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Exploring the Soul of Tango: Lyrics and Dance in the Dance of Passion

Exploring the Soul of Tango: Lyrics and Dance in the Dance of Passion

Marcelo Solis and his brother Carlos enjoying breakfast at an outdoor café in Buenos Aires. Marcelo, on the left, captures the moment with a selfie, featuring his light brown hair and a slight smile. Carlos, on the right, appears cheerful with white hair, enjoying the morning. Their table hosts a delightful breakfast setup with a teapot, coffee, and a visually appealing avocado toast topped with sprouts and cherry tomatoes. The scene portrays a warm, casual family moment.

This article marks the beginning of a series on the lyrics of Tango.

I wish to dedicate it to my brother, Carlos Daniel Solís, who recently passed away on April 28, 2024, at the age of 56. May he rest in peace.

Initially, it is crucial to discuss whether understanding the lyrics of Tango is necessary to dance it properly.

Enrique Santos Discépolo, Argentine Tango composer and author.

It’s important to note that Tango composers have always made a great effort to fuse the lyrics with the melody adequately. A clear example is Enrique Santos Discépolo, known for his meticulousness and who could spend years perfecting a single Tango.

Therefore, we can conclude that the music of Tango aims to resonate with the emotions already expressed in its lyrics and vice versa.

This indicates that understanding every word is not indispensable to feeling its emotional impact. When dancing a tango, we generally do not focus on the lyrics, as it is complicated to pay attention to both the poetry and the technical and emotional elements of the dance simultaneously.

Therefore, if our interest is to delve deeper into the poetry of lyrics, the ideal would be to listen to the tango without dancing. However, knowing the lyrics of a tango before dancing can significantly enrich the interpretation of the dance, not only for that particular tango but also by contributing to our understanding of Tango as a way to appreciate human life, estimating our existence from the assessments of the personalities who lived and were an integral part of this phenomenon called Tango, which had its peak in the 1940s in the Rio de la Plata.

Tango lyrics often reflect the repercussions of pursuing our most extreme desires, warning us about the possible consequences of this exuberant enterprise. From an involved yet distant perspective, like that of a milonga DJ from his booth, they juxtapose feelings of nostalgia and sadness with the lively excitement experienced on the dance floor. These lyrics also explore the belief in a kind of collective fiction, where a community is presumed in which we value each other. This ideal attracts us partly because we fear loneliness. Through Tango, it is possible to perceive the essences and personalities of the dancers simply by observing their movements and bodies in the dance.

Dancing Tango is also an act of pride and mastery. It is not a dance for the shy or guilty; it is not for those who wish to hide. Whoever dances Tango does not necessarily seek to be the center of attention but understands that a good dance will inevitably attract looks. This phenomenon is seen not as a quest for validation but as a gift, an offering of beauty to those spectators who know how to appreciate it without envy or resentment.

It is useful to explore the lyrics that refer to the Tango itself and its dance to deepen one’s understanding of it.

Interpretation of the tango “Que me quiten lo bailao”

Lyrics and music by Miguel Bucino, 1942, in the version of Ricardo Tanturi and his Orquesta Típica, sung by Alberto Castillo, recorded in 1943.

Listen “Que me quiten lo bailao”

“Open hand with men, and upright in any ordeal,
I have two fierce passions: the felt and the liquor…
Dancer from a good school, there is no milonga where I’m surplus,
sometimes I am poor and other times I am a lord.
What do you want me to do, brother? It’s a gift of fate!
The urge to save money has never been my virtue!
The bubbles and women’s eyes electrify me
from those sweet days of my joyful youth!

But I do not regret
those beautiful moments
that I squandered in life.
I had everything I wanted…
and even what I did not want,
the fact is that I enjoyed it.
My conduct was serene,
I was generous in good times
and in bad times, I shrank.
I was a magnate and a vagabond
and today I know the world so well
that I prefer to be this way.

What do you want me to do, brother! I was born to die poor,
with a tango between my lips and in a muddled game of cards.
I play, sing, drink, laugh… and even if I don’t have a penny left,
when the last hour strikes… let them take away what I danced!”

“Que me quiten lo bailao” is a popular phrase in Spanish that expresses the satisfaction of enjoying lived experiences, regardless of future consequences. The lyrics and music of this piece, created by Miguel Bucino, encapsulate this philosophy of life through the lens of Tango.

The lyrics could be interpreted as a celebration of the freedom and pleasure found in Tango dancing, suggesting that once lived, these experiences are inalienable, a personal treasure that cannot be taken away by external circumstances or the passage of time. In the context of Tango, this expression takes on a nuance of defiance and detachment, characteristics resonant with the genre’s emotionally intense and often melancholic nature.

Tango is an artistic expression that allows dancers and listeners to connect with deep emotions, and “Que me quiten lo bailao” serves as an anthem to live fully and without regrets. It reflects a joyful acceptance of all that life has to offer despite its inevitable ups and downs.

