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Liner Notes for a Tango Compilation

To observe a dance of tango is to watch a very subtle form of communication between two people, one that relies on the slightest of touches, shifts of weight, the barest application of pressure—all solely transmitted through the body as the dancers gaze past each other in silence. To be a partner in the dance is to know this language and to be a skillful interpreter of the movements of another's form. And then there is the music: sinuous, sad, lamenting, and passionate, sometimes cheeky and buoyant. I have been a fan of both the dance and the music for many years now and have put together a tango music compilation that serves as both a practice CD and as an introduction to the genre for my partners. The liner notes themselves, posted below, constitute a useful history of the early years of tango. The complete track listing is at the end of this page. Feel free to contact me for details on where to find any of this music.

From the Old Guard to the Golden Age: A Brief History of the First Decades of Tango Music

Tango has its origins in the mid 1800s among the disadvantaged classes in the barrios and brothels of Buenos Aires. The few compositions existing from this period evince a distinct Spanish flavor. Italian immigration beginning in the 1900s brought the influence of Neapolitan song to tango music, injecting the lyrical violin melodies that became a characteristic of the genre. Around 1910, the bandoneón was introduced by German immigrants and became a key part of the tango ensemble. With these refinements in place, tango music and dance gained in popularity and respectability.

One of the most important figures in the early years was pianist, band leader, and composer Roberto Firpo (1884-1969). Firpo firmly established the use of the piano in the tango ensemble and imbued his performances with a compelling romanticism that became a staple of tango. His use of the piano to provide a strong rhythmic force is evident in recordings like "Padre Nuestro" (1) and "Cuando Llora la Milonga" (2). Listen especially for the splendid bandoneón run in the middle of the latter. The classic "A Media Luz" (3) exemplifies the ribald wit of the tangos of this period. The lyrics describe the goings-on in the titular half-light of an apartment used for romantic trysts: "¡Qué suave terciopelo / la media luz de amor!" ("What smooth velvet, the half-light of love!").

Francisco Canaro (1888-1964) was another important member of what is now known as the "Guardia Vieja," the collection of band leaders who shaped the early tango sound. He ushered in the "estribillista" era by introducing singers into his orchestra. "Clavel del Aire" (4) is typical of these recordings in that it employs a singer only during the bridge of the song. The composer is Juan de Dios Filiberto, who neatly described his personal musical philosophy: "The one major factor in music is the possession of an innate sentimentality." Canaro's composition "Las Vueltas de la Vida" (5) has an expanded role for the singer and uses a minimum of backing orchestration, thus foregrounding the sinuous lead vocals.

Self-taught musicians tended to dominate the early years of tango. But in the 1920s, classically trained performers began to lend their skills to the orchestras. Among them was violinist Julio De Caro (1899-1980), who established his sextet in 1924 and deeply influenced other performers with a complex style that blended tango's folk origins with a refined European sensibility and thus helped to define the "Guardia Nueva." De Caro's rendition of "Qué Noche" (6) was the third recording of the popular tune originally recorded by Firpo's orchestra. Legend has it that Agustín Bardi composed it during a rare snowfall in Buenos Aires, hence the title. "Recuerdo" (7) was written by noted composer and band leader Osvaldo Pugliese when he was still working as a pianist at cafés and movie houses. The song is considered a breakthrough in tango composition as it opened new vistas of complexity. When Pugliese went on to record it with his own orchestra in 1944, he remained faithful to the original arrangement by De Caro represented on this recording. The popular standard "Yira, Yira" (8) possesses a lightness of melody that contrasts with the lyrics by Enrique Santos Discépolo, a talented poet and composer who imbued his texts with a pessimistic philosophy: "Aunque te quiebre la vida, / aunque te muerda un dolor, / no esperes nunca una ayuda, / ni una mano, ni un favor" ("Although life breaks you, although sadness bites you, never hope for any help, nor a hand, nor a favor"). "Copacabana" (9) and "Quien Dijo Miedo" (10) are both original De Caro compositions and demonstrate his skill at interweaving melodies for strings, piano, and bandoneón.

After playing bandoneón for Roberto Firpo, Osvaldo Fresedo (1897-1984) started his own orchestra. Fresedo's innovations include the addition of new instruments such as harp and vibraphone as well as more percussion. One of the most well-known and loved tangos in the repertoire, "Caminito" (11) is considered a "canción porteña" due to its simple and direct melody and arrangement, a contrast with tangos in the more adorned city style. Composer Juan de Dios Filiberto wrote it as an instrumental in 1923. Three years later he wanted to add lyrics to prepare it for performance at a native songs contest. His friend Coria Peñaloza told him he already had an appropriate poem about a little path he walked with a lover in his youth. The affair ended when the girl moved away from Peñaloza's province. The song was not successful at the contest of its premiere as its sad romanticism did not conform to the spirit of the festival. Nevertheless, it eventually found its audience. Fresedo's gentle "humming and whistling" version communicates the song's sensibility even without the words. "La Cieguita" (12) is another example of the type of simple, plaintive, and eminently danceable tangos that Fresedo excelled at.

