Adriana Varela may not be for everyone. Her voice is not pretty. It seldom floats and will not ease you into dreamland. But I became a fan of her voice the moment I first heard it. I feel that, if you want to hear how Buenos Aires can sound when portrayed in song, you should go to Adriana Varela and listen closely.
Varela has been a best-selling recording artist of tango since the early 1990s. Starting out as a rock singer, she paid little attention to the still accepted notion, of traditional tangos of the 1930s through 50s being those most worth listening to. So…large string and bandoneón sections playing lyrical, even romantic, versions of tangos. Chestnuts, every one, pretty as can be. But we dance to them over and over ad nauseum at the milongas, no matter where the particular milonga may be held…in Buenos Aires, San Francisco, London, Istanbul, or wherever.
Varela’s voice, however, is pure porteño, which is to say, Buenos Aires!…rough, direct, and filled with irony, often humorous, often angry. When you walk down almost any street in that city, you hear this voice and that language. It is recognizable to anyone who has enough Spanish to understand what is being said, and especially how it is being said. There is no other accent in the Spanish language quite like it.
Early in her singing career, Varela made the acquaintance of the great Roberto Goyeneche. By now internationally famous, his voice was anything but soft and pleasing. When you hear it, you know that this man, too, knows the streets of Buenos Aires’s massive urban landscape and the difficulties it can present.
The circumstances of their first meeting have become famous. Varela was singing in a Buenos Aires club one evening, and she spotted Goyeneche sitting at the bar. It was known that he did not care for female tango singers, and he spent her entire set silently nursing the whiskey before him, his back turned to the stage. At the end of her set, beset by nerves, Varela stepped down from the bandstand and approached the great man. When Goyeneche realized that the young woman was trying to get his attention, he turned to her and, without provocation, said, “Che piba, (Hey, girl) you’ve got it!” From then on, they were fast friends.
For an example of Varela’s work, watch her studio performance of Mano a mano (“Hand in Hand.”) It’s a tough-minded tango, one of Carlos Gardel’s greatest. The lyrics tell of the crazy love the speaker has for a very high-spirited young woman he knows, although one with questionable morals. She is sought after by the worst of the local two-bit gangsters…and she often gives into them. But the speaker loves her no matter what. As the singer puts it in the last verse:
“Y mañana, cuando seas descolado mueble viejo
y no tengas esperanzas en el pobre corazón,
si precisás una ayuda, si te hace falta un consejo,
acordate de este amigo que ha de jugarse el pellejo
p’ayudarte en lo que pueda cuando llegue la occasion.”
Sadly, I can’t translate the lyrics to include the rhymes they contain, which are terrific. But here’s the essence of what they say:
“And tomorrow, when you’re broken down, an old piece of furniture,
and there is no hope in your poor heart,
if you need a hand, if you need some advice,
remember this friend here who would risk his hide
to help you any way he can, whenever you need it.”
The Spanish translation by Jaime Collyer of Terence Clarke’s latest novel, The Splendid City, is currently seeking publication in South America.
These days, women who play the bandoneón abound in Buenos Aires and around the world. This was not so in the 1920s. But one who did so was Paquita Bernardo. By some accounts she was indeed the very first professional bandoneonista.
The daughter of Spanish immigrants to Argentina, she was famous for playing tango with verve and true porteño style while often wearing a man’s suit and tie.
In 1915, as a teenager, Paquita entered the music conservatory of a woman named Catalina Torres in Buenos Aires, as a pianist. There she met a young bandoneonista named José Servidio, who so impressed her with his ability and the instrument’s sonorous soulfulness, that she switched to the bandoneón. She never looked back. (Servidio, incidentally, went on to a distinguished career as a tango musician on the Buenos Aires scene.)
Initially the trouble for Paquita was that she was a girl, which could have made her professional advancement an impossibility. (For an interesting novel about just such a situation in turn-of-the-20th-century Buenos Aires, see The Gods of Tango by Carolina De Robertis.)
At the time, women appearing on stage in tango boliches and clubs were thought to be of questionable morals. Playing bandoneón requires the instrumentalist to open and shut the legs, which was deemed entirely inappropriate for women. Paquita persisted, however, and persuaded her father to allow her to pursue her study of the instrument. He acceded to her request, and Paquita, whose talent was so obvious, went on to play with various bands on the Buenos Aires club scene throughout her teen-age years.
