Archive for the ‘Rodolfo Biagi’ Tag

A MUSIC PRIMER   Leave a comment

When it comes to planning the music for a tango party, the ideal situation is to go with the “Big Bands” and the “Hit Parade.” A typical CD will run on the average for about an hour. On the average there are 20 selections on a CD. The use of computers makes it even easier to stock up on choice tango music.

Take Carlos Di Sarli, Osvaldo Pugliese, Anibal Troilo, Juan D’Arienzo, Francisco Canaro, Ricardo Tanturi, Miguel Calo, Alfredo de Angelis, Rodolfo Biagi, Osvaldo Fresedo.

Next, consider that Di Sarli, Pugliese and D’Arienzo have two and even three distinctive periods, then you have about fifteen orchestras to chose from. If you were to just take four of their hits, you come out with sixty themes enough for three hours of the greatest tango music from the Golden Era. This should be enough music to cover 95% of the USA milongas. There are only a handful of milongas that last longer than three hours.

Each one of the fifteen orchestras have more than four hits to pick from, at least a dozen are classics, so that gives you about nine hours of uninterrupted dancing to the classics. You can go through three milongas without ever repeating a theme. Randomly altering the sequence in which you play the orchestras, or tandas, and it would take a year or two before the dancing community is totally familiar with the music, the rhythms and the orchestras. By then one hopes that they have also learned how to dance to them.

That’s how I approach all dances, either as a host or as an invited DJ. I carry about eighteen such CDs which I have mixed, fortunate as I am to have an extensive library and an educated knowledge of the music and the way it is danced. I wonder sometimes why friends don’t take advantage of a wealth of experience and knowledge that is available to them just for the asking. Rather than being jealous, envious or competitive of those who knew more than I did, I wholeheartedly took advantage of their generosity and I humbly learned.

The sounds of changing times

Osvaldo Pugliese music can be identified in three distinctive periods and three totally different styles. His first recording was Farol, and it took place July 15, 1943. The sound of the 1940’s orchestra can be typified by Recuerdo, Mala junta, Tierra querida and El arranque. The sound of the orchestra during the fifties can be sampled in Chique, La rayuela, Emancipacion and Nochero soy. Finally, in the sixties and seventies, Pugliese recorded perhaps the finest and most memorable tangos of which we consider to be his legacy to the Tango Hall of Fame. Listen to Que noche, La biandunga, A Evaristo Carriego, and Nobleza de arrabal among many others.

Juan D’Arienzo also went through three distinctive stages punctuated by the men who sat at the piano: Rodolfo Biagi, Juan Polito and Fulvio Salamanca.

Carlos Di Sarli‘s sound didn’t change much, but the quality and sonority of his arrangements have two major periods, before and after 1950.

The birth of the golden years   Leave a comment

The birth of the golden years
By Alberto Paz
Copyright (c) 2000-2011, Planet Tango. All Rights Reserved

The business success of the Argentine tango posed a threat to the American record and film companies following the Great Depression. An all out attack was launched to sell the entertainment products coming from the North to a new generation of Argentines, and one of the main ingredients of the strategy was to destroy the tango as a favorite pastime for many residents of Buenos Aires. The untimely death of Gardel in 1935 supported an orchestrated marketing campaign that resulted in the now legendary headline published in one of Buenos Aires dailies: “The Tango is Dead.” That was going to prove to be a major blunder.

A friend recently wrote from Buenos Aires to remind me that history is written by the winners, and that Americans and British tend to look at the world from a winner’s position and sometimes assume ownership of things that don’t belong to them. I’m not sure what to make of that. Maybe he’s been reading absurd messages on the Internet. However I agree when he added that the tango, being Argentine like the Pampas and the ombu, can tell its own history from a vantage viewpoint.

Even so, there are aspects of tango history which are biased depending on the agenda of those in a position to influence public opinion. Horacio Ferrer, president of the National Academy of Tango has written in his book History of the Tango: In 1935 Rodolfo Biagi, with his nervous pianist modality (harmonically elementary and rhythmically monotonous because of the invariable repetition of the same musical ideas), joined the orchestra of Juan D’Arienzo, contributing to define the interpretative style of the combo.

