the city’s hospitals. At the fist ball held at the famous Palais de Glace, Francisco Canaro premiered his tangos El alacran ( The scorpion) and Matasano (Killer of the healthy, a humorous way to poke fun at the medical doctors). Sharing the stage, Roberto Firpo premiered El apronte (The heat or preliminary horse race). The following year Canaro presented one of his everlasting compositions, El internado (The intern) dedicated to preserve the memory of those outrageous Tango parties.
In 1916 the Bailes del Internado moved to a more ample venue, El Pabellon de las Rosas (The Roses Pavilion) located at the site where today stands the Argentine Automobil Club building on Avenida del
Libertador in the posh Barrio Norte. The pavilion was demolished after the carnaval festivities of 1929.
These were orgies of excess to the beat of the tango. Year after year the pranks got out of hand and a few days after the 1924 edition of the Bailes del Internado, a hospital administrator shot and killed an intern because of a practical joke he had been the victim of. The interns of all Buenos Aires hospitals went on strike and the yearly parties were forever suspended. Osvaldo Fresedo was the last headliner and for that would-be-historical occasion he composed and premiered El once (The eleventh, following the custom of naming tangos written for each edition of Bailes del Internado) with the subtitle A divertirse (Let’s have fun).
A blueprint for success
Towards the end of 1915 the tango named Canaro had achieved such a popular success that a promoter from the city of Rosario, located a few hundred miles north of Buenos Aires, hired Canaro to headline the 1916 Bailes de Carnaval in the second largest city of Argentina. There he shared the stage with Roberto Firpo and Eduardo Arolas with such a success that he went back for the Carnaval celebrations in 1917 and 1918. The friendship developed between Canaro and Firpo and their professional association had the undertone of a cordial and sincere envy on the part of Canaro for the inspired composer of Alma de bohemio, the hit of the most prestigious cabarets. Canaro’s envy also was aimed at Firpo’s successful recording career with the prestigious label Max Glucksman. Towards the end of the 1920’s decade, Canaro‘s primary goal of amassing a fortune focused on the emulation of his friend Roberto Firpo. It took him five years to get a break, but finally he moved into Firpo’s territory at the Royal Pigall during the Summer season when Firpo played the Armenonville, located in a garden setting that offered more pleasant summer nights for the crowds.
By the winter of 1918 the Canaro orchestra became the headliner at Royal Pigall, and at the Armenonville in summer time. Here is when his entrepreneurial vocation began to take over his musical career. With an uncanny vision for business he managed three orchestras simultaneously. One in which he played, a second one led by his
brother Juan (bandoneon) and a third one led by his brother Humberto (piano). Soon the number of the Canaro orchestras were four with yet another brother, Rafael (counter bass) at the helm.
Canaro in Paris
With presentations in cabarets, night clubs and other venues, Francisco Canaro managed to cut a deal to take his orchestra on a tour of Paris and New York in 1925. In his memoirs Canaro boasted about the experience as one of greatest and most significant triumphs in which not only his orchestra achieved international recognition, but the tango also reached a world wide diffusion.
The truth is that the tango had already become a huge success in Europe after an impasse forced by World War I. The music of tango ruled Paris played live by the resident orchestras of Manuel Pizarro, Tano Genaro and Juan D’Ambroggio “Bachicha.” At the beginning of the 1920’s thanks to the talented pianistic fingers and dancing feet of Angel Villoldo ( El choclo) and Enrique Saborido (La morocha), the voices of the Gobbi’s, a husband and wife duo, and the legendary legs of Casimiro Ain, El vasco, the tango explosion in Europe reached new heights.
Canaro’s performances contributed to enhance the hegemony of the tango in all of Europe even when he received some criticism at home for dressing up his musicians with gaucho outfits for added effect while using Canaro et sa Symphony and Attraction Canaro to present his shows disguised as variety acts. He claims in his memoirs that the attire and the packaging of his show was supposed to be a way to get around labor union regulations that blocked the performances of foreign musicians. So, rather than presenting an orchestra, he was bringing in a show. However, according to brother Rafael Canaro, who stayed behind in Paris at the helm of one of Canaro orchestras, the Parisian promoters wanted to impress with a genuine touch of authenticity to all of their productions, and the stereotype for everything Argentine at the time was gauchos and pampas. To that effect, there were extreme cases where musicians were forced to wear their gaucho outfits on the streets from the hotel to the night club and back, in order to add to the attraction and interest of a cosmopolitan public.
