Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Notes from Hernan Prieto's tango music history lecture

From Hernan's website
Hernan's tango music talk at Valentango 2016 was a lot of fun (and I've hardly ever seen a music lecture so well attended!). He has a great way of talking, very entertaining, very well engaging the listeners - and then the body language is something, even impersonating every tango tune Hernan talks about.

Is it an important subject for the tangueros to know? Not really, says Hernan. But it adds to our appreciation of our favorite pastime

Broad historic categories first: from 1895-1920 Guardia Vieja and then through 1935, Guardia Nueva; he considers 1936-1955 to be the years of the Golden Age, and calls the later years “Vanguardia”. 1895 is sort of arbitrary, a way to call attention to the fact that it was then when Rosendo Mendizabal came up with the first score sheet for a tango, "El Enterriano". But of course tango already existed before. Marching band music may have contributed to its birth, as well as cultural amalgamation of the first major wave of immigration to Argentina, spanning 1878-1895.

We generally play at the milongas the music which has been recorded after 1927/28, and before the late 1950s, which is why we call this general time period Golden. Of course the major orchestras' timelines spanned the boundaries of these time periods. And the orchestras changed with the times and the trends, and indeed set the trends.

Canaro's early orchestra, from Tangology101
Francisco Canaro. Since 1914. Rhythmic. First orchestra had flute, guitar. But no piano. No base. Of course it isn't an “orchestra tipica” with its sections of bandoneons and violins, a piano, and a bass. Indeed, the whole concept of a “tipica" hasn't been popularized yet, not until the 1920s.

Canaro's output of records is worth a place in the Guinness Book. 8000 records! 700 themes composed by Francisco Canaro himself! (or maybe fewer ...much gossip about that). Created copyrighting system in Argentina. Produced movies, theater plays, became a “star factory” of  the Argentine movie and music industry.

In the peak years, Canaro's orchestra recorded almost a song a day. No time to rehearse. Just keep on recording!

The music was characterized by square beat, constant tempo without acceleration or deceleration (driven by piano and base), simple harmony. Solos aren't typical until very late. Canaro added lots of instruments and was proud of calling his orchestra “symphonic” - sometimes up to 60-strong bands! Bandoneon section was seated in the second row, behind the violins.

Canaro traveled to Paris in 1925 because the recording equipment there was much better there, says Hernan (New York was the other recording capital). Few recordings survive from the era, though; it was expensive to cut a quality record. (DP – the other explanation for Canaro's trip which I mention on this blog was the tragic demise of Bailes de Internados; there also stories about the much higher pay in France). Travel by sea took 45 days!


On Gardel and classification of vocalists: 

~~ Cantor / Chansonnier / Cantante


Carlos Gardel was immensely popular in this period of tango history. Gardel was a “cantor” - a singer supported by accompaniment of a very small team, perhaps just a guitar or two. Maybe lack of Gardel's orchestral records is the biggest reason why his recordings aren't played at the milongas today. "The first video clip of tango" has been filmed with Gardel in New York.

Chansonnier / refrain singer - popular in the 1920s.

"Cantante", singing perhaps the whole of lyrics, like Gardel, but working with an orchestra. The first great success was Charlo with Canaro (the clip of "Yo también soñé" below is from a 1936 movie) 
 To avoid taxes or licensing issues, American orchestras in France had to pose as “folkloric bands”. Everyone wore a faux gaucho outfit! The orchestra called themselves a symphony in French. Success in Paris, success with the Pope himself appreciating the music helped cement acceptance of tango among the rich and the influential back home.

One of the band members was Canaro's brother Rafael, who stayed on in Paris when Francisco returned home. Maybe Rafael fell in love with a French girl. Maybe with more than one, says Hernan. Later, on several occasions, both brothers performed the same score in their two countries.

(Lucio Demare was also producing movies and becoming a "star factory" after Canaro).

Movie stars are being born! New celebrities every few years. A singer cast as the main movie character! All women fall in love with the singer-actor ... not like the guys are immune to it, either. Enter Ada Falcon, the green-eyed diva immortalized in "Yo no sé que me han hecho tus ojos" - she sung it in 1930. Real stardom. She had a Rolls Royce convertible, the first one in Buenos Aires, and a mansion in a neighborhood of embassies. Her habit of performing with a veil covering her eyes - the eyes which were for Canaro alone. An anectode how she blurted, "Canaro will buy me another one", after Canaro's wife whacked her convertible with a broom in a fit of rage. Disappeared after Canaro cheated on her with her own sister; not discovered until 1999 in a provincial convent. This plot needs a good movie.

Osvaldo Fresedo - first recorded in New York rather than in Paris, before Argentina got its own recording studios. Piano and bandoneon are his rhythm-marking instruments. Loved violins. Lots of violins! And cellos... The "strings master". Violins are seated in the first row of the orchestra. Melodies are front and center. "Niebla de riachuelo".

