History of Tango – Part 10: Agustín Bardi. The composer for the future of Tango.
“Tinta verde” by Osvaldo Fresedo y su Sexteto Típico, 1927.
Chapter 1: Life
He was born on August 13, 1884 in Las Flores, a town that would eventually become one of the neighborhoods of Buenos Aires. At an early age he was sent by his parents to the home of relatives living in the capital, in the Barracas neighborhood, to attend primary school. In this house he also began his musical education, studying guitar with a relative.
At eight years old, he joined a carnival troupe, standing out for his skill as a guitarist.
At thirteen he started working as a telegraph trainee at Ferrocarril del Sud, and in 1904 he was summoned to fulfill the mandatory military service.
None of this was enough to deter him from his musical vocation.
After the military service, he was employed with an initial position in the commercial company “La Cargadora”, located in Bolivar 375. He retired from the same company in 1935, after 30 years of excellent work, reaching the position of general manager.
In 1905, Bardi began playing the violin, perfecting himself for 3 years and in 1908 he began his career as a professional musician.
In 1909 he played in La Boca, the headquarters for Tango musicians of that time, where the Porteños’ popular music would begin to move to downtown, and from there, throughout the entire city.
He was average height, stocky, and broad-shouldered. With pleasant features, he wore a neatly trimmed mustache and doctoral lenses. His friends affectionately called him “El Chino” (The Chinese) because of the sharp longitudinal section of his eyelids, perhaps his most predominant feature.
He was temperamentally serious, circumspect, soft-mannered and had a restful, kind way of expressing himself.
He was not a man of the night, but rather dedicated to his family, his wife and two children.
It was in 1910, when he joined the quartet of Genaro Expósito (bandoneon), in the cafe “La Marina”, after a season in the cafe “del Griego”, that one night, before opening the doors of the cafe to the patrons, Bardi sat at the piano vacated by “el Johnny” Prudencio Aragón, improvising some of the tangos of the quartet repertoire.
His teammates felt so comfortable with his interpretation that they urged him to play that instrument from then on.
And that is how Agustin Bardi became a pianist.
With his characteristic sense of responsibility, he began studying piano technique, reaching a good level in a few months.
As a pianist, he joined the quartet of flutist Carlos Macchi “Hernani”.
Then he left La Boca, to play in the cafe “El Estribo”, joining the orchestra of Vicente Greco. In 1911, Bardi composed “Vicentito”, dedicated to Greco, who recorded the song on two occasions, which launched the authorial career of Bardi.
Other ensembles of the time also began recording his tangos.
In 1914, Bardi played with Eduardo Arolas. It was at the time that Arolas returned to his artistic career after a frustrating venture to open his own business failed.
They played practically by heart, after sight reading, the tangos that day by day arose from the inspiration of the musicians.
Bardi deliberately set aside compositions that, once released, did not satisfy his demanding taste, and he refused to play them again when his orchestra partners requested it. But Arolas liked one of these tangos very much, and, in the face of Bardi’s excuse of having misplaced it, said: “the one you wrote with green ink (tinta verde)…”
This tango went on to become one of the most well known compositions of Agustín Bardi, whose original edition of the score featured a cover illustrated by Arolas himself.
Let’s listen to it in the rendition of Anibal Troilo y su Orquesta Típica recorded 1n 1938:
Having disconnected from Arolas, in 1916, he went on to play at the Avellaneda’s Paris cinema, which was a precursor to having orchestras for silent films, with a trio completed by Graciano de Leone on bandoneon and violinist Eduardo Monelos.
There, Bardi incorporated the tangos “El jagüel” and “Cordón de oro” into his repertoire, composed by Carlos Posadas — the composer he most admired — and made his own, “El rodeo”, known.
Here is the 1943 recording by Osvaldo Pugliese y su Orquesta Típica:
His work at the company “La Cargadora” often forced him to move away from musical activity as a performer, which is why he never wanted to take responsibility for conducting an orchestra.
He did not like to play in the cabarets, since these performances had to be done very late at night, and he had to get up early for his daytime work. The last years of his performance as a professional pianist developed in dancing halls on Saturdays and Sundays in the halls of the Spanish and Italian collectives.
At the beginning of 1921, he toured the interior of Argentina, taking advantage of his vacation from the company, with Graciano De Leone.
It was the prelude to his definitive departure as a professional pianist.
“La última cita” by Ángel D’Agostino y su Orquesta Típica with Ángel Vargas in vocals, recorded in 1944.
His last performances were in the giant orchestra that Francisco Canaro convened for the carnivals of 1921.
On this occasion, however, Bardi refused to Canaro’s invitation to premiere his tango compositions, claiming that he did not compose carnival tangos, nor was he interested in its diffusion under such circumstances.
“Lorenzo” by Francisco Canaro y su Orquesta Típica, recorded in 1927.
From this moment, and then with his retirement from the company “La Cargadora”, Bardi devoted himself to the deep study of harmony and composition with the Salecian priest José Spadavecchia, to the composition of tangos, and to the manufacturing of rolls for pianolas for the company “Pampa”.
Another of Bardi’s great contributions to Argentine popular music was the creation, together with Canaro, Filiberto, Lomuto, Greco, Martinez and others, of a society that protected the rights of musicians and composers, a society that over time would become the prestigious Sociedad Argentina de Autores y Compositores de Música (SADAIC).
He died on April 21, 1941.
“Independiente Club” by Alfredo Gobbi y su Orquesta Típica, recorded in 1948.
Chapter 2: Work
Bardi’s compositions were ahead of his time.
Like Eduardo Arolas’s compositions, they had to wait for the arrival of more trained interpreters, in the mid 1920s, to present all the splendor of their beauty.
According to Luis Adolfo Sierra, Agustín Bardi’s compositions contain “clarity in the concept of sound elaboration, balance in the melodic drawing of always pure and direct phrases, some sumptuousness in the firmness of the harmonic structure, and a refined good taste, they are in general the salient attractions that emerge in the entire work of this talented composer ”.
Let’s hear “Florcita” recorded by Lucio Demare y su Orquesta Típica in 1945:
Luis Adolfo Sierra adds next: “Bardi felt a marked propensity towards harmonized melody. He was passionate about the effects of syncopation and tonal modulations within melodic development … He admirably handled the development of half-stepped melodies. that is, everything that would bring musical charm into an intransigent stylistic purism. And, above all, he was a jealous self-critic of his authorial production.”.
Bardi himself said that “it is necessary to achieve the greatest melodic clarity, to beautify it later with the appropriate resources of musical technique.”
Let’s listen to “¡Qué noche!” recorded by Juan D’Arienzo y su Orquesta Típica in 1937:
So much was his sense of aesthetic and professional responsibility that at the age of forty he decided to study musical theory in more depth to put his future compositions at the height of the great Tango instrumentalists of the “De Caro’s” school.
Here is the recording of “Nunca tuvo novio” by Pedro Laurenz y su Orquesta Típica with Alberto Podestá in vocals from 1945:
Agustín Bardi has very deservedly received the title of “composer of musicians.”
The excellent quality of his works always had the recognized admiration of all professional musicians without exception.
