Sunday, October 29, 2017

Alberto "Tito" Bespros: back to Russia with love

Latvian DJ Andres Vilks has a passion for old vinyl disks in need of digitizing. His recent find opened my eyes to an awesome page of history of the Dark Ages of Tango: the one and only Argentine Tango LP recorded in the USSR.

The dateline was 1968. The bandleader, Tito Bespros, and the conjunto name, Cuarteto Buenos Aires. The disk jacket informed us that the band has been formed in 1966, performed across the globe, and won an award at a folk music festival in Miami in 1967. On the Russian tour, it's been joined by a 37 years old vocalist, Siro San Roman (who left an amazing "Easter Egg" near the end of their "Media luz" ... don't miss it, especially if you understand Russian :) ). So who were these guys, whose only recordings survived on a dusty LP in an antique record shop in Riga? Their story wasn't to be found anywhere on the Internet, but with the help of Tito's grand nephew (a computer entrepreneur who named his startup after tango) and snippets from Julio Nudler's great tango history book, we were able to learn quite a few bits and pieces:

Tito Bespros (January 4, 1917 - April 29, 1983) was one of tango's several great "ruso" violinists, children of immigrants from the Russian Empire to Argentina. Tito's real name was Alberto Besprosvan. He was born in Buenos Aires exactly 100 years ago to a Jewish couple from Odessa, and he embarked on a tour to find his own Russian roots when the lights of tango in his hometown dimmed in the 1960s.
Alberto's parents were Jose Besprosvan and Esther Slavner. Alberto's sister remembered that their surname was changed to Besprosvan after immigration. Most likely it used to be Besprozvanny, a relatively well known Jewish surname with a curious meaning, literally "Unnamed", a living testament to Russian Jews' aversion to the government-imposed surname system. Until 1804, our ancestors used no surnames at all, but then the government decreed that family names must be assigned to make tax collection and military drafts easier. Not surprisingly, it took decades to finally ensure that all Jewish families got permanent surnames, consistently used in all documents and not changed on a whim every few years. Not surprisingly also, some of the newfangled surnames read "Neizvestny" (literally Unknown), or "Besprozvanny" (Unnamed), or even Nepomnyaschy (Unable to recall). (The Besprosvan family also remembers that among their original ancestor names was something like Dynin or Dinin, but my hunch is that it was Joseph's mother's name).
In Buenos Aires, Jose Besprosvan made living selling porcelain figurines, like the famous kitty, gato de porcelana, from "A media luz". Once they lived at Calle Ombu upstairs from a band owner; it was with this neighbor's band where little Tito (Alberto), still in his short pants, made his earliest violin gig. Tito's first major tango job has been with Orquesta Tipica Victor, then led by Adolfo Carabelli. Traveling to Chile with the band of Alberto de Caro, Tito Besprosvan met his future wife, a Jewish girl from Vienna who worked at a chocolate shop near the venue where they played. In 1940, he traveled all over South America with Juan Canaro's orchestra, and in 1942, went to Mexico. Tango's golden 1940s and early 1950s brought Alberto Besprosvan so many excellent opportunities with the major tango orchestras that the relatives half-seriously tell that there were no other tango musician whose violin is heard in more recordings than Besprosvan!
But the late 1950s drew the curtain on the exuberance of Tango's Golden Age. That's when Alberto Besprosvan had to strike on his own, convening his first band, a string ensemble, in 1958 to play in clubs such as Tabaris and Abdullah. They have seven or possibly even eight violins. Among the violinists were Julio "Toto" Grana, Simón Broitman, Bernardo Prusak, Francisco Oréfice. Osvaldo Celenza played bass, Osvaldo "Marinero" Montes, bandoneon, and Normando Lazara, piano. For a while, the ensemble secured a profitable venue, El Clubo Automovil, but they lost it after joining a strike. They key 4 players of the conjunto went on playing on a tourist boat based off Porto Alegre in Brasil. That's when Besprosvan, Montes, Lazara, and Celenza got themselves a name, "El Cuarteto Buenos Aires", highlighting their Argentine Tango provenance. They kept the name even when they were joined by the 5th member, Siro San Roman, for the global tours in 1967 and 1968, which brought Alberto Besprosvan back to his parents' old country. Did he get a chance to play in Odessa, I wonder?

Enjoy the tracks from the Soviet Union's one and only Argentine tango album on Google Drive!

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