In 1921, Paquita founded her own band, Orquesta Paquita, with her brother Arturo on drums and a very young pianist named Osvaldo Pugliese. They got a steady gig at the Bar Dominguez on Corrientes Street, and soon the traffic on Corrientes had to be diverted because of the sizable crowd waiting outside the club to see Paquita and her mates. To be sure, it was not just the novelty of seeing a woman playing the bandoneón that brought them to the club. By now Paquita was a master on the instrument and a star. In 1923, she appeared at a Grand Fiesta of Tango in the Coliseo Theater, a major Buenos Aires venue. It was a monumental event in which hundreds of noted musicians played, and Paquita was the only woman on the bill.
Her fame rose meteorically. She played constantly through the next few years at most of the principal tango venues in Buenos Aires and Montevideo, clubs and ballrooms alike. She also became a regular in appearances on the newly established radio stations in both capitals.
Such constant appearances can take a toll on performers, and Paquita was no exception. In the fall of 1925, she contracted a difficult cold that turned quickly into pneumonia with other complications. It is thought that the treatment she received was not up to the seriousness of her affliction, and she died on April 14 of that year. She was just short of her twenty-fifth birthday.
Sadly, there are no recordings of Paquita’s playing. She also had talent, though, as a composer of tango, and none other than Carlos Gardel recorded two of her pieces: La enmascarada (“The Masked Woman”) and Soñando (“Dreaming”).
Terence Clarke’s novel about the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, The Splendid City, was published in March.
These days, you are besieged by books and online courses purporting to teach you how to write fiction. These are seldom invented by successful fiction writers. Rather, such “courses” are taught by people who believe they have found formulae that, if followed, will result in a best-seller. That the best-seller may be dreck doesn’t matter.
Edith Wharton wrote, “One is sometimes tempted to think that the generation which has invented the ‘fiction course’ is getting the fiction it deserves. At any rate it is fostering in its young writers the conviction that art is neither long nor arduous, and perhaps blinding them to the fact that notoriety and mediocrity are often interchangeable terms….The trade-wind in fiction undoubtedly drives many beginners along the line of least resistance, and holds them there.”
No course will take you beyond that line. What will do it is fiction itself. Instead of spending $19.95 on something with a title like “How To Write That Novel Of Yours,” spend it on The Red And The Black. Edith Wharton herself teaches you admirably in The Age of Innocence, The House of Mirth, or The Custom of The Country. Dickens. The James Joyce who wrote Dubliners. The Toni Morrison of Beloved. The Red Badge of Courage. Love in the Time of Cholera. All the Light We Cannot See. Now and then George Eliot. Sometimes W. Somerset Maugham. Very occasionally Hemingway and many, many others, all of which transcend the how-to-write-fiction course simply by being so compelling in the stories they tell, and especially in the ways they are told.
Read those. There lies your course.
To understand at least part of Edmundo Rivero’s unusual appeal, one must know that he suffered from acromegaly, which results from excess growth hormone after the growth plates themselves have closed. (The growth plate is the area of growing tissue near the end of the long bones in children and adolescents.) Among the symptoms of acromegaly are the enlargement of the hands and feet, and sometimes of the forehead, jaw, and nose.
It is for this reason that Rivero was known by his fellow musicians, affectionately, as “El Feo” (“The Ugly Man”). His fans more accurately referred to him as “El Feo Que Canta Tan Lindo” (“The Ugly Man Who Sings So Pretty.”)
Born in 1911, young Edmundo Rivero worked as an itinerant singer in the Buenos Aires dance hall circuit. He came to the notice of Julio de Caro, whose orchestra was getting significant attention for its live gigs as well as for its rising fame on records. From then on, Rivero’s career flourished until his death in 1986.
Rivero’s singing and playing were in every way extraordinary. He had a very fine, resonant bass-baritone voice, and was noted as well for the high-level accompaniment of his principal guitarist, who happened to be Rivero himself. Trained classically on guitar, as a youth he also mastered the rhythms of pampas gaucho music and was present for the rise of Buenos Aires urban tango, begun by the great Carlos Gardel and nurtured by countless other fine musicians.
Rivero was one of them.
