History of Tango – Part 11: José Martínez. The great intuitive.
“Pablo” by Orquesta Típica Select, 1920.
(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”:
“Pura uva” by Orquesta Típica de la Guardia Vieja Adolfo Pérez “Pocholo”, 1936.
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.
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!”
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.
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:
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, in the city Las Flores, then a town in the district of Azul, Province 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 us, 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.