This honestly does not matter any longer. He was a hit in Paris. Meanwhile in Buenos Aires, musicians Alejandro Scarpino and Juan Caldarella could not come up with a title for a great tango they had written together. One morning they saw the headlines in the local newspaper heralding the arrival of Francisco Canaro to the City of Lights. That’s how the phrase Canaro en Paris was attached to one of the most brilliant compositions of the time.
Tango Inc. goes public
The Canaro story from rags to riches could have happened in America. He was the prototype of rugged individualism, a self-made captain of the tango industry who was driven to success by the haunting images of
poverty and misery he had logged onto his childhood memory.
Once he returned to Buenos Aires, Canaro dedicated a great deal of time to recording hit after hit. By the time his half a century of artistic life was over he had pressed about seven thousand records. On them, the voices and instruments of the best singers and musicians of greater renown have been preserved forever as a testimony of one
of the best moments for the Argentine Tango. Musicians of the caliber of Cayetano Puglisi, Minotto Di Cicco, Mariano Mores and Ciriaco Ortiz. Famous singers Ernesto Fama, Charlo, Agustin Irusta, Ada
Falcon and Nelly Omar among others, at one time or another were part of Pirincho’s orchestras.
Canaro’s extraordinary vision allowed him to profit both financially and as an entrepreneur. He had taken the big leap from an obscure tenement room where he lived with an oil can makeshift violin to a trio performing in the
boondocks of the vast province of Buenos Aires. He kept growing with the city, formed his own orchestra, recorded, traveled to the Old Continent. But he still needed to do more. Without neglecting his prolific recordings, he foresaw the oncoming changes brought by the movies and took advantage of people’s new favorite pastime, the
And if that weren’t enough he was an active fighter for the rights of the composers and interpreters lobbying for the passing of the Copyright Law. His efforts were crowned when, on May 4, 1940 he founded SADAIC, the Argentine Society of Composers and Authors of which he was its president for several terms.
Canaro had the vision of reinventing the musical comedy. From his long theatrical engagements he foresaw the possibility of producing a singing comedy for a general audience consisting mostly of middle class families. So, on June 17, 1932 he premiered the first one of many musical comedies with the participation of top actors and actresses of national renown: La muchachada del centro (The gang from downtown). In 1949 he ended the cycle after twelve productions which touched on themes of the porteño life, with Con la musica en el alma
(With the music in the soul).
During this period he associated with playwriter Ivo Pelay. It is important to notice that a long list of tangos, valses, milongas, polkas and mazurkas composed by Canaro with lyrics by Ivo Pelay were first introduced as part of all twelve of those musical comedies. This also opened the door to a new generation of singers that grew up out of the opportunities created by the various Canaro enterprises.
He couldn’t resist the temptation of emulating the enormous success of Carlos Gardel in the movies. However contrary to Gardel’s lack of concern for the incipient national film industry, Canaro was tempted by the local production of movies even when his instinct was warning him that this aspect of his business was going to be a loss leader. What’s fundamental is the historic importance of his work. His first outing as a movie producer was Idolos de la radio (Radio idols) an artistic marathon which included the voices of Ada Falcon and Ignacio Corsini among many others. Paradoxically, his last movie production coincided with his last theatrical production, Con la musica en el alma which premiered on January 10, 1951.
He also played on the radio like many other orchestras of the time, but this aspect of his career was brief since his plate was already full with his many different excursions in the movies, theater and of course the recording sessions.
He died on December 14, 1964 but like all those figures who contributed to the enhancement of the popular culture of Buenos Aires, his name is missing from the government sponsored National Week of Tango celebrations which only mention Gardel and De Caro, both born on December 11. However his creativity and his work were everlasting through many of his disciples as he continues to be an example of a vision for the future.
