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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 MILONGAS PORTEÑAS OF THE 1970’S   1 comment

Individuals with levels of ignorance that range from innocent to malicious, have attempted to create the idea that the people of Argentina couldn’t care less for the tango, except in times of bonanza when they can make a few bucks by becoming tangueros. The fact is that there is so much about the social and cultural aspects of the tango that begs explaining. Thus, we pay homage and give due respect and consideration to the humble milongas of Buenos Aires, where the preservation of the authentic, traditional and purest form of Argentine tango dancing has been taking place without interruption during both times of bonanza and misery.

The decade of the seventies was a horrendous experience for the Argentine Republic, as members of a repressive elite supported a military war that has become to be known by the infamous name of “dirty” because it was waged against citizens of the nation. Citizens who happened to have dissenting viewpoints, or were singled out by enemies or competitors as “dangerous” to their own selfish interests or the “welfare of the country.”

As a result of that, there are still thousands of Argentine citizens unaccounted for. They have disappeared (some having been dumped from military cargo planes in the icy waters of the Atlantic Ocean; others buried in unmarked graves, some after their unborn children were ripped from their guts, and rats were used to fill the void) under the excuse of cleansing the country of dissidents who rubbed somebody the wrong way.

In this climate of terror and persecution, the business side of dancing suffered because the secret police regularly raided dance halls under the excuse of looking for terrorists, communists, and other enemies of the state. People began to stay away from the most prominent clubs where dancing (all sorts of dancing, not just tango) took place.

The conclusion drawn by many, and supported by outright lies told by prominent touring professional teachers, was that tango died in the seventies as a consequence of being proscribed and banned by the government. The reasoning followed that if the tango had “died,” it was because the Argentines “killed” it, and Americans and Europeans with hard currency on hand performed some sort of exorcism, and voila, here is the tango again but now it belongs to the world.

Not so, writes Adela Zulema Cardozo, a surgical nurse and a founding member of the Institute of Tango Research. The ignorance of such claims is partially a consequence of the minimum cost of admission charged by the organizers of the numerous milongas porteñas during the seventies, that allowed access to their salons to a very large number of people of limited or non existent resources. These were indeed modest places, owned by regular people who could not afford the prohibitive costs of radio, TV and printed advertising, which is what gives massive promotion to an activity proposed to all sectors of society.
But maybe, these promoters were not interested in advertising since their facilities never lacked attendance because of the high interest shown by the public in dancing tango.

These milongas porteñas were the authentic seeding grounds for some of the greatest dancers who a decade later began to showcase the Argentine tango on stages around the world. Among them were Juan Carlos Copes, Virulazo, Antonio Todaro, Eduardo Arquimbau and many others. That’s the reason for their designation as milongas porteñas in contrast with other well publicized places “where they also danced Tango.” These other places were exclusively frequented by tourists, or by a public that had nothing to do with the authentic milongueros, who would only attend these “visible” venues, when as professionals, they were invited to do an exhibition.

Of all the milongas porteñas of the seventies, salon Italia Unita is perhaps the eldest of them all, with over a half a century of illustrious existence promoting the dance of tango. Others had a more ephemeral existence lasting part or all of the decade of the seventies. Some have been recently reopened for the benefit of the new tourist crowd that participates in locally organized international Tango encounters.

The common characteristic of all these milongas porteñas was the alternating use of both Tipica and Tropical/Moderna music in contrast to the decade of the forties were Jazz alternated with the tango. Within the Tropical/Moderna repertoire, cumbias were the preferred choice of the dancers.

The most classic, traditional and oldest salon tanguero is Salon La Argentina, originally located on 361 Rodriguez Peña Street, one block from Corrientes, and today on Bartolome Mitre, near Callao.
Another traditional and very old salon was Augusteo. There were dances with two orchestras: Tipica and Tropical on Saturdays and Sundays, and with recordings on Fridays.

Salon Rodriguez, known this way because of the street where it was located, was actually Circulo Italiano Lider Piedmont. They organized dances always with recorded music Wednesdays and Sundays from 6 PM to 11:30 PM. Notables habitués were Magdalena Copes, mother of Juan Carlos, , Carlos Alberto Estevez better known as Petroleo, a dancer of prestige, and many other well known personalities of the world of tango.