The musical elaboration of his tangos allows the showcasing of the Orquestas Típicas in any of its interpretative modalities.
Before Cobián, Fresedo, De Caro, Maffia, Laurenz, and the definitive renovation line that Roberto Firpo printed to his orchestra in the early twenties, there was no clear definition of styles in Tango.
Until then the people in Tango was more interested in the repertoire itself, the quality or success of the work, than the way of playing.
Tango was executed using the simplest chords, accentuating a rhythmic marking with a certain monotonous rigidity, without individual performance of the musicians, in a joint work of all voices in unison.
Bardi’s tangos were not written to be played in the manner of primitive ensembles, without harmonic concerns or aesthetic interest in achieving greater musical enhancement.
The greater technical possibilities of the musicians of later promotions, from Julio De Caro, allowed them to enter the spirit and the musical structure of Bardi’s tangos.
Julio De Caro found the precise formula and opened the gap by which would then follow the evolution of Tango music, and gave his versions of Bardi’s compositions an aesthetic dimension that primitive ensembles could not have achieved.
Thus, other excellent later ensembles collected the attractions of the instrumentation techniques exhibited by the De Caro’s orchestra, making it clear that Bardi’s tangos were written to be played like this.
Here is an excellent example in the recording of “Chuzas” by Alfredo Gobbi y su Orquesta Típica in 1949:
Bardi’s works always retain freshness and strength, reaching ever greater attraction in their audiences for the beauty and authenticity of their content.
Listen for example to “Tierrita”, recorded here by Ricardo Tanturi y su Orquesta Típica in 1937:
Bardi felt “Tango with a countryside essence, as if it were a transplant of the traditional Argentine gaucho sensitivity to the music of Tango, which is the most representative sentimental manifestation of the city.”
Here is the recording of “Se han sentado las carretas” by Francisco Lomuto y su Orquesta Típica with Fernando Díaz and Jorge Omar in vocals, 1939:
Bardi regularly attended the presentations of the Julio de Caro’s sextet.
L. A. Sierra tells us that Bardi confessed to experiencing immense spiritual joy every time he listened to some of his compositions through what he so happily called:
“the great interpretative creations of the Julio De Caro’s orchestra.”
Let’s listen to “Gallo ciego”, recorded here by Julio De Caro y su Sexteto Típico in 1927:
And Luis Adolfo Sierra adds that “when Bardi extended his praise to the Julio De Caro’s orchestra, it was to affirm that ‘it was formed by six composers, each elaborating on the prodigy of their respective instruments, an inspired and difficult score, always embellishing the values of the work with excellent musical ideas of original creation, without altering or distorting its own original feeling ”.
Remarkable assessment judgment that could be gathered as irrefutable testimony of the significance of that orchestra in the evolution of instrumental Tango.
In 1937, Bardi regularly attended the Germinal café on Corrientes Street to listen to the brand-new Anibal Troilo’s orchestra, and used to exclaim with sincere admiration:
“We would not have been able to play like that!”
Let’s hear the rendition of “C.T.V.” recorded by Anibal Troilo y su Orquesta Típica, 1940:
In 1909, when Eduardo Arolas composed “Una noche de garufa”, he had not yet acquired a formalized musical education.
He was 17 years old.
Still, in his first composition, all the elements of his style are present, bursting out into the world, for the amusement of all of those who, like me, love Tango. This quality cannot be attributed to any other Tango composer. None of his colleagues had a defined style during their first compositions and would need many years to develop it. Arolas’ works have such advanced characteristics, that they will keep forever surprising Tango lovers wondering how, what inspiration, and from which source Arolas extracted them.
He was born on February 24, 1892, in the nascent industrial neighborhood of Barracas, on the southern edge of Buenos Aires, where he grew up playing among workshops, construction sites, warehouses, deposits, workers, cart drivers, cuarteadores, payadores, and herdsmen.
At 6 years old, he started learning to play the guitar from his brother José Enrique.
Until 1906 he played this instrument with friends in informal settings and eventually began playing gigs at Cafés and Dancings of his neighborhood. Arolas was regarded as a skillful and versatile player.
He accompanied Ricardo González “Muchila”, who played the bandoneon. The sound of this instrument exerted a strong attraction on Arolas. He acquired a small one with 32 notes and began learning from Muchila.
After selling merchandise on the streets for many years, his parents opened a wholesale store and bar in front of the train station. Arolas, known as “el Pibe Eduardo”, and his brother played Waldteufel waltzes to entertain the clientele, which was very in vogue at the time.
After finishing third grade, he quit school and began working different jobs to help his family: busboy, delivery boy, an apprentice at a print workshop, manufacturing commercial signs, illustrator, decorator and cartoonist, which became another of his passions, as seen in the drawings and artwork covers of his own published music compositions and for some colleagues.
On the record sheet of his neighborhood police station, he appeared classified as “compadrito”.
In 1909 he played a 42-buttons bandoneon, accompanied by Graciano De Leone in guitar.
That same year he went to present his first composition to Francisco Canaro.
In 1910 he played with Tito Roccatagliatta, the most important violin player of that era; Leopoldo Thomson, who established the double bass in the orquestas típicas, and Prudencio Aragón, pianist and composer, author of “Siete palabras”.
In 1911, at 19 years old, he played in Montevideo for the first time, which will become his home when, broken-hearted, he exiled himself voluntarily from Buenos Aires. At this gig, Arolas played a bandoneon of standard 71 buttons.
Upon his return from this trip, he started formal musical studies with José Bombig, conductor of the National Penitentiary band, who had a conservatory on Avenue Almirante Brown, in La Boca neighborhood.
During those three years at the conservatory, he made an extensive and very profitable tour of the province’s brothels, with violinists Ernesto Zambonini and Rafael Tuegols.
While on this tour he met Delia López “La Chiquita”, and started a relationship that became a source of great inspiration for him as well as the likely trigger of the unfortunate choices that accelerated his demise.
Back in Buenos Aires, he worked mostly in his own neighborhood of Barracas, in various venues, including his own, “Una noche de garufa”, that he opened with his friend, the industrialist Luis Bettinelli.
His first composition, published in 1912, was an immediate great success.
Other compositions of remarkable inspiration followed although they are not as well known today as they should be: “Nariz”, dedicated to his “amiguita” Delia López; “Rey de los bordoneos”, dedicated to his musicians; “Maturango”; “Chúmbale” and the vals “Notas del corazón”, dedicated to his mother.
During 1912 he started playing downtown Buenos Aires and soon included in his formation the great pianist and composer José Martínez, author of “El cencerro”, “La torcacita”, “Pablo, “Punto y coma”, “Canaro”, among many great tangos, to play at the cabaret Royal Pigall, on Corrientes Street 825.
This same year, Roberto Firpo called Arolas and Roccatagliatta to play with him at the famous cabaret Armenonville. Later, Arolas distanced himself from Firpo and had a sign at his presentations that clarified “We don’t play Firpo’s compositions”. But “Fuegos artificiales” became a great outcome from this encounter. Firpo still went on to record many of Arolas’ tangos.
