Something not only tango DJs struggle with…

Are you reading this AND are you a tango DJ? My mathematical instincts tell me there’s a statistical chance of 65% that you meet both these standards. In case you do, before beginning with your tango DJ career, there was a 85% chance that you weren’t expecting just that one particular thing which would turn out to be tragically obvious later on.

Hell yeah, I refer to arriving for a gig somewhere and finding out that…. the venue’s sound equipment was bought somewhere in the 3rd century BC and that, in somewhat crude language, your audio for the night is essentially fucked, or that you have other unforeseen technical issues that are either related to your own laptop, cables, system or to whatever external technical obstacles there are left between you and what you actually arrived there to do, namely simply playing some nice music for a bunch of dancers, whose night is risking to become just as terrible as yours. And then… usually, there is some unexpected solution and you all live happily ever after.

Well, at least now you can finally comfort yourselves realising that you are not the only ones with these tales of bitter tragedy! Turns out the professional lives of those who made the music we play… were far from idyllic either. In the caption below, a still young-looking Miguel Caló is asked about ”the fear for the microphone” among artists, which seems most obvious for singers, but the famous band leader reassures us by saying not only singers suffer from it. In fact, Caló sheds some light on a whole different perspective of worry and trouble, one that most listeners are totally unware of: when a tango orchestra is playing live in a studio, everything sounds great, but how is it going to sound all distorted on the radios in people’s homes, usually under far from perfect acoustic circumstances? Well, all the musicians could do is essentially just hope for the best. Just like we tango DJs do. Life is far from perfect, after all….

caló microphone

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A ‘D’Arienzo Unknown’? History retold: a case like Mauré and Reynal

That’s quite a long text below, huh? But… how about a little game first: if I say ”Alberto Echagüe”, what orchestra will you immediately mention? But had I said ”Juan Carlos Lamas” instead, would your reaction have been just as quick? Well, if you note any difference there… that difference can be explained. Let me guide you into a bit of relevant tango history.

Some of the major tango orchestras had only one main singer at the time, but in others, this key role was shared by two or even more vocalists. Actually, even within one single orchestra, this could change over time, depending on factors like the popularity and/or skill of the singers involved, or the creative choices of an orchestra leader, or maybe just chance and circumstances. Let’s take a brief look at a few examples.

From 1935 to (late) 1938, Francisco Canaro’s almost exclusive singer was Roberto Maida, (click for a gem of a live performance) until Canaro hired Francisco Amor as a second singer and, crucially, he also let a big star, the orchestra’s veteran Ernesto Famá, return. In a music scene so full of rivalries and competition, Maida immediately quit the orquesta. From that point on, Canaro’s discography shows a different pattern: even though Famá was more important than Amor, both singers appear in Canaro’s recordings of those years, and (unfortunately, rarely) even together as a duet. That way, something fundamental had changed in the orchestra.

In the rich landscape of Golden Age orchestras, we see these two different ”trajectories”, so to say, coexist and/or merge all the time. In the case of Lomuto, Jorge Omar was the main singer for a number of years, but was then joined by his predecessor Fernando Díaz, apparently without any real issues. In fact, they also left us a number of interesting duets during various years, and they eventually left the orchestra together, continuing as a team elsewhere (just like Famá and Amor). Donato is perhaps the best example of a duet-rich orchestra, where Horacio Lagos was, admittedly, the most important singer, but essentially shared his post with not one but two other singers.

In the case of Biagi, during his first years we can see a lot of recordings both by Ibáñez and Falgás, but without any recorded duets. After they quit, Jorge Ortiz becomes the singer for a few years, until the old ”shared” pattern returns with (a different) Amor and Acuña. In Troilo’s case, Fiorentino remained the main flag-bearer for many years, just like Vargas in the famous D’Agostino-Vargas combination. However, in 1943, Marino was invited to join Troilo’s orchestra (without much envy, unlike Maida and Famá earlier), and they now had two main singers, who also appear together in a few duets. There are many more examples. Sometimes, orchestras had several singers, but only one of them was actually important, like in the case of Demare. Also, like we just saw, sometimes rivalries got fatal, but other times, things worked out just fine. As you can see, there are quite some variations.

