History of Tango – Part 3: La Guardia Vieja
Between 1860 and 1915 Buenos Aires experienced an exponential growth. The “Gran Aldea” (Great Village) became a cosmopolitan city, which, despite its isolated geographic location, was one of the greatest cities of the world.
It was during this period of time of multiethnic and multicultural interaction, that tango developed its unique characteristics and became a cultural identity, a philosophy of life and a lifestyle. Its name was not mention in well-mannered conversations. It was rising up protected and cared for by very strong people, the only ones who would not care about its bad reputation and defy the rejection by the comfortable, afraid and obedient society. It needed to develop in places that were prohibited to a society that denied that a completely new creature was coming to life. A creature that was not a child of a well established family, in the portrait of religions and hypocritical political speeches. A being that was happily excited to deal with the chaos of unpredictability, with all that can’t be rationalized, accounted for and fit in the big plan laid out by the ruling classes for the population of that corner of the world.
Even when tango began to enter family homes and broadly accepted social events, the name tango would not be used as the label to refer to it, nor would the musicians use this term to describe the orchestras.
The dance technique that today we associate to tango and milonga, the “cortes and quebradas”, was in its origins a dance technique created by the “chinas” and “compadritos” and applied to all kinds of danceable music played in Rio de La Plata: “mazurca”, “polca”, “habanera”, “cuadrilla”, “lanceros”, waltz (called “vals cruzado” when danced in this way), “pasodoble”, “Spanish tango”, tango and milonga.
Later this technique of dancing remained in Argentine tango (referred at the time as “tango criollo”), milonga and vals criollo, because these music styles were better suited to it.
On September 9, 1862, four men and two women were put in jail for dancing “tirando cortes y quebradas” at a conventillo of Paraguay 58 (today, in Puerto Madero). The police report does not mention tango or milonga.
It was on September 28, 1897, that for the first time we find that the “cortes and quebradas” are elements associated to the choreography of a particular music called tango. It is at the play written by Ezequiel Soria “Justicia Criolla”:
“Era un domingo de carnaval
Y al “Pasatiempo” fuime a bailar.
Hablé a la Juana para un chats
Y a enamorarla me decidí.
En sus oídos me lamenté
Me puse tierno y tanto hablé,
Que la muchacha se conmovió
Con mil promesas de eterno amor.
Hablé a la mina de mi valor
Y que soy hombre de largo spor,
Cuando el estrilo quiera agarrar
Vos, mi Juanita, me has de calmar.
Y ella callaba y entonces yo
Hice prodigios de ilustración,
Luego, en un tango, che, me pasé
Y a puro corte la conquisté.”
“Qué cosa más rica…! Cuando bailando un tango con ella, me la afirmo en la cadera y me dejo ir al compás de la música y yo me hundo en sus ojos negros y ella dobla en mi pecho su cabeza y al dar vuelta, viene la quebradita… Ay! hermano se me vá, se me vá… el mal humor.”
The following year, in 1898, “El entrerriano”, the first Argentine tango registered by a known author, was published. This was the time before recordings, when the music was commercialized by publishing it in music sheets. The author, Rosendo Mendizábal, was an Afro-Argentinean born in 1868 (and died in 1913). Coming from a wealthy family, he was able to study piano. His lifestyle made him squander his fortune, and so he began to teach piano lessons and to play in all kind of brothels and dancing houses, from the ones of the poorest clientele, to those visited by the wealthiest people, like “Lo de Laura (Monserrat)”, in Palermo, Paraguay 2512, where he premiered “El entrerriano”, and dedicated it to Ricardo Segovia, a landowner born in Entre Rios, who gave Rosendo a $100 bill. This was a common practice among composers, before the benefits of authors’ rights.
Before the publication of tangos, they became known only from the authors playing them over and over again in many places. When a tango was fortunate enough to be accepted by the audience, it was frequently requested, contributing to the recognition of the piece and its creator. Sometimes another musician would like a song and learn it by listening to it, and then incorporate it to his repertoire. But since the time that it began to be written, it was easier to propagate it. Eventually, musicians were able to play more and more varied songs, city sponsored orchestras, military and police bands and club’s orchestras would be able to play them, contributing to a greater and more efficient divulgation of tango. It was also the way it could surreptitiously enter the family homes, hidden between piano methods and Chopin’s waltzes. And, it made possible the printed rolls for “organitos”, which played a major role in initial spread of tango, and prepared the ears of those who liked tango from the beginning to accept a new instrument that became central to tango and transformed it: the bandoneon.
Enrique Santos Discépolo’s father, José Luis Roncallo (who was presumably the one that first suggested tango music for them) and Ángel Villoldo (who probably wrote “El Choclo” to be played through this media) were involved in the construction of the first locally made cylinders for organitos.
