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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.

THE MUSIC MAN OF VILLA URQUIZA   Leave a comment

The music man of Villa Urquiza
By Alberto Paz and Valorie Hart
Copyright (c) 1997, Planet Tango. All Rights Reserved

Visitors coming to Buenos Aires to experience the Argentine tango first hand quickly notice the codes and rituals of the milongas. One of the most impressive sights that captures the imagination of foreigners tangueros is the crowd that converges on the dance floor as soon as the music starts. What seems like an invisible spell that draws dancers to the floor is actually the work of the music man of BuenosAires. On April 24, 1997 we interviewed Felix Picherna at the Club Sunderland’s dining room.

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.

The aperitif

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.

The entree

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.

The lunch spread at Sunderland

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 dessert

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.

Valorie Hart and Felix Picherna at Sunderland

Valorie Hart and Felix Picherna at Sunderland

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!”