A classic image of Miguel Bucino and Tita Merello dancing tango in a scene from the movie

Miguel Bucino, born on August 14, 1905, in San Cristóbal, Buenos Aires, began his musical career playing the bandoneón. At 17, he briefly joined Francisco Canaro’s orchestra in 1923, which dismissed him for being a poor musician and encouraged him to pursue dancing, a vocation for which he showed natural talent. Bucino made his professional debut at the Teatro Maipo in 1925, and his career as a dancer quickly took off. He traveled with Julio De Caro to Brazil in 1927 and toured Argentina with the show “Su Majestad El Tango.” He pioneered dancing Tango at the Teatro Colón in 1929 and continued his career in Europe in 1931, performing in cities like Madrid and Paris. He participated in several theatrical seasons with figures such as Francisco Canaro and Ivo Pelay, teaching Tango to royalty and Hollywood celebrities such as the princes Humberto of Savoy and Edward of Windsor and actors Ramón Novarro and Jorge Negrete.

Although initially unsuccessful as a musician, Bucino excelled as a Tango composer, registering between 60 and 70 works, including hits like “Bailarín compadrito” and “Que me quiten lo bailao”.

Bucino retired in 1942 and died in Buenos Aires on December 15, 1973, leaving a lasting legacy in the world of Tango as a dancer, lyricist, and composer.

Here we could see him dance a tango with the celebrated actress and singer Tita Merello in the film “Noches de Buenos Aires”:

Listening to a tango means interpreting it in a personal way. Tango is felt from within. Our inner selves, with all our experiences, emotions, repressions, and more, listen to that tango, that lyric with music, and recreate it in many ways. Some interpretations become habitual and thus are maintained, becoming like translations of what is said for everyone in what we believe we hear.

Following this idea, which I believe is shared by those who love Tango, I propose a way to understand this tango, although I clarify that I do not seek to be objective or definitive.

This is what my life, my dance, hears in this tango:

The first verse, “Open hand with men, and upright in any order,” suggests a vision of masculinity based on integrity and fairness. The phrase” “open hand” can be interpreted as a symbol of generosity and transparency in relationships with other men, indicating a willingness to treat others justly and without secrecy. On the other hand “upright in any ordeal” highlights the importance of maintaining honorable conduct, regardless of the circumstances. Together, these expressions advocate for masculinity that relies on mutual trust and respect for codes of conduct that ensure equality and dignity among people without resorting to excuses based on external factors such as social position, economy, or biological or psychological conditions. In essence, it proposes an ideal of masculinity that values and promotes nobility in dealing with others, emphasizing personal responsibility over deterministic influences.

The second verse, “I have two fierce passions: the felt and the liquor” clearly illustrates the intensity and commitment with which the character lives his emotions: the cosmic chance against which we pit our will, trying to divert its course to fulfill our desires, using vital enthusiasm as a way to gauge our existence. This line highlights how the character faces that chance and uncertainty of human existence, not with fear or caution, but with an iron will to tilt events in his favor and satisfy his deep desires. The “vital enthusiasm” mentioned becomes his bulwark against mundanity and monotony, using his zest for life to measure and affirm his existence. In this context, the verse not only reflects a statement of affirmation of an orderly life from the ethical and aesthetic value of emotions but also a life philosophy that fully embraces uncertainty and enthusiasm as essential elements of human experience.

The third verse, “Dancer from a good school, there is no milonga where I’m surplus,” speaks to the technical mastery acquired through study and guided practice and reflects the respect and admiration the dancer generates within the Tango community. Essentially, the verse celebrates the achievement of excellence and elegance in dancing, which is only possible through the choice of good mentors and an unwavering commitment to continuous learning. The act of dancing and the milonga are used metaphorically to talk about life in general and how we conduct ourselves in it. Here, “dance” symbolizes how we move and react to the different rhythms and challenges that life presents us. Being a “dancer from a good school” implies having learned and mastered the skills needed to navigate these challenges with grace and competence through individual effort and determination and by choosing “good school”, that is, good guides. The “milonga”, a place where Tango is danced, represents the various situations and environments we encounter in life. Saying “There is no milonga where I’m surplus” suggests that the dancer, thanks to his preparation and skill, can adapt and excel in any context or situation that life presents, never being redundant or inadequate, but always being a valuable addition. This metaphor extends the idea that, just like a Tango dancer trained in a good school, a person who is well-prepared by their experiences and education can effectively face any life circumstance. Achievements and recognition of the dancer parallel the successes that a person can achieve in their personal and professional life when they are well-prepared and can adapt fluidly to different situations, showing that preparation, continuous learning, and adaptability are crucial to success in life, just as they are in dance.