The decade that followed the establishment of the Sexteto Tipico as the standard formation for all tango orchestras, was a period of greatness for the evolutionary development of the tango, primarily as music to be listened to as well as danced. A reading of most chronicles of the time clearly indicates a condescending bias with regards to the dance aspect of the tango. In a pontificating, elitist discourse, the general consensus among many published “historians” associate the dance of tango with a lackluster, monotonous, uninspired way to play the tango by groups lacking the artistic motivation to explore further than the dancer’s feet.
Juan Carlos Cobian's interests in traveling led to him walking out on his orchestra. This gave Julio de Caro the opportunity to take over and change the sound of tango
For the “academics” of tango (who positively never ventured into the world of the dance as practitioners), the evolutionary period that started in the mid nineteen twenties when Julio De Caro took over the six piece orchestra led by Juan Carlos Cobian, was a period of splendor and renaissance for tango music. A newer generation of well trained musicians displaced the orejeros (those who played by ear without a hint of musical training) from the countless sextets that could be heard everywhere. It is arguably said that in the Sexteto Tipico resided the most genuine form of expressing the tango in an instrumental manner.
Originally the tango was a popular dance manifestation. It attracted later the upper class to the cabaret, the new institution imported from Paris. Now, an entire new generation of public also enjoyed tangos sitting in reverential silence at cafes and movie houses all over the city of Buenos Aires. Musicians enjoyed full employment in an unsurpassed period of prosperity for the musical genre that identified itself with the pulse of a growing and changing population. In a parallel dimension, a whole strata of the middle and lower class population followed with fascination the successes of singer Carlos Gardel, who, save on rare occasions, preferred to sing tangos with the accompaniment of guitars, shunning away from the orchestras.
The multi dimensional depth and density of the tango as an art form is sometimes overlooked from a historical point of view, because up until now, no serious writing or retrospective accounts of its history has been undertaken from the point of view of the dancer. But it is today’s dancer who on a nightly basis explores a rich body of music that spans various generations of composers and musicians. As dancers take to the dance floor, they re-write in every step new chapters of history and give a more equitable and fair credit to everyone who ever created great music over a distinctive rhythm which is the roux of the tango. A gumbo without a roux is just another soup, and a tango without a rhythm is just another piece of music.
The Vicente Greco orchestra became the first Orquesta Tipica Criolla in 1911 when Casa Tagini decided to record tangos to promote the incipient phonograph industry
There is no doubt that dancing continued during the decade that led to the first major crisis of the tango. The aristocracy found the cabaret a natural habitat to enjoy night life. Buenos Aires became a replica of Paris and Montmartre with cabarets named Armenonville, Royal Pigall, Maxim’s, Tabarin, Montmartre, etc. Roberto Firpo, Francisco Canaro, Eduardo Arolas, Vicente Greco and Juan Maglio “Pacho” occupied their stage boxes, soon to be joined by the names from a new generation of musicians: Osvaldo Fresedo, Julio De Caro, Pedro Maffia and many more.
At cafes in every neighborhood of the city, the most celebrated sextets competed for the reverent silent listening of a growing number of tango aficionados. Graciano de Leone at Cafe Dominguez, Arturo Berstein at El Parque, Emilio de Caro at Los Andes, are just the tip of a Titanic dimension iceberg of musicians who found a period of an employment bonanza as the Tango was sung, danced and listened to.
Savvy entrepreneurs took on many of the popular theaters of the city for their carnival balls whereupon Francisco Canaro, Julio de Caro, Francisco Lomuto, Osvaldo Fresedo, Pedro Maffia, Roberto Firpo, Edgardo Donato, Arturo De Bassi, etc. led legions of excellent musicians in an annual celebration of Tango dancing at its best.
Max Glucksman Enterprises, owners of the Nacional-Odeon record label, began yearly tango contests in 1924 which encouraged the composition of many new tangos to be entered into these contests. Roberto Firpo was hired to play the entries at the first contest, including the winners, Canaro’s Sentimiento gaucho, Catulo and Gonzalez Castillo’s Organito de la tarde, and Filiberto’s Amigazo. In successive years, other orchestras including Francisco Canaro’s took part in the equivalent of “Tango Grammies,” augmenting the size of the orchestra with already, or soon to become, famous virtuoso-like violinists Cayetano Puglisi and Elvino Vardaro; clarinetist Juan Carlos Bazan and bandoneon players Juan Bautista Guido and Jose Servidio.
