Monday, September 19, 2016

"Tango, pasion argentina" questions and quips

The 2013 Argentine public TV documentary series, "Tango, pasion argentina" is narrated by singer Walter "El Chino" Laborde, written by Liliana Escliar, and features great many modern musicians and orchestras. Only one of the 13 parts is about dancing, but there is an infinite variety of music and history and general culture information in the series, which is freely available on the internet. I can't even begin to cover all its topics... All I want to do is to touch on several moments which surprised me, and several observations which struck me.

The first part, "Tu cuna fue un conventillo" ("Your cradle was in a conventillo") mentions that in 1870-1910 Buenos Aires had 239 schools, 16 temples, and ... about 6000 houses of ill repute? Where do these numbers come from (so few churches??) And what kind of estabishments - brothels (prostibulos)? Boliche may generally be a night club, right? I already mentioned that tango historians Lamas and Binda insist that dancing was frequent in the drinking establishments but not in the prostibulos. The reason for this was the city ordnance which forbade both dancing and drinking in BsAs city brothels ... but then we can counter it again - like when was this law enforced, and what about suburbios - were there many brothels outside the city lines in the core tango barrios?

"With the arrival of the bandoneon with its sadness, Tango matured a little, and, like a teenager, has become prone to sentimental moods"

Inside Palais de Glace before a ball. From Maria's tango art site
El Chino gives the exact date of the 1st Balle del Internado a.k.a. Tango Clinic at Palais de Glace. Argentine Medical Interns' celebration was timed to the Students' Day, September 21, 1914. Although I also read that this date is incorrect and that the September 21, 1914 charity gala was held at a different location, "Splendid Theater", as a benefit for the medical library, and it was followed by a Fantasy Ball at Palais de Glace on September 24th. I wrote about these crazy celebrations of medicine and tango earlier ... and tonight it may be the time to celebrate it with "El Internado", "The Intern"?

"In 1917, Angel Villoldo said in an interview that he doesn't intend to keep composing tangos, because it's no longer in vogue. He died in 1919 - didn't live to see himself wrong".

Laborde described Nikanor Lima's 1916 Tango Salon dancing textbook as the earliest attempt to make not just tango music but also the actual dance decent and palatable to the high society in Argentina. The hundred years old book is lovingly preserved and commented at the social dance website of Stanford University.(Needless to say, I would be very surprised if any Argentines actually learned tango by this book!)

On the shift from improvised payadore-style verses to pre-set lyrics, and the revolution brough about by "Mi Noche Triste" in 1917: Informal / improvised lyrics, full of risque hints and double entendre - as is customary in the sex trade - dominated the early tangos. The same must be true with risque couplets in any language! With Contursi / Gardel's "Mi Noche Triste", the rough lunfardo slang remained in the lyrics, but now the verse has become a narrative, a story, with a straightforward meaning, and no indecent wordplay, no more bowdlerizations like "La c...ara de la l...una". (

"How do you know estribillista (refrain singer) from a true-blue tango singer?" For starters, refrain singer's name wasn't even printed anywhere on the billboard, tells us Laborde! But on July 1, 1937, for an opening night in Marabu, Anibal Troilo put Francisco Fiorentino's name on the billboards, That's how the singers' ascent to fame started, says Laborde. And soon after, we already see the star singer with one's special image, with unique onstage manners. They need to be watched, not just listened to. And soon after, chicas stop dancing, they freeze and watch their idol when the vocal segments begin...

One of the early examples of tango records
featuring estribillo singer names.
Osvaldo Frsedo - Roberto Ray, Feb. 1935
Courtesy of El Espejero
(Of all the disputable statements and simplifying soundbites of the TV series, this part about cantor de orquesta and July 1937 caused the biggest uproar so far. Yes, Francisco Fiorentino is the archetypal tango orchestra singer, but his impact on the evolving styles of vocal tangos have started years earlier, yet didn't achieve full strength until Troilo's first wave of prolific recordings in 1941 ... and there were far too many others boldly experimenting with the best ways to include vocals into the danceable tango. The format of "Tango cancion", with its multiple vocal couplets and refrains "beginning to end", was made famous hundred years ago by "Mi Noche Triste", and remained extremely popular through the years, but it wasn't considered "tango for dancing". Francisco Canaro credits himself with experimenting with part-vocal tango formats starting in the 1920s, first with only the refrain (estribillo) sung, then gradually going bolder with added stanzas, yet always keeping the requisite long instrumental intros and transitions. In his in-depth analysis, Jens-Ingo Brodesser shows how Carabelli, Fresedo, and Donato all developed stanzas-and-refrains tango formats in the early-to-mid 1930s. Of note also, we don't know how Fiorentino sang in Marabu in 1937, but we do know that the "legend of nameless singer" isn't quite right and in fact RCA Victor started putting estribillista names on record labels as early as in 1933.)

"Muerte y resurrección", "Death and resurrection of tango" (I was fascinated by this Dark Age period of tango history too, and wrote about it at length already). The "death" section spans the 1960s. Ricardo Mejia's disastrous management of RCA and "Nueva Ola". Deluge of Western music. Parallel rise of the countryside tunes, of the folklore and Palito Ortega. Mortal conflict of the New Wave "movement" with Pugliese. But some tango life still goes on... Amazingly, La Falda festival of tango begins in a  little town in Cordoba province, 500 miles from BsAs, in 1965. Sexteto Mayor forms in 1973. Ben Molar commissions "14 con el Tango".Still, tango survives mostly by lingering in the retrospective TV programs, and on the for-export LPs. 

The nail in the coffin of the old tango may have been the untimely death of Julio Sosa in a car accident on November 26 1964 - "El Varón del Tango", only 38 years old, was still loved by the young fans even in the times of Nueva Ola. 

Cucuza at El Viejo Almacen
In the big city counterculture scene, new music cafes sustain the remnants of tango. Caño Catorce Cafe - "Drainage Pipe 14" - opened in March 1962. The name of the establishment is said to have been suggested by drunk Troilo, muttering, "of course we'll go down the drain soon after opening" (and the  number 14 signifies drunkards). Over the years, it's become almost synonymous with tango music. It operated until 1986, and later reopened with almost the same fame. In 1969, Ruben Juarez debuted on bando at this cafe.

El Viejo Almacen - "The Old Warehouse" bar opens in on May 9, 1969 as Edmundo Rivero's project, named after the opening line from the old tango, Sentimento Gaucho, sung by Gardel in 1925 ... it is the place of gathering of all dejected and hopeless. By the way, this location hosted a cafe and bowling alley way back in the 1900s, operating under the name "Volga" by a Russian emigre, Paula Kravnik,  In this still from the video, Hernán 'Cucuza' Castiello sings Sentimento Gaucho at the location. 

The serial doesn't have much to say about the 1970s. Too dark, too hopeless. For the resurrection scene, they segway straight to November 11, 1983, when Tango Argentino opens to rave reviews at Festival d'Automne in Paris.

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