After taking distance from Firpo, in 1914, Afro-American Harold Philips played the piano for a while at Arolas’ orchestra.
In 1915, Arolas played together with Agustin Bardi on piano and Roccatagliatta on violin.
In 1916, he formed a trio with Roccatagliatta on violin and Juan Carlos Cobián on piano, at the cabarets Montmartre, L’Abbaye, and Fritz, all located downtown. This trio sometimes expanded to a quartet to include a violoncello. They also made a tour in the province of Córdoba.
Back in Buenos Aires, the trio was hired to play at parties and dancings of the Buenos Aires’ upper-class mansions, embassies, and select clubs. At these kinds of gigs, any interaction between musicians and guests were not tolerated, a rule that Arolas never accepted, which resulted in his replacement by Osvaldo Fresedo.
Between 1913 and 1916, his musical composition and production showed evident improvement due to his musical studies, and the achieved experience of his profession. He consolidated his fame, taking his orchestra to the level of the most prominent ones, leaving the neighborhood cafés, playing on Corrientes Street, and at the luxurious places of Palermo neighborhood, in the interior of Argentina, and in Montevideo.
Specifically regarding the song “Araca”, there is only one magnificent rendition recorded by “Cuarteto Victor de la Guardia Vieja” in 1936, with Francisco Pracánico on piano, Ciriaco Ortiz on bandoneon, and Cayetano Puglisi and Antonio Rossi on violins.
The third and last group of compositions, from 1917 to 1923, showed an even further musical evolution, deeper in feelings, nostalgic, almost crying with masculine vulnerability, playing with his characteristic rhythmic phrasing. These works were influenced by the break up with his lover Delia López, who ended up involved with his brother, and his subsequent submersion into alcoholism and chronic sadness. Among them: from 1917, “Comme il faut” -here is the recording of Anibal Troilo in 1938:
and “Retintin”, called first “Qué hacés, qué hacés, che Rafael!”, dedicated to his violin player, friend and secretary, Rafael Tuegols. The whole orchestra sang the name of the song at the performances -here by Juan D’Arienzo y su Orquesta Típica, with Rodolfo Biagi in piano:
Less known, from this same year, are “Marrón glacé (Moñito)”, dedicated to the racing horse of his friend Emilio de Alvear; “El chañar”, of which there is a rendition by Alfredo De Angelis recorded during the Golden Era:
and “Taquito”, recorded only by Arolas.
In 1917, he formed a quintet with Juan Luis Marini on piano, Rafael Tuegols and Atilio Lombardo on violins, and Alberto Paredes on violoncello, and recorded for Victor with an advantageous contract. Unusual for the time, he included the voice of Francisco Nicolás Bianco “Pancho Cueva”, on two recordings, only matched by the contemporary recording of Gardel-Razzano with Firpo at “El moro”. Bianco, who later also recorded with Firpo, was a famous payador, who used the lunfardo jargon in his performances, and was the brother of Eduardo Bianco, the great conductor who played tangos in Europe.
The composition cover artwork for the song “Lágrimas” deserves a special mention because of Arolas’ self-portrait:
Dedicated to the mother of his colleague and violinist Tito Roccatagliata, combined a delicious rhythmic first part with a deeply emotional second part. Ricardo Tanturi recorded it in 1941:
In 1918 his orchestra was formed with him on first bandoneon and conductor, Manuel Pizzarro on the second bandoneon, Rafael Tuegols on the first violin, Horacio Gomila on the second violin, Roberto Goyeneche on piano, and Luis Bernstein on double bass. This was the peak of his career, playing in both Buenos Aires and Montevideo. Soon, Julio De Caro joined his orchestra.
1918 brought us two tangos eminently rhythmic: “Catamarca”, initially called “Estocada a fondo”, of which Carlos Di Sarli left us a magnificent rendition in 1940:
The other tango is “Dinamita”, that we can hear in the rendition of 1918 by Roberto Firpo:
Here we are able to appreciate authentic rhythmic dynamite, his peculiar way of playing with the melody, and its manifested advanced compositional techniques, using already the same “canyengueadas” that we hear in the arrangements of Osvaldo Pugliese and Astor Piazzolla many decades later.
That same year, Arolas met Pascual Contursi in Montevideo, and from this encounter they produced “Qué querés con era cara”, lyrics that Contursi wrote for Arolas’ “La guitarrita”, recorded by Carlos Gardel:
This year culminated with one of his immortal compositions: “Maipo”, of supreme beauty, with a first part truly sublime, of pathetic depth, tearing, and the second part of felt sadness and deep emotions. Let’s dance to El Rey de Compás Juan D’Arienzo recording of this tango in 1939:
1919 began with no less than “El Marne”, a true concerto of advanced structure for its time. It needed to wait for qualified musicians to deliver the message of its notes. We remain here at the same tanda, with the Maestro D’Arienzo and Juan Polito on piano:
The productivity of Arolas is astounding. His fabulous inspiration keeps on giving: “Cosa papa”, which was only recorded by him on his last recording, in line with his best authorial achievements.
“Rocca”, dedicated to his great friend, the landowner and keeper of Argentine traditions, Santiago H. Rocca, in which music sheet edition we can see a portrait of the homaged, beautified by a fine drawing from Arolas.
“Viborita” is other of his delicate tangos, with the peculiarity of having only two parts, without a trio, as was his custom. Recorded in 1920 for the first time by the Orquesta Típica Select of Osvaldo Fresedo. Its music sheet was not published until after 1930 when the nephew of Arolas received a pack with manuscripts. That is why it appears published as posthumous work. A wonderful rendition of this tango to dance at the milongas is the one recorded by Francisco Lomuto in 1944:
“De vuelta y media”, of amazing beauty, from which we are lucky to hear the author’s recording:
And “El Gaucho Néstor”, included only in his recordings for Victor:
In 1919 he was hired to play at Montevideo’s Carnaval celebrations, at the head of a big orchestra.
Back in Buenos Aires, he engaged in a tour through the province with a trio in which Julio De Caro played the violin. Then he played at Maxim’s and Tabarín cabarets downtown. From this moment on, there were only a few more occasions in which Arolas played in Argentina. His moral and physical collapse had begun. He moved his home permanently to Montevideo, and formed an orchestra in which Edgardo Donato played.
In 1920 he traveled to Europe accompanied by Alice Lesage. This year he gave only one composition, dedicated to her, “Alice”. Manuel Buzón made an excellent recording of this tango, that we like to enjoy dancing:
In 1921 he returned from Europe and remained in Uruguay. This year he composed “Pobre gaucho”, dedicated to his orchestra colleagues, and “Bataraz”, both recorded by Firpo:
Possibly, this is also the year in which he composed what is considered his masterpiece: “La Cachila”. It has everything. After an intense first part, of incomparable beauty, comes a second part with vibrant renovating rhythms, piercing, rich, and tearing. That is the way it was interpreted by Osvaldo Pugliese:
It had become one of the classics of the genre, of a permanent presence in the repertoire of orchestras of all times.
In 1922, he took a second trip to Europe, with work in mind, but he didn’t receive help from the community of tango musicians living there. On his own, he got advantageous contracts to play in Paris and Madrid.
