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Captain of the tango industry   Leave a comment

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
musical reviews.

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.

WHEN THE TANGO WAS IN JAIL   Leave a comment

When the tango was in jail
By Alberto Paz
Copyright (c) 1999-2011, Planet Tango. All Rights Reserved

They were on the wharf surrounded by armed policemen, on a foggy night before boarding the boat. In the dark, the guards forced them to enter the ship by the footbridge. They couldn’t see anything. It was dangerous because they could fall into the water. They asked for light because a slip could be mistaken for an attempt of flight, and their lives would end riddled with bullets.Inside the tight compartment, the water covered their ankles. They made them sit on the ground. Two or three sailors armed with machine guns, stood guard in front of them.
It had been only a month since a military coup had overthrown Peron in September of 1955. The military rulers turned the ship Paris into a floating jail for political prisoners. Rumors were heard that the government planned to sink the boat with its opponents inside. The day those rumors reached the ear of the prisoners, the man who had been entertaining his fellow prisoners every afternoon playing tangos, sat at the piano and played the National Anthem. Shortly after Osvaldo Pugliese and the rest of political prisoners regained their freedom.

♢ ♢ ♢

Open fields and a menacing creek less than five miles to the northwest of the center of the city were the destination of the “death trains” that in 1871 carried the victims of the yellow fever epidemic to the cemetery of the Chacarita. Both the Maldonado creek and the railroad tracks divided the otherwise vast expanse of land and wild vegetation. By 1888 the funeral processions had ended and a visionary shoe entrepreneur chose the area to build a shoe factory. The city mayor, Antonio Crespo ordered the land to be parceled and the lots to be auctioned. Shoemakers were then the first inhabitants of the new village that took the name of the mayor, Villa Crespo. Sordid shacks spawned around the shoe factory, and later the first tenements were built. This area became the orilla, the outskirts where the aristocracy would push the more destitute immigrants, the disdained working class, the criminal element and the artisans who had fallen from grace.

Villa Crespo was the melting pot of the working class and the scoundrels, living in overcrowded conditions in the extreme poverty of the slums and the conventillos. Their presence was undeniable in the nauseating stench of the narrow Maldonado creek, where garbage and human excrement began to flow.

Somehow, the meeting of workers, thieves, ruffians and bullies found in the tango a way to identify their crude congregation. Not too far from the slums, the governing aristocracy, seeing the tango from their salons becoming an indecent shriek of the lower class, began to plan the building of an opera house. They wanted a monument representing the superior culture of the dominant class.
In 1904, as the walls of the Teatro Colon began to rise, Villa Crespo saw the first celebrations of the International Worker’s Day, followed by several popular attempts to overthrow a fraudulent government. A year later, Angel Villoldo unveiled his tango El choclo. On the day of its debut, December 2, 1905, Aurelia Terragno, wife of Adolfo Pugliese gave birth to their son Osvaldo.

♢ ♢ ♢

La Chancha was the nickname of a fat guitar player who used to drop by at a bar every couple of weeks with a bunch of guys. They would line up at several tables. He would tune his guitar and they would sing and drink for hours. He was stabbed to death one day during Carnaval. That’s why this cafe bar (since 1919) was named after him.

A few years later, a bookie named Torcuato, his cousins Amadeo, Domingo, Alfredo and Rogelio, who used to hang out in La Chancha, made their way to the nearby Cafe ABC. They wanted to listen to a kid they hung around with in La Chancha when he began to play there at the age of fourteen. Do you remember us Osvaldo?, they greeted him. Osvaldo remembered his friends. He also remembered when after eight hours of studying at the conservatory, he amused himself playing tunes he had written. His dad and his brother would drop by in the late evenings. His dad would ask, play THAT tango. It was a tango he had started composing on a tramway ride to the piano academy a few years back. He finally completed in 1924. Until that night at Cafe ABC, THAT was how the tango was known as. What’s the name of THAT tango? they asked. It does not have a name, Pugliese said, I’ll call it Recuerdo and I’ll dedicate it to you guys.