The dancing section of the tango stands knows not to trust those yielding power solely by the nature of their political or social affiliations, but many outsiders (metaphorically and geographically speaking) tend to repeat (and believe) as words from some sacred gospel, the obvious put down that elitist Ferrer dishes out to one of the musicians responsible for changing forever the history and fate of the tango music in the 1940’s. Dancers became a motivational force with a strong say in influencing the way tango music for dancing should sound.

Rodolfo Biagi played a very important part in the history of tango, particularly in regards to the renaissance of the dance craze that has become to be known as the Golden Era of tango. A pianist, Biagi seems to have been unjustly forgotten or maybe shortchanged when it comes to highlighting names in the gallery of tango’s greatest figures.

Perhaps the birth of the Golden Era of the tango was an unexpected stab of fate. Uruguayan composer Pintin Castellanos brought a new tango to orchestra director Juan D’Arienzo for his consideration. Members of the orchestra suggested that the piece would be more suitable as a milonga, so they rearranged it and one evening of 1935 they played it for the first time from the studios of LR1 Radio El Mundo. The vibrant sound of the milonga was accentuated by the unmistakable presence of the piano striking rhythm and melody through the hands of the recent addition to the Juan D’Arienzo orchestra, twenty-nine year old Rodolfo Biagi. La puñalada (The Stab) became an instant hit, and the sound of D’Arienzo with Biagi at piano caught the imagination of an entire generation of listeners. Soon dancers began to flock to the neighborhood clubs to dance to the compelling beat of the renewed two by four tango signature of the early 1900s, revived and polished by the diabolical arrangements of D’Arienzo and Biagi’s “harmonically elementary , monotonous rhythm of invariable repetition of the same musical ideas.”

With an undeniable talent and a spirit characteristic of the natives of the city of Buenos Aires, Rodolfo Biagi injected a much needed, and later to become a well-known and fruitful change, in the music of Buenos Aires. The enormous success of the orchestra of Juan D’Arienzo during the 1936 Carnaval season, with its strong and accelerated emphasis of the forgotten 2×4 rhythm led to a decade of extraordinary activity among musicians, singers and dancers between 1935 and the late fifties. The energetic and original treatment of the piano by Rodolfo Biagi set new standards for that instrument, and forced the rest of the orchestras to vary their styles, and many pianists assimilated the influence of the new rhythm in vogue.

Heading into 1940, the tango began perhaps its most fruitful period.

It all began when Rodolfo Biagi joined the orchestra of Juan D’Arienzo in 1935. Soon after, other orchestras abandoned their romantic (and at times dense) style characteristic of the late twenties and early thirties. They opted for a more upbeat playing style to please the increasing demand of the dancers.

The tango scene became brilliant, the quality of the musicians shot upwards, and the personality of the singers blended within the new musical structures as another instrument that responded to the needs of the dancing public.

Concurrently, Buenos Aires underwent a significant transformation anticipating the Peronist regime that would come to power in 1945. The deteriorating conditions of the farmlands, and the industrialization of the capital city driven by the need to replace imported goods, provoked
a massive emigration of people from the provinces to Buenos Aires.

The working class underwent a process of national restructuring that included the embracing of a nationalistic cultural pride. Coinciding with World War II, and the weakening of the cultural influences of the imperialists nations, a national cultural industry grew quickly aided by a massive development of the media. Movies, radio and the dance halls contributed to the renaissance of the tango and the onset of its Golden Era.

The Recordings of the Forties

Between 1940 and 1949 the following orchestras registered the indicated number of recordings.