Fresedo's orchestra played in Cabaret Rendez-Vous for the high-class clientele. Never in the basic venues like the sports clubs with their popular dance floors. They performed at the embassy functions, entertained the rich, and this partly explains the detached feeling some Argentines still have towards Fresedo. Fresedo's stylistic influences won the hearts of the tangueros later, with Di Sarli's music.

By 1935, tango was almost dead, persisting only as a complex, rich-folks music. De Caro wasn't really for dancing. For the dancers, the void was filled by fox and jazz, rumba and swing.

Interior of El Chatecler (from jantango's blog)
note lots of tables, not too big a dance floor,
it was meant to be a place of socializing
and entertainment first, and a dance venue
perhaps a distant second
Now introducing Juan D'Arienzo at a newly open cabaret, "El Chantecler". The orchestras performed from the balcony - some tango, some jazz, some Latin; some stand-up comedy, some cabaret girls shows. Certain services were being offered by the dames present there - as Hernan explained, the "working ladies" danced with one another during an opening song, to let the prospective customers know what's going on, which girls were the guests and which one were on a job.

D'Arienzo hired young musicians. The idea was simple, just to excite the crowd into dancing. Bandoneons became "the engine" and were seated in the front row. Bass was used for pizzicato. Everything added together to staccato-ize the music.
Violins? They better don't play too much. Maybe not at all :)
Piano plays separate rhythmic moments. Extra piano notes at the end of the phrases were the invention of Biagi (frenzied, easily bored, "addict").

Hernan shows another picture of Chantecler: no tables anymore, it's overcrowded with the dancers, the owners had to add an outdoor patio with the music delivered by speakers. The success was taxing on the musicians, they played live 7 nights a week, plus on the radio, plus in the recording studio. In 1942 all the musicians left, lead by Polito, the pianist, citing too much work, too little fame. With the replacement hires, D'Arienzo's orchestra changed, mellowing a bit. ( The "King of the Beat" used his connections to deny Polito's crew access to recordings and best venues, so they never grew into a real competition).



Silences and pauses came from D'Arienzo's work, too. Layers of the music weren't complex, in fact one should be able to recognize the whole tango from any of the instruments' parties. The society was split about D'Arienzo's music. Many dancers loved it, but musicians were often bored and dissatisfied. "It's all fast, all simple, and the guy keeps yelling at you, "Faster, faster!"". Pedro Maffia even quit tango in disgust. Hector Maure later said that singing for D'Arienzo was great for the money but very bad for his voice, that the orchestra didn't even reduce the volume when it was his turn to sing, that the speed was destructive...

But the acceleration and "rhythmization" trend ends in 1942. It wasn't totally sudden, but the new trends were felt across the field.

The recording companies, which once used to equate slower beats with the failing pre-1935 tango styles, gradually opened to experimentation with romantic and lyrical styles. Importantly, until 1942 the lyrics of tango were typically based on lunfardo slang. The topics were heavy on loyalty and betrayal, crime and poverty; the women were often described in derogatory ways. But starting from 1943, the government banned lunfardo and "low morality" themes from the airwaves. So romantic tangos became very important.

(Hernan gives this example: so a tango sang how a girl looked so beautiful and graceful, but perhaps it was just an illusion of a guy who drank too much? Not anymore. "Tal vez sera un alcohol", "Maybe it was alcohol", became "Tal vez sera tu voz", "Perhaps it was your voice", under censorship).

Carlos Di Sarli. Famous sunglasses, hiding an eye injured in a gun shop accident, or, some claim, a failed suicide attempt. In 1938-1941 Di Sarli's newly convened orchestra is getting into strongly rhythmical music, likely under pressure from the recording companies too eager to replicate D'Arienzo's success.

1939 - hired Roberto Rufino, age 16, when his dad still doesn't allow the kid to wear grownups' long pants. Rufino had to be at the microphone in shorts. The voice isn't youthful at all, it's deep ... "probably due to too much smoking and booze tried in his first 15 years of life", jokes Hernan. "Corazón" was Rufino's first recording with Di Sarli

1942 - hired Alberto Podesta, age 17. He sang "No esta" on their first day of recording. Rufino and Podesta were both too young to get into the night clubs, not yet 21, so a cabaret owner would signal the orchestra if an undercover cop was in the building - in which case the singers didn't come out from behind the curtains, and the music remained instrumental.

Rufino and Podesta were one of the very few tango examples of what the Argentines call "rubro", a "category" of musicians who fill the same role in the same orchestra, but who don't perform together in a duet.

The change to more melodic and graceful music began with "Cuando el amor muere", August 1941, sung by Carlos Acuña in his only recording with Di Sarli's orchestra. Longer violin melodies, solos characterize Di Sarli's music, while the role of the bandoneons tends to be minor, secondary. Thus, Di Sarli developed Fresedo's stylistic line to perfection.
Hernan's Tango Onthology diagram from the lecture
(I wouldn't put Donato "downstream" of D'Arienzo, though...)

3 comments:

  1. Thanks for such a nice work putting everything together.
    Bravo!
    Hernan P.

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  3. Thank you for this synopsis, Dima. Loved Hernan's lecture, such a treat. Still can't stop thinking about Ada Falcon.

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