Related to this need of mobility that the primitive tango required to spread itself and survive, was the portability of the instruments of its origins. The guitar was the “criollo” (autochtones) instrument par excellence, which the payadores choose to accompany their singing. It is, indeed, a privileged instrument to accompany the human voice, but the payadores that were already laureate and socially accepted, wouldn’t, in general, risk losing their contracts playing such dubious music. The violin was also a very popular instrument. Wind instruments rose in popularity to the extent that they showed up more and more in bands and theatre orchestras of the time. The harmonica also played a powerful role, especially in the hands of Ángel Villoldo.
These instruments that first played tango allowed its music to be frisky, lively and shaky because they were high pitch and light instruments than can easily be played fast. Later, with the introduction of the “bordoneos” (melodies and bridges played in the lowest pitch range of the guitar strings), the incorporation of the concertina and the Italian accordion, it will start a process of slowing down that will reach its depth with the bandoneon and the lower pitch string instruments. It is during this period that the bandoneon became the most characteristic instrument of tango.
In 1899, “El Pibe” Ernesto Ponzio (1885-1934) publishes “Don Juan”. “El Pibe” Ponzio played the violin “sacando chispas” (extracting sparks from it), according to the testimony left to us by Gabino Ezeiza. When his father (also musician) dies, he needed to help his family, and went to play in canteens, dance parties and on the streetcars. Soon he was asked to play at the most famous places of the time, like “Lo de Hansen”, “Lo de Laura”, “Lo de María La Vasca” and “Lo de Mamita”, Lavalle 2177, among many others. At this last one, it is said, he premiered “Don Juan”, dedicating it to Juan Cabello, a well known “compadre del arrabal” porteño. This tango was the first one recorded with bandoneon by Vicente Greco and his orchestra in 1910.
In 1924, when playing in Rosario, he shot and killed a man, and was condemned to 20 years in prison. He had other previous violent incidents on his record, but he was pardoned in 1928 and returned to playing. According to his wife, he was not a violent person. He was handsome, kind and always smiling, even when playing, but his talent, his overwhelming energy and charm as musician, dancer, artist and person, provoked the envy and jealousy of those for whom beauty does not regard respect and tried to impose their mediocrity with shear force. “El Pibe” Ernesto considered a lack of honesty with himself, with those who he loved and with his art, to retreat in the cases of being insulted by disrespectful attitudes to people and what it is beautiful in life. He stood for his thoughts and ideals in every moment, even difficult ones, and dealt with the consequences.
The only recording of “El Pibe” Ernesto Ponzio is in this scene from the first sound film made in Argentina, “Tango!”, of 1933, playing his most celebrated composition:
In 1899 they closed the last “Academias” that remained in Montevideo, while the tango came to wider audiences entering the theater, tents, circuses, dance halls and cabarets. Following this development, the original “tango canyengue” was transformed and made more “decent”, smoothing or eliminating completely the “cortes y quebradas” and the most straight forward sexual elements of its practice, giving birth to the tango “salon”, also known as tango “de pista” or ‘liso”.
Most of the precursors of tango music were also well recognized as great dancers.
Ángel Villoldo (1861-1919) is considered by many “El padre del Tango” (The father of Tango), and unanimously considered the most representative artist of the Guardia Vieja. Little is known about his childhood, and the information about his youth is many times contradictory. From an interview made to him by the newspaper “La Razón” in 1917, we know that he was “cuarteador” of “La Calle Larga” (The Long Street, today’s Montes de Oca) at the time that his interest in music appears, and that he sung and played guitar and harmonica.
Between 1879 and 1886 he was typographer at the newspaper “La Nación” and Jacobo Peuser’s print, conductor of the carnival choir “Los Nenes de Mamá Viuda”, libretista for choir societies, herdsman in two slaughterhouses of Buenos Aires, clown at “Raffeto” circus.
Around 1900 he began to be known as payador, composer and singer in “Corrales Viejos” (Parque Patricios), Barracas, La Boca, Constitución, San Telmo, Palermo, and in Recoleta for the celebrations of the Virgen María in September. At these celebrations, big tents were erected for several days. They started to be frequented by “compadres” and “cuchilleros”, so its original character was replaced for another, less family oriented, of alcohol, dancing and knife fighting. At these gatherings, in which the life of a man was of little value, everyone respected Ángel Villoldo, who performed there his first tangos.
The tango was still in development and had not yet achieved a defining shape. The first works of Villoldo were milongas of payador style that described characters and current events of the places that he frequented. These first songs are very valuable testimonies of these times and its people. Like this milonga that makes reference at the known rivalry between cart drivers (carreros) and streetcars drivers (cocheros):
Villoldo’s lyrics are “cheerful, wittily talkative, sometimes in jest, but never bawdy. The compadres of his stories are reliable criollos, as its creator, who recently left the horse on the outskirts of the city, men in whom the knife is not yet ostentatious bravado, but defense of honor and cause”.