During his last three years of life, he resided in Europe, and we only know about the composition “Place Pigalle”, which he registered in France.
He died of tuberculosis on September 29, 1924, at a hospital in Paris. He was 32 years old at the time of his death.
In 15 years as a composer, he wrote 120 titles, of which only about 20 are widely known.
During Arolas’ time, Tango music was much simpler than it is today.
As a musician, he gave the strength of his emotion to his performances, breaking his instrument on many occasions, leaving it like an umbrella inverted by a strong wind. He was a refined instrumentalist, devising ways of phrasing and harmonizing unknown at the time. He created the octave phrasing, the passages harmonized in thirds played with both hands, the “rezongos” played with the bass notes (a particular effect that makes the bandoneon sound like grumbling), and with Juan Maglio Pacho, perfected the bandoneon legato technique, all elements which became essential to Tango.
His musical language, as a composer and as a player, was purely Tango, a language that the people of the neighborhoods of Rio de la Plata understand, a language that flows effortlessly like spring water. His performance was vibrantly brilliant, simple, without variations, very nuanced and colorful.
As a conductor, it is possible to identify two stages of his work. From 1911 to 1915, in which his formations are similar to the others of the time, integrated by bandoneon, violin, flute and guitar. The guitar is the rhythmic base and the other instruments play the melody, although sometimes all play together in the parts that demand more sound. Listen to “El entrerriano” (Odeon 1913):
From 1917 to 1919, although sometimes we can still hear a guitar, the piano becomes the spinal cord of the rhythm, complemented by violins and violoncello, and, of course, the bandoneon. His rhythm is more “elastic” without losing “polenta” (energy), more versatile, and with more sound flow. Definitely much more advanced than his contemporary orchestras. Listen to “Comme il faut” (Victor 1918):
Compared with the other orchestras playing during the same period, Arolas’ was the one that played the slowest, as a way of achieving more expressivity, changing the rhythm from 2/4 to 4/8, and changing the rhythmic scheme: Arolas opened a wide gap with his orchestra through which the advent of the most evolved forms of the instrumental performance of tango could be glimpsed.
As a composer, he took Tango to a more elaborate level with the force of his originality. According to Osvaldo Pugliese, together with Agustín Bardi (in our next article), is one of the pillars of Tango. His work consists of compositions all of superlative beauty, outstanding inventiveness, and emotive depth.
From his beginnings, he enlisted the trend of “Tango Criollista”, emotionally located at the edge between the city and the countryside (“La guitarrita”), but gradually he started acquiring Porteño accents, at the time that the emotional charge of his melodies increased, losing the stillness of the countryside and the acidic smell of the grass to share an urbanized tragic pain. They give the sensation that they were written to be interpreted by future orchestras. His works waited patiently through the instrumental evolution of the genre and the capacitation of the musicians of the Golden Era to extract from them all its latent beauty.
In addition to the inspiring music he shared with the world, he was also very good looking, had great charisma, and was always very well dressed. He loved all the pleasures in life, and as he refined his taste as he grew artistically, he became more knowledgeable about his profession and began playing in places of better quality.
Firpo spent his childhood working in his family’s store. Although he showed interest in music and painting, his family could not afford an artistic education for him.
Since they needed his help with the family business, his father took him out of school after fifth grade.
Enrique Cadícamo tells us that, as a teenager, he felt terribly ashamed when girls in the town watched him working hard as a delivery boy for his family business.
He confronted his father about his plan to leave Las Flores to find his destiny in the big city. Firpo displayed such determination that his father realized he could not retain him, and instead gave him the freedom to leave home and some money to start an independent life in Buenos Aires.
There, he worked in a store located in the corner of Santa Fe and Callao streets.
At the time, Bachicha was learning to play bandoneon with Alfredo Bevilacqua, one of the greats of the time, author of “Venus”, “Independencia”, “Apolo” and other classics. Firpo began assisting in these classes and learning the instrument of his choice, piano, and music theory.
Having no money to purchase a piano, Firpo made himself an instrument.
At 19 years old, Firpo was fiercely dedicated and he learned a lot.
In 1904 he left Buenos Aires to work at the port of the City of Ingeniero White, where, at night, he played the piano at a bar of the port.
This allowed him to round out his training, and when he made enough money to buy his own piano, he returned to Buenos Aires and did so.
Firpo said he always remembered that day as “the happiest of his life”.
On a quest to perfect his technique, he continued his studies with Bevilacqua.
During the day, he took all sorts of odd jobs, while at night, he played in several neighborhood bars and cafés. Sometimes Firpo played in a duet with Bachicha, or others in a trio with Juan Carlos Bazán on clarinet and Francisco Postiglione on violin.
That engagement increased his fame and lead to his temporary contract with another prestigious place of the tango scene, “Hansen”, in Palermo neighborhood, at the rate of three pesos per night and permission to pass the dish (hat).
From this moment on, he worked exclusively as a musician.
Firpo was at this time one of the most recognized and celebrated composer of Tango, and for that reason, the recording company Lepage Odeón, of Max Glücksmann, summoned him to make their first recordings.
Firpo would start a catalogue of recordings on discs, only surpassed over the years by his colleague Francisco Canaro.
Following the success of his tango “El Chamuyo”, a manager of Odeón spoke with him about recording for them, but since Firpo had an exclusive contract, he was able to block other orchestras from recording.
That is why Canaro began recording with a trio at Odeón, and sought an agreement with Firpo, “which consisted of paying him six cents for each record that was sold recorded by my orchestra” – said Canaro.
Some time later he would regret not having signed it jointly: the rights of “La Cumparsita” reported millions!
With respect to this fundamental tango, Firpo recalled: “In 1916 I was at “Confiteria La Giralda” in Montevideo, when one day a man arrived accompanied by about fifteen boys – all students – to tell me that they had a humble carnival march, and wanted me to take a look and fix it because they thought there was a tango.
They wanted it for that night, because it was needed for a boy named Matos Rodríguez. In the score, in two by four, appeared a little of the first part and in the second part there was nothing.
On more than one occasion, Firpo shared the stage with the duet Gardel-Razzano, in addition to enduring their relentless jokes.
Once, when Firpo played the pasodoble “Que salga el toro!” (Release the bull!), at the moment in which one of the members of the orchestra shouted the title of this song in the middle of the performance, Gardel – using his index fingers as horns – struck the musicians who went to the floor.
Beyond such terrible jokes, Firpo and Gardel-Razzano recorded together once in 1917, the tango “El Moro”, although in the label Gardel and Razzano do not appear, oddly, except – as it is – as authors. Revenge of Firpo? No. What actually happened is that no vocalization was planned. Gardel and Razzano just burst into the recording room and the joke, in this case, consisted of singing the lyrics of the song surprising Firpo. The recording company edited the record without modifying the disc label.
The success of Firpo was also financial. He made lots of money for his performances, but even more for his recordings and composer’s rights.
In 1928, he unexpectedly abandoned Tango for a while.
