(part 2/2) Fresedo. A jazz lover looking for better tango music

I strongly suggest you read the first half of this article first, because it would be hard to grasp some of the concepts discussed below without the proper context given by me in the introduction.

So, now that we got most of the background information out of the way, we can actually start to read and analyze this remarkable interview with Fresedo together. If you understand Spanish and want to read the interview by yourself, go ahead and check out the photo below, but in any case, I am going to actually broadly discuss and contextualize several points raised in the interview, so I still recommend to read my analysis anyway.

For starters, the first thing I’d like to mention is not the main point of my study, but it has to be said: one of the striking aspects of Fresedo’s words below is that he mentions a few things that are common ideas about tango dancing nowadays, but actually already expressed by someone almost 90 years ago, during totally different times. Our beloved orchestra director, described as a “very busy man” (anyone surprised here?), is first asked how he would summarize tango music, and he immediately thinks of the music being very national/Argentine in character, elegant and yet mostly focused on the inner experience of the dancers. And the latter is something that is still peculiar to this day: I don’t think there is any other dance that is nearly as introverted as the tango, with (ideally … “shut up, Lucas!”) dancers focusing on things like the embrace and the connection with someone else and using it to share feelings about the music they dance to. This is at least how tango has been danced since the last few decades, and it’s fun to know it was apparently already the same in those vastly different times!

Now, some of you readers and Cronins and Fauses might protest and wonder why I think tango would have been any different back then, but it’s important to realize there has been a lot of development in tango dancing since the actual Golden Age of the music (+- 1935-1945), and I also personally think the tango danced back then, as seen in old movies, looks a bit strange for modern-day viewers like us. My judgment is limited here as I’m not an expert on dance history, but I do know there is a small amount of tango lyrics that refer to the dance, and they aren’t particularly expressive about the dance as an emotional experience… and yet, at the same time they do offer some hints. Let me show you two nice excerpts, first from Así se baila el tango (which, at the same time, is mostly focused on steps and on looks)….

This is how you dance tango:
our breaths melding,
our eyes closing,
to listen better
to the violins
telling the bandoneon
why Malena has never sung again
since that one night.

(Translation by Derrick del Pilar, tweaked by me)

… and from Muchachos, comienza la ronda (same source, tweaked again):

Guys, the ronda is starting
as the tango invites us to form it.*

Who wouldn’t get up to dance,
when you hear the first notes
of such brilliant music?
We can weave our emotions
into this song
as it touches the depths of our soul.

(*”ronda”, a word even non-Spanish speaking tango dancers may understand, to this day still refers to the counter-clockwise way of social dancing that we naturally form in milongas when a new tanda begins.)

Anyway, there are some more examples of this topic, which pretty much deserves an article of its own. Moving on from this mere detail in the interview (and yet, I’ve written so much already! 😱), one of the two main topics in it is the evolution of tango. In the first half of the article, we argued how tango gradually began to mature already before the official start year of the Golden Age (1935), and how it happened in the case of Fresedo’s orchestra. In our actual interview from those times, Fresedo calls this evolution “necessary”, because (the interview title gets repeated) as “having it remain in the past would mean killing it”. He calls it “fundamental, just like in all other musical genres of the world”, because he sees whatever evolution as beneficial.

We shouldn’t take that last bit too literally considering that in a public interview, a musician wouldn’t really openly criticize others directly and I assume Fresedo and his colleagues, friends, rivals, etc also had differences in opinion about the direction tango music was to take. This is a just a note for us to realize that these interviews can sometimes have diplomatic, cryptic and/or evasive language and we shouldn’t think such publications always tell the entire truth or something. However, and interestingly so, mister F. is still very outspoken about why musical evolution was so important and elaborates about the flaws of the old-school way of playing and composing tango: the musicians were still sticking with simple and inadequate musical arrangements, or in other words, they used limited instrumentation and, especially in the early days of tango, those musicians didn’t even have the required knowledge to do so.

Article continues below…

Fresedo makes a case for a more complicated and mature division of tasks within an orchestra: everyone follows their specific part that has been set out by the director and/or the arranger of a piece instead of just improvising whatever. This more standardized way was already a trend at the time (he acknowledges this) and is probably what is referred to as the “evolution” in tango, but at the same time he’s still saying that a lot of the compositions are still too unorganized and orchestras could still definitely greatly improve their instrumentation. Likewise, he expresses the same for the role of the singer in orchestras and the need to formalize this, no matter if it’s a danceable song or a tango canción for listening. I mentioned before how these interviews can often be a bit diplomatic or evasive, but just imagine the courage Fresedo had to make an argument like this and risk offending other musicians in the scene. And as if that weren’t enough already, the interview then becomes even more remarkable by entering into (American) jazz territory.

Our smiling director not only stresses how much he loves the jazz genre, but even applauds it as some sort of shining light for the future of tango music. And he does so actually for the same reasons he argued for more serious instrumentation in tango: according to Fresedo, the jazz scene in the U.S. had already moved from a similar, rudimentary way of making music into an advanced, standardized, intellectual pursuit that was arguably way ahead of the contemporary situation of tango music, which was still very much inside a transition process. Fresedo declares that “music has no borders” and that he enjoyed a lot of genres, so he incorporated several ones in his repertoire, not just tango. In this context, it’s important to realize that several tango orchestras were indeed playing jazz/foxtrots, Spanish-style songs, rancheras (I think this is a style from Uruguay/Argentina that evolved from the European mazurka, and not the Mexican genre), marching songs, rumbas etc, and continued to do so in the Golden Age. Or as Señor Diabetes concludes the interview: “I am not devoted exclusively to tango, I am devoted to music”.

There are a few highlights left in the dialogue, for example Fresedo’s mixed feelings about tango lyrics, not liking some of the traditional ones about tragic stories in Buenos Aires or with a lot of lunfardo (the dialect of the streets), instead preferring more sophisticated ones that fit his melodious orchestra style. That’s not surprising if you know his type of songs a bit and consider that the orchestra still has this somewhat more upper-class connotation even today. His previously described admiration for the American music he deemed more advanced, ties in with this, and he also expresses the same problem with Argentine jazz musicians, who were also apparently far removed from all the progress made abroad. It is also necessary to underline what happened decades later: in 1956, long after the Golden Age, Fresedo performed together with the famous jazz musician Dizzy Gillespie in Buenos Aires, which led to an interesting recording. This visit was not a coincidence, considering that not only Fresedo but also other orchestras and soloist singers went on many tours abroad and became well-known around Latin America, parts of Europe and the United States. This will be described and illustrated in future posts.