Enrique Delfino, the immortal author of Milonguita, introduced the concept of tango recitals featuring soloists with artistic talents, capable of attracting and maintaining the listening interest of a public, with the proper seriousness of an evolutionary musical manifestation. Delfino himself on piano, with one of the most technical violinists of the time, Agelisao Ferrazzano, opened the cycle in the foyer of the Teatro Opera during intermission.
Left to right: Elvino Vardaro, Julio de Caro, Ciriaco Ortiz, Carlos Marcucci and Francisco de Caro. A magazine poll in 1936 named them Los virtuosos
The response to this first attempt to play tango music with a musical intention totally devoid of the demands of the rhythm essentially required for dancing, was overwhelming, and attracted not only the most qualified soloists, but opened the doors for Enrique Delfino, Osvaldo Fresedo and Tito Roccatagliata to travel to the United States to record about fifty titles for the Victor label, under the name of Orquesta Tipica Select. The quintet was completed by Luis Alberto Infantas, an Argentine violinist residing in New York, and an American violoncello player named Herman Mayer. This happened in 1920, a mere three years after the little dog Nipper, above the central hole of the Victor label, listened faithfully to the Original Dixieland Jazz Band‘s first ever Jazz recording, rather than to His Master’s Voice.
The success of this venture led the three musicians to add a second violin, Agelisao Ferrazzano, shortly after returning to Buenos Aires, calling the four piece combo, Cuarteto de Maestros. If success breeds imitation, it also encourages dissent. Soon, Delfino walked out and formed a second Master’s Quartet with Julio de Caro and Manlio Francia on violins and Roque Biafore on bandoneon. Meanwhile, Fresedo, Roccatagliata and Ferrazzano called on Juan Carlos Cobian to sit at the piano! This was an incredible period for the music of tango. A true renaissance and a fertile ground where the seeds of the future of the music reached deep into the soil to set the roots that would sustain the robust branches that would reach out to the world twenty years ahead.
All along, in the crowded tenements and working class abodes alike, families and neighbors gathered on the communal patios to celebrate many occasions by dancing tangos. The music emanated either from a Victrola, or from the instruments of trios and quartets. The Victor Company of Camden, New Jersey was instrumental, among other record companies, in fostering the spread of the tango across social lines, because first, it had invented the phonograph (and called it Victrola) and second, it wanted to sell records. To that extent it sponsored a stable ensemble of the best local musicians to produce tango records.
When Osvaldo Fresedo jumped ship and joined Max Glucksman’s Odeon label, Adolfo Carabelli, the artistic director of the Victor label decided to form a stable typical orchestra exclusively for recording purposes only. On November of 1925 the Orquesta Tipica Victor was born. Its style was essentially traditional (as opposed to the evolutionary style of De Caro et al.), faithful to the original music score, with an accentuated rhythm aimed to please the dancers, but with an adequate structure to highlight the soloist virtuosity of the many musicians that formed part of the orchestra during the fifteen years of its existence.
With the advent of the radio, the first stations in Buenos Aires filled the airwaves with tango music as well. However, it was the only media that did not offer a steady source of employment to tango musicians. The cafes, cabarets and night clubs along with the movie houses were the artistic scenarios for the tango. Particularly the movie houses where the public would ignore the silent images flickering on the silver screen, and cheer the tangos played by the most notable Sexteto Tipicos led by Julio de Caro, Pedro Maffia, Anselmo Aieta, Francisco Lomuto, Roberto Firpo, Cayetano Puglisi, Juan B. Guido, Ciriaco Ortiz, Francisco Pracanico, Carlos Marcucci, just to briefly name those who may be recognized today because of the recordings available commercially.
Meanwhile, legendary cafes with names like Nacional, Marzotto, Germinal, Los Andes, Chantecler, Maipu Pigall, Folies Bergere, and Charleston, offered a permanent rotation of talent, the innovative music of up and coming musicians Anselmo Aieta, Carlos Di Sarli, Juan Polito, Antonio Bonavena, Juan Canaro, Enrique Pollet (with a young pianist named Osvaldo Pugliese) and the aging Juan Maglio “Pacho.”