The fourth verse, “sometimes I am poor and other times I am a lod,” reflects the acceptance of the fluctuations of fortune throughout life, recognizing how circumstances can shift between extremes of wealth and poverty. This phrase encapsulates the fact that we cannot always control the external factors that affect our economic and social position. This acceptance is not focused solely on economic reality but on a life philosophy that values other riches that are not material. The phrase indicates that the individual does not measure their worth or success solely through material wealth (“I am poor”) nor allows moments of abundance to define their identity completely (“I am a lord”). Instead, the person adapts and values life and experiences beyond material wealth. Thus, the verse suggests a balanced and mature approach to life, gracefully taking adversity and prosperity, emphasizing the importance of resilience and maintaining dignity and self-respect regardless of economic circumstances. This perspective can be compelling in contexts like Tango, where art and personal expression are often valued more than material wealth.

The fifth verse, “What do you want me to do, brother’s a gift of fate!” expresses an attitude of acceptance toward life’s circumstances beyond our control, viewing them as part of a predetermined destiny or luck that befalls us. This approach reflects a life philosophy that accepts the highs and lows with serenity and gratitude, recognizing that what happens to us, positive or negative, can be seen as a “gift of fate”. This perspective invites us to embrace life as it comes, not resisting the events but receiving them with joy and optimism. By considering events as gifts, it emphasizes the idea that every experience has inherent value, regardless of its apparent nature. This attitude fosters a sense of inner peace and satisfaction and enables facing challenges with greater strength and maintaining a cheerful disposition towards uncertainty.

In summary, this verse distills the essence of living with joyful acceptance and a calm faith that, in some way, what life brings has its purpose and value, teaching us to cherish every moment as an unexpected and often undeserved gift but always meaningful.

These discussions and analyses of Tango lyrics offer a deeper insight into how the dance and its music can serve as a profound commentary on life, personal philosophy, and social interactions, providing not just entertainment but also lessons and reflections that resonate with the emotional and philosophical depths of those who engage with it deeply. The reflections within Tango lyrics like those of “Que me quiten lo bailao” extend beyond the dance floor, weaving into the fabric of life a philosophy that values experience over material gain, personal authenticity over societal expectations, and emotional expression over restrained conformity. This resonates deeply with the Tango community and beyond, illustrating the universal themes of life’s fleeting nature, the richness of lived experiences, and the celebration of the human spirit in the face of life’s uncertainties.

Continuing with the exploration of the lyrics, the verses “But I do not regret / those beautiful moments / that I squandered in life. / I had everything I wanted… / and even what I did not want; / the fact is that I enjoyed it.”

These lines express a profound acceptance and appreciation for life’s experiences, even those that might be seen from a conservative or materialistic perspective as wasteful. This attitude rejects the notion that time should always be spent productively in an economic sense and instead celebrates the intrinsic value of experiences for the wisdom they impart.

This perspective acknowledges that life should not be judged solely by tangible, cumulative outcomes, like money or possessions, but also by moments of happiness and personal fulfillment, regardless of their “economic utility”. By stating that he does not regret those “squandered moments”, the speaker fully embraces his past and the decisions he made, viewing them as essential to his narrative and growth.

This stance also suggests generosity towards oneself and life, a willingness to live fully and unreservedly, and the recognition that each experience, however transient, enriches our being and contributes to the fullness of our existence. By freeing oneself from the pressure to justify every moment of life regarding material gain, the speaker invites us to value life for the quality of its experiences and the emotions it evokes.

“My conduct was serene, / I was generous in good times / and in bad times, I shrank.”

These lines reflect a conscious and balanced approach to the various situations of life. Here, the speaker presents himself as someone who maintains calm and serenity (“My conduct was serene”), suggesting a thoughtful and mature way of handling both times of abundance and adversity.

Being “generous in good times” indicates a willingness to share freely his resources and joys with others. This generosity is material and emotional, reflecting an openness to enjoy and share the good times fully.

On the other hand, “in bad times, I shrank,” which demonstrates a prudent and modest attitude during difficult periods. This phrase can be interpreted as reducing ostentation or expenditure, a restraint in behavior to better cope with times of scarcity or challenge. It does not necessarily imply surrendering or withdrawing completely but rather a wise adaptation to less favorable circumstances.

Together, these verses encapsulate the wisdom of living according to the circumstances, knowing when to extend oneself and when to conserve resources. The speaker understands his capacities and limitations and acts in a way that maintains a sustainable balance throughout his life. This demonstrates a life philosophy that balances generosity and caution, allowing the individual to navigate life’s highs and lows with grace and dignity.

The final lines are: “What do you want me to do, brother? I was born to die poor, / with a tango between my lips and in a muddled game of cards. / I play, sing, drink, laugh… and even if I don’t have a penny left, / when the last hour strikes… let them take away what I dance!”

These lines encapsulate a declaration of acceptance and celebration of life on the speaker’s terms, challenging social norms that value the accumulation of material wealth as an indicator of success and fulfillment.

This passage reveals a deep resignation and yet joy in the lifestyle chosen by the speaker, one that prioritizes sensory and emotional experiences—dancing, music, games, singing—as sources of wisdom, over financial security (“I was born to die poor”), not only accepts but also embraces a life free from the constraints and worries that accompany material wealth, suggesting there are a much deeper richness life’s experiences and in personal authenticity.

