History of Tango – Part 7: Origins of the Orquesta Típica – Francisco Canaro
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”, a 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 worldwide 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 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 a 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 slingshots.
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 the 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 fistfights 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.
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 was received with great acceptance by the audience. But at 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 an 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 northwest 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 nightlife, 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” (a group of men), of a rich young man 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.
Among the popular songs during that time and still now, they played: “El Choclo”, “El Torito”, “El Porteñito” (Villoldo),”Don Juan” (Ponzio), “El Morochito” (Greco), “La Catrera” (De Bassi), “La Morocha”, “Felicia” (Saborido), “El Irresistible” (Logatti), “Venus” (Bevilacqua), “El Talar” (Aragón), “El llorón”, “Siete Palabras”, among others.
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”.
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.
- History of Tango – Part 1
- History of Tango – Part 2
- History of Tango – Part 3
- History of Tango – Part 4
- History of Tango – Part 5
- History of Tango – Part 6
- “Mis memorias. Mis bodas de oro con el tango”, Francisco Canaro, Ediciones Corregidor 1999.
- “Crónica general del tango”, José Gobello, Editorial Fraterna, 1980.
- “El tango”, Horacio Salas, Editorial Aguilar, 1996.
- “El tango, el gaucho y Buenos Aires”, Carlos Troncaro, Editorial Argenta, 2009.
- “Encyclopedia of Tango”, Gabriel Valiente, 2014.