Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Dark Ages: from the days of the burned records to the Day of Tango

This is the story of tango's darkest days, of the deluge of the New Wave, and of a 99 years old tango patrician, Ben Molar.

The tale begins at the times of the fall of Perón's rule in 1955. The military juntas replacing him didn't yet set the goals of governing the country in perpetuity, but they made it painfully clear that not just Peron himself, but all populism and leftism was out, replaced by the rule of the money and the elite. The tango, alas, has been co-opted by the Argentine populism as the soul of its national culture; tango has been hoisted as the banner of Peronism, and the old personal relation between the families of Enrique Santos Discépolo and Juan Perón has already costed tango's leading poet and organizer his dignity and, in the end, his life (Discépolo actively promoted Perón's 1951 reelection campaign in his radio program, and brought in other tango celebrities to root for Perón, which caused for Discépolo so much vitriol, hate mail and threats, spitting and heckling, empty theaters and denied handshakes, that the poet soon died at the age of 50 of what was essentially lack of will to live).

Listen to the video below. This is Francisco Canaro's orchestra, with Hugo del Carril singing the Peronist march ("Los muchachos Peronistas...").

Tango was falling out of favor with the ones in power, and with the media companies. It culminated in the loss of master copies of tango records. This is the main reason why so many tangos we aspire to dance to are of so-so record quality, digitized from used vinyl disks. It didn't affect all Golden Age records in the same way; in fact backup tapes of Troilo and D'Arienzo have been largely preserved, hence a better quality of recordings of their orchestras. The lore of the tango DJs says that one person, an Ecuadorean or perhaps a Colombian, ordered the master copies of tango records burned, maybe out of sheer ignorance or out of spite. Can we reconstruct what exactly happened?

"Frutillas", Ben Molar's
Castellano translation of
"Strawberry Fields Forever"
In 1959, RCA Victor Argentina, under its Ecuadorean General Manager Ricardo Mejia, a "sales expert", started La Nueva Ola, "The New Wave", billed as "movimiento musical" but essentially a commercial enterprise hiring younger musicians and vocalists to produce a domestic version of rock-n-roll (and to beat rival Odeón with its immensely popular Luis Aguilé). (It is the same year which planted the first seeds of the future tango rebirths when in October, Piazzolla, on  a Copes tour to Puerto Rico and New York, wrote "Adios Nonio") (Of all "daughter companies" of old grand Victor, today we probably remember the best its Japanese arm, JVC or Japan Victor Company ... and if Ricardo Mejia is ever remembered, it is as the barbaric RCA Victor manager who infamously burned the archived master records of tango)

English songs were kept away from the Argentine airways, so La Nueva Ola often used gringo themes translated into Castellano by Moses Smolarchik Brenner a.k.a. Ben Molar, ironically a lifelong tango aficionado, author, and organizer who at the time helped hasten the end of tango's greatest years, replacing tango with the transplanted foreign pop. 

The following year, in November 1960, Mejia hired his fiancee Jolly Land  ( Yolanda Juana Magdalena Delisio Puccio), a 27 year old jazz singer and TV star, to join RCA's nascent La Nueva Ola ensemble, Club de Clan. Blond and silly, Jolly Land has become famous as "The Clan Coquette" and "Argentine Brigitte Bardotte".  And, despite the movement's official goal of "cleansing pop music from the US influence", she soon won a permission to sing - occasionally - in English. All of it cemented the Clan's popularity. As reported in Billboard on Feb. 2nd, 1963, Mejia's commercial success was exemplary because the local talent in economically depressed Argentina has been so cheap, and because the record shops were forced to accept a reduced 20% profit margin - so Clan's LPs retailed for $1.99 apiece. Buoyed by these successes, Mejia broke with RCA to establish a rival, even cheaper brand - and then vanished from the industry altogether.

The magnetic tape technology has been introduced to broadcasting barely a decade earlier, by Bing Crosby who gave Ampex a $50000 grant, in 1947, to reverse-engineer a Nazi tape recording machine, the Magnetophon. Although prototype tape recorders were demoed by the Germans as early as 1931, the German engineers achieved massive improvements in the 1940s, and surpassed the quality of 78 rpm records. Late in the war, the Magnetophone was widely - and secretively - used to enhance the quality of the German broadcasts. It's not like the existence of some breakthrough sound recording technique wasn't known to the Allies ... of course they knew that even after all the studios and archives of Berlin broadcasters were destroyed in air raids, the quality of the broadcast remained stellar ... they just had no idea what technical means made it possible. After the Nazi capitulation, U.S. Army Signal Corps Major Jack Mullin brought a couple Magnetophons and some tape reels to the US in 1946, demoed it around Hollywood entretainers, and got Crosby hooked. Ampex (named after the initials of its Russian founder, A.M. Poniatoff, an engineering and aviation prodigy from a small, and now by abandoned, Russian village in Tatarstan) was up to the challenge, and the rest is history
A.M. Poniatoff with his prototype in 1948
But before the Club de Clan project brought RCA its first mega-profits, Mejia needed rehearsal and recording spaces for his young talents - and his sights turned to the rooms occupied by the RCA audio archive. Far from being a culture-hating Herostratus, Mejia was a pragmatic manager who wouldn't just throw away valuable property. He arranged for a transfer of the records to then-cutting technology of magnetic tapes, to free up the space. But the tape recording turned out to be haphazard and uncontrolled, and only a fraction of the master records (including, peculiarly, Troilo's) ended up transferred to tapes with an appropriate quality before the original master copies were destroyed!