Now, let’s focus on what is arguably the most popular tango orchestra, that of Juan D’Arienzo. From 1938 to early 1940, this orchestra had just one major singer, Echagüe (here’s a live performance for your enjoyment). And after D’Arienzo lost all his musicians including Echagüe, he came up with someone sounding rather similar, Alberto Reynal (left, on the picture below), a tendency which actually wasn’t uncommon. However, at some point in 1940 he also hired Hector Mauré (on the right, below), a young talent with an entirely different kind of voice. And even though Mauré is seen as much more important nowadays, both these singers were able to record an ample amount of songs. After Reynal left the orchestra, someone else joins (Juan Carlos Lamas) with, again, a voice quite similar to Echagüe, who eventually rejoined the orchestra. But in any case, both Reynal and Lamas were allowed to record a great variety of songs, so we can’t really say they were mere secondary singers left behind by one dominant star, like we see in some other orchestras (want an example? Take a look at Demare with Miranda, during that time only a few songs appear with a minor name instead of Miranda).

But then you say, what is really the point of this article? Well, the general idea of some of my earlier posts on this blog is that there is a lot about tango we don’t know, because the recordings we now have are only a part of the actual repertoire of Golden Age orchestras. They were playing live all the time, and probably had to follow the latest trends in their competition with other popular bands. If we follow that line of reasoning, the current discography of D’Arienzo doesn’t show his entire repertoire, and it also doesn’t show any songs that D’Arienzo and Reynal, shown below apparently working on something with D’Arienzo, may or may not have shared together.

Let’s just fantasise and even philosophise about a beautiful vals duet, which is common in other orchestras of exactly those years, like Canaro, Donato and Lomuto. Just imagine a thrilling song like this perhaps including the voice of Mauré too, or a popular recording by other orchestras like this one instead performed by D’Arienzo with Reynal and Mauré at a concert somewhere. Or how about their own version of the following duet? Such daydreams require some true thinking ”outside of the box”, and my reasoning is perhaps merely based on historical speculation, making up (?) things that actually may never have happened. But at the same time, it’s an interesting approach if you want to imagine how glorious the Golden Age of tango should have been for those lucky enough to experience it fully, in person. The recordings we now dance to only allow a limited view of how amazing those times must have been (…even though we are really lucky with how much was saved through recording). And the photographic material I have gathered like the picture below, only attest to how much will be forever shrouded in mystery.


Most of the factual information used in this analysis was based on my own knowledge as a  researcher, tango DJ and collector, but for some historical details and ideas I want to thank Michael Lavocah, a researcher and writer of a number of excellent books about tango history, like his book Tango Stories: Musical Secrets.

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Fresedo’s favourite song – inspired by Chopin

EDIT: There has been some discussion about the right recording belonging to the track title below. There are two recordings, one of which is posted below, but they seem registered with different composers. According to Michael Lavocah, the ”Tristezas” mentioned by Fresedo might be a different song altogether, which was perhaps never recorded. But it would be hard to draw any definite conclusions.

Most tango dancers today probably associate the major orchestras with a small amount of very famous recordings: for example, Canaro is often identified with classics such as Poema, Invierno and Alma de bandoneón, and when you think of Biagi, great hits like Quiero verte una vez más and Golgota presumably come to mind. But, how about the favourite songs of those orchestra leaders themselves? Let’s look at a little piece of evidence below. By the way, before we start, I recommend a similar article about Canaro.

In the article below, from the early 1940s, Osvaldo Fresedo talks about his favourite piece, which may come a true surprise to anyone familiar with his music. Sure, probably the number one song by Fresedo, for people nowadays, is Buscándote, probably closely followed by a number of very popular tracks with Roberto Ray, his champion singer from the late 30s. However: interestingly, as we shall see, Fresedo’s own preferences are not as obvious as our modern-day perspectives suggest.

But first, we need to discuss a small caveat. Fresedo is asked about his favourite ‘piece’, which may either mean any tango song he adapted, played and possibly recorded with his orchestra, or a tango song he fully composed himself. Many people don’t realize the following: many famous tangos were not composed by major tango musicians themselves, but by individual composers who either worked in tango orchestras, or on their own. In any case, sometimes their creations became popular and were adapted by orchestras that played all kinds of songs at the same time. These composers often collaborated with lyricists and poets to produce successful songs, that could perhaps become immensely popular as ”a hit of the moment”.

To cut a long story short: if we could ask Fresedo the same question with a slightly different choice of words, like ”What is the best general song you ever recorded?”, he may or may not have answered Buscándote, for instance. But even then, even if we just look at his favourite own compositions, it is quite remarkable that he mentions a completely unknown song from 1927, Tristezas (”Tristezas/Sorrows is my tango, the one I prefer above all others”), from a distant era when tango music was much less sophisticated than in the Golden Age. But, don’t forget that Fresedo was a real tango veteran with a very long career, even though most people nowadays probably don’t realise that. So, why did he choose Tristezas?