He himself explained the reason to Héctor and Luis Bates: “With the money I received for the recordings, I felt like a cattleman. Everything I had, I invested in the hacienda. In a year, I got to earn a million pesos … Then came that sadly famous flood of the Paraná River that decimated my farm; I wanted to make up for so much loss and I tried my luck in the stock market. It was in 1929. There I lost everything I had left. I had to go back to the work I had done before, I formed my orchestra and started again.”
For instance, Julio De Caro‘s first public performance and the beginning of his career playing tango was with Firpo, when De Caro was only 17 years old.
His friends arranged for De Caro to see Firpo playing at the cabaret Palais de Glace, even though De Caro was not old enough to be admitted in a cabaret.
At the time, boys would not wear long pants until they were 18 years old.
Parents would give them their “pantalones largos” as a admission into adulthood.
So, Julio’s friends had to get a pair of long pants that would be the credential of being old enough to get into the cabaret, and once he was there, during Firpo’s performance, his “barra” (group of friends) started to shout “Que suba el pibe!” (Bring the boy to the stage!).
Julio joined his friends in the shouting, not knowing that “el pibe” (the boy) was him.
In short, his friends carried him onto the stage, Firpo asked his violin player to give Julio the instrument and asked him what he would like to play, to which De Caro responded “La Cumparsita”. Eduardo Arolas was also there, and was so impressed by De Caro’s playing, that asked him to play in his orchestra.
Roberto Firpo’s recording work is immense and surely many titles have remained unregistered. During the time of acoustic recordings he made more than 1650 records and at the end of his career, back in 1959, close to 3000 recordings.
Roberto Firpo is one of the first evolutionists of Tango as a director, interpreter and composer.
In those initial days of the “Orquesta Típica”, he definitively established the piano in the tango orchestra, which displaced the guitar, but his way of playing the piano borrowed a lot from the way of playing the guitar in Tango and in the native music of the gauchos, for instance the “bordoneo”, a technique used to embellish the melody with notes from the sixth string of the guitar -the lowest pitched string, called “bordona”.
His orchestra was a model that pointed the way to go, signaling a trend that will germinate in future tango formations.
According to Tango historian Orlando Del Greco “In this name, all the Tango is summarized”.
Francisco Canaro, artistic name of Francisco Canaroso, was born in Uruguay in 1888.
During his early childhood he moved with his family to Buenos Aires, where they rented a room in a “conventillo”, collective form of accommodation or housing in which several poor families
shared a house, typically one family for each room using communal sanitary services. His family was very poor. Later, he would become one of the wealthiest people in Argentina, and a major contributor to the diffusion of Tango in Buenos Aires, the rest of Argentina and abroad. He went on to be very involved in the struggle for musicians and composers rights, making it possible to make a living for musicians and generating incentives for them to improve and be creative.
His life runs parallel to the history of Tango: starting in the poorest neighborhoods of Buenos Aires, moving up the social ladder, eventually achieving world wide recognition.
Not long after Canaro and his family arrived in Buenos Aires, a smallpox epidemic broke out. Three of his siblings got sick, causing one of them to die. To avoid contracting smallpox, Francisco and his remaining siblings had to sleep outside his family’s one-room home.
They decided that they needed to do something to help, and without telling his parents, Francisco, Rafael and Luis went to sell newspapers in the streets.
They would beg in the streets to get some money to buy newspapers at 5 cents, to sell them at 8 cents. They found a corner that seemed well suited for the enterprise, at Entre Rios and San Juan streets, but they soon discovered the corner was already the post of two other brothers. A conflict soon developed into a fight that ended with all of them at the police station. There they settled on an arrangement to share that corner and a new post with the other siblings.
Francisco also worked as shoeshine boy in the afternoons, after selling newspapers in the mornings.
Later Canaro and his family moved to a “conventillo” at Sarandí 1358, occupying Room 31, where one of his neighbors was Vicente Greco. In modern day Buenos Aires, the freeway from the Ezeiza Airport to the downtown area passes over the former location of this “conventillo”.
When he and his family moved, Francisco got a job in a workshop manufacturing oil cans.
His passion for music began in his childhood. He had a good voice and would be a soloist during the comparsas de carnaval (Carnival Parades). Later, a neighbor in the “conventillo”, taught him to play the guitar, and soon he started playing with other kids in the neighborhood parties.
He also learned how to play the mandolin, but his dream was to play the violin. Not being able to afford one, he made his own using an oil can and a wooden board.
In his memoirs, Francisco tells us about his childhood and what he and the other kids in the neighborhood liked to do. Going to the circus was a favorite, but they did not have money. Part of the fun was to try to get in without paying and to avoid getting caught by the workers and guards. They also played games in the street called “rayuela”, “villarda”, “Cachurra monta la burra”, and “vigilantes y ladrones”. Also, there were stone throwing wars between the kids of Sarandí Street and Rincón Street. He also confessed to “diabluras” with other kids, breaking the glass of the street kerosene lamps using their sling shots.
He learned the painter’s craft, and worked on the final stages of the Congress Building, together with another tango musician and composer: Augusto P. Berto.
At this time, he got enough money to buy a violin in a pawn shop.
He decided that he wanted music to be his profession, formed a trio, and went to play in a brothel in the town of “Ranchos”, eighty miles south of Buenos Aires, in 1906.
It was a very tough place, where the regulars were men that went to prison at some moment of their lives.
One night an argument between the police guarding the door and two drunk men ended in gunshots and two police dead. The trio was placed on a very precarious balcony near the entrance, and one of the gunshots perforated the floor of the balcony, luckily not injuring Canaro or his colleagues. The musicians, fearing harm or even death if they continued working in such conditions, demanded that the owner of the brothel terminate their contract, but the owner convinced them to stay by shielding the balcony with sheets of iron.
At this time, Canaro, who was very dedicated to his study of music, decided to take lessons with a local music teacher.
Then the trio continued to Guaminí, a town 300 miles southwest of Buenos Aires, on the border with the province of La Pampa. There they found work in a “casa de baile” (literally a dance hall, but more likely a brothel masked as a dance hall) called “El colorado”. The owner did not hire them, but allowed them to put out a plate and ask the dancers to pay ten cents for each song they danced, which they paid at the end of the round, one, two or more songs.
However, there was one guy, nicknamed “Firulete,” who would always find his way out of the place without paying. He was fond of showing off, and his gang of friends would often shout “Solo!” to demand everyone clear the dance floor to allow “Firulete” to display his dance skills.
Canaro and his colleagues got more and more annoyed by this over time, until one night they confronted him and demanded payment. “Firulete” reacted dramatically as though they had insulted him and waited outside with two of his gang members to provoke them to fight, which led to fist fights and gunshots. By the time the police arrived, they only found the musicians, since the others were locals and knew the town well and how to sneak away quickly.
The musicians ended up in jail for creating unrest, and they were forced to sleep on the cold ground with no blankets for many nights. Their only reprieve was a police escort to play at “El colorado”, a “privilege” granted to them thanks to the friendship between the sheriff and the owner of “El colorado.”
After a while, they were released from jail, assisted by the mediation of a “compadre” from the area, who became friends with the musicians during their stay in Guaminí.