His rise to fame came in 1903 when the singer Dorita Miramar sung “El Porteñito” in the varieté Parisiana, of Esmeralda Street, obtaining a great success. Pepita Avellaneda had already sung several of his compositions a year earlier on Avenida de Mayo. Soon other female singers included his songs in their repertoire. In the same year, 1903, José Luis Roncallo premiered “El Choclo” at the restaurant “El Americano”, labeling it as “danza criolla”, since the category of the place did not admit including tangos in the playlist. After the truth was known, the audience demanded it to be played every night. It was not publish until 1905.
At Christmas day in 1905, Villoldo is woke up at 7 am by Enrique Saborido who was up all night writing a song and needed a lyric for it. He knew that Villoldo was fast, that he could improvise verses as a payador. The night before, at Christmas Eve, Saborido was mocked by his friends for paying too much attention to the Uruguayan singer Lola Candales. They challenged him to write a song for her. He took the challenge and promised to have the song ready to be sung by Lola next day. At 10 am they presented to Lola “La Morocha”, which she premiered that night. This tango was of great success, not only in Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Argentina and Uruguay, but copies of the music sheet were taken to many port cities around the world by the school-ship Fragata Sarmiento.
Villoldo finds humor in daily life events. In 1906 the Police Chief of Buenos Aires ordered a fine of 50 pesos to those who say “piropos” (compliments) to a woman in the street, and Villoldo composes “Cuidao con los 50!”. He tries to get extra advertisement for his song, so he goes to the street and start to “piropear” to every woman he sees, expecting to be denounced and fined, making of his song a way of protest, but all he got was a sweet “viejo enamorado” reply from one lady.
Around those years, “El esquinazo”, another of his compositions, is prohibited to be played at “Lo de Hansen” because the crowd beat their glasses on their tables accompanying the song, breaking them, making it too expensive for the business.
In 1907 he was sent by the department store Gath y Chaves, the most successful of Buenos Aires at the time, to make some of the first tangos and Argentine music recordings to Paris with Alfredo Eusebio and Flora Gobbi (the parents of the great orchestra conductor Alfredo Gobbi). The recordings of Villoldo songs, already successful, potentialize their success.
Edison invented the phonograph in 1877. The sound quality on the phonograph was bad and each recording lasted for one only play. Edison’s phonograph was followed by Alexander Graham Bell’s graphophone. It could be played many times, however, each cylinder had to be recorded separately making the mass reproduction of the same music impossible with the graphophone.
On November 8 1887, Emile Berliner, a German immigrant working in Washington D.C., patented a successful system of sound recording. Berliner was the first inventor to stop recording on cylinders and start recording on flat disks. The first records were made of glass, later zinc, and eventually plastic. A spiral groove with sound information was etched into the flat record. The record was rotated on the gramophone. The “arm” of the gramophone held a needle that read the grooves in the record by vibration and transmitting the information to the gramophone speaker. Berliner’s disks (records) were the first sound recordings that could be mass-produced by creating master recordings from which molds were made.
These inventions where taking place at the time that tango was becoming more and more popular, and are of vital importance to the history of tango.
Being in Paris, Villoldo subscribed to the Authors and Composers Association of France, following which then created in Buenos Aires in 1908 “La Sociedad del Pequeño Derecho”, precursor of “SADAIC”, created by, among others, Francisco Canaro, Osvaldo Fresedo, Augusto Berto, Agustín Bardi, Enrique Santos Discépolo and Francisco García Jiménez. This institution and its precedent, “Círculo Argentino de Autores Compositores de Música”, and “Asociación de Autores y Compositores de Música”, play an important role in the history of tango and its existence, since thank to them, the authors, composers and musicians of tango were able to make a living.
Back in Buenos Aires, in 1908, we could find Villoldo playing in La Boca, at the “Café Concert” of Suarez and Necochea streets, the center of tango of the moment, where, in different places, Canaro, Greco, Firpo and others were playing. Villoldo performed a solo act, playing guitar, harmonica (attached to his body in the manner of Bob Dylan), singing, storytelling, and standup comedy and dancing.
Villoldo was also journalist and wrote plays.
In 1913 he writes the lyrics for “El 13”. This will be his last great hit. Tango changes and “La Guardia Vieja” is giving place to “La Guardia Nueva” and the tangos that Carlos Gardel recorded with Contursi’s lyrics. In 1917 the duet Gardel-Razzano made their first recording with a Villoldo’s song; “Cantar eterno”. It was the magic of tango linking the two eras.
 Was a person whom driving a team of horses pulled a vehicle that was stuck in the mud or in need of help in a hill climbing.
 Quarrelers who use knives to fight.
 José Gobello “Historia del Tango”, “La Guardia Vieja”, Editorial Corregidor 1977, page 364.
- “Crónica general del tango”, José Gobello, Editorial Fraterna, 1980.
- “El tango”, Horacio Salas, Editorial Aguilar, 1996.
- “Historia del tango – La Guardia Vieja”, Rubén Pesce, Oscar del Priore, Silvestre Byron, Editorial Corregidor 1977.
- “El tango, el gaucho y Buenos Aires”, Carlos Troncaro, Editorial Argenta, 2009.