In the text below, Fresedo explains that he found inspiration in the work of classical music genius Chopin. At some point in the year 1922, Fresedo found himself suffering from a flu at home, yet his doctor allowed him to play the piano and practise, and so he did. On a misty afternoon, he started composing this song, Tristezas, inspired by the ”sweet, absorbing sadness” of Chopins music, who by the way also inspired Donato’s famous song La melodía del corazón. I am not very familiar with Chopins music, but the sadness in his compositions indeed mirrors so much of the melancholy we find in tango music, even though (!!!) we will never exactly know how much of it was indeed inspired by classical compositions.

In any case, just this one tango is very revealing in the sense that it shows a bit of Fresedo’s soul and passion, and even though nobody can say, because Fresedo is obviously not there anymore to ask, we may conclude that some of his more famous, later music may have been inspired by Chopin too. Now, in case you are a seasoned listener of classical music, it’s up to you to speculate on the question whether such an influence may indeed be widespread in the rest of Fresedo’s music.


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Roberto Flores and his violinists

In my analysis, Roberto Flores should be regarded as one of the major representatives of a (sadly) lost part of tango dance music. But first, what does that ”lost part” mean? The recordings we now dance to, only give us a limited insight into the splendid creativity of this genre’s Golden Age. Some famous orchestras failed to record much or anything during key years, like Troilo (1938-1940) and Tanturi (late 30s). Other popular orchestras barely recorded anything, or nothing, in fact, for a variety of reasons, partly beyond their control. But so much tango music is lost forever, or maybe until we invent literal time machines to go back to the great concerts and radio shows of an epic age.

So what does all of this have to do with Roberto Flores? He was the first singer who successfully and sustainably went solo after working for an important orchestra (Rodriguez), but ultimately decided to focus on dance music, instead of the usual Gardel-like singers who disregarded dancers, and just wanted to let their voice shine. According to late Michael Krugman, this new orchestra made a number of important appearances, like providing the main act for Carnaval at Boca Juniors in 1942. And remember, not everyone was just as successful in such a competitive environment, during tango’s zenith.

After 1943, it is unclear what happened with Flores and his orchestra, but he ended up successfully touring other Latin American countries, until he settled down in Medellín, Colombia, a somewhat odd epicentre of tango enthusiasts far from Argentina. However, even though you could say Flores has been quite succesful in his endeavours, he left only four recordings, the most important of which is Tristeza Marina, a song that he himself composed, but is generally only known as a Di Sarli and a García recording. Take a moment to listen to his exquisite own recording, which is dance music indeed, and that is an understatement (the bandoneons, violins and piano in this song are amazing!). Even though I personally think there are better singers than Flores, we are also listening to him as a successful orchestra director. And it’s an almost entirely lost orchestra! Lost forever!

There are so many aspects of this genre tango fans today (including me) have absolutely no clue about, because luck has not always been on our side. Another reminder to celebrate how much material we actually have, even though it’s quite limited in comparison to what was actually being played, throughout a fervorous Buenos Aires in tango’s best years. A photo like mine below, at least shows a tiny bit of how that ”lost” music was created, by whom, with in this case a proud Roberto Flores standing next to his violinists in the studios of Radio Argentina. They too, were a part of the magic you are (partially) still dancing to, today.


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Troilo playing on Argentina’s first native bandoneon

This photo shows Aníbal Troilo not with his own legendary bandoneon, but playing on Argentina’s first completely locally produced bandoneon. Some background info: the bandoneon is a German instrument, originally supposed to be a ”handheld church organ”, but it randomly, and fascinatingly, ended up to be the cornerstone of Argentine tango music. According to the legends, the bandoneon originally arrived in that rather distant corner of the world because of either Germans or Italians (in Northern Italy, these instruments were popular too) bringing it along on their voyages. The rest is history.  Usually, bandoneons were produced in Germany, and imported to Argentina.

However, according to the caption of this picture below, a certain company called ”Luis Mariani & son” produced the first Argentine bandoneon in 1943, and it was premiered by none other than Troilo at a concert. Afterwards, the producer gave it to SADAIC, Argentina’s rights organisation for artists, whose president was… Francisco Lomuto. The photo is also interesting because it also features singers Francisco Fiorentino (left) and a very young Alberto Marino (center), as well as ”Kicho” Díaz, Troilo’s double bass player. This orchestra was playing some of its most beautiful music at that time, so who else wishes they could travel in time to attend this concert?


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Pugliese playing ”Percal”? Music lost in time…

It’s one of the most painful aspects of tango music history: only a limited part of even the most popular orchestras’ repertoire was actually recorded. These bands played in mass venues or on radio stations in an age of tango as mass ”pop music”, but unlike nowadays, getting everything recorded wasn’t all that easy. Sure, I guess the top orchestras most likely had their biggest hits recorded anyway, but we still miss out on a lot of interesting material, like different versions of popular hits by other orchestras. Let’s take a look at some proof for that statement.