The verse “I play, sing, drink, laugh… and even if I don’t have a penny left” reinforces the idea that true happiness, satisfaction, and wisdom come from living fully, joyfully, and without regrets, regardless of financial status. The closing phrase “let them take away what I dance,” is a popular saying meaning that no one can take away lived experiences, emphasizing that what we truly value at the end of our days are those moments lived and the knowledge we have bestowed, not the accumulated wealth.

These verses are a hymn to a life lived with authenticity and passion, a reminder that in the end, when “the last hour strikes,” what counts are the joys, experiences, and wisdom we have gathered, not the money. According to the speaker, life is to be lived fully and with a joyful acceptance of our fate, finding beauty and meaning in art, shared experiences, and the wisdom gained rather than in material wealth.

Each moment thus becomes fully justified.

We can die at peace with our desire, having found our answer to the question of how to live.

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Argentine Tango today

Argentine Tango today

Argentine Tango mural in Buenos Aires today

I would like to comment on the situation of Tango today (April 2023).
Concerning music, the trend that began in the late 90s and early 2000s has been increasingly affirmed, in which young musicians have revalued the relevance of dance in Tango as a whole, investigating the principles that shape the way of playing the Tango of the Golden Age, the glorious decade of the 40s, leaving aside the lines traced by Ástor Piazzolla (see the documentary film “Si sos brujo”).

As for the dance, the following process can be observed:

1. Firstly, in the 1980s, there was a concern about the appropriate methodology to transmit the Tango dance to everyone who wanted to learn. Let us bear in mind that for the dancers who were trained before the eclipse of Tango (for which, in my opinion, it is pertinent to take the year 1955), the way of learning to dance was what can be called “homemade” or “organic”, that is to say, they did not have to look for Tango classes, but instead, they were born in a time and an environment in which it was natural and expected of them to dance Tango. Tango was not seen as a profession, although no less was demanded regarding the quality of dance. The first steps could be taken inside the home if the relatives already danced Tango and transmitted it to the new family members along with all the other things in the home, such as meals, schedules, beliefs, and values.

Alternatively, or in the case of starting at home, the next steps were taken not far away, with friends from the neighborhood, in the club, and in “prácticas”, which were places of research, creativity, and collective teaching, where everyone learned from everyone and those who stood out were those who could show more excellent dexterity, “mischief”, transmitted and inspired more positive emotions (love, joy, etc.) to the witnesses, who were none other than the same friends from the neighborhood who attended the same practices, or those who saw them in the neighborhood clubs once they began to participate in the milongas. Friendship, in this case, did not force them to a hypocritical acceptance and easy approval; on the contrary, it forced them to express their assessments without ambiguity, be it acceptance or rejection, which contributed to a general improvement of the dance level. In those times, there were “Tango teachers”, some more or less authentic than others, who taught the steps of Tango to those who did not belong to that more natural and homely circuit and had the purchasing power to pay for lessons. We can also find attempts (commercially successful but not in the results of good dancers), such as Domingo Gaeta, who, copying Arthur Murray from the United States, taught to dance the Tango by mail, sending pieces of paper with foot-prints drawn, so that the student would put them on the floor and step on them and thus learn the steps of Tango.