A consolation for Canaro was hearing that “Firulete” was eventually caught, and submitted to the standard treatment sheriffs gave to “compadritos”, which consisted of cutting their hair short and removing the “taquito militar” (heels) from his shoes.
Also during Canaro’s time spent in Guaminí, he met Pacho. A friendship that lasted until Pacho’s death, in 1934.
Pacho came to Guaminí with his orchestra to play at the other “casa de baile” of the town, called “El verde”.
In Canaro’s memoirs, he remembers the owner of “El verde” who was a large, elderly woman who was very beautiful in her youth, and very extravagant in her apparel. To attend and watch over the business, she used to place herself in a kind of pulpit where she could dominate the scene. She wore lots of jewelry, and placed a diadem on her head that gave her the look of a queen. Often she organized gala nights and demanded women working for the house dress in green colors, but to avoid uniformity. On those special nights she wore even more jewelry, creating a strong contrast between herself and her clientele. These parties were very famous during that time.
Canaro and his orchestra then traveled on the train tracks to Salliqueló, 340 miles southwest of Buenos Aires, where they were not able to find a gig, since the town was very small and did not have dancing. As a means of survival, they went around to restaurants and asked the owners permission to play for donations. They received very little money, but enough for some food and lodging.
The next day, they arrived in Tres Lomas, where they were lucky enough to be hired in a “casa de baile.” The building was constructed with wooden walls and metal sheets ceiling and it was a very cold winter. During this time, the trio was playing at the top of their game, and were received with great acceptance by the audience. But in some moment they heard a noise: Tac! It was a drop of the water condensed on the ceiling due to the cold temperature. And then, one of these drops fell on the first string of Canaro’s violin, breaking it. They continued playing until the amount of water falling on them made it impossible. Canaro remembers that in order to continue playing, he had to do it with one string, and compared it with the feat of the great violinist Nicolo Paganini, who played a famous concerto with one string. Canaro acknowledged that his feat did not become as well known, playing in a obscure corner of the province of Buenos Aires, with a violin that only cost eight pesos, interpreting the tango “Piantá piojito que te cacha el paine”.
Then, the trio moved to Trenque Lauquen, where they did well enough, and Canaro felt especially fortunate because he started dating two of the ladies in the town. One of them was the daughter of the owner of the “casa de baile” they were working for, and the other was a girl from the town.
However, his fortune did not last long, since Canaro had to play in another town one hundred miles away. Nevertheless, Canaro wrote letters to them both to stay in touch.
Unfortunately, their experience in this new town was not good because they did not make enough money to pay for their hotel, leading them instead to escape in the middle of the night.
The next town was General Acha. They worked there for a short time, and when they were tired, decided to return to Buenos Aires.
Canaro had continued writing to his two girlfriends, but on one occasion made the mistake of mixing up the envelopes and letters, sending each of them the letter written for the other. When the train back to Buenos Aires made its stop in Trenque Lauquen, both of them were outraged and waited for Francisco at the station to confront him and make a scene.
In 1907, after a short stay in Buenos Aires, Canaro headed with the guitar player Domingo Salerno, author among other great tangos of “Marianito”, to San Pedro, a town 100 miles north west of Buenos Aires. They found work at a “casa de baile” called “La Puerta de Fierro”, but since they wanted a trio, they invited a local musician who played the flute, nicknamed “El Cuervo”. This musician, according to Canaro, had the problem of falling asleep between tangos, letting his flute fall on the floor, making a noise that made the regulars laugh.
The owner of the house was an Italian guy, not well mannered, whose big mustache would get wet in the soup he ate for dinner, which he would clean by licking it with his tongue. Canaro tells us that when the sheriff of San Pedro called this guy on the telephone, he would answer by standing up and taking off his hat, repeating “Yes Sir!”
The trio grew up to a quartet when Canaro incorporated another violin player, called Merella. Sadly, Merella soon got sick and needed surgery. After the surgery, he was not improving, and Canaro decided to accompany him back to Buenos Aires by train. Soon after getting on the train, Canaro noted that Merella wasn’t moving. He spoke to him with no response. Canaro took a small mirror that he carried in his pocket and placed it in front of his nose and observing that the mirror did not fog up, realized his friend was dead. When the train inspector came to ask for their tickets, Canaro told him what had happened. The inspector called the manager and they determined that the dead body could not continue on the train and asked Canaro to exit the train with his friend at the next station. Canaro begged them to let him continue with his friend’s body to Buenos Aires, where the brother of his friend was waiting for them to arrive, but he was not successful, and had to get off the train in Baradero.
Canaro was hopeless at this point. Luckily, he found help from some cart drivers parked at the station, who took him and the deceased Merella to town, where Canaro was able to buy a coffin, make the necessary legal arrangements, and bury his friend in the local cemetery. Then he returned to San Pedro.
After a while he got the information from some travelers that they needed musicians in Arrecifes, 35 miles south, and that the pay was better than what they were receiving in San Pedro. He wrote to the owner of the place, confirming that he and a bandoneon player (Salerno decided to remain in San Pedro) could be there in a few days. The owner replied that they needed them immediately, so Canaro and the other musician decided to take the first available cart. This last-minute decision saved their lives. Later they found out that the cart they had planned to take was crashed into by a train, and no one survived.
Once they were established in Arrecifes, Canaro wrote to Buenos Aires for another musician, Pablo Bustos, to join them. Pablo had recently been released from prison for killing a man, alleging self-defense.
While living in Arrecifes, Canaro was dating a lady who used to be the girlfriend of someone nicknamed “El Zorro”, with the reputation of “guapo” (though), who was in prison. When news came that “El Zorro” was going to be released from prison, Canaro and his girlfriend decided to disappear together. They planned for her to hide out in another town and wait for Canaro, who would join her once he received his salary. But “El Zorro” found out about their plan, and one day he showed up at a bar near the “casa de baile” where Canaro and Pablo Bustos were playing cards with other townspeople. He ordered a drink and tried to pick a fight with Canaro by talking loudly and making indirect references to insult him. Canaro did not let this get to him, instead playing dumb. “El Zorro” eventually became impatient with his game of taunting Canaro and got close to him, pushed his shoulder, and said:
“Listen, little musician, I want to tell you something.”
“With great pleasure!” Canaro responded. He stood up, preparing for whatever would come next, while Pablo placed himself in a strategic position.
“El Zorro” made a gesture like he was reaching for his weapon and pushed Canaro out of the bar.
Then “El Zorro” said loudly, “I will make you tell me where Maria Esther (the lady) is.”
Canaro responded, “If you are so “El Zorro” (referring to the character who is clever and resourceful), why don’t you find her yourself?”
Then a fight broke out, but the people at the bar got in between them, the police came, and things did not go further.
But Canaro was convinced that “El Zorro” was not going to let this go, so, prudently, the following morning asked to be paid, took the train to meet Maria Esther, and continued on to Buenos Aires together, enjoying their romance for a while in the big city.