As tango orchestras were proving their popularity, the Victor recording company decided to put together an orchestra, hiring classically trained pianist Adolfo Carabelli for the job. Carabelli's Orquesta Tipica Victor never performed in public but has left memorable recordings of tango classics. One of the most well-known tango tunes, "El Choclo" (13) dates from the very early days of the genre, and some claim it was composed as early as 1898 by singer and guitarist Angel Villoldo. We do know it was first performed by an orchestra in 1903. The lyrics provide an example of the comic sensibility that pervaded early tango, a wit evident in the double meaning of the title ("corn cob"). Without a doubt, "La Cumparsita" (14) is the most recognizable of tangos and is indeed the one most recorded, partly because its simplicity lent itself to the embellishments that orchestra leaders and arrangers delighted in. In its original form, the tune was a march by a Uruguayan named Gerardo Matos Rodriguez, but it took Roberto Firpo to arrange it for tango and perform it with his orchestra for the first time in 1916. Some versions have employed lyrics, but Orquesta Tipica Victor's version preserves the rhythmic contours of the instrumental original. "Mama Yo Quiero un Novio" (15) is a classic of youthful longing and rare in the repertoire as its wistful romanticism is expressed from the point of view of a young woman.

The mid 1920s is also associated with the growing prominence of tango singers. Foremost among them was folk singer and guitarist Carlos Gardel (1890-1935). Tango songs were frequently humorous and bawdy, but Gardel introduced a tragic consciousness, a lovelorn melancholia bordering at times on despair. Hopeless love became a staple of the tango aesthetic, and Gardel would go on to become one of the most adored voices of tango. "Mi Buenos Aires Querido" (16) is Gardel's love letter to the city that inspired so many tango performers. One of Gardel's most famous and passionate numbers, "Por una Cabeza" (17) appeared in the 1935 film Tango Bar. In this variant of the forelorn lover's tale, the narrator faces the loss of both his money (due to a horse that loses "by a head") and the beautiful woman who scorns him. "Si ella me olvida / qué importa perderme / mil veces la vida, / para qué vivir" ("If she forgets me, what matters if I lose my life a thousand times, why live at all").

As individual singers started to gain followings, women finally became more prominent in the tango scene. One of the first and most popular was Rosita Quiroga (1901-1984), who brought a folk sensibility to her performances. One journalist called her the "Piaf from the outskirts of Buenos Aires." Her vocal charms are highlighted in the wistful "Cuando Llegue el Otoño" (18). Azucena Maizani (1902-1970) debuted with Francisco Canaro's orchestra in 1920. She successfully toured Europe and authored many of her own songs. "Se Va la Vida" (19) is a composition by Edgardo Donato, whose orchestra Maizani toured with in 1930. Her rendition was a big hit when she performed in Spain.

By this time, tango music was gaining popularity throughout Europe, and many Argentine orchestras made their names performing on the continent. Juan Bautista Deambroggio, better known as Bachicha, was one of the pioneers of tango in France. He played bandoneón with the Orquesta Firpo in Buenos Aires before making his way to Spain and then to Paris, where he joined classically trained violinist Eduardo Bianco to form an orchestra. Like the majority of his compositions, Bachicha wrote "Renacimiento" (20) in Paris. Listen for the gentle melodic line of Bianco's violin backing the bold expressions of the bandoneóns. "Donde Estás, Corazón" (21) was written and originally performed by Augusto Berto, one of the early innovators of the bandoneón. Bachicha's version puts more emphasis on the plaintive vocals: "Dónde estás corazón, / no oigo tu palpitar, / es tan grande el dolor / que no puedo llorar" ("Where are you, my heart, I can't hear you beating, the pain is so heavy I can't cry").

Another band leader who found fame in Paris was violinist Manuel Pizarro. Pizarro came ashore on the continent in Marseilles in 1920 and quickly made his way to Paris, where he formed the connections to successfully launch his own orchestra. Like many tango tunes, "Decime, que Esperas" (22) is best known as sung by Carlos Gardel. Pizarro's instrumental recording is more obscure but no less distinctive. In the world of tango, Paris is considered the other city of light as Buenos Aires holds a higher place in a true Argentine's heart. Nevertheless, Paris has received its share of tributes in tango music and songs like "Muñequita de Paris" (23) became part of the repertoires of band leaders like Pizarro.

Although some claim 1920 as the first year of the "Golden Age of Tango," others employ a stricter definition of the term and date the beginning to 1935, a year that ushered in a new wealth of creativity and skill. One of the most popular performers of the new era was orchestra leader and bandoneón player Aníbal Troilo (1914-1975). From 1937 on, Troilo was known for employing singers who achieved their best in their recordings with his orchestra. Of his well-known sentimental nature, Troilo once remarked: "It is said that I am very often moved and that I cry. Yes, it is true. But I never do these things for trivial reasons." Recordings like "Qué Risa" (24) and "Patio Mío" (25) are strikingly different from anything that came before. The latter is one of Troilo's own compositions. In the lyrics by Cátulo Castillo, known for his meditations upon human suffering due to love, alcoholism, and the cognizance of mortality, the narrator looks back upon the courtyard of his childhood and forward to his death. "Corralera" (26) is characterized by a distinctive rhythm formed by the galloping piano and the energetic punches of the bandoneóns. The origin of the majestic "Bandoneón Arrabalero" (27) is a matter of controversy, and we cannot be sure if it was written by Juan Bautista Deambroggio (Bachicha) or if the Parisian orchestra leader bought it off of the guitarist Horacio Pettorossi. We do know that it was a hit for the Bachicha-Bianco orchestra in Paris. Troilo's version is of course very different from the earlier recordings.