To conclude today’s article, there are two points left I need to make. First, and as a side note, I have to repeat a point I made in the beginning of this second chapter: not just the dancing being a kind of introverted experience, a common idea nowadays, was expressed by Fresedo, but he also says Europeans (and Americans) tended to prefer more melodious and romantic tangos, and that’s the second thing that surprises me so much, because I believe this is still true! Ironically enough, I think Fresedo’s own music from the Golden Age is a true staple of tango DJs in Europe, and much less so in Argentina. This is also true for, let’s say, Canaro with Maida. And just another generalization: I think in Buenos Aires they like instrumental tangos quite a bit more than over here in the Old World. But let us also appreciate the many things that are played in common, by good DJs who understand what quality music for dancing is in many different forms that are all necessary in a milonga: fast and slow, rhythmical and less rhythmical, neutral and romantic, melancholic and lighter, and so forth. We all love good music everywhere, and tango has a lot of good music. Let’s also appreciate that, even though Fresedo praises music as having no borders, tango music still has a very strong identity of its own and is unique in the way it is tied to a local urban culture of immigration of the 20th century, the wonderful Buenos Aires that is reflected in so many ways in the music, and even typical things and “landscapes” from the Argentine countryside are included in it. I don’t think any other country has produced such an amazing package of dance, culture, poetry and music.

And that (finally…🙀) brings me to my finishing point. In the interview, Fresedo mostly described the musical evolution that was happening, and “necessary” according to him, as an increased instrumentation. I think this is what definitely happened especially in the Golden Age (in different stages) and it culminated in, for example, the beautiful, lyrical and mature sound of Troilo and Caló. In the entirety of the Golden Age, making arrangements was a very serious business. But I think Fresedo’s desire for technical progress also eventually lead to what I call the ruining of tango as dance music, as musicians wanted to become more and more sophisticated and tango became essentially a listening genre, eventually. Also, I’d argue there are more factors at play in the maturation of tango music in the 1930s and early 1940s, such as a natural desire to improve the music as a whole (not just in a technical sense), increased creativity, better lyrics, a huge momentum going on with a lot of orchestras competing with each other, tango becoming like pop music for huge crowds of dancers… and I could keep on speculating for a long time. But all these topics will return in future posts, as I’m absolutely obsessed with the Golden Age and its rise and fall. Until then, enjoy listening and dancing to all the gems these people have recorded for you!

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(part 1/2) Fresedo. A jazz lover looking for better tango music

Let’s continue shedding light on some inconvenient statistics: there’s about a 70% chance that any reader of this blog has willingly or unwillingly and during long periods of time filled his life with over 85% of tango. Yes, you, strange creature, you cannot but admit many a weekend in your life has been utterly consumed by encuentros milonguero, marathons, festivals, or simply several local or regional milongas, that demanded all the energy you had during those treasured two days of fleeting freedom. And worse, you have most likely spent the lion’s share of your weekdays working unhealthily hard, simply to try to hasten the arrival of Thursday, that blessed, redemptive day you could hurryingly take just another questionable RyanJetWizz flight to <random European city>. Or, you just couldn’t wait until that local evening milonga that always starts way too late, even though you knew you needed to get up at an unrelenting 6 AM, but you “choose” to indulge in it anyway. Welcome to tango.

However, there’s you, but there’s also Osvaldo Fresedo. I am pretty sure Fresedo loved tango at least as much as you do now, but unlike you, he also realized there’s more to life than just tango. In an interview from an important era in tango music history, the early- to mid-30’s, our sugary sound maker not only declares his love for jazz music, but even sees it as an example for the further evolution of tango music. And now, please forgive me my abrupt transition into a deadly serious tone – but that interview needs some important context before we can proceed to analyze what’s actually being said in it. Other than somewhat more conventional accounts that the Golden Age of tango music just ”happened” from one day to another, my personal theory is that we can already see a gradual evolution in the years before the official start of it (1935, which by the way is also an opinion, considering there are a lot of Argentines who seem to think that the Golden Age is synonymous with the 1940s… <note to self, not supposed to be read by anyone else: don’t forget to put in a drawing of a cute kitten making a shrugging gesture with its entire body, or if there’s not enough time left to grab a pencil, just copy paste the following code: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ >)
author: not me…

In case we, just for the sake of getting our definitions right, consider that the Golden Age officially starts with the “D’Arienzo revolution” in 1935 (the year he started recording with his new style) we have to consider that we can see a similar, but earlier maturation of musical styles in other orchestras already. For those who are not familiar with the concept of the D’Arienzo revolution: it is generally considered that D’Arienzo created the basis for Golden Age tango music with his renewed focus on rhythmical, uncomplicated danceability, arguably a kind of virtue of older tango music that was at danger of being ”lost”, and yet, paradoxically, his new orchestral style sounds way more crystallized and mature than anything that came before it. I will explain this paradox further in a future article, but for now, I need to emphasize a separate point that will also be elaborated in specific case studies on this website.

“Emphasize?” “elaborate?” “specific case studies”? Have you been drinking again, Lucas? Well, that’s quite a mouthful of complicated words, so let’s try to … elaborate… a bit. Like I stated above, some other orchestras than D’Arienzo’s were already going into the direction of musical maturation, as well as developing a more distinct, “own” sound, during the years before 1935. In two previous articles, we have already tracked this development for Fresedo’s orchestra – one that describes the differences between his various musical ”eras”, and another which builds on that knowledge by imagining how a ”lost” song from 1935, that was never recorded, could have sounded like. However, just to recap, in the case of Fresedo we can see that he was moving away from his traditional ”guardia vieja” style, similar to many other orchestras from approximately until 1931-1932, a style which you can still hear in this song.