Elvino Vardaro's sextet in 1934. Left to right, Hugo Baralis, Jorge Fernandez, Pedro Caraciolo, Jose Pascual and Anibal Troilo
In 1933, Elvino Vardaro, possibly the most notable instrumentalist of all times, after having played violin for almost every existent orchestra for over ten years, picked up where Julio de Caro’s early innovation had left off, and gathered a young cadre of musicians that consisted of, possibly one of the most admirable instrumental ensembles: Jose Pascual on piano, Anibal Troilo and Jorge Fernandez on bandoneons, Hugo Baralis on second violin and Pedro Caracciolo on contrabass. The winds of the times were blowing in another direction though, and what is considered by the experts as one of the most interesting and talented orchestras ever, Vardaro et al was never recorded because the recording companies did not consider them commercially viable. Which brings to light a fact that the fate and of tango always rode the crest of the commercial interests of the recording companies.
The immense success of the tango in the decade of the nineteen twenties, which for many who deplore the way D’Arienzo brought about the Golden Years of the tango (dancing), was the true pinnacle of evolution and the Camelot for the fulfillment of De Caro’s prophecy that tango was also music. All came to a halting crash when the first talking movies appeared on the screens of Buenos Aires movie houses. The music that was coming with the films needed to be sold to a new generation of consumers. The orchestras lost an important venue and retreated to the cafes. But the influx of pizzerias and Automats was also getting rid of that traditional Buenos Aires institution. It was an unmerciful assault on many fronts that primarily decimated the sources of employment for the orchestras, severely damaged already, because of their loss of contact with the public through recordings, which now were full fledged promoters of the foreign repertoires influenced by the movie industry.
1930's publicity mug shot of Elvino Vardaro (left) and Osvaldo Pugliese
From a historical point of view, the tango faced its first major collapse when it fell catastrophically out of the favor of a new public blind sided by foreign entertainment propositions. This happened in the earlier part of the nineteen thirties.
The last orchestra to survive the onslaught at the movie houses was the unforgettable Sexteto Tipico Vardaro-Pugliese that played at the Metropol theater on Lavalle Street. There are only oral testimonies reported in written chronicles of the time that remember with nostalgic admiration the sound of the last ensemble that closed with its demise a brilliant itinerary of glory for the tango. They were Elvino Vardaro and Alfredo Gobbi on violins, Ciriaco Ortiz and Anibal Troilo on bandoneons, Luis Adesso on contrabass, and Osvaldo Pugliese on piano, a young group of musicians that would be called years later to have their names imprinted with capital letters in the best history of the tango ever told.
Many Argentine expatriates who find themselves ever so far from Buenos Aires, find a consolation of sorts when they hear the musical notes of a sweet tango crying out from the bellows of a bandoneon. Many hearts have cried longing for Buenos Aires under the sun of another sky while listening to its nostalgic song. There is something that lives and endures in the guts of this provocative song of Buenos Aires. Rowdy with a moan of bitterness, a smile of hope, a passionate sob, the poet wrote, that is the tango, the song of Buenos Aires, born in the slums and now ruler of the whole world. That is the tango rooted very deep in the hearts of many natives.
Back in 1932, playwright Manuel Romero penciled the lyrics of La cancion de Buenos Aires for the play Buenos Aires, mi tierra querida, starring Azucena Maizani, who wrote the music. The opening verses of the song capture the meaning of the song. For those fortunate enough to understand the words of the tangos, there is an entire new world to be explored. It is a world rich of human experiences expressed in the voice of the tango singer.
ABEL CORDOBA WITH OSVALDO PUGLIESE
Tango with vocals have had a hard time being accepted among North American tango dancers. There has been a lot said about the so called Argentine blues, la tristeza that seems to be etched on the face of the inhabitants of Buenos Aires particularly. It’s not clear whether the tango is sad because of the people or the people are sad because of the tango.