This advert below shows that Pugliese was actually playing a number of typical mid-Golden Age songs we wouldn’t directly associate him with nowadays. Percal is well-known as a recording of Caló with Alberto Podestá, and there’s also a magnificent version by Troilo with Fiorentino. Likewise, the two other songs were both recorded by Caló and others, but not by Pugliese. Just imagine listening to Radio El Mundo, hearing the beautiful song Percal as played by the talented Pugliese, and with its exquisite lyrics sung by, probably, Roberto Chanel. But we can only imagine what that was like – the sad fate of music lost forever.

advertpugliesepercaladvert pugliese percal

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Ads in the Golden Age: Caló says hello from Uruguay

How about something quite different: the following picture resembles a telegram sent by Miguel Caló from Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay. In 1944, Caló and his ”guys” spent some time touring this neighbouring country (expect more material on this later) and apparently, he wanted to send his ”warm” greetings to his Buenos Aires tango public, promising to return soon with ”a renewed repertoire of songs that beyond any doubt will delight all enthusiastic fans of our great dance, the tango”.

And although this feature seems more like an Odeon advert than anything else, with my education as a historian I would claim it still is interesting historical material, as a ”primary source” supposedly written by Caló himself (although we will never know for sure how authentic this was…), even mentioning tango as a dance, with tango as dance music, and not necessarily just music. Tango was huge in the 1940s: a mass cultural phenomenon. Little traces like this attest to that popularity.


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Two smiling colleagues: D’Agostino and Rodio

This is an amicable picture of two ”popular” musicians from the Golden Age of tango: directing orchestras wasn’t just about hard work and facing fierce competition, it seems that many people involved were friends or at least pretended they were, posing for some camera like below. One of the goals of this blog has been to show a more ”human” side of all the major musicians whose music we still dance to today: and varying from the two men below with their very natural look to Canaro, Lomuto and Firpo being children again for a moment, I definitely think there is some progress for that goal.

Interestingly, the caption for this picture claims that Ángel Vargas, D’Agostino’s classic partner, rejoined the orchestra after a number of weeks of probably trying to become a soloist, which happened in 1943, when there was a trend towards opting for a solo career, with popular singers like Alberto Castillo setting the example. Indeed, when we look at the chronology of D’Agostino’s recordings, Vargas went missing for a while, with a few tracks sung by someone else. Fortunately, Vargas changed his mind and the famous duo kept recording together for a few more years.

d'agostino and rodio.png

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Pugliese and Roberto Chanel

Here’s a young Osvaldo Pugliese with his most classic singer, Roberto Chanel.

When I first started to listen to Pugliese (the first tango music I liked), I spent hours exploring his later music with very dramatic voices like Jorge Maciel, Miguel Montero, and later Alberto Morán. I knew about the work with Chanel, but I strongly disliked his nasal voice, and avoided it: I simply did not listen to that music.

But, as the years go by, and as our tango tastes develop and evolve into unforeseen directions, my somewhat chaotic preference for dramatic music changed into a more structured, mature one for the best (dance) music of the Golden Age, and one day I came to appreciate (because that’s often how it works) the superior quality of the early recordings with Chanel, where the orchestra and singer are in utterly beautiful harmony, making him seem like a natural instrument inside an already restraint orchestra, and even apart from that, I consider that although Chanel himself has a somewhat strange voice (that’s very personal…) yet at the same time he is a truly masterful singer, with a kind of depth, consistency and skill unrivaled by those who came after him.

Let’s celebrate this great partnership with this picture below, where Pugliese is holding a shellac. And indeed, tango dancers are very fortunate with the solid amount of recordings he made with Chanel, and I am always glad when I can play them in a milonga.

pugliese chanel.png

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Caló on bandoneon, with Raúl Iriarte

Here is a picture of Miguel Caló presumably practising a song with one of his two most important Golden Age singers, Raúl Iriarte, famous for fantastic dance songs like Marión, Nada and Mañana iré temprano, and this distinctive music is still one of the (several) keystones for tango DJs nowadays.

This duo below left us an ample number of highly danceable recordings in 1943 and 1944, when the Golden Age was still going strong and the genre went into a more romantic, dramatic direction. Like in the rival Troilo orchestra, you can hear this gradual change, transition in the recordings: a song like this, Es en vano llorar (No need to cry) from 1943, has a relatively light tone, like several other tracks (not all) from that year, and a relatively clear energy. Just a few years later, the tone has become much darker, and the music is slower and more focused around the singer, like in Fruta amarga (Bitter fruit) from 1945.

calo iriarte.png

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