Before everyone starts to become angry (there are quite a lot of people rather angry nowadays, just kidding), this does not mean his previous music was literally the same as other orchestras. I even think you can already see/hear certain signs of Fresedo’s future “romantic” style in the early music, but it is subtle, and a lot of tango dancers nowadays loathe the many elements that ARE quite similar across old orchestras, such as the way the violins sound… or maybe I’m already assuming too much, many don’t even think about those elements, they simply don’t like the general sound which is much less sophisticated than what they are used to. Anyway, now compare what you just heard with Araca la cana from 1933. To me, it’s a mind-blowing change into the direction of what we generally celebrate as Fresedo’s Golden Age sound, which I could explain in words but prefer to let you listen to.

In just a few years, Fresedo had built an entirely new style which is completely signature and unmatched by anything else we have in tango music by how romantic, sweet and sometimes even diabetes-inducing it is. Sure, the benevolent listener can already hear traces of this in the earlier years, but the huge gap in popularity between these two types of “sound” at least suggests a big difference in quality. And if we can agree that a rather stark evolution did happen as described, it’s also interesting to think about the reasons why it happened. Of course, musicians are probably always interested in “improving” their work, and musical genres often have a kind of trend of rise and fall, considering that the “Golden Age” concept is definitely not unique to tango music.

In the case of tango orchestras, all we can often do is assume things about what drove those musicians to create the music they created, or look at broad trends and construct history from there. However, this time we will use some actual archive material to move beyond merely assuming things about a musician’s motivations. Now that we have established some foundations about Fresedo’s music, I will invite you to look at an interview together and analyze that interview material in a broader context of what we discussed above and other facts about Fresedo’s long career. In the second part of this article, to be published soon, we will see how an opinionated Fresedo was actively looking for musical evolution and was influenced by jazz music in the process. Or, as the provocative title says, “Staying with the tango from the past would be like killing it”.

In conclusion: on this photo below, Fresedo is smiling – but right now, you aren’t, because you are left with this horrible cliffhanger. All I can say is: see you next time, it’s going to be worth the wait.

This image is a just a bit of a teaser… let’s analyze the rest next time!

fresedo jazzman preview

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Charlo: not just a singer, also a musician and composer

Few modern-day dancers and even DJs truly realise how important tango canción has been in tango music as a whole. Tango canción can be explained as a recording of a tango lyric fully sung by a singer, who is totally in the spotlights, while the music is mere accompaniment. We can summarize its origins in an easy, slightly simplistic way: Carlos Gardel was the “original” tango singer, and everybody else wanted to become as famous as him. Most international tango people barely even know who Gardel is, but they have all heard, let’s say, Roberto Rufino a thousand times, and it’s not hard to see why. Yet, if we want to understand tango music history better, we need to sometimes go out of our dance music comfort zone to discover less obvious aspects of the music, such as that tango canción and dance music were more intertwined than we’d like to think.

So, I just stated slightly bluntly that everyone wanted to be like Gardel, and more concretely, that means a lot of singers wanted to become famous soloists. This usually meant that singers who were succesful in dance orchestras would tend to abandon them and pursue a career as a soloist. And the other way around, some singers who are adored by a lot of current-day dancers, spent many years singing tango canción before they joined a dance orchestra and are famous to us simply for doing so. Either way, a lot of potential dancing material was never recorded. Back in the day and even until the 80’s, most of the audience also seemed to prefer tango canción and a lot of publicity material was geared towards such singers. Eventually, I will explain you more about this topic with various examples, but today, let’s focus on one of the greatest soloist singers, Charlo, who actually deserves more credit than just the denomination of “soloist singer” and can even be considered some kind of homo universalis of tango music.

Have you ever heard someone sing extremely sentimentally about demolished, old homes? Well, welcome to tango, the anthem of the world’s capital of faded glory:

Charlo was the artist name of Carlos José Pérez, who was born in a family of rich pampa landowners from the deep Argentine countryside. As a boy, he was musically gifted and the wealth of his parents allowed him to get a good musical education early on. Later, Charlo was sent to a renowned university in La Plata, a city near Buenos Aires, and eventually the whole family moved to Buenos Aires, where Charlo spent time studying at an excellent conservatory and where he would find his destiny as a tango singer. Proud of his origins, he would always retain some kind of “dandy”, elitist presentation and at some point even added the pretentious-sounding name “de la Riestra” to his own, dime-a-dozen Spanish surname. Like many others, Charlo initially copied Gardel’s style, but he was strategic, intelligent and musically skilled enough to move on and create his own. A fun fact: he at some point declared he never listened to Gardel, not because of envy, but because he was afraid of subconsciously imitating that style – they were friends, and both stars in this relatively early era of tango singing.

Even though Charlo can almost be called the quintessential tango canción singer, with an incredibly long career that greatly outlasted Gardel’s (who died young, in an airplane crash, which surely contributed to the myths around his persona), he is also present as a refrain singer in a lot of “guardia vieja” music. Collaborating with big names such as Francisco Canaro, Francisco Lomuto, Roberto Firpo (no records!) and Adolfo Carabelli, his singing is far from unappreciated among people who love these older tunes. Maybe understandably so, Charlo wasn’t too happy with this very limited, somewhat thankless role and his singing does not always really, let’s say, shine in recordings like this. Fortunately for him, he was an important figure and therefore managed to also record tango canción music with Canaro and Carabelli. And unfortunately for us, there isn’t anything in between: there is simply no Golden Age dance music with this singer, and it was only during the Golden Age when the best balance was found between dance music and more present, but not dominant singing.

I feel like this lack of significant presence in dance music is a great shame, because Charlo is a musically masterful singer who I think deserves all his fame as a soloist singer – even though I’m not sure how much I personally like his voice. The problem is, that as someone who is a great fan of tango (dance) music, most tango canción material is musically uninteresting and the overpresent singing just feels like “too much” for me. So, even though I generally enjoy Charlo’s refined voice, I do not necessarily enjoy listening to all of his soloist material, a problem I also have with other, similar singers such as Gardel, Alberto Gómez, Ada Falcón, etcetera. But, hey, instead of wallowing in the injustices of history, let’s remind ourselves of the point of today’s article: Charlo was way more than just a singer, and it requires a closer look to see exactly how.

charlo músico

As mentioned earlier, Charlo had been blessed with a good musical education, and he was skilled with the piano, the guitar and, as we can see above, the accordion. He also used his piano to compose music, and there are some great tango classics by his hand, something you wouldn’t typically expect from a singer in those days. Just because I love these songs so much, and because I am a DJ, I invite you to listen to them in their most famous dance music versions: Rondando tu esquina, Fueye, Horizontes, Tormento, Sin lágrimas, El viejo vals and the milonga No hay tierra como la mía. A special case is Ave de paso, a very melodic, almost non-tango like song about a “tropical” romance, with lyrics written by famous tango poet Enrique Cadícamo, during a stay in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It’s worth noting that all these classics have lyrics by the best poets, so Charlo wasn’t exactly a random hobbyist writing down some notes, but a gifted composer with an eye for profound, lyrical storytelling. There’s even a video with a live performance by an old Charlo where he sings and plays the piano at the same time – and as if that wasn’t enough, both the music and the lyrics of the song are of his own creation.