Enrique Santos Discepolo, (1901-1951) is often credited with the quote “tango is a danced sad thought.” It’s not clear if anybody ever saw Discepolo at a milonga, or if the poet had any skills in the dance department. Regardless, there is an abundance of references to sadness in the lyrics of countless tangos, a consequence perhaps of the great influence that immigrants had over the configuration of the demography of Buenos Aires from 1880 to 1920. However, the porteño in particular, also inherited a dry sense of humor from the British, who were very much in control of the economy and the vast fertile land that had been promised but never made available to the hopes and dreams of the same immigrants to which a lot of the sadness is attributed to. That sense of humor, transformed into a sophisticated art form of derision and scorn, has been reflected in many satirical verses that are also part of the historical richness of the popular poetry of the tango.
This very accepted fact has escaped many natives who were on the receiving end of the meaning of the lyrics. That brings us to present time, when many expatriates who find themselves ever so far from Buenos Aires, and those who attempt to emulate the symbols but lack the substance, perpetuate the myth of passing judgment on the lyrics. This can take extreme positions: at one end of the spectrum, claims are made that listening to the lyrics takes away from the enjoyment of the dance; on the other end, some deflate the milongas playing Gardel, Julio Sosa or Roberto Goyeneche.
In recent years, more and more non-Spanish speaking folks have shown a serious interest in finding out for themselves what this fuss is all about. In ways that are difficult to explain, the tango touches every person in a very personal way. Once the initial cliches are overcome, we all search for our identity and immerse our lives into a world where there is room for all. For visitors to Buenos Aires, one aspect that becomes instantly evident is the livelihood of the tango as an everyday expression of the mood of its people. From sophisticated media such as radio and television to quaint night clubs and popular parks and fairs, the voices of the city fill the air with the unmistakable accent of the singer or cantor de tangos, who vocalize the emotions and verbalize the poetry that is inscribed on the staff of the music of Buenos Aires.
Those who have written about the tango and its origin, usually have not been interested in the popular aspect, only in the marginal, ‘forbidden” part. That makes all their body of work historically irrelevant for not being representative of the entire porteño society. As a consequence of quoting each other in their perpetuation of tales and misconceptions, the stories of the tango and its origins have been based in myths that have made it into the fertile imagination of those who seek the passion and exoticism of a foreign culture. One is the tale about illiterate musicians who played by ear, whistling into each other’s ears tunes that became the foundation of the tango music. Another is about men dancing with men. Another is that the often mentioned academias were places where dancing was taught.
The Archivo General de la Nacion, Argentina’s National Archives is an amazing place on Avenida Leandro Alem, a few blocks from Casa Rosada, the government mansion. There are records of publications, city council meetings and police reports all the way back to the beginning of the nineteenth century. It is the right place to spend plenty of time for anybody interested in finding out where people danced, what they danced, who were the dancers and the musicians, and when the tango made its appearance. The first reality that strikes the researcher is the realization that there was a full fledged living society in nineteenth century Buenos Aires.
Entering the decade of the 1880 there was still no evidence of anything particularly called tango being danced at the public dances. The most popular source of music for dancing was the organ grinder with a repertoire that included valses, polkas, schottische, mazurkas, habaneras, milonga, gato (a folk music from the interior of Argentina). The organito was not really an instrument but a mechanical reproducer of music previously programmed, sort of player-piano, whose use goes back at least to 1837. It did not need a musician, just somebody who transported it and made it work turning a handle. Programing the organitos required qualified musicians, the kind that graduated from conservatories and who very likely played with the many symphonic orchestras at the opera houses.
Dancing was high among the main sources of entertainment for dwellers of the city and the outskirts. People of all social backgrounds danced at legal and clandestine academias and cafes. The negative consequences of theses activities were public inebriation and rowdy behavior. That upset and annoyed the families who lived in the neighborhood. City ordinances were promulgated to prohibit, fine and tax public dances that served alcoholic beverages. The hardball police efforts to enforce the edicts, gave place to the proliferation of clandestine places for dancing.
In the September 27, 1880 issue of La Patria Argentina under the heading of Gresca chistosa or Funny fracas, there is a conclusive police report recommending the closing of one of those clandestine dance places, quoted from El tango en la sociedad porteña by Hugo Lamas and Enrique Binda.
