History of Tango – Part 9: Eduardo Arolas. The evolution of Tango music.
In 1909, when Eduardo Arolas composed “Una noche de garufa”, he had not yet acquired a formalized musical education.
Still, in his first composition, all the elements of his style are present, bursting out into the world for the amusement 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 six 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 in 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 then.
After finishing third grade, he quit school. He began working different jobs to help his family: busboy, delivery boy, apprentice at a print workshop, manufacturing of 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-button bandoneon, accompanied by Graciano De Leone on guitar.
That same year he presented 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 would 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 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 and the likely trigger of the unfortunate choices that accelerated his demise.
Back in Buenos Aires, he mainly worked in his neighborhood of Barracas in various venues, including his own, “Una noche de garufa”, which 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.
In 1910 the first recordings of an orchestra with the bandoneon, directed by Vicente Greco, were released by Columbia Records. The great acceptance by audiences of these recordings propitiated the appearance of numerous recording labels competing for the market. Arolas started recording in 1912 for Poli-phon, with Tito Roccatagliatta on violin, Vicente Pecci on flute, and Emilio Fernández on guitar.
In 1912 he started playing in 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.
Let’s listen to the magnificent rendition of “Fuegos artificiales” by Anibal Troilo y su Orquesta Típica, 1945:
After taking distance from Firpo, in 1914, Afro-American Harold Philips played the piano for a while at Arolas’ orchestra.
In 1915, Arolas played 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 of the province of Córdoba.
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 was 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.
Some of the compositions of this period, among many that have today been forgotten, are “Derecho viejo”-played here by Osvaldo Pugliese y su Orquesta Típica in 1945:
“La guitarrita” -by Juan D’Arienzo in 1936:
“Rawson” -again, by El Rey del Compás:
“Araca” and “Anatomía”.
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 on 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, 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. This great conductor 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 profoundly emotional second part. Ricardo Tanturi recorded it in 1941:
In 1918 his orchestra was formed with him on the 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”, which we can hear in the rendition of 1918 by Roberto Firpo:
Here we can 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. From this encounter, they produced “Qué querés con esa 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’s 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 he only recorded 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.
There are no recordings that we know of this tango, but we are lucky to hear Horacio Asborno’s pianola playing it: https://youtu.be/oysQmH3QR3Q
“Viborita” is another 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 superb rendition of this tango to dance at the milongas is the one recorded by Francisco Lomuto in 1944:
“De vuelta y media”, of outstanding 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.
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 Osvaldo Pugliese interpreted it:
It had become one of the genre’s classics, 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. He got advantageous contracts to play in Paris and Madrid on his own.
During his last three years, 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, his formations were 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 the more sound flow. 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), it is one of the pillars of Tango. His work consists of compositions with 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”). Still, gradually he started acquiring Porteño accents when 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.
Let’s listen to Arolas’ bandoneon solo:
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