We can definitely conclude that Charlo was some kind of universal man of tango music, being not just one of its most famous singers, with a staggering 1,100 recordings, but also a skilled musician and a successful composer. It’s even said some other tango musicians, who were less skilled in a technical sense, asked him to help write out their ideas or requested other types of musical assistance. Charlo was also an international icon, famous both in Latin American countries and Europe thanks to his many international tours – a topic little understood by the general public (yes! that means I will write about it!), but a lot of tango singers gained international fame the same way. And like I said before, Charlo cultivated an image of dandiness. He actually became an icon of style and refinement, and was also known as a ladies’ man, tending to get involved in intense love affairs. And lastly, he was also a sports person, taking great care of his physical health with exercise, swimming and boxing (omg, that’s me? Wait, I’m not a womanizing dandy, though), getting involved in fencing and even playing as a keeper in football matches between other men from the tango scene. No, these stories are not a joke, this is everything a tango singer was apparently capable of. And yet, he was not capable of recording some Golden Age dance music? Go figure.

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(part 2/2) A brutal, unknown tango by infamous poet Luis Rubistein – and two stars enacting it

This is the second half of the article, you can find the first half here.

As we saw in our introduction to the tango poet Luis Rubistein, his lyrics have a markedly dramatic style and a sometimes even nasty edge, like in the previously-mentioned, controversial tango Un crimen, which relatively graphically describes the murder of a wife or girlfriend by her own lover. Today, we will focus on another tango by Rubistein with a similar, yet more ”complete” story. This tango has remained totally forgotten, but fortunately there is one recording we can use to “reconstruct” it, along with the photos below, on which two important singers act out the story of the tango, for their many fans back in the day. And one of them is still very popular with you dancers even today, because of his grand role in Golden Age tango music. Let’s introduce you to both of them, before moving on to our little piece of theatre.

The male role in our lyric is played by Francisco Fiorentino, the archetypical “orchestra singer” in tango history: around 1940, Aníbal Troilo’s band was gaining staggering success playing great dance music that, at the same time, gave plenty of central space to Fiorentino to sing, which was a kind of exciting musical blend not seen much before, and one soon adapted by the other famous orchestras. Formerly, the main two styles were either a singer being the dominant factor (tango canción, example, like the recording we will analyse today) or the orchestra being the dominant factor with a singer only singing a refrain (estribillo, example, lyrics by Rubistein as well). Needless to say, this new “boom” brought both Troilo and his singer Fiorentino great fame, instead of just one of these two sides. In what we consider the best dance music nowadays, “Troilo-Fiorentino” still plays a central role, sophisticated and lyrical but not too complex (the reason why later orchestras are often less danceable).

Yet, other than most similar singers in the early 1940s, Fiorentino was not quite new to the scene. He had been a refrain singer for a very long time and even a bandoneonist for various orchestras, combining these two roles as well. And even though some current-day Argentine snobs look down on Fiorentino for not having a really fancy voice, he had already made quite the name for himself during those earlier years. It’s therefore not surprising we find him portrayed in this little play below, together with a popular, female tango canción singer. We cannot really say Fiorentino was top-of-the-line popular back then, in the mid-30s, but apparently still famous enough to be considered for a fan feature like this. And how about a sweet, unknown fun fact? The most likely first example of “Troilo’s” later success formula is actually also sung by Fiorentino, with the orchestra of Roberto Zerrillo. We can sometimes find clues and roots in unlikely places.

The other star featured in our little story below is Mercedes Simone, more known for her singing of “full tangos” than dance music and for her acting in several tango-related movies. However, before you dancing-minded people fall asleep, she has actually made her contribution to our dancing universe too, and for a female singer, actually a relatively big one. Simone has left us… two refrain tangos with the Adolfo Carabelli orchestra, very danceable tangos indeed, and while there obviously isn’t a lot of material, she still seems to beat the female competition…. simply because of how little refrain singing/dance tangos have been recorded with female singers. Anyway, it’s unfortunate that we do not have any recordings with Fiorentino and Simone together, but we can at least reconstruct the concept with the photos below, which we will now finally discuss.

fiorentino simone tango theatre

“What have you done?!, a tango by Rubistein”, an eye-catching title for this feature, about a tango that “tells(/sings, literally) of profound drama of love and of remorse”. On the first photo, you can see Fiorentino standing with a gun next to a shocked Simone, on the second, a crowd of neighbors surrounding the killer and the killed, and on the third, Fiorentino bringing flowers to her grave, which is like a tango metaphor for a guilt that cannot be undone. Most of the feature, well, features the lyric by Rubistein while the captions next to the photos explain what situations from the lyric are being enacted.

I always love the relatively natural expressions of tango stars on relatively informal photos like this (do browse my blog, or search by musician or singer if you want to see more), because nowadays we are mostly familiar with portraits and other arrogant, exaggerated, artificial scenes typical for famous people, which was as much the case back then as it is today. In any case, let’s listen to the only recorded version of this tango, interestingly enough also with Simone. Apart from the lyric, the music was also composed by Rubistein himself, but in a tango canción we often can’t really distinguish the melody that well.

In the story, a man kills his lover by gunshot in her chest, and while the story is told from the man’s perspective, we first hear the woman screaming these words to him, “What have you done?!”, while lying down, bleeding from her chest. While the man shudders and neighbors arrive at the scene, screaming “Murderer!!” at him, she continues with words he would never forget: (not fully quoted for conciseness) “What have you done, my sweetheart, when I’ve always been so good to you…”. And the look of her eyes would always follow him, in his life in prison. And in the end, bringing flowers to her grave, he wants to tell her that “inside my chest, your quavering voice is an eternal burden”, but of course, his cruel vice is irreversible, and he’s condemned to loneliness ever after.