♢ ♢ ♢

The artistic life of Osvaldo Pugliese took root in the period of renovation led by Julio De Caro. Rather than just living the decade of the twenties, Pugliese practiced it. The style imprinted by De Caro had derived from the ABC’s of the tango, Arolas, Bardi and Cobian. Arolas was a musical author with a deep melody. Bardi had combined the sounds of the city and the pampas. Cobian gave the tango its elegance. Still very young, Pugliese lived that progressive era from within. This was reflected in the initial repertoire of his legendary orchestra. Compositions by De Caro, Pedro Maffia and Pedro Laurenz formed the basis for the unconditional popular support that Osvaldo Pugliese received until his death in 1995.

His career as a working musician, as he has often humbly described himself, began at age fourteen. He saw, listened and participated in a long list of ensembles playing the piano with Roberto Firpo, Francisco Canaro, Elvino Vardaro, next to Anibal Troilo, Pedro Maffia, Pedro Laurenz and many other members of the greatest crop of tango musicians gathered at once in one generation.

During the decade of the 30s, the tango was the music of the cabarets. At the Moulin Rouge the orchestra of Pedro Maffia had Pugliese at the piano. This was a favorite place for Rodolfo Bianquet, the famous bailarin the world has come to know as El Cachafaz. The “crafty rascal” as he was known, like many people of the night stopped by at the cabaret after the milongas for a drink. One late night Pugliese asked him, What makes you dance so well? All the walking around, said El Cachafaz. Only those who lived at the time could relate to the way the tango was danced in place, twisting and turning from the legs to the head. When the dancers moved around the floor, they would accentuate their march with rhythmic patterns. The rhythm was full of modulation, that swing that looks so beautiful in the tango.

By 1940 D’Arienzo and Di Sarli had defined a feeling and a rhythm that was intrinsically personal and emotional. Many have disdainfully equated D’Arienzo’s sound to that of a tinsmith banging pots and pans. Pugliese thought of D’Arienzo as the atomic bomb somebody dropped one night at the Cabaret Chantecler and later at El Mundo radio station. Such was the boom that the king of the beat created.

From the center of that expansive wave, an internal and spiritual need was digging into Pugliese’s inspiration. The pulse of the city was the percussion that marked the rhythm; the folklore from the pampas contributed its characteristic dragging; De Caro had began to accentuate the first and third beat of the 4×4. And so it came to be, the unmistakable Pugliese sound that marked the first and third beat with a dragging percussion that shook the very foundations of the renovation movement, and that Pugliese himself had crafted like El Cachafaz, walking step after step with the firm conviction of man’s inalienable right to work. That’s the sound that became La yumba.

♢ ♢ ♢

Standing quietly in a corner, her eyes were full of love and pride as only a mother’s eyes can be. She was a simple, humble woman, a working class mother and a wife who like all people living in poverty knew what it meant and what it took to reach the pinnacle, to rise and shine. As the notes of Recuerdo filled the modest room from the piano that papa had bought, the sweet and loving mother that had encouraged their younger son to study piano, cheered with affection, al Colon! Was it just the unconditional love of a mother or did Aurelia Terragno know that after almost sixty years of persecution, incarceration, harassment, his human rights violated, his right to work denied, blacklisted from radio, television and clubs, all because of his personal convictions, Osvaldo Pugliese would ride on the shoulders of the working class people for whom he fought, to the stage of Buenos Aires’s most exclusive den of the cultural elite. On December 18, 1995 the chants of the people, resounded amplifying a million times the cheers of a mother. Pugliese played the Colon.