Although many of the recordings from these early years of tango are difficult to find and the scratchy, muddled sound fails to conform to contemporary standards of fidelity, what we do have represents a portrait of tango as an energetic, youthful art form. The music is sometimes silly, occasionally pretentious, often melodramatic, but always a delight.

Track Listing

1. "Padre Nuestro" - Performed by Orquesta Roberto Firpo - Music: Enrique Delfino, Year of composition: 1923
2. "Cuando Llora la Milonga" - Performed by Orquesta Roberto Firpo - Music: Juan de Dios Filiberto, Year of composition: 1927
3. "A Media Luz" - Performed by Orquesta Roberto Firpo - Music: Edgardo Donato, Lyrics: Carlos Lenzi, Year of composition: 1924
4. "Clavel del Aire" - Performed by Orquesta Francisco Canaro - Music: Juan de Dios Filiberto, Lyrics: Fernán Silva Valdés, Year of composition: 1930
5. "Las Vueltas de la Vida" - Performed by Orquesta Francisco Canaro - Music: Canaro, Lyrics: Manuel Romero, Year of composition: 1928
6. "Qué Noche" - Performed by Orquesta Julio De Caro - Music: Agustín Bardi, Year of composition: 1918
7. "Recuerdo" - Performed by Orquesta Julio De Caro - Music: Osvaldo Pugliese, Year of composition: 1924
8. "Yira, Yira" - Performed by Orquesta Julio De Caro - Music and lyrics: Enrique Santos Discépolo, Year of composition: 1930
9. "Copacabana" - Performed by Orquesta Julio De Caro - Music: De Caro, Year of composition: 1927
10. "Quién Dijo Miedo" - Performed by Orquesta Julio De Caro - Music: De Caro, Lyrics: Enrique Cadícamo, Year of composition: 1932
11. "Caminito" - Performed by Orquesta Tipica Fresedo - Music: Juan de Dios Filiberto, Lyrics: Coria Peñaloza, Year of composition: 1923
12. "La Cieguita" - Performed by Orquesta Tipica Fresedo - Music: Keppler Lais (Patricio Muñoz Aceña), Year of composition: 1926
13. "El Choclo" - Performed by Orquesta Tipica Victor - Music and lyrics: Angel Villoldo, Year of composition: c. 1898
14. "La Cumparsita" - Performed by Orquesta Tipica Victor - Music: Gerardo Matos Rodriguez, Year of composition: c. 1915
15. "Mama Yo Quiero un Novio" - Performed by Orquesta Tipica Victor - Music: Ramón Collazo, Lyrics: Roberto Fontaina, Year of composition: 1928
16. "Mi Buenos Aires Querido" - Performed by Carlos Gardel - Music: Gardel, Lyrics: Alfredo Le Pera, Year of composition: 1934
17. "Por una Cabeza" - Performed by Carlos Gardel and Orchestra Terig Tucci - Music: Gardel, Lyrics: Alfredo Le Pera, Year of composition: 1935
18. "Cuando Llegue el Otoño" - Performed by Rosita Quiroga - Music and lyrics: R. Rocca and Victor Soliño, Year of composition: Unknown
19. "Se Va la Vida" - Performed by Azucena Maizani - Music: Edgardo Donato, Lyrics: María Luisa Carnelli, Year of composition: 1929
20. "Renacimiento" - Performed by Orquesta Bachicha - Music: Juan Bautista Deambroggio, Year of composition: c. 1928
21. "Donde Estás, Corazón" - Performed by Orquesta Bachicha - Music: Augusto Berto, Lyrics: Luis Martínez Serrano, Year of composition: 1930
22. "Decime, que Esperas" - Performed by Orquesta Pizarro - Music: Unknown, Year of composition: Unknown
23. "Muñequita de Paris" - Performed by Orquesta Pizarro - Music: José Ranieri, Year of composition: Unknown
24. "Qué Risa" - Performed by Orquesta Aníbal Troilo - Music and lyrics: Marsilio Robles, Year of composition: Unknown
25. "Patio Mío" - Performed by Orquesta Aníbal Troilo - Music: Troilo, Lyrics: Cátulo Castillo, Year of composition: Unknown
26. "Corralera" - Performed by Orquesta Aníbal Troilo - Music: Anselmo Aieta, Year of composition: Unknown
27. "Bandoneón Arrabalero" - Performed by Orquesta Aníbal Troilo - Music: Juan Bautista Deambroggio, Lyrics: Pascual Contursi, Year of composition: 1928

Last update for this page: 29 September 2006