2. The first methodology that we can find at the beginning of the “renaissance” of Tango, from the return to democracy in Argentina in 1984, is the one that uses the so-called “basic step”. This method is related to the language used in the Golden Age to communicate the necessary knowledge to dance in a more or less rational way.
3. Then, a movement of young dancers emerged who rejected the hierarchy within the environments of the dancers who had learned in the golden age. For these dancers of the Golden Era, this hierarchy was based solely on the quality of their dance and their experience, regardless of their aesthetic choices, always emphasizing that “each dancer develops their unique style”. To dance in the milongas required a quality of dance and an experiential understanding of Tango that was very far from what the new dancers could possess and develop (let us take into account that this hiatus of almost 30 years that took place between 1955 and 1984 produced a great distance between knowledge and experience between old and new dancers). The younger and more determined new dancers, with values already different from that generation, decided to create their own spaces, methodology, and understanding of Tango, calling this movement “New Tango”. Who knew how to give a language to this new way of understanding Tango while maintaining a continuity with the Tango of the glorious era was Rodolfo Dinzel. For Dinzel, Tango as a dance was not just “steps” but history and all the conflicts that inhabit it (social, political-economic struggles, gender conflicts, etc.) that are embodied in the dancers and continue each time that they update a choreography that does not “is” but “becomes”. However, there are very few who understood the depth of Dinzel’s vision, and much less those who today recognize his influence, the methodology that he developed to be able to explain Tango to new generations of dancers, both from Rio de la Plata and from all over the world, forever modified the physical-spiritual language of Tango, updating its interpretation to a time very different from that of the 40s and 50s.
4. Other movements arose in response to the irruption of the new Tango. Among them, the “milonguero” style that has been associated with the person of Susana Miller, who claims to be the one who coined this name; the salon style, which was centered around a group of dancers who self-awarded the name “Villa Urquiza style” due to the geographical location of the dance halls they attended in the Buenos Aires neighborhood of the same name. Other styles can be mentioned, although the essential thing is to understand that in the glorious era of Tango, the style was something individual, and therefore, the most pertinent thing would be to make a list of outstanding dancers and couples, which I leave for another future article.
5. The appearance of the World Tango Championship, as an attempt, conscious or not, to maintain the relevance of Buenos Aires in a Tango that is an “intangible heritage of humanity” and its globalization, together with the faith in the economism of the predominant Anglo-Saxon culture that globalization has spread to all corners of the planet, generating two tendencies, to my understanding, equally superficial in terms of the way of assessing the significance of Tango: Tango as a profession, that is, as my grandmother Rita used to say “Por la plata baila el mono” (the monkey dances for money), in which the value of a dancer is discerned in economic terms or economic potential; hence the interest in winning a world championship is estimated in the economic benefits that this can yield in terms of publicity, prestige, and image. On the other hand, the mediocre and emotionless dance of those who dance “to distract themselves”, as a “hobby”, a superficial pastime, without caring about the quality of their dance (although there is no care for real emotions in the “professionals” either, besides acting as if they were feeling emotions while dancing for an audience). Let us remember here for a moment that those who learned to dance before the eclipse of Tango had no other interest than the personal satisfaction of being good dancers. Being good dancers coincided for them with a certain wisdom about life. Before, the objective of dancing well was to become “the king of cabaret”; today, it is a more abstract goal: to be a “world” champion. Before, a dancer was recognized spontaneously by his peers in his community; now, he needs to be approved by the “quality control” of the judges. The evaluation system of the first case is more intrinsic, organic, and homemade, more concrete and local. In the second case, it comes more from transcendent, universal abstractions. It cannot be separated from the conditions of world capitalism, that is, money and, more specifically, the dollar, which would be something like the world champion of currencies. This particular need to appear as the ideal of dancers before the most significant possible number of people (the entire world) produces a superficialization of Tango. It is necessary to appeal to an increasingly common denominator, that is, to vulgarize it, to spread it. Thus, the most intimate and profound elements of Tango are lost. It loses its modesty. It undresses, and therefore, he empties itself. The gestures are increasingly rehearsed and therefore lose spontaneity and honesty.

As for the poetry of Tango, it is absent in a world absent of poetry. In the words of my friend and teacher, the excellent dancer and milonguero Blas Catrenau: “What can poets write about today?” “My cell phone ran out of battery, and I can’t send you a WhatsApp?” 🤣

More articles about Argentine Tango

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Marcelo Solis dancing Argentine Tango with Mimi

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Anibal Troilo and his orchestra | Argentine Tango music to learn to dance

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History of Argentine Tango: El Cachafaz and Carmencita Calderon at Tango (Movie 1933)

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History of Tango | Excerpt: Differences between “compadrito”, “guapo”, and “malevo”.

History of Tango | Excerpt: Differences between “compadrito”, “guapo”, and “malevo”.

Compadrito's knife of the history of Argentine Tango.

Wondering what was the difference between “compadrito”, “guapo”, and “malevo”? Adrián Rodriguez Yemha offers us the results of his research:


Dancer by nature, kind, friendly, always working honestly, neat, romantic, carried a knife and knew how to handle it very well if necessary.


Knives’ man, neighborhood’ strong man, bodyguard of political leaders, they formed a family, many over time even ended up in an honest job.


Pimp, ruffian, quarrelsome, of bad habits, treacherous, without any nobility, if he could stab in the back he did.

More about the History of Tango

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History of Tango – Part 11: José Martínez. The great intuitive.

History of Tango – Part 11: José Martínez. The great intuitive.

José Martínez, Argentine Tango musician and composer.

(28 January 1890 – 27 July 1939)

He was a great pianist and composer who has left lasting tangos, in versions that we still listen to and like to dance, even though he did not know how to write music nor did he study it formally.
He was known in the Tango scene by the nickname of El Gallego (The Spaniard), to which he replied: «That’s whimsical, I’m from Buenos Aires. I have a Spanish surname but my parents, my grandparents, and great-grandparents were Argentines».

Without having studied music, he played by ear, and yet he was a very good instrumentalist and a better composer; as he did not know how to write them, his creations were put on paper by other musicians, among whom were Eduardo Arolas, Augusto Berto, Agustín Bardi, and Francisco Canaro.

He was greatly intuitive and learned to play the piano by watching his friends play.

He even left the music on several occasions to work as a salaryman in different companies, such as the cereal companies Bunge & Born, Dreyfus, and in a notary’s office.
His professional career began in 1911, with a trio formed with Augusto Berto on bandoneon and Julio Doutry on violin.
He used to invent the melody of his compositions by improvising during his concerts.

At one point he joined a group with Francisco Canaro, who brought his first work to paper: “Pura uva”:

Carnival at Teatro Colón, 1917. Poster.