This tango reminds me of a few tangos in which a man returns to his former lover’s grave and only silence awaits him, and even though the root for his ‘betrayal” is much more likely a betrayal in love than a murder, we can never really know what the lyricist intended. In the case of Rubistein, it’s almost pathetically explicit, and we will surely not excuse martial violence, but Argentina back then was a very macho society and a lot of tangos, as a product of their times, show, let’s say, the dark underside of the life of the streets. This is why even a gruesome story can teach us something about the cultural context of tango music.

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(part 1/2) A brutal, unknown tango by infamous poet Luis Rubistein – and two stars enacting it

More often than not, the creative masters behind some of your favorite tangos have remained totally hidden to the wider public of tango dancers and even, yes, to some of the craziest aficionados out there. Some of those classic songs are rightfully associated with the orchestras and singers that recorded them, but often, this was just an adaptation of a piece of music by an external musician plus a poet or lyricist who came up with lyrics for it (or the other way around…). Today’s article will teach you a bit about one of those poets, and a second, upcoming part will introduce you to a totally unknown composition by him – along with a nice surprise for fans of a certain singer, who is the prime personification of the Golden Age of tango singing.

In the early 20th century, Argentina was attracting a sizeable inflow of Jewish immigrants from the Russian Empire, an environment plagued by antisemitism, which culminated in mass-scale violence (“pogroms”) and other forms of persecution. These Jews and their descendants have greatly contributed to Argentine/Buenos Aires culture and intellectual life until the present day. And unsurprisingly, that also means there were Jewish tango musicians and lyricists, even though they are not necessarily among the most famous orchestra leaders or singers. The Russian-Jewish influence can be traced back to orchestra musicians, composers, a few orchestra leaders, and also a few poets. The most influential of them, was, arguably, Luis Rubistein, a man of enfant terrible characteristics and an original and quite dramatic poetry style.

rubistein collage

Luis Rubistein was born in 1908 in Buenos Aires as the son of fresh Jewish refugees from Dnipro, a town in present-day Ukraine. As a boy, he was expelled from primary school for throwing an inkwell at his teacher, who told him off for writing poems in the classroom. Without any further formal education, Rubistein, a real street kid, educated himself by mingling with the tango crowd and dedicated his life to the world of nightclubs, cabarets and tango music. As a tango poet, he should be recognized for his dramatic lyrics, some of which have been eternalized as amazing dance classics (example, example, example, example, ejemplo, בייַשפּיל: “I am a prisoner of your unlove!“). These lyrics sometimes contain situations and language that have the power to make you feel particularly touched, even uncomfortable, essentially provoking you into feelings or memories of melancholy, loneliness and in some cases even disgust. Rubistein is one of the poets who recognize tango both as an intellectual pursuit and something spiritually connected to the ”barro” (“mud”), the often tough life of ordinary people in a raw, sprawling city.

I sometimes wonder how life must have been for these Eastern European Jews who(se parents) fled persecution in their homelands and, later in their lives, even had to endure the torturing thought of their relatives being brutally exterminated by the Nazis. It’s impossible to find out what went through their heads at the time, but let’s listen to a lyric by Rubistein which is possibly one of the most emotional, atmospheric writings you will ever find in tango: Charlemos (translation), “let’s dream together, on this gray, rainy afternoon”, an illusion of romance with an revealing, yet cryptic ending. We can interpret it simply as a song of heartbreak or missing love, but we will never know what the true intentions behind such melancholy were, from the author himself. What’s more, the absolute number one lyric you need to get familiar with is Nada más (translation), my personal favorite tango, and the absolute summit of pathos in tango:

“How much snow will there be in my life…
without the fire of your eyes!
And my soul, yet lost,
bleeding through this wound,
will lay down and die.
On the cross of my yearning
I shall fill my soul with darkness.
The blue of the sky will cloud
above my distress
of watching you depart.”

And beyond these sorrows of love, there are also lyrics describing the typical life in Buenos Aires neighbourhoods (Carnaval de mi barrio) and a few heavily using lunfardo, the tango language of the streets, but to reinforce my point made earlier about the ”uncomfortableness”, Rubistein also wrote perhaps the most questionable lyrics in Golden Age tango music: in Un crimen, a remorseful murderer explains somewhat melodramatically to a judge how he killed his wife, throwing details at us we don’t really want to hear. Here, Rubistein shows his emotionally provocative side, in a negative way, but it’s also quite immersive, a result of that same ability to pull you into his lyrics.

In the second part of this article, we will see a similarly rough story (just don’t take it too seriously, it’s pathos after all!) which you will be able to understand better due to knowing a bit more about the author and his signature writing style. So, be sure to stack up on some calming pills and fasten your seatbelts for another ride into uncharted tango history!

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Let’s “imagine” a lost Fresedo song

(I recommend reading my previous article about Fresedo which might foster your understanding of some of the topics below…)

Around 1935, like a few other orchestras, Osvaldo Fresedo’s music was starting to become more “mature” in one way or another, leaving behind the more “simple” and traditionally guardia vieja sound of the early 1930s and earlier. Arguably, the recorded music from around the years 1933-1935 (example, example) shows us a transition into the typical “sugary” style of Fresedo that would culminate into the, in my not-always humble opinion, perfect Fresedo dance style we can find from 1936 (example) until early 1939 (example) and that starts to decline immediately afterwards. However, the point of today’s article is not to give a further, broad overview of Fresedo’s career, but to zoom in on a specific aspect of it and provide wider context from there.

One of the main goals of my blog is trying to show the huge gap between, on the one hand, recorded tango music, such as the examples above, and on the other hand, the huge repertoire of unrecorded music that we will never be able to listen to. And yet, there are some clues that can make us at least imagine ourselves how that shadow repertoire could have sounded like. In the little caption below, mention is made of Fresedo’s orchestra playing a song called “La reja” (“the bar(s)”, as in; a part of a window or balcony, giving us the association of a serenade) which, as a matter of fact, has never been recorded and is thus a piece of proof of what we are missing out on. That being said, let’s now find some context for this particular song and for how it could have sounded under the creative direction of a Fresedo on Golden Age Fire.