In 1947, after many years with different bands and with frequent appearances in tango-based movies, Rivero was hired by orchestra leader Aníbal Troilo. Troilo was a superb bandoneonista who had a clear-eyed vision of the kind of musicianship he expected from his players and singers. A few years later, after all, he would feature the legendary Roberto Goyeneche as his lead singer (See my piece from a few months ago titled “El Colectivero Polaco Goyeneche.”) and had already hired another bandoneonista with an unusual interpretive style named Astor Piazzolla. With Troilo, Rivero recorded just twenty-two songs, but one of them was titled Sur. A huge hit, it is a nostalgic remembrance of an old working-class Buenos Aires neighborhood for whose residents tango had deep emotional sway. Sur became a kind of anthem to tango itself. It is one of the most famous tangos ever recorded.
Having found fame and fortune, Rivero left Troilo in 1950 and started a solo career. During this decade a full orchestra including a bank of violins was seen as necessary to any successful musical career in Buenos Aires. Rivero made a bold gesture. Tired of all the heavy orchestrations, he took up his guitar and started doing tango with just his voice and his instrument (with, occasionally, a fellow guitarist or two.) These are some of my favorite recordings by Edmundo Rivero. Significant soul flows from them, especially because they are so contemplative and lonely.
Click here for a rich selection of Rivero’s music.
Terence Clarke’s new non-fiction book An Arena of Truth is now in bookstores and on Amazon.
(Photo: Beatrice Bowles)
In tango, the line of dance seems a reasonable enough idea. A number of couples dancing are asked, by custom, to dance in a more or less circular line that borders the edges of the dance floor, all in the same direction. This is done in order to keep collisions between couples at a minimum and to further the promise of dancing gracefully while at the same time cheek by jowl with numbers of other tangueros.
You would be surprised, however, at how often this custom is not observed. As a leader, you’re attempting to circle the floor in the line of dance, and some other leader in front of you is coming the other way. You take evasive action, ruining the moment that you and your partner have set up, and sometimes a bad stumble results, or a graceless, sudden stop, or an actual run-in with either that other leader and his partner, or with the poor people following behind you.
It’s even worse if you are a follower. (I’m speaking here of the traditional female role of the follower. But the same scenario exists no matter what the sexual orientations of the leader and follower may be.) If your leader knows what’s happening and is trying to follow custom despite the guy up ahead, or if your leader is a dolt and is taking you in the wrong direction, you may be stepped upon, angered, bruised, or worse. And if the collision includes the sharp heel of a woman’s shoe landing on the side of your foot and bruising or puncturing it, things are even worse.
The injured person is escorted, weeping, to a chair and ministered to. I wouldn’t be surprised if a hospital visit has occasionally been the result.
As a less experienced dancer than I am now, I thought that the simple solution was to get out of the line of dance and head for the less crowded space in the middle of the circle. Two events relieved me of that opinion. Beatrice Bowles and I were once dancing at the Club Español in Buenos Aires. It was a very crowded night, and anything out of the ordinary or too showy in the dance was next to impossible. There was, however, one person who seemed oblivious of all this. About sixty, with a gut, he was dressed in a T-shirt, Bermuda shorts, and running shoes. His partner was similarly poorly frocked and porcine. He danced up and down in the middle of the floor, all the while instructing his partner on how to do tango. At least, I think that’s what he was saying, although I don’t have enough German to have understood entirely what he was ordering her to do. The search for escape on his partner’s face, however, gave me a direct clue to what she thought of his advice.
Everyone in the line of dance found this fellow foolish and invasive, and there’s nothing to equal the sound of a bunch of Argentines agreeing that someone else is a…well, as they say in Buenos Aires, a boludo.
A few weeks later, when I mentioned to the great maestra Nora Olivera what I had seen, she nodded and then shook her head. “The worst dancers are always in the middle of the floor,” she said. Since then, I’ve looked out for this, and found it to be true.
It’s important to honor the line of dance. In fact, I think it’s the first rule of tango. Leave the line of dance, and you will be, so to speak, up a creek and, if she has her head on straight, without a partner.
Terence Clarke’s latest novel, The Splendid City, is available in book stores and on Amazon.
