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September 15, 2008

Letters from Buenos Aires #1

Letters from Buenos Aires
Beatriz Dujovne

What does a porteña tanguera who lives in the USA do during her first day in her beloved Buenos Aires?

Waking up at noon to break the time regimentation routine is a must. Rushing to work? I already forgot. Instead I hurry to an outdoor confiteria for a cafecito. Hurrying just to get the morning caffeine. Leisure begins. Sipping the cafecito under the sun…reading two newspapers so no cultural event is missed.

Today Sunday September 14, 2008 one event draws my interest: Discussion of Piazzolla’s Tango at the Fondo Nacional de las Artes with Horacio Malvicino (guitar player of Piazzolla’s quintet), Amelita Baltar (Piazzolla’s wife and singer) and music critic Diego Fischerman.

I am personally interested in learning why I do not hear Piazzolla's tangos played in milongas in the USA. When I dance Piazzolla’s Oblivion, Tanti Anni Fa, Nonino, even Libertango, I dance the same heart I feel in traditional tango. I understand why Piazzolla's tangos are not played in Buenos Aires milongas. Porteño tangueros have never accepted his music as real tango. Yet, outside of Buenos Aires I would have expected loyalty to traditional tango would not have unleashed passionate animosity against Piazzolla's music.

Digression: several years ago his music was used as a “cortina” in Salon Canning. I took offense.

We congregate in what was the former home of Victoria Ocampo, one of the poets of the early XX century. This home stands nested among greenery in Palermo Chico, a neighborhood of palatial residences, embassies, and the replica of Buglone Sur Mer, the house where San Martin (Argentine hero) died in France. Among the French architecture of the area, Victoria’s home is strictly Corbusier.

Digression: Ocampo left a few sentences about her exposure to tango at the aristocratic home of her grandfather in the very early 1900s. Tango continued to be played at her home for her intellectual elite friends. I am engaging in this digression to dispel the myth I hear in the USA, the one that says that Buenos Aires’ upper class rejected tango until after Paris cleaned it up after 1913.

Malvicino (who says he was “found” when the maestro was looking for a guitarist that could improvise) says Piazzolla was a complex personality. He and Melita agreed that he was harshly demanding and critical of his musicians, he never gave a compliment for a job well done.

Fischerman says that Astor Piazzolla always felt he was composing tango. He had left Troilo’s orquesta tipica, his major influence, in 1945. In spite of classical and jazz influences Piazzolla’s music was tango. Tango was his expertise. Piazzolla would compose songs according to the talents of the musicians he had. He gave room for improvisation to some and permitted no deviation from the partitura to others. Because of the opposition to his music by porteños, they played in small café concert venues – rather than in large theatres- and made hardly any money. While working for Piazzolla, Malvicino says he and his wife slept in a mattress on the floor next to his new born son’s mattress. Malvicino’s inability to sustain a family forced him and other musicians to move on. The Octeto, formed in 1955 became explosive, unleashing a “civil war”, a passionate debate as to whether Astor’s music was tango or not. Francini advised Piazzolla to make his music more accessible to the masses, more danceable, but he would not listen to him. The octeto had a short life, only two recordings were made because Malvicino owned a small recording studio.

Melita met Piazzolla in the 60s on the occasion of his visit to the venue where Tarantino played, she happened to sing folklore there. He became interested in her and in her voice. “Que linda voz tenes piba” he used to tell her. Soon thereafter they began composing Maria de Buenos Aires, the operita with lyrics of Horacio Ferrer (which will be on stage in October at Teatro Cervantes). After the performances Piazzolla, Ferrer and Baltar went to Bachin, a restaurant that no longer exists (note: there is one with the same name across the street where the original one was). The song and lyrics of Chiquilin de Bachin were inspired by the children who came late at night selling roses. Unlike the legend says (that it was written about a specific child) this song was written as a sensitive human commentary for all children who had to work at night. Piazzolla is more admired worldwide than in Argentina as I can tell by the many chamber music ensembles and symphonic orchestras that play his music. He was not only revolutionary in his music; he also broke away from the dress code of tango directors. In 1972 he began using black shirt and pants instead of suit and tie.

I always knew that when Balada para un loco was presented at Luna Park, people in the audience whistled. It did not win first prize. The next day people of Buenos Aires were singing it in the streets. Tonight I knew the “inside” of the story. Melita said that people were organized to whistle when Piazzolla presented the song because it mentions calle Arenales and Callao Avenue which are in the aristocratic part of Buenos Aires. It was a major departure from singing to Sur, as traditional tangos had so far done. Melita said she has kept secret the names of the three organizers of the boycott, who are still around. Furthermore, she explained that people were instructed to whistle but, as we know, porteños took it further and threw objects at the musicians.

The attraction of the program for me was not so much its content, but being with panelists and audience that had known Piazzolla. The older generation in the audience could not keep their mouths shut; they wanted to tell their stories about Astor. As closing the facilitator asked Melita to do a narration. Instead she sang a stanza from Balada para un loco (without music) with her raspy voice and self assured demeanor.

On the way out my eyes met Melita’s. To make contact I asked her if she remembered the name of a café concert, in Recoleta, where I saw her and Piazzolla perform in the seventies. She did not remember, but invited me to go to El Vesubio where she is singing now. I said I would. The exchange of words was not important, but the connection woman to woman I felt with her was quite special.

Posted by beatriz at September 15, 2008 12:24 AM

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