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fresedo ray la reja2

For starters, “La reja” is a virtually unknown tango in the typical style of Carlos Gardel (recorded in 1928). This implies a somewhat melodramatic, yet passionate scene, trying to evoke a longing for the melancholic and nostalgic streets of a Buenos Aires that has remained stuck in time. In other words, a kind of tango that may involve heartbreak, just like many tangos normally do, but also more particularly one that is undeniably tied to the faded glory of that passionate city many of us will always keep yearning for. “La reja” is the tale of a lady who fell in love with a womanizer because of his beautiful, seductive words at her balcony, but, alas, his love was not sincere and she would never really overcome this abandonment.

“La reja” can be included in a loose, but not insignificant category of tangos that tell us life stories from Buenos Aires and its outskirts, stories with themes varying from local Casanovas and tough guys, beautiful women, beggars and prostitutes, to boys playing soccer and young cart drivers with their horse. I personally really enjoy listening to this type of tango because of the whole (nostalgic, melancholic) cultural context that is much more present than in most of the typical lost love songs that only mention ”me” and ”you”, so to say. I am currently obsessed with the lesser-known, violin-orgasmic tango ”Barra querida” by Pugliese and Jorge Vidal (1950) about lost youth, with lines spoken to absent friends from the past, such as ”Come on buddy, let’s get drunk, because I might never be able to come back to my neighborhood, so let’s toast to our gang, which will never return”.

In any case, “La reja” is not a poetically spectacular tango or anything, but it does enrich our image of an old Buenos Aires with its typical characters and tales. And more importantly, it would have sounded amazing as a Fresedo-Ray recording, and because we don’t actually have access to it, we need our imagination to ”create” that sound ourselves instead. To give us some clues about the musical style, let’s listen to the most popular Fresedo song from 1935, ”Isla de Capri”. This tango is quite upbeat, almost nervous, more so than the other Fresedo songs from that year, but “La reja” could have taken either direction, and the Gardel recording is actually quite upbeat as well, in comparison to some of his actual hits. Speaking of those Gardel hits, Fresedo did record one of them in the same year: “Volver“. Like with “Isla de Capri”, Ray is given more space here to sing more of the lyrics than what was possible in the old-fashioned, refrain-only singing (estribillo) that we see in previous Fresedo tangos.

”Volver” is, in turn, quite on the slow side and perhaps a bit too slow or even a bit tedious for most dancers, but Fresedo still did a great job adapting a tango made for singing into a warm, reasonably pleasant song. Anyway, let’s take a look at a third song from the same year, “Pampero“, which is not as upbeat as “Isla de Capri” but less sleepy than ”Volver”, and also has the extended singing new in Fresedo’s style. For some reason “Pampero”, even though little-known, feels like the archetypical Fresedo song before his true, slower Golden Age style set in: it is still quite rhythmical, but what makes it different from the typical older tango music is the affectionate lyricism that is unlike anything ever recorded before in tango music. I like to imagine ”La reja”, our unrecorded song, that way: having a bit of rhythmical emphasis, just like the Gardel recording, but also taking the Gardelian style of lyric and combining that with a lovely, sophisticated musical lyricism that we find to be lacking in both guardia vieja music ánd the mundane, undanceable guitars that usually accompanied Gardel.

However, 1935 also offers two popular Fresedo songs with limited singing (the aforementioned estribillo, a refrain or one part out of three) and of shorter length in general: “No me pregunten por qué” and “Recuerdos de bohemia“. Our lost song could also have been along similar lines, instead of the extended style discussed before. It is impossible to pin down which of these two directions “La reja” took when it was adapted by Fresedo, but it’s definitely worth it to just listen to the examples above and let your fantasy do the rest. In either case, we should try to imagine Ray’s singing as a cornerstone of Fresedo’s new style, which is tonally not unlike Gardel (every singer seems to have seen Gardel as an example) but slower than him in today’s song, which is even true in the relatively fast track “Isla de Capri” as mentioned above. I imagine Ray taking either one part or two parts of the serenade story and singing it with slower emphasis than Gardel did in the recording we have at our disposal.

Just like we’re not able to define whether one or two parts were sung, we cannot know for sure which parts Fresedo would have chosen for his version. The refrain of the song is actually the serenade, the sweet words sung by our ladies’ man, which I personally can’t imagine to have been included without the “intro” before it, the description of the romance that was going on. The strange thing, actually, is that this lyric feels like a complete story that is hard to cut in parts, while most tango lyrics have a third part that is never really sung in dance music and usually feels a bit different or awkward in comparison to the sung parts. You know, this Fresedo song might have even included all three parts of the lyric of “La reja”, as some kind of strange exception to the rule of tango dance music. We will simply never know, we can only guess. It’s more likely, however, that the song had at most 1 minute of singing, like in the Fresedo songs that had more singing than just the estribillo.

Anyway, the only thing still missing in this analysis are other versions of “La reja” than the original Gardel one, and out of the three that are available, the most important one to us is the estribillo recording by Canaro in 1927, strangely enough a year before Gardel’s recording. Why is it important? Because by extension of what was argued in the last paragraph, it shows us that an orchestra director made the actual choice of just taking the refrain that is the serenade, and leaving out the rest of the lyric that might give the listener more context about this serenade. Again, this is what the Fresedo recording could have been like lyrics-wise. The other two versions, very much post-Golden Age songs by José Basso and by Pugliese, are of lesser importance because they include the entire lyric, just like the Gardel version did, but I still recommend you to listen to them, because they do somewhat show what an actual, more modern orchestral version of Gardel’s song would have been like, even though pretty much worthlessly so in comparison to Fresedo’s prime years. And with that said, I hope this little journey helped you realise how certain songs could have sounded like, just with the power of your own imagination.

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“A wife in my life? No thanks, I prefer tango”

I cannot but observe our little tango sect as the perfect refuge for solitary souls and other complex characters, who probably have never really met normal society’s standards, but instead like to discretely convene in some random, rundown venue, just to hug some other hermits for a series of 12-minute illusions of romance, even if it’s just to forget about their real-life problems. Yes, that was an awfully long sentence, welcome back. In any case, I can offer you weirdos a little bit of consolation, because it turns out even the original high priests of this sect went through similar troubles themselves: once you’re married to tango, I guess there is no way out?