“The prohibitions, fines and taxes with which public dances have been hit by the Municipality, have had the consequences of creating an original method of catering to the merriment of the populace.
Generally, the establishments where the clandestine activities take place are the cafes. On dirty windows, painted white, illuminated from behind by the inside lights, stand out in big black letters the name of the Cafe So and so…
In the first room, closest to the street, there is an actual coffee shop with relatively ugly waitresses. The back door is closed and the noise in the room is the typical sound generated by the voices of the patrons and the nature of the service. Suddenly somebody gets up and disappears through the back door for a considerable amount of time. Sometimes the back door opens and a tired looking character walks in to the counter and orders a refreshing glass of French wine and soda water, that strange concoction that the Italians drink when bowling.
Each time the door opened, it could be heard from the other room the noise of feet shuffling on the floor as if many people walked dragging their feet. Behind that door there was a great salon where people danced some quite original dances.
On the far wall of the salon there was one of those organ pianos, covered with a mattress. The mattress had the purpose of preventing the sounds from reaching the street, or even the room in front. The muffled hits of the instrument’s hammers evenly marked the rate of the piece that was being danced, with a strange noise, something like an instrument of percussion on wet wood.
With that strange music they dance in the salon. And they dance with two, three, or four women who are hired by the owner as dancers. These unfortunate women dance all night long. Every night, without resting, they go from the arms of a Creole dancer who twists them in a milonga, to the arms of a British guy who shakes them dryly in a jumped vals, or the arms of an Italian who dislocates their bones with a peringundin.
The salon is packed with dancers and since the women are few, the rest dance man with man to take advantage of the song that somebody has paid for. At the end of the song, somebody shouts, “Lata!” That means that he gets to pick the next song. He approaches the organillero (organ player) to request his favorite tune, he pays for the song and he gets a tin token for the piece that he requested. And the dance continues in a warm atmosphere because the room is closed, the smoke of the cigarettes clouds the air and the brushing of the feet on the floor is the dominant noise. Everybody is quiet; nobody speaks; because there they dance for the sake of dancing. There are no chairs in the salon to discourage loitering; those who enter, must dance or leave.”
No specific mention of the dance of tango is ever made until 1886 when a newspaper article refers to “the famous masked dances in the theaters where Army officers, violating rules and regulations, their own honor and the dignity of the uniform, swayed exaggeratedly their bodies to the rhythm of a tango milonguero.”
By the end of the nineteen century dancing reached the street corners of busy tenements. Entrepreneurial young men hired a couple of organ players and taught young girls to dance in exchange for the girls paying the organ player for each piece of music. In many neighborhoods, it wasn’t unusual that the lack of gender balance lead to bread with bread practicing, that is people of the same sex, going through the learning process in anticipation of getting ready for the real dances at salons, recreation centers, private clubs, and cafes and restaurants.
It is evident that people then had a notion of the meaning of the word tango as a musical genre, but they didn’t leave any messages buried in capsules to be opened at a future date explaining what it was or how it sounded.AS THE
Long before the tango became the target of scorn because of its provocative choreography and the character of its practitioners, the puritanical arrows of disdain were aimed at another dance with similar uncertain origins that caught the imagination of European society.
Historical records indicate that the origin of the word waltz refers to the action of turning around while dancing. The origin of the waltz as a dance itself is uncertain, but historians agree that it first appeared around two centuries ago.
There are certain musical forms of popular nature that originate as dances and later follow a transformation into songs. Of interest to us, the waltz and the tango, a couple of centuries apart, represent a typical example of the fusion of dance and song into internationally acclaimed musical expressions.
Records show that the waltz was in vogue in Vienna around 1773. In spite of being a genre of popular origins, it seduced composers such as Mozart, who wrote many waltzes for the dancers of Vienna. From this romantic period originated the most classic compositions of the Viennese waltz by Schubert, Chopin and Brahms which still are played today.
When it appeared in Europe it was considered an indecorous dance.
France is credited with the transformation of the uniform and lively danceable rhythm of the Viennese waltz into a more insinuating and romantic melody which allowed the use of lyrics and the creation of the waltz- song.