At Salon 25 de Mayo, known in the tango jargon as La veinticinco they danced on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays with orchestras, Tipica and Tropical-Moderna; on Sundays the dancing started at 4 PM and lasted till 1 am. The attendance tended to be an older very tanguero crowd.

Salon Belgrano, located on Belgrano Avenue, was actually the Hogar Asturiano. In the seventies they had dancing every night, with different organizers each night. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays the milonga was known as the Copes Tango Club.

El Nilo belonged to the Croatian community and at one point it was a movie house. Located on Boedo Avenue, they had dancing with orchestras on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 6 PM.

Salon Reduci, as well as Augusteo and Italia Unita, Unione e Benevolenza and Nacionale Italiano, belonged to the Italian Association of Mutual Assistance. It was built in 1929 and it is located on Rodriguez Peña 1442. In the seventies, they danced there with orchestras on Fridays and Saturdays from 10 PM to 4 AM, and on Sundays with recorded music from 5 PM to 2 AM.

Salon Canning on Scalabrini Ortiz 1331 offered (and still continues) dancing every night to recorded music.

Casa de Galicia had dancing Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays; on Sundays they danced with four orchestras, two Tipicas and two Tropicals. They worked in two shifts, two until 9 PM and two until closing time. Each orchestra played half hour sets.

Salon Italiano, actually Nazionale Italiano also had two orchestras, Tipica and Tropical on Saturdays from 9 PM to 4 AM, and on Sundays until 1 AM.

Palacio Rivadavia offered dancing with a high percentage of recorded tangos on Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays.

Salon Constitution offered tangos in the Seventies. Later it became the palace of the bailanta, a dance party considered by many even “lower class” than the tango, perhaps because it was the preferred form of entertainment for the dark skinned people of the interior of Argentina, and the dark skinned immigrants from Bolivia, Paraguay and Peru.

The Casa Suiza, also known as Salon Suizo held dances only during Carnaval time. They were organized by the Shimmy Club, a black association, and it had two dance floors. The main floor at street level attracted the tango crowd in a similar way as the salon listed above. In the basement, members of the Shimmy Club danced candombes to the sound of small drums, although they also went upstairs to dance tangos and cumbias.

Other salons where people danced tangos in the seventies where, Verdi, Region Leonesa, Glorias Argentinas, America del Sur, Unione e Benevolenza. Some are still in existence today. There were also social clubs like Estudiantes de Buenos Aires, Almagro, Bristol, Huracan, Boca Juniors. And confiterias such as Marcone, Mi Club, Crillon, Okey, Tourbillon, Retratos, Marabu, Bamboche, Savoy, Siglo XX, and Regine. It was not unusual that around midnight or 1 AM, they stopped selling admission tickets because they were filled to capacity.

There were other venues like Antezana, Circulo Social Mariano Acosta, La Taberna de Ricardo, Sociedad de Fomento Mariano Acosta, Noches de Atenas, Los Bohemios, Peña de Tango Angel Villoldo, Cantina La Galera and Cantina La Herradura.

Of all places, Salon Italia Unita was perhaps the one that typified best, the popularity of the tango in the seventies, a period when tourists stayed away because of the political and economic unrest in Argentina. Built between 1878 and 1883, it is an ample salon with balconies at both sides and at the entrance.
The dance floor has a parquet floor that has been completely replaced twice in 1981 and 1989. At the far end is the stage where the orchestras sat. Large mirrors covered the side walls, and all around the dance floors there were chairs for the ladies to sit. The gentlemen stood in the center of the dance floor (dancers moved around in la ronda) and from their vantage position they observed the ladies sitting or standing around the dance floor, ready to invite them to dance using the classic cabeceo, the nod of the head. They danced with the lights on. Gentlemen were refused admission unless they wore a jacket and a tie. Persons under the age of eighteen were not allowed in, and it was forbidden to smoke in the salon. Smokers had a side hall with chairs to enjoy their vice.

Many orchestras played at Italia Unita. Maestro Juan D’Arienzo‘s final performance at the helm of his orchestra took place there, and there is a long list of major personalities of the tango scene who, alongside thousands of unnamed milongueros, spent many glorious hours enjoying and dancing the tango in the decade of the seventies, while some kept saying, and pathetically some still repeat, that the tango was dead.

Marisa Donadio, an attorney and also a founder member of the Research Institute of Tango contributed with documentation used in this article.