In fact, Ricardo Mejia was the first media manager to put live tango orchestras on TV, starting in 1962 with "Yo te canto Buenos Aires" on Channel 11 (featuring "El Polaco" Roberto Goyeneche singing "Garúa" with the Aníbal Troilo's orchestra!). And in 1963, he commissioned "Tango de Exportacion", a Troilo LP for the foreign markets. So he must have had some faith in tango - the old tango perhaps only good to please the older audiences or the foreigners, but the new youthful tango of El Club de Clan possibly bridging the generation gap in a way which appealed both to Clan's youngest fans and to their parents (yes, in addition to pop and "localized" rock, the Clan talents also starred in the classic genres of tropical (Chico Navarro), tango (Raúl "Tanguito" Cobián), and especially the hinterland folk music  ("Palito" Ortega), the latter symbolizing the defeat of Porteno culture with its music of sadness and resignation in the post-Peronist Argentina). Clan's dancing on stage was orderly, the lyrics extolled youthfulness, contented happiness, and the status quo - the joyous youthful music quite fit for a paternalistic, conservative political regime. 
El Pichuco for export!
Ricardo Mejia and Anibal Troilo signing the deal. "Billboard", Aug 24, 1963
Mejia is said to have lead a personal vendetta against Osvaldo Pugliese, who enjoyed particularly strong cross-generational appeal and who eagerly drew young talents into his egalitarian music-coop team, too. Abel Cordoba recalls how the "Club de Clan people" pushed Club Estudiantes de la Plata to stop Pugliese's concerts, and how they heckled Pugliese at Club Provincial of Rosario.

The clip below shows tango "El Club de Clan way". Young Raúl "Tanguito" Cobián sings "Picaflor", "The womanizer", for TV:
The painting for Troilo
Ben Molar, as we said, did much more than to publish translations of foreign hits through Ediciones Internacionales Fermata, a musical score-publishing label he owned. Ben Molar loved tango music and poetry and he especially loved Julio De Caro, for who he wrote lyrics of Calla corazón calla, and he watched the deterioration of tango culture in the 1960s with dismay. Ben Molar's solution to this problem was to cleanse tango if its mass-culture, dance-hall past, and to develop new tango as a refined art form, a synthesis of painting, music, and poetry, directed at high-culture audiences both at home and abroad. That's how, in 1966, Ben Molar's ambitious tango project, "14 con el tango", came to life. Fourteen orchestras and fourteen singers, fourteen composers and fourteen poets created 14 very non-danceable tangos - paired, indeed, with 14 paintings, and featured around the world on an embassy tour. 

The painting for D'Arienzo
In the same 1966, at Julio De Caro's birthday celebration, Ben Molar came up with an even more ambitious idea of the National Day of Tango. It will take Ben Molar over a decade (which included several years of Peronist rule, even more violently terminated by the military this time around) to turn De Caro's birthday, December 11th, into a natonal celebration. And against all odds, the first ever Day of Tango, on December 11 1977, filled Luna Park with 14,500 spectators!

And so we celebrate it, for nearly 4 decades now, in Argentina and around the world - a day timed to the shared birth date of Julio de Caro and Carlos Gardel, exactly the two tango music great's to whose records we wouldn't dance, as a life's legacy of a poet and a translator who would have loved to banish dance from the world of tango, and who personally lent a helping hand to the profiteers eager to replace tango with rock and with the Anglo pop hits. But come to think of it, isn't it one of those logical incompatibilities tango is all about? Freedom and control, flight and grounding, rhythm and melody, love and mean-spiritedness, fire and ice - that's what makes tango a tango.


  1. This is the first time I knew there was a reason for the disputes over music I see here in San Diego between Nuevo and Classico. I'll be back to read more and with some questions if you don't mind.

  2. Some cultural disputes need no deep reasons to flare up :) But if a heated argument leads to more questions and better knowledge, then it was ultimately worth it.