Once back in Buenos Aires in 1908, Canaro formed a trio together with Samuel Castriota on piano (author of “Mi noche triste”) and Vicente Loduca on bandoneon. They rehearsed feverishly until Canaro was satisfied with the repertoire and the sharpness of the interpretations. He found them a regular gig at “Café Royal” in the very center of the tango scene at the time, the corner of Suarez and Necochea streets, in La Boca neighborhood.
They played on a balcony that was so small, it could barely contain all three of them. In his memoirs, Canaro said that every time he visited La Boca for any reason, he liked to come back to this place, look at the little balcony, and reminisce about his youth.
“Café Royal”, like other similar businesses, had waitresses, called “camareras”, who dressed in black with white aprons and were very accommodating with the clientele – and very good looking.
The specialty of the house was Turkish coffee, which customers liked very much.
The owner of “Royal” was a Greek gentleman with black curly hair who, in accordance with the fashion of the time, had a very thick mustache. Here wore a picturesque vest, from which he hung a thick golden clock chain, that had a big gold medal, which he carried with pride, perhaps as a sign of his status as the owner of the café.
In front of “Royal” was another café, as important, where the Greco brothers played. On Suarez Street, “La Marina” was where Genaro Espósito played. In front of “La Marina”, there was another café with Roberto Firpo playing. On Necochea Street, Arturo Bernstein demanded being served beer without interruption, alleging he could not play his bandoneon with a “dry throat”.
Kitty-corner to “Café Royal” was a big “Café-Concert”, perhaps the most important in the La Boca neighborhood, where Ángel Villoldo performed.
Canaro had great admiration for Ángel Villoldo. In his memoirs, Canaro describes how Villoldo amazed his audiences by playing the harmonica and guitar simultaneously, using a device he created to hold the harmonica on his chest, leaving his hands free to play the guitar. His compositions were very popular. For example:
Canaro acknowledges his debt to this “precursor” of the “typical Porteño music”, and that not only he, but all tango musicians, composers, Tango itself and the country of Argentina owe a lot to Ángel Villoldo, who passed away on 1921 in complete poverty.
Continuing with Canaro’s description of the neighborhood of La Boca during those times, he tells us that the “Zeneise” language, a Genovese dialect, was spoken there almost more than Spanish. The area of La Boca centered on the corners of Suarez and Necochea streets, hosted not only shows, but also many restaurants. It was a neighborhood of night life, continuously bustling, that attracted many people from downtown and other neighborhoods, bringing out the gangs of young men from rich families, and not so young men, accompanied by beautiful ladies. Rivalries between them and the dwellers of La Boca would often arise, provoking fights.
A young man from the San Telmo neighborhood, nicknamed the “Fay”, frequented the bars of La Boca on an almost daily basis. He was a cart driver, strong, well-grounded, known for being “guapo” and his powerful fists, as he would resolve squabbles with punches. One punch from him resulted in one man out of the fight. The “Fay” was considered a neighbor of La Boca, not of the downtown, due to his regular and friendly camaraderie with the young people in that neighborhood.
One night, as usual, the “Fay” was accompanied by several friends at “Café Royal”, as he was a fan of Canaro’s music. A great friend of his, a waitress called María “La Morocha”, was invited to sit with them by the “Fay” while also attending to other tables. At another table close by, there was a “patota” (group of men), of a rich young men called Cacho Arana, and they started teasing “La Morocha”. When it became too much, the “Fay” responded to them and a fight broke out. First, they started throwing glasses and bottles, then chairs, then guns came out and tables went upside down. When the police arrived, the “Fay” was in the middle of the fight, throwing punches left and right. They closed the café and took everyone to the police station. These fights were common in La Boca.
Another night, Loduca was in the company of a Spanish lady, who had been involved with a guy nicknamed “El Ñato Campana”, with a reputation as “guapo” and a skillful thief.
Canaro explains that after the trio finished playing and they were on their way home, this guy showed up by surprise on the street with a gun in his hand. He threatened to take the woman with him by force, so Loduca quickly took his gun out and both of their guns fired without consequence. Although no one was injured, the next day Canaro discovered a bullet hole in his overcoat…
Another night, in 1909, a young man came to “Café Royal” with a group of friends, while Canaro’s trio was playing. He had the air of a “compadrito high life” (a wealthy, tough, young man), who wore a grey hat with a black ribbon, tilted forward, a checkered jacket with black and white squares and black trim, pants with a wide black stripe on each side and three small pearl buttons, a fancy vest with fileteados (a type of artistic drawing, with stylized lines typically used in Buenos Aires), and an ascot tie decorated with a colorful pin. He was very good looking and attractive, with long eyelashes, full eyebrows, good teeth, a ruddy complexion, and big black eyes. Considering the usual dynamics between gangs, Canaro was expecting a fight, but soon realized that this young man had come in a friendly mood when he noticed that he was carrying a bandoneon. He was Eduardo Arolas.
When the concert finished, they came down from the balcony to join him and his friends.
One of his friends said that he composed a very beautiful tango, and they all asked him to play it, to which he happily agreed. Arolas placed a small black velvet blanket on his lap, beautifully embroidered with his initials, got his bandoneon and played his tango “Una noche de garufa”. Canaro and his colleagues liked the tango very much, and included it in his repertoire. After that first meeting, they became close friends.
Around this time, Canaro also met Roberto Firpo, and they developed a close friendship. They were neighbors of the same neighborhood, San Cristobal, and every night they rode the #43 streetcar together.
By 1910, the year of the Centennial Anniversary of Argentina, Tango started to move from Suarez and Necochea streets to take over downtown.
The first to play downtown was Roberto Firpo. The success of his many compositions was the key that opened the center of Buenos Aires to him. The place was the “Bar Iglesias”, at 1400 Corrientes Street, where the Centro Cultural General San Martin is now located.
Canaro’s trio eventually dissolved, and he entered the orchestra of Vicente Greco, to play at café “El Estribo” of Entre Rios Street 763/67, and at the dance halls of “Salon Rodriguez Peña” on Rodriguez Peña Street 344, close to Corrientes Street. At “El Estribo”, Canaro liked to stay late after his gigs in the “peña” that happened in the underground of the café, two or three times a week, where many “payadores”, guitar players and singers came together. Gardel and Razzano were regulars.
On nights the “peña” was closed, he like to go with his colleagues after work to a “bodegón” (a kind of taproom) of the marketplace located across Entre Rios street. There, they enjoyed the specialty of the house, a succulent Italian style stew, served in abundant portions with a generous parmesan cheese topping, costing only ten or fifteen cents. They stayed there late into the night and would see other musicians and dancers, like “El Pardo Santillán” and “El Vasco Aín”, who where the organizers of the dances at “Salon Rodriguez Peña”.
Another place Canaro played with Greco was the house of “La Morocha Laura”, with a very selected clientele, located on Paraguay and Pueyrredón streets. Groups of wealthy young men rented the house for a fixed amount of time, including female dancers, drinks and musicians.
One night, a manager for “Casa Tagini” on Avenida de Mayo who ran Columbia Records in Buenos Aires, came to café “El Estribo” to sign them on to record. They accepted and, in order to differentiate their musical formation from others who did not specialized in Tangos, Canaro and Greco chose the title of “Orquesta Típica Criolla”.