In the interview below Francisco Lomuto is asked something very upfront: “sir, why are you not married?” Well, probably for the same reason 90% of my readers are not married and that includes the writer, and also Anthony Cronin for some reason. And indeed, Lomuto declares he is so busy with tango music that he never really felt he could live up to the expectations of marriage. The workaholic admits he had enjoyed a romance here and there, but nothing ever lasted because “I simply do not have the time”. When asked, Lomuto acknowledges he might just not have met the right person yet, but due to his incessant working life, it still seems far from realistic.

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lomuto bachelor

Having tried to find some clues about Lomuto’s private life, I could not find any hints that he ever got married or had any direct descendants. Also, in general, I have never really noticed a lot of info about the family life of major tango artists, and it’s not hard to see why. The members of succesful tango orchestras and the famous singers lived very bohemian, unconventional lives full of professional pressures of the kind that Lomuto mentions in this interview. That is not to say that those musicians never got married or had children, because it would take some serious research to draw any firm, definitive conclusions about their private lives systematically. Intuition, though, points in the same direction as Lomuto’s life story above.

And to conclude today’s topic, it is also interesting to try to read between the lines a bit. Even though Lomuto himself declares in the interview that music was the reason for the absence of women in his life, we can only guess whether this was the whole truth. He may also simply have enjoyed limiting himself to short affairs with some of his female fans, because this was probably also a perk of being a famous musician, especially for wildly popular, handsome singers, but most likely not limited to them only. The point here is: who knows?

What I do know is that Lomuto’s discography contains a lot of let’s say, less serious tango music and other genres like foxtrots, just like Rodriguez and Canaro, and there’s definitely a distinct “macho” vibe in a lot of it. Let’s listen to a typical song in which Jorge Omar sings things like “I was born to love, I can’t stop myself, I am fascinated and driven crazy by the smile of a woman” and “to suffer for love is the joy of living”. Popular valses like Ay mi nena and Cuando estaba enamorado have similar topics. It never gets vulgar, but it is all a tad more playful and light-hearted than orchestras like Di Sarli and Troilo. In short, it’s very much possible more was going on in señor Lomuto’s life than what meets the eye.

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A cornerstone of Fresedo’s smooth sound?

It has been my intention so far to cast some light on barely-known musicians or songs in tango history. Today, let’s zoom in on the virtually unknown musician featured below, Adolfo Muzzi, born in distant times when Adolf was still a boy’s name like any other (sorry, Adolfo, you can’t help it either). Born in Rome in 1897, Muzzi was one of the many tango figures who were born in Italy and moved with their families to the then very “promising” Argentina, at a very young age. One can only imagine the influence of Italian (musical) culture these musicians or singers brought along with them, captivated by a new and sophisticated music genre that was just as exciting as their young and thriving new homeland.

Casting these nostalgic musings aside and returning to the topic at hand, what we can find about Muzzi is that he was the first violinist of Osvaldo Fresedo’s orchestra during at least twenty years. This meant he played an important role in how the orchestra’s musical style generally sounded ánd evolved with time, and probably also how individual arrangements were made. There is some element of speculation in that, but one thing we can say more for certain is that we can link Muzzi’s name to violin solos heard in recordings of this important orchestra. These solos can either mean the (multiple) violins coming to the foreground in a certain song, or simply one violin, which very likely was played by Muzzi due to his role as first violinist. And this blog wouldn’t be this blog if I didn’t proceed to invite you to listen to some of those violin parts in Fresedo’s music.

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muzzi, violin de Fresedo

However, before we continue, let’s talk a bit more about Muzzi and why he made an interesting pick for our blog. I generally prefer to discuss the music of the Golden Age, but we shouldn’t forget that other than the singers, who were generally young guys, many of the “veteran” musicians in the Golden Age were born around the turn of the century, or even before, and thus were a part of the music’s obscure beginnings as well. Muzzi actually played in Firpo’s pioneer orchestra from 1916 onwards, until he joined Fresedo in 1923. And before joining Firpo, young Muzzi had been playing in a local orchestra in the famous barrio of La Boca, at the time a hot spot of Italian immigration.

In other words, this man witnessed ánd contributed to the evolution of our beloved tango music throughout more than three decades. And yet… that’s all we can say! There’s no more info about him, the rest of his career or about when he died… and there are only a few, pretty early compositions on his name, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that list is incomplete. Another “unknown soldier” for sure! However, now that our scarce “intel” is sadly depleted, let’s turn to the actually available music to actually link Muzzi with something we can listen to. I shall discuss with you four songs from several stages of Fresedo’s career until Muzzi’s role in it seems to have ended, and our sweet sugary diabetes man continued without him for easily another three decades (or with him…. info is really scarce!).

Let’s begin with Alma en pena from 1928. In this era, tango music was still relatively simple and it’s harder to find particularly pronounced solos like the violin one we are searching for. However, after Ernesto Famá’s refrain ends at 2:30, it’s immediately followed by a violin solo that lasts until the end of the song. It’s not particularly spectacular, but try to recognize how this violin (or should we call it Muzzi?) tells its own story, perhaps as a response to what had just been sung, and perhaps to replace a part of the lyric that has remained unsung.

In a similar vein, let’s listen to Volvé (1932), just when the the orchestra started to evolve into its full Golden Age splendor. If you listen to the singing that starts around 1:35 (“Come back, look, please just come back! Keep cheating on me if you want, I won’t bother you with my jealousy…”), you can notice that the singer is actually accompanied by a violin solo that, in my view, really adds some extra sense of sorrow to the story being told in human words. I can assure you that, once you begin to consciously hear all the musical tricks that are being pulled off in tango, your listening enjoyment will increase even further! By the way, if you can, also try to hear how the violin comes and goes intermittently in the rest of the song.