Along the way, Osvaldo Pugliese paid the price that men of honor and ethics pay when living under totalitarian and oppressing regimes. Pugliese believed in Argentina’s version of the comunist ideals, and he lived a self-sacrificing, unselfish life, placing himself at the service of the people and the working class. He understood that a comunista ate and biologically functioned like any other human being. However from an ideological viewpoint, comunistas were supposed to break away from everything that came from the dirty hands of the bourgeoisie, the ruling upper class that lied, created diversions and deceived the people to keep themselves in a position of power. He accepted a life of suffering, because he took pleasure in suffering for a greater ideal, and he believed that a life fighting for one’s convictions, was indeed a life worth living. His orchestra was organized from the beginning as a cooperative, where everybody composed, arranged, participated in the decisions, and shared all the income in percentages according to each member’s contribution.

Arguably, the decade of the 1930s is the darkest period in the history of the tango. A military coup was the preface of that sad chapter. Many musicians faced unemployment as the shrinking number of tango venues finally disappeared. Pugliese, the journeyman, the blue collar musician he knew he was, survived by sitting at the piano of any orchestra that would take him. In the meanwhile Tito Schipa and Lily Pons were featured at the Colon, their contracts adding to the hemorrhage of red ink bleeding the budget of City Hall, while painting a picture of glorious abundance on the dismal frame of the country’s economical condition.

In 1936, Pugliese and other musicians founded the first union to fight for the rights of the artists to work and be fairly compensated. Shortly after, Pugliese joined the Comunist Party. Over the next two decades, Osvaldo Pugliese was jailed more than ten times because he refused to trade his convictions and ideals for the seal of approval of the government and the establishment. It is inconceivable to picture the members of his orchestra being banned from entering a club, a radio station or a television station, where they had signed contracts to perform. On the rare occasions when the orchestra managed to circumvent the police barriers, the popular support for Pugliese was unconditional.

There was the time when they played the longest Cumparsita. It was at one of the many neighborhood clubs where tango dancers flocked to listen and dance with Pugliese. While playing La Cumparsita, the police entered the club and ordered the dance to stop because Pugliese was not allowed to work. The organizers stood up to the police saying that while the orchestra was playing and the dancers were dancing, nothing or nobody would interrupt them. Word got to Pugliese about the imminent arrest and he directed his musicians to continue playing La Cumparsita over and over. The public caught onto the trick and kept on dancing. The police grew impatient and uneasy, and finally left. As the last beats of the tango concluded the longest Cumparsita ever, the thunderous applause and cheers brought a smile to Pugliese’s face. Humbly, he stood up and pointed to his orchestra.

Much has been said about Osvaldo Pugliese’s creative genius and inspiration. He wrote a masterful trilogy, La yumba, Negracha and Malandraca years before there was any talk of modern tango. The frustration of the cultural elite and the numerous military regimes, combined with Pugliese’s refusal to give up his political views eventually encouraged others who wouldn’t hesitate to do away with the soul and essence of the tango, to create a sound that pretended to be cult enough to soothe the egos of the aristocracy.

Record companies profited from Pugliese’s recordings, but his compensation was meager. He finally enjoyed the freedom to work and to provide jobs for the members of his orchestra during the last ten years of his life.

The list of musicians that passed through his orchestra is long and full of prestigious names. As it seems to be an Argentine custom, the due recognition and unqualified respect for those who deserve it in life, comes too late when they are already dead.

♢ ♢ ♢

The bus was making its way through the maze of rush hour traffic looking for the right turn into Avenida Nueve de Julio. A boy and his father had just attended the live broadcast of the orchestra of Osvaldo Pugliese on Radio Splendid. The young boy had noticed the red rose resting on the empty piano keyboard and had wondered about it. His father had shrugged touching his lips with his index finger looking away towards the orchestra. His face now pressed against the window of the bus as the Obelisco came into sight. The bus began to circle around the monument where Nueve de Julio and Corrientes Streets converge. On each of the four faces of the Obelisco the graffiti read, The tango is in jail. Free Osvaldo Pugliese. His father held his hand and raised his eyebrows in a contrite sad look. More than forty years later the boy, now a man, finally understood.