Francisco Canaro, 345
Juan D’Arienzo, 232
Anibal Troilo, 189
Enrique Rodriguez, 172
Carlos Di Sarli, 156
Miguel Calo, 151
Francisco Lomuto, 148
Ricardo Tanturi, 140
Rodolfo Biagi, 113
Alfredo De Angelis, 113
Osvaldo Fresedo, 110
Angel D’Agostino, 106
Roberto Firpo, 100
Osvaldo Pugliese, 94
Leopoldo Federico, 62

People can’t control, choose nor decide where and when they will be born. These circumstances, particularly at the beginning of the twentieth century in Buenos Aires, would unfortunately affect negatively the future of many talented people. Such was the case of Rodolfo Biagi, born in the working class district of San Telmo on March 14, 1906, into a the bosom of a humble family. The desire of immigrant parents to forge a future for their sons and daughters through education played an important role in the decision to enroll young Rodolfo as a non-paying student at a conservatory. By the time he turned thirteen, Biagi had graduated from the Conservatory of La Prensa, where he had been coached to be a concert violinist, but in the course of his studies converted to piano. At the suggestion of one of his teachers he continued to widen his knowledge at the Conservatory of the Anglican Church, while he earned his first money as a pianist in one of the many movie houses featuring silent movies.

There he discovered the legendary Juan Maglio “Pacho”, and at barely fifteen years of age was invited by Maglio to play in his orchestra. The setting could not have been more auspicious, none other than the cafe El Nacional on Corrientes Street, the Olympus for fans of the tango. From that moment in time Rodolfo Biagi had to juggle his performances with “Pacho”, his performances on Radio Cultura and his studies of teaching methods at the Mariano Acosta college. On parting with Maglio, he joined Miguel Orlando’s formation at the Maipu Pigall cabaret, and in that place he met Carlos Gardel, who was a habitual client of that establishment. Gardel proposed that he accompany him on some recordings together with his guitarists Guillermo Barbieri, Jose Maria Aguilar and Domingo Riverol, plus violinist Antonio Rodio. These recordings took place on April 1, 1930. The order of titles waxed was as follows: the tango Buenos Aires, the fox-trot Yo naci para ti, tu seras para mi, the waltz Aromas de Cairo, and the tangos Aquellas farras and Viejo smoking. After this recording experience, Carlos Gardel offered him a trip to Europe as his accompanist, but Rodolfo Biagi chose to remain in Buenos Aires.

At the beginning of the thirties we find Biagi at the piano of accordion player Bautista Guido’s sextet and in 1935 he was with Juan Canaro’s orchestra on a successful tour of Brazil. In Buenos Aires they enlivened the shows at the Teatro Cine Paris which were broadcast over LS9 The Voice of the Air. With Juan Canaro he began to develop his personal style, a style which reached its zenith in 1935, a time of crisis for the tango for the reasons mentioned before.

The socio-economic and political situation of the country had brought the tango and its people to a crossroad which was difficult to resolve. Many orchestras dissolved for want of places to play. The invasion of strange foreign rhythms, advanced by the ruling classes of the nation, and “supported” by a docile middle class, sent the business of tango into a tailspin; in this desolate environment for the popular music of Buenos Aires, a miracle aroused at the hands of Rodolfo Biagi.

It was then that Biagi was contracted by Juan D’Arienzo to take the place left vacant by Luis Visca. The tandem D’Arienzo-Biagi propelled the movement which produced the rediscovery by the people of their music. Rodolfo Biagi’s contagious sound emanating from his piano, fully coincided with the aesthetic postulates of Juan D’Arienzo, the popular style that at the time some qualified as simplistic, too fateful for the tango’s future. In fact, the tango establishment, the kind that meets to talk about things others do, never acknowledged D’Arienzo as a major influence for the tango. The king of the rhythm laughed all the way to the bank, but that is another story.

It was the common citizens who were the real depository of the culture which pertains to them and things were finally put in their rightful place, the public responding with its multitudinous presence at the performances of D’Arienzo with Biagi. A new rhythmic line was imposed and it was rapidly adopted by other orchestras and a new generation was born which brought about a great resurgence in the forties decade. Rodolfo Biagi was with Juan D’Arienzo until 1938, the year he formed his own orchestra.

 

 

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!”