Now, let’s move on to the kind of music most of you find more interesting, the Golden Age! Fresedo offers us a very exciting repertoire of recordings with Roberto Ray, and it’s hard to make a decision, but let’s single out a very popular song from 1939 (just before Fresedo and Ray parted ways) called Vuelves, not only because it’s an absolute dream to listen to, but also because perhaps the most beautiful element in that dream is … sí señor(a), the violin! Let’s start listening to Rays singing and specifically focus on what comes after 1:48 and at 2:08, namely the silky smooth violins that add so much emotion to Rays voice! An absolute delight to listen to, some of the best pieces of musical art ever produced in the history of tango. And now, after so many years of adoring this song and this style, we at least know a little bit of who was in charge of these violins…

You like Fresedo with Ray? I bet you do! Well, you’re lucky, because our next article will specifically focus on something that has to do with those years. It’s actually been in the works for a while, but once I get rid of my writer’s block, you can expect something quite interesting!

Finally, less popular among dancers but still very great, and more up-beat dance music, we shouldn’t forget Fresedo with Ricardo Ruiz in 1939, 1940 and 1941. The typical “sound” of these years probably involves the violin even more, and we can hear that in one of my personal favorites, Sólo tú (1941). In this song, actually similar to our previous ones, the violins get the role of accompanying the singer, almost like a duet but not with human words. Around 1:00, the violin introduces the singer instead of the other way around, and its solo role lasts until around 1:30, after which you can also hear bandoneon, piano and even harp clearly ”singing” along in the musical story. In any case, we could theoretically keep analysing Fresedo’s music this way until the end of time, but at least we now know a little bit about a person who was an important force behind all this splendid musical creativity.

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Arcieri, a typical ”Unknown Soldier”

As you might have noticed in my previous articles, a recurrent theme I like to place emphasis on is how incomplete our vision on Golden Age tango music is. This vision has been mostly defined by the actual recordings that were made and can still be listened to today. While in some cases the ”privilege” of studio recording does reflect who the most succesful and popular artists were, I can easily list some utterly painful cases in which there aren’t really any acceptable reasons as to why so much creative and high quality music has been lost forever. For example, in early 1940, D’Arienzo was deserted by all of his musicians, and the pianist, Juan Polito, went on to lead a key orchestra for several years that included D’Arienzo’s star singer Alberto Echagüe. Nothing was recorded.

I could easily list other examples, such as Troilo only being able to record 2 songs from 1938 until 1941, but for now, let’s focus on one specific and more obscure example of what we are missing out on. The photo below shows the orchestra of a certain Antonio Arcieri around 1935 and perhaps the most surprising element here is that the aforementioned Alberto Echagüe was its singer. Just a few years later, Echagüe would become one of the pillars of D’Arienzo’s powerful musical revolution that had begun gaining traction in 1935 and would foster a Golden Age for all the main tango orchestras. The few existing internet biographies don’t mention Arcieri’s orchestra in Echagüe’s career, so it might have just been a short stint, or… we’re once again dealing with something that simply hasn’t been documented all too well.

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antonio arcieri con echague

What makes this story even more confusing is that the (scarce and short) available articles about Antonio Arcieri don’t even mention the existence of his own orchestra around these key years of tango music history. A very interesting thing we do find however, is that all these bios mention Arcieri being a violinist in Ricardo Tanturi’s musical endeavours starting somewhere in 1920s and continuing throughout the 1930s and 1940s. This basically means Arcieri went on to play an important role in one of the classic Golden Age orchestras. But it also means that it’s quite possible that when Arcieri was leading his own orchestra, his style was similar to Tanturi’s. That’s an important conclusion, because beyond all this speculation, in one rare track we can actually hear how Tanturi’s orchestra sounded like in the early Golden Age! Exciting, right? I’ve always found it quite different from conventional Tanturi just a few years later, and yet, also positively similar and mature.

So, why is this important? I tend to argue that towards the rise of the Golden Age or perhaps even a few years before that, the main tango orchestras started developing a more mature and distinct musical style for their orchestras, whereas until more or less 1933 most of the orchestras pretty much sounded alike (this is the part the article where Theresa Faus is scripted to get totally tilted). In essence, that’s why I would have loved to hear how Arcieri’s orchestra, possibly similar to Tanturi’s, could have sounded like, especially with a singer of a caliber like Echagüe. But the sad conclusion is that we will never know, just like due to the lack of recordings, we can barely hear how Tanturi’s orchestra sounded like before 1940. And this is a pattern we see happening with several Golden Age orchestras (or singers who went solo and made actual music for dancing too) that became much more free to record music in the late 1940s, when the special excitement of the Golden Age years was all over and done with.

And yet, as a conclusion, fortunately there’s a small consolation for those wondering how Antonio Arcieri’s orchestra sounded like, because at least he did leave us one tango (head phone users beware of an annoying glitch at 0:16) in 1944 with Juan Carlos Miranda, who was arguably Lucio Demare’s best singer in the years before that. And you know what the funny thing is? To me, actually this song kinda reminds me of Tanturi before 1940. So, can you imagine this style with Echagüe as a singer? That’s some pretty cool stuff, right? At least you have the power of your imagination.

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How to survive Corona times? Learn from the best!

When you first began dancing tango, you probably couldn’t have imagined that one day, you would be stuck at home with no access whatsoever to any tango salon. Sure, maybe one day you would have some kind of back or knee injury and unable to go to the milonga, but that’s peanuts compared to all the milongas actually being closed. And… let’s say there’s a slight chance you aren’t quite the sports type, so without your musical calorie burner, how on earth are you going to stay fit?

Well, fortunately for you, once again your lord and savior shall be Francisco Lomuto. Yes, Lomuto, the original tango comedian who’s always leading the way in your life. Adult responsibilities taking their toll? No problem, just relive some of your best childhood memories. Has the love of your life just abandoned you? A strong drink’s ready for you, sweetheart. Feeling stuck in a dead-end job? Just move and laugh a little, for God’s sake. Feeling lonely? Let Lomuto be your wingman. Can’t decide which instrument to learn? Just play all possible ones.

And today, señor Lomuto brings his inevitable answer to all your Corona troubles. Let’s stay fit by swinging, and I am not referring to jazz dance or a form of liberal sexual behavior, because neither are a good idea in Corona times. Instead, just ride/swing the swing, like you used to do when you were a little kid. Simply put on some rhythmic tango music and feel the happiness hormones get to work again. Lomuto has your back.

lomuto swing

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