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September 23, 2008

Letters from Buenos Aires #2

Buenos Aires, September 18, 2008
Beatriz Dujovne

Avenida de Mayo was completed with its full European splendor for the one hundredth anniversary of the city in 1910. Many of its restaurants and cafes have been there since that time. So has the hotel where Garcia Lorca stayed.

Spanish immigrants used to congregate in these establishments. I know that for a fact. I was there among them during my childhood. I felt privileged as a seven year old when my uncle Jose took me on his Saturday night outings to Avenida de Mayo where he met his friends from Galicia, Spain. As the only child at the restaurant table I got a lot of attention, but soon got bored listening to their reminiscences about the old country. Once, to alleviate my boredom I got up and moved around for a while holding what I thought was Jose’s hand. Instead I looked up and discovered the person was a perfect stranger. I became frightened for a second, until I spotted my uncle watching me from a short distance, wondering what I would do when I realized I was holding onto a stranger. That event did not become a trauma. Maybe back in my unconscious it adds to my delight when I embrace a stranger tango dancing.

Today I went by myself to the National Academy of Tango, which is located in Avenida de Mayo above historic Café Tortoni, whose manager told me last year about his recollections of when the intellectuals and artists of the XX century gathered there: our poets Jorge Luis Borges, Alfonsina Storni, Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, our painter Quunquela Martin, our tango singer Carlos Gardel, Italian dramaturge Luigi Pirandello. Wishing I had been part of those times, I climbed the marble steps of the academy, the same ones that our poet Horacio Ferrer (yes, the one who wrote the lyrics for Piazzolla’s songs), its director, climbs every day. I am in the building where the Museum of Tango is housed, where Anibal Troilo’s bandoneon stays, where it comes alive only on special occasions. Last year Raul Garello played it. I was there and watched Ferrer stand up when the instrument entered the room in the hands of Garello. And he stood up until the bandoneon was carried out of the room. I believe he had his right hand on his heart.

I take the luscious turn-of-the century elevator to the second floor (I like its feel, never miss an opportunity to touch it) and look for the “History of Tango in the Twenties” course in which I have registered. The instructor is the historian who tango academicians respect. The only one that does not believe in the abundant narratives and mythology passed as history, the one who only writes and teaches what he has personally researched and documented from articles in newspapers of the time or at the National Archives. His name is Enrique Binda. He is best known as the co-author of a classic book: “Tango en la sociedad portena 1880-1920” [Tango in the portena society 1880-1920]

I would like to share a few notes from the first class (I missed the 3 previous classes) with those of you who are tango music connoisseurs. But first let me share a cultural observation. I arrived 10 minutes late (oops…) expecting he would frown at me. But he stopped the class, came towards me, introduced himself and welcomed me.

He continued talking about the musical quality of first tango cancion (sung tango) “Mi Noche Triste”, recorded by Gardel with accompaniment of guitars. We tend to think of it as a great tango but the country sound of the music needed to evolve into tango music. It took three years for a tango song to have musical quality. This first quality tango song was Milonguita, in 1920. We listened to the original recordings of both “Mi Noche Triste” and “Milonguita”.

Piracy of recordings is not a contemporary phenomenon. It existed as early as 1915. A factory located in Porto Alegre, Brasil, recorded with its own label the work of Argentine artists. Bringing a few of those old pirated records, Binda let us touch them and inspect the labels.

He then played for us the 1920 recording of “El Rodeo” with Delfino on piano and Fresedo on bandoneon. We then heard “Sollozos” (1922) by Fresedo’s orquesta with Roccatagliata on violin and Cobian on piano. Binda guided us to notice the several instrumental solos in this piece. Some of the novelties that Fresedo introduced were credited to De Caro who came on the scene later.

From the fall of 1922 Binda played “Almita Herida” by Fresedo’s orquesta, featuring another solo by Cobian. In “Firulete” from 1922 we could hear new sounds (cymbals) which Fresedo later discarded. Binda pointed out that new “timbres” were explored by Fresedo, even though there is a tendency to believe tango music had to wait for those new timbres until Salgan and others appeared on the musical scene later.

From the Orquesta Tipica Flores he played “Buena Mano” (1922), which did not have the esthetic sense of the balances, tensions and richness of Fresedo.

A reading of his class notes, which he graciously gave me to catch up with the material I had missed, clarified the main point of the lecture. In spite of his great respect for De Caro, Binda asserted that many “innovations” attributed to De Caro (i.e. introduction of solo instrumentals) were already present in 1922 in Fresedo’s recordings. The same is true about the “contracantos” of violin; they had been introduced by Firpo in 1913. Binda also found the “acompanamiento armonizado” in the hands of Cobian during his work with Fresedo in 1922, and to some extent In Delfino 1920. Fresedo is an example of “a style rich in colors, alternating solo passages with pianissimos and tuttis in excellent concurrence”.

I am amazed at the high quality education that Binda is imparting with a boom box that has to be adjusted constantly for quality of sound, at all the research he has done for his passion of writing a documented history of tango. I imagine he did it without a grant, in his own time, at his own expense…but I will find out this and more when I meet one-on-one with him at Café Tortoni, as we arranged.

I walk out wishing that the thousands of foreign dancers who go to Buenos Aires could know that there are dozens of workshops on tango music and history like this one simultaneously offered throughout this city.

Posted by beatriz at September 23, 2008 12:20 AM


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