Once he had gained experience, playing in cafeterias in La Boca, he was summoned by Eduardo Arolas to fill the place left vacant by none other than Agustín Bardi.

In this period, Arolas would be in charge of the transcription of his compositions.
In 1917, Francisco Canaro had achieved a great reputation in the milonguero scene, and his orchestra merged with Roberto Firpo‘s to perform at the carnivals at the Teatro Colón of Rosario city.

Musicians such as Eduardo Arolas, Osvaldo Fresedo, Bachicha Deambroggio, Tito Roccatagliata, Pedro Polito, Agesilao Ferrazzano, Julio Doutry, Leopoldo Thompson, Alejandro Michetti, make up this group.

The pianists were Firpo himself and José Martínez.
In 1918 Osvaldo Fresedo, left the Canaro orchestra to form his own group and play at the Pigall Casino. Shortly after, Martínez is the one who became independent to form his own orchestra that would play at the L’Abbaye cabaret, on Esmeralda Street. Canaro himself confessed some time after that, he thought, it would greatly weaken his orchestra:
“Bandoneonists were scarce and I turned to Minotto Di Cicco, who worked in Montevideo. And since he had nothing to envy Fresedo, he prevailed shortly after…
The problem came when José Martínez decided to form his own orchestra to premiere with it at the cabaret L’Abbaye, at Esmeralda Street. That was a regrettable casualty!

I supplanted him with Luis Riccardi, a pianist with a good technique… and I had to put up with the complaints from Royal’s clientele. They noticed the change and missed the typical Martínez beat. It took me a lot to convince the clientele of the cabaret!”

Carlos Gardel, Argentine Tango singer with his racehorse.

Martínez also spent time playing with several successful theater companies, and in one of them, “El Gran Premio Nacional”, he would premiere his beautiful tango “Polvorín”, dedicated to a racehorse, with lyrics by Manuel Romero, recorded by Carlos Gardel in 1922.

Gardel would also record his “De vuelta al bulín”, with lyrics by Pascual Contursi.

In 1918, together with Francisco Canaro, Vicente Greco, Rafael Tuegols, Luis Teisseire, and Samuel Castriota, he was part of the group that met in a basement in Florida at 300 to shape an organization that would defend their rights and in 1920 he became part of the first board of directors of the entity that with time would become the current SADAIC.

At the end of 1928, he retired from the musical activity.

He would die at the age of 49, but he left us a series of tangos that enrich the floors of the milongas with their beauty.

Let’s listen to some that are very familiar to us:

“Pablo” Dedicated to Pablo Podestá.

By Anibal Troilo y su Orquesta Típica, 1943.

More about this song
“Canaro” Dedicated to Francisco Canaro

By Juan D’Arienzo y su Orquesta Típica, 1941.

More about this song
“El pensamiento”

By Juan D’Arienzo y su Orquesta Típica, 1945.

More about this song
“Punto y coma”

By Osvaldo Pugliese y su Orquesta Típica, 1948.

More about this song
“El cencerro”

By Juan D’Arienzo y su Orquesta Típica, 1937.

More about this song
'La torcasita', Argentine Tango music sheet cover. “La torcacita”

By Carlos Di Sarli y su Orquesta Típica, 1941.

More about this song

By Osvaldo Pugliese y su Orquesta Típica, 1951.

More about this song

Argentine Tango and the bandoneon

Argentine Tango and the bandoneon

Playing traditional bandoneon, the main instrument of Argentine Tango.

How did the bandoneon become the instrument of Tango?

Invented in Germany, the bandoneon is an instrument from the concertina family.


Concertinas were conceived as an improvement of the accordion: the first concertinas were independently invented in 1829 in England by Sir Charles Wheatstone and in 1834 in Germany by Carl Friedrich Uhlig, they had five buttons on each side of the box, where each button could play two different notes when opening or closing the bellows.

Concertina Uhling, antecesor of bandoneon, the main instrument of Argentine Tango.

The concertina’s sound was conceived to blend in with violins, to encourage its use in chamber orchestras.
The bandoneon is a musical instrument that resulted from the evolution of the concertina, invented by Carl Friedrich Uhlig (1789-1874) in 1839, inspired by the accordion, and conceived as a portable version of the harmonium (a type of pump organ). 

Carl Friedrich Uhlig, the inventor of the concertina, antecesor  of the bandoneon, the main instrument of Argentine Tango

The bandoneon is part of the hand-held bellows-driven free-reed category, sometimes called squeezeboxes.
The sound is produced as air flows past the vibrating reeds mounted in a frame.
The name comes from Heinrich Band, a musician who, in 1846, started selling an improved version of the concertina that he designed, with 28 buttons (producing 56 tones). He later added more buttons, reaching a total of 65.
It is worthy of note that Heinrich Band never patented the bandoneon, since he saw his instrument as an improvement of the concertina.
It got its name from Band’s customers, calling it ‘Band-o-nion.’

