Archive for the ‘Julio de Caro’ Tag

Just Call Me Charlie   Leave a comment

Just Call Me Charlie

By Alberto Paz
December 1997

A nation that lacks legends, said a poet, is condemned to freeze to death. It is arguably possible. But the populace that lacks myths would be dead already.

December is the month anniversary of Carlos Gardel’s birth. Since orchestra leader Julio De Caro also was born on the same day of the same month albeit in different years, the Republic of Argentina declared a few years ago, December 11 as the National Day of Tango.

The only memories of a snow fall in Buenos Aires date back to 1918 and 1955, that is why poet Raul Gonzalez Tuñon once wrote about Gardel, “nobody has surpassed his touching voice, on the face of a record or in the rose of the air. Perhaps, when the snow falls again over our city, another voice may come close to match his“. Betty, Julie, Mary and Peggy loved his voice. They were the blondes of New York, “delicious perfumed creatures” kissing Carlos with their “pretty painted lips as if they were fragile pleasure dolls“, in a scene of El Tango en Broadway filmed in 1934. A year later Gardel burned among charred metal on the tarmac of Medellin, Colombia’s airport.

Many believe that when he died the myth was born. Of five Argentine myths (presidents Yrigoyen and Peron, Eva Peron, Diego Maradona and Carlos Gardel), only the latter has been accepted by all levels of society. While the errors of the other four were never forgiven and their lives have been questioned and defamed suffering the consequences of political hatred, antagonistic rancor and class discrimination, all is forgiven of Gardel. Writer Horacio Salas points out that “in the same way that nobody in his/her right mind would dare criticize the chromatic qualities of the flag or the literary deficiencies of the National Anthem, the cult of Gardel has elevated him to that same plateau“.

In many ways the myth of Gardel identifies the common people of Argentina’s middle class, sons and daughters of immigration. Gardel is the man who made it to the top. He arrived. He conquered. All this in spite of an obscure past and an almost impossible to trace heritage. The second wave of immigrants in Buenos Aires totally identified with the French immigrant who grew up in a conventillo, who experienced segregation, poverty and lack of shelter like those who had to start from the very bottom of the pit in a foreign environment and without a father figure. Through his voice, Gardel went beyond the meager horizon of the slums to become the symbol of the tango song, first in the City of Lights and finally all throughout North and South America.

When Gardel sings, and he does it better every day, the dancers stop because The Voice is reminiscent of joy, The Voice is the wail that announces the miracle of a new life arriving to this world. Gardel is born again in the soul of every Argentine that is far removed from the source. Because Gardel is a winning attitude, a posture of arrogance and conquest. Because he has elegance and class, with an irresistible smile, a slick hairdo, shiny shoes and an impeccable wardrobe.

Women loved Gardel, but he never tied the knot, playing the myth and the legend to the end. He was the eternal groom only married to his singing the way a priest marries his religion. He created the ethereal fantasy for the women who fantasize about the day when the idol will become Prince Charming and make their dreams come true.

Witnessing the first snow fall of the season through the window of a high-rise apartment in New York City, the twilight had overcome the first flurries of snow; its gray tones were now pierced by a thousand points of light. Soon the city would get ready for another night of tango on Broadway, an experience that seemed to last forever. As the snow continued to fall, I headed for the milonga. Nobody noticed when I walked into the hall carrying Carlitos in my heart. They might have thought that it showed that I was a porteño by the way I moved and walked. And when Robin, Jane, Valorie or any other New York blonde asked me who I was, I flashed a big smile and coyly whispered in their ears, “just call me Carlitos, darling, Charlie if you wish…

RUBIAS DE NUEVA YORK

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The archetype of the instrumental tango   1 comment

The archetype of the instrumental tango

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.

OSVALDO PUGLIESE TEATRO COLON

THE GLORIOUS YEARS OF THE SEXTETO TIPICO   3 comments

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.

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!”