On the American continent, the waltz arrived to the salons of high society around 1840. It quickly became the favorite dance conquering new fans at the lower levels of society as well. Many folklore dances from Argentina show the influence of the waltz.
It was in the nineteenth century that a new type of waltz was created in the city of Boston, the Boston waltz. Its characteristic was a change in the role of the piano, or rather the pianist. Instead of using the left hand to mark the 1-2-3 rhythm of the waltz, the left hand only marks the first beat of the rhythm while the right hand combines rhythm and melody.
The vals boston conquered Buenos Aires at the beginning of the twentieth century. Prior to that, the waltz had been the darling of the aristocracy in the 1800’s and gradually had gained acceptance among pianists and musical groups in Buenos Aires.
The immigrant invasion that started in the 1870’s brought songs and dances from their native lands. The waltz was among their favorites. Their descendants, the first Creole generation grew up to the popular sounds of the waltz, enjoying the old tunes while beginning to modify the songs and dances of their parents under the influence of the new customs and the new environment of the country where they were born and where they lived. Thus was born the Argentine folklore, a collection of regional dances and rhythms that make up a very rich musical heritage.
The new Creole generation added a telluric feeling to the traditional waltz, and gave birth to the vals criollo. The creole waltzes, composed by Latin American musicians preserved the characteristic and style of the Viennese waltz. It continued to be mainly a dance. It had three parts especially arranged for dancing. Two classic examples of vals criollo are,
SANTIAGO DEL ESTERO
PABELLON DE LAS ROSAS
By the first decade of the twentieth century, composers in both Argentina and Uruguay wrote numerous valses which became part of the repertoire of the first tango orchestras. Buenos Aires was becoming a city with its own personality, and the valses composed during that period were acquiring that personality as well. The rapid growth of the city and an environment heavily influenced by the cadence of the tango added an authentic Buenos Aires melodic tone to the music of the vals criollo. While the “forbidden” tango was being played by guitars, flutes, violins, pianos and bandoneons for the worst element of society, the same instruments played the vals porteño for the decent families, at the weekly neighborhood social dances.
The preference of the Buenos Aires musicians for the waltz over the other dances of the time, i.e. polkas, mazurkas, is due in part to the expression and nuances of its melody, which on a larger scale are elements intrinsic to the Argentine tango. Erroneously many refer to the resulting rhythm as tango vals. Outstanding musicians who made the vals an integral part of their repertoire included Roberto Firpo, Juan Maglio “Pacho,” Francisco Canaro and Francisco Lomuto.
The vals began to loose its dance appeal around 1917 when the first wave of American dances (Fox-Trot, One-Step, Two-Step and Shimmy) begun to be heavily promoted to the Argentine youth. Ten years later the Charleston finished off the appeal of the vals, at least until the 1940’s when it returned to the dance floors with the renaissance of the tango in the Golden Era.
The most popular valses that remain as the classic of classics today are,
DESDE EL ALMA (vals boston)
PALOMITA BLANCA (vals clasico)
Reference: Del vals al vals criollo y al “vals porteño” by Sebastian Piana – La historia del tango (Ediciones Corregidor 1978)
For many dancers it may not be clear what it is meant by the “code of the tango.”
The ‘code’ is simple an agreed prescription for the way the woman crosses one of her legs relative to where the man is (her right or her left) when she dances around him.
When she dances to the left of the man, her left leg crosses inside and outside the embrace alternating until her direction changes. The salida simple is the most common consequence of applying the code. After her initial lateral step, the woman first crosses her left leg outside the embrace with a back step, follows with an inside back diagonal with her right leg, and then she crosses her left leg inside the embrace in front of her right as she steps back .
When she dances to the right of the man, her right leg alternates crossing inside (in front of her left) and outside (behind her left leg) until her direction changes.
The importance of the code is that it establishes the natural position of the woman’s legs within the structure of the dance and serve as the basis for the man’s option to improvise.
The use of the word code was first introduced by Valorie Hart and Alberto Paz in the pages of El Firuletein an attempt to clarify the concept of the original Spanish word CODIGO, i.e. rule, agreement, to the teaching of tango.