These recordings were very successful and sold very well.
Once he left Greco’s orchestra, Canaro made other contributions to the formation of the “Orquesta Típica”, including the double bass (Ruperto Leopoldo Thomson) and the “estribillista” (a singer performing only the chorus part of a composition –Roberto Diaz).
Also, Canaro helped Tango to find its way to complete acceptance by all the sectors of Buenos Aires society, being the first Tango musician to play at the private parties celebrated in the houses of some of the most prominent upper class families of Buenos Aires.
“Nació en los Corrales Viejos allá por el ochenta.
Hijo fue de la milonga y un “pesao” de arrabal.
Lo apadrinó la corneta del mayoral del tranvía
y los duelos de cuchillos le enseñaron a bailar”
“El Tango”, Miguel A. Camino, 1877-1944.
When Argentina took on the model of the “Generación del ochenta” (the governing elite which ruled the country from 1880 to 1916), the gaucho lost his habitat. The Pampa would be divided into “private property”, so Argentina could join “civilization”.
Many of these gauchos opted for the opportunity to adapt to a new way of life in Buenos Aires, with its rapid growth due to a large influx of immigration.
They brought their knowledge and skills to the big city. They were expert cattle herdsmen, which fed the locals and the world, slaughterers, butchers, horse trainers, tram drivers, and carters, who knew the most efficient way of transporting cargo to the port. Their effectiveness in handling a knife was not limited to use with livestock. The gaucho was a man skilled in the art of fighting. The wars of independence, civil wars, and other less illustrious circumstances had trained him. But the gaucho was not a criminal. He had incorruptible ethics.
In the chaotic origins of our country, a new state that had just begun to get organized, the police force and justice system were not as efficient as one would have wished. With the population increasing by the day due to a careless immigration policy, which also led to more diversity, the most vulnerable sectors of the population found in those gauchos someone who supported them in their daily disputes. They were arbiters of justice spontaneously elected by their neighbors, residents of the poorest neighborhoods of the city, the suburbs, the “arrabales”, and received in gratitude, the title of “compadres”.
Young people in these slums learned to admire those strong men. They admired his independence and self-reliance, and the skill with wielding his weapon, the knife, if necessary to defend those characteristics that defined them.
However, these fans never came to incorporate the ethical values of the compadre, arising from the moral of the Knight of the Middle Ages. You could say that they were already “tainted” by the modern city and its utilitarian pragmatism. The “compadritos”, so called contemptuously, thus signaling its lowest moral stature in the shadow of the “compadre”, responded to the demands of a new historic moment: the birth of Buenos Aires as the great city of South America, incorporated into the global capitalist market.
The visteo (knife fighting training) and tango, with cockfighting and pimping were compadrito features.
The compadre, however, did not dance, did not amuse himself by fighting, had no commercial ambitions. He was a man who had made his life and now in the city, preferred to take a contemplative and wise position.
During the formative years of modern Argentine state, which could be dated starting in the battle of Caseros, ending the government of Juan Manuel de Rosas in 1852, the flood of immigrants brought to the daily life of the inhabitants of Buenos Aires various manifestations of the many cultures that arrived here. Among them, new forms of partner dance that originated from the popularity of the waltz in Europe. Those who witnessed their arrival at the port of Buenos Aires called them “a la europea (in a European fashion)“. These dances were mainly the waltz and the polka, which were very fashionable in Europe. The novelty of these dances was that the woman was “in the man’s arms”. This was a major change in relation to the minuet, the most popular couples dance until the appearance of the waltz, in which contact between members of the couple did not go beyond holding hands.
Young men from the slums, the “compadritos”, could see this way of dancing mainly in places of night life near the harbor, and adopted the technique of bringing the woman in his arms, but with some important changes.
The compadrito was fond of visteo (knife fight training). Knowing knife fight, not the larger gaucho or compadre knife, but a shorter one, that could be hidden under the lapel of his jacket, since it was not allowed by the authorities, was a direct way to express his status. The visteo was the physical education of these men (and many women, too) prior to the arrival of a more “civilized” sport brought to our land by Englishmen: football (or soccer). (The first football game was played in Argentina in 1867, and all participants of the game had English surnames).
By taking a woman to dance, the compadrito used his “body language” which he had acquired in the visteo. That made it necessary for the bodies of the dancers to be completely united in an intimate embrace, which was very shocking for the time.
Carlos Vega, researcher and historian of Argentine dances, differentiates the mode of holding the woman in waltz / polka, calling it “linked” as opposed to the “embrace” of tango.
The tango is the first dance that is based on the human embrace.
Another amendment introduced by compadritos, which completes the originality of the tango, which is also a consequence of their body language, their natural way of moving, and the embrace. In tango, there is for the first time in a dance linked / embraced the opportunity to stop and be still. So far, the dances which had static moments, called “figures”, were separated couples dances, while in those linked the movement was constant and there were no moments of stillness.
Tango’s intimate embrace made this innovation possible because the dancers now had more physical connection, which allowed them more accurate communication.
And to complete, also due to the embrace and to the skills of the compadritos, the legs’ games “invading” the other partner’s space in the couple.
At the time, these features were called dancing with “cortes y quebradas”.
In 1861, a police document mentions three couples detained near the port of Buenos Aires for dancing using “cortes y quebradas”. The document does not mention tango. At this time, this dance technique was used by compadritos to dance all kinds of music. Later, in the last decade of the 1800s, tango would be adopted by the compadritos as their distinctive music, so the music of tango would be united forever to the dance with “cortes y quebradas”.
Probably the tango music would have developed many of its features from the adaptation of street musicians the dance of the compadritos.
In the origins of tango there is also an influence of the culture of the Afro-Argentines, who had enjoyed greater freedom of expression during the years of the government of Juan Manuel de Rosas. After slavery was abolished in Argentina, in 1853, the Afro-Argentines were the residents of the poorest neighborhoods of Buenos Aires at the time of the great flood of immigrants. The immigrants arriving in Buenos Aires, not only from the other side of the sea, but also from within the country (displaced gauchos, and the “chinas” or women from indigenous races who came to Buenos Aires after their men died in the wars of extermination of the natives), they met with the Afro-Argentines as locals. It was they who were responsible for the places of entertainment, dancing and drinks in the city of Buenos Aires. Thus, it can be said that the sociocultural characteristics of the poorest neighborhoods of Buenos Aires had definitive Afro-Argentine features. Many Afro-Argentines were gauchos, and many of them were then compadres and compadritos.
The Argentine governing classes, as well as the country, were defined during the years of transition between the aristocratic / feudal and bourgeois / capitalist systems. In those years, everything about the aristocratic life style, still possessed an aura of distinction, which was looked up to by the nascent Argentine ruling class.
Thus the “niños bien”, the children of the most powerful families, saw in the compadrito, not without envy, virtues that were well appreciated in the aristocratic culture: the duel and seduction.
When tango later became well appreciated in Paris, and from there the rest of the world, compadritos and “niños bien” undertook an exchange of customs and skills, which refined the first, and made good milongueros of the others.