Heinrich Band died at 39 in 1860, and his wife continued the production of bandoneons.

Bandoneon AA 1920, the favorite of Argentine Tango players

Carl Zimmerman owned the factory where the bandoneons were produced.

He emigrated to the US and kept producing his instrument, which became popular among Irish immigrants and also invented another stringed instrument known as the autoharp and sold his factory in Germany to Louis Arnold.

The son of Louis Arnold, Alfred Arnold, who worked in the factory since childhood, eventually developed a bandoneon with 71 buttons and two notes each (producing 142 tones).

His version, called “AA”, became the preferred bandoneon of Argentine Tango musicians.

Production of bandoneons.

After the Second World War, Alfred Arnold’s factory, which was located in what became Eastern Germany, was confiscated and ended the production of bandoneons to become a diesel engine parts factory.
Arno Arnold, Alfred’s nephew, escaped from Eastern Germany and opened a bandoneon production factory in Western Germany in 1950.
This factory closed after Arno’s death, in 1971.

Bandoneon factory today

Because the bandoneon was not patented, there was never any information recorded about the materials used to construct one, like the precise alloys of the metallic vibrating reeds that are different for every note.
Today, several individuals and companies in Germany have partnered with the latest technology to study the historical AA bandoneons and produce them again.

The Bandoneon arrives in Buenos Aires

Bandoneon factory today

The first bandoneon player ever mentioned in Buenos Aires was Tomas Moore, “el inglés” (the Englishman), who brought this instrument to Argentina in 1870.

Domingo Santa Cruz (author of the famous tango “Unión Cívica”) played the concertina until Tomas Moore presented his bandoneon.

These bandoneons were a primitive version of the 32 toned instruments. 

After 1880, when Tango began to develop its definitive form, the most recognized bandoneon players were:

Antonio Francisco Chiappe and “El Pardo” Sebastián Ramos Mejía.

From these bandoneonists, there is a primitive tango, or “proto-tango”, “El Queco”, very popular at the time.

“Unión Cívica” of Domingo Santa Cruz, by Juan D’Arienzo y su Orquesta Típica, recorded in 1938.

Arturo De Nava, one of the first Tango dancers.

The bandoneon was not immediately accepted by Argentine Tango musicians and dancers.
The original music band formations of flute, violin, and guitar played a staccato, bright and fast rhythm.
The bandoneon, with its “legato,” with its low key notes, favored by its players, who would constantly insist to its German producers to add more low key notes, seemed to not belong to Tango.
But in fact, it gave Tango what Tango was missing until the integration of the bandoneon, and the bandoneon found the music it seemed to be created for.

Gaucho, Argentina

The bandoneon, contrary to other instruments of Tango, like the violin, the flute, the guitar, the harp, and later, the piano, had no traditions to refer to.
It was a blank piece of paper on which anything could still be written.
There were neither maestros nor methods for it.

Everything had to be created from scratch.

The culture of gauchos and compadritos, self-reliance and readiness for adventures, was apt to receive an instrument that nobody could tell you what to do with and in which you could become a total creator.

Organito, organ grainder, in the origins of Argentine Tango

Perhaps the similarities between its sound and the sound of the organitos that disseminated Tango everywhere helped its acceptance. 

In the earlier years of Tango music, the “organito” (barrel organ) had a significant role in the initial spread of tango music throughout the city of Buenos Aires.

It was made of tubes or flutes and a keyboard operated by the cylinder, enabling the passage of air to produce different notes.

Bellows generate air activated simultaneously with the cylinder by rotating a handle.

The “organito,” like the organ and the bandoneón, is a wind instrument.

The sound of the “organito” prepared the ears of the Porteños for a natural transition to the bandoneon in Tango, when it finally arrived in 1880.

It is around these “organitos,” where men were seen dancing tangos in the street, practicing “cortes y quebradas.”

Juan Maglio Pacho, Argentine Tango musician

Juan Maglio “Pacho”

(1881 – 1934) was essential to the acceptance of bandoneon as a musical instrument of Tango.

He started playing as a professional at the beginning of the 1900s, first in brothels and then in cafés, until, due to his rising prestige, he was convinced to play at the very famous Café La Paloma, in Palermo, in 1910.

In 1912 he started to record for Columbia Records.
His success was so great that the word “Pacho” became synonymous with “recordings”.

“Armenonville”, recorded by Juan Maglio “Pacho” in 1912.

In 1910, Casa Tagini, manager of the branch of Columbia Records in Argentina, produced the first recordings of a musical formation dedicated exclusively to playing tangos and including the bandoneon.
In need of an appropriated label for this musical formation, the term “Orquesta Típica Criolla” was born.

Columbia records orquesta tipica criolla greco Argentine Tango

Vicente Greco

(1888-1924), was the conductor and bandoneon player in this musical formation.

“Rosendo”, recorded by Vicente Greco y su Orquesta Típica Criolla in 1911.

Another advantage of the bandoneon was its portability.
Many of the first bandoneon players were guitar players: Vicente Greco, Ricardo Gonzalez “Muchila,” who introduced the bandoneon to Eduardo Arolas, who also played guitar before; Graciano De Leone, who played guitar and was submitted to the bandoneon by Arolas.

Eduardo Arolas 1917, Argentine Tango musician.

Eduardo Arolas

(1892 – 1924) is the greatest bandoneon player in the history of this instrument in Tango music:

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.

“Rey de los bordoneos”, recorded by Eduardo Arolas y su Orquesta Típica in 1912.

Columbia records orquesta tipica criolla greco Argentine Tango

Pedro Maffia

(28 August 1899 – 16 October 1967)

He found in the bandoneon those dark sounds which separated the bandoneon from the flute forever, which in the beginning the bandoneon replaced and tried to imitate.

It is not known what secret gift made him find in the core of the bandoneon sounds that nobody had discovered before. 

“Un capricho”, recorded by Pedro Maffia y su Orquesta Típica in 1929.

Osvaldo Fresedo Argentine Tango musician

Osvaldo Fresedo

(5 May 1897 – 18 November 1984)

Born in Buenos Aires to a wealthy family seems to have influenced his art: his refined and aristocratic orchestra was the favorite of upper circles.

However, even though Osvaldo’s father was a wealthy businessman, at the age of ten, his family moved to La Paternal, a neighborhood somewhat away and humble, with flat houses in popular surroundings, which affected his destiny.

It was there where he started playing the bandoneon.

“Arrabalero” Osvaldo Fresedo y su Sexteto Típico, 1927.

Carlos Marcucci, Argentine Tango musician

Carlos Marcucci

(30 October 1903 – 31 May 1957)

A bandoneon virtuoso, wrote a method to learn to play the instrument that is still in use.

He was one the precursors of the virtuoso stream in bandoneon playing.

He was a great technician but also with great gifts for interpretation. His arrangements were complex.

He wrote an outstanding variation for his tango, “Mi dolor.”

He possessed a high technical command, fabulous fingering, and an overwhelming speed in his running variations performed with mathematical precision.

It was his initiative to systematize the solos played with both hands.

“Mi dolor” by Carlos Marcucci y su Orquesta Típica, 1930.

Pedro Laurenz. Argentine music at Escuela de Tango de Buenos Aires.

Pedro Laurenz

(10 October 1902 – 7 July 1972)

He continued the way Arolas played by incorporating the “compadreadas” that he liked much.

He was a bandoneon player of great techniques, skillful with both hands (high and low pitches), superb in sound, energetic in performances, and earnest in phrases.

He founded a performance school, composed outstanding tangos, and wrote exquisite variations.

“Arrabal”, recorded by Pedro Laurenz y su Orquesta Típica in 1937.

Carlos Marcucci, Argentine Tango musician

Ciriaco Ortiz

(5 August 1905 – 9 July 1970)

He was a bandoneon player noted for his phrasing and ability to make the bandoneon sing.

It would be impossible to transcribe what he plays on his instrument on a music sheet.

What he contributes is the way of phrasing, dividing the melody, finding nuances, of harmonizing.

“Alma de bohemio” by Ciriaco Ortiz trio with guitars, recorded in 1935.

It is a style with reminiscences of the guitar plucking of the milonguero criollo, which, even though it has had no followers, may have much influenced Aníbal Troilo.

Anibal Troilo, Argentine Tango musician.

Anibal Troilo

(11 July 1914 – 19 May 1975)

He was one of those few artists who made us wonder what mystery, what magic produced such a rapport with people.

He integrated all of these approaches into his way of playing the bandoneon, taking something from each of them while being a master of personality and feeling in his expression.

In Anibal Troilo’s orchestra, his bandoneon is the instrument at the center of the musical arrangements.

Anibal troilo and his Orquesta Típica.

“Quejas de bandoneón” by Anibal Troilo y su Orquesta Típica, 1944.

Bandoneons make the flesh of the songs in Juan D’Arienzo and Osvaldo Pugliese’s orchestras. 

Juan D'Arienzo conducting at bandoneon player

“El marne” by Juan D’Arienzo y su Orquesta Típica. 1938.

Pauses, rests, essential to dancing Tango

“La Yumba” by Osvaldo Pugliese y su Orquesta Típica, 1946.

In Carlos Di Sarli’s orchestra it blends a shade of color, perhaps realizing the intention of Ulich (the inventor of the concertina) of giving a particular nuance to a chamber orchestra.

Vitruvian man Leonardo

“Y hasta el cardo tiene flor” by Carlos Di Sarli y su Orquesta Típica, 1941.

The bandoneon is an instrument of exceptional expressivity, which made it perfect for a musical genre that intends to communicate all the rainbow of possible emotions.
In addition to its excellent sound range -at least 142 notes (compare it with a piano which has 88), the character of its sound changes depending on the actions of opening (smooth, airy, and sweet) and closing (ruff, strong and throaty). 

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