My next novel, When Clara Was Twelve, will come out next year. It takes place in Paris in the 1950s, and tells of an American girl Clara Foy, who has come to that city with her parents for a vacation. Various things transpire, however, that cause Clara and her mother Lauren to remain in Paris while Clara’s father Martin returns to the United States. This is a coming-of-age novel in which Clara turns from an intelligent childish naif into a young woman capable of life-saving decision. The family are Catholics and, having just arrived in Paris, Clara wishes to go to Confession. She wonders if, here in Paris, God has to be addressed in French. Lauren decides to take her to Notre-Dame Cathedral, to see if that’s so.
Please note that in the 1950s, Paris buildings had not yet been cleaned, an effort that took place in the 1970s. So the exterior of the cathedral appeared then to be covered in black soot.
Clara insisted on going to Confession. There was no need for it, she being reasonably certain that she had sinned little since they had arrived in France. She smiled as she decided she had been too excited to sin. But she wanted to do Confession anyway, just to see what it was like in a place like Paris, and Lauren agreed to take her.
As they approached Notre-Dame in the late afternoon, a flight of sparrows swooped in speedy disarray toward the plaza before the cathedral, and then climbed at an angle over the Seine. They turned up the cathedral’s facade, climbed even higher, and disappeared above the roof. Though it was late, the sunlight was barely diminished at all. Lauren and Clara sat down on a stone bench, and the birds appeared again, clattering toward the river and the trees that lined the quay on the left bank. Notre-Dame itself rose like an ornate sailing frigate against the sky. Its centuries of soot made the exterior appear to have just come through a conflagration.
“Inside, it’s different,” Lauren remarked as they shielded their eyes against the bright light. “The cathedral goes up as high as you can see, and when the light is right, the rose window is like a star.”
“The rose window?”
“You’ll see. It’s a round stained-glass window. Huge. There are more than one, but the northern one is really special. It’s like the eye of God.” Lauren glanced at Clara, who had clutched her missal close to her chest as she listened. “Heaven and earth.”
Clara’s eyes widened.
“Circled by the stars.”
She told Clara how you could get lost in the window when you followed its patterns, like the holy lines of God in illuminated manuscripts that led everywhere forever. The rose window twirled about in the air, in blues, dark poppy-like reds, and metallic yellows.
“Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?”
“And we can see it?”
“It’s filled with glow, Clara. Of every color.” Lauren looked down at her own missal. “The softest kind of light you can imagine.”
A moment later, Lauren crossed herself as she entered the cathedral. The inside of the holy water font was slimy, and her nose wrinkled as she noticed a ring of faded green running around the font, just at water level. Clara hurried past her. She paused at the slippery marble as well, pulled her hand from the water and shook it, and then surveyed her fingers. She wiped them on the side of her skirt.
Sunlight illumined the windows, so that the scenes of saints, courtly knights, and miracles were animated with gold. Light crossed the cathedral at an angle, in shafts of fine dust. The votive candles along the side-aisles gave off a drab vibrancy, as though it were a task to recall the dead souls for whom they burned. Still, there was considerable warmth as the light dispersed into the reaches of the cathedral. Above—way, way above—lighted chandeliers extended the glow into the vaulted ceilings, where Lauren imagined the angels reposed in the grayest corners farthest away.
The Cathedral of Notre-Dame grasped her heart. Her breath was taken by almost everything in it…by the sculpted tableaux of saints contemplating heaven, of dead knights laid out on coffins, and of skeletal Death itself surreptitious in its search for others to take away. All these things were obscured by the simple enormity of the air contained by the cathedral. Lauren felt she was in some kind of gloriously organized sky, simultaneously dark, bright, and surprising with candles, paintings, and altars everywhere she looked.
April 4, 2019
Whether you know little about The Troubles in Northern Ireland during the 1970s, or a great deal, this book will hold your attention from the first page to the last. But, a warning: This is a book about great cruelty on all sides.
Author Patrick Radden Keefe tells the story of the conflict mostly from the Catholic Irish and Irish Republican Army’s point of view. Gerry Adams (now retired from his chairmanship of the Sinn Fein political party, who was once a senior officer in the IRA [although he vociferously denies it to this day]) is a principal figure. The Price sisters, Dolours and, to a lesser degree, Marian, who were soldiers in the Irish Republican Army and involved in various terrorist operations (some of which included disappearing and killing turncoat IRA operatives known to the organization to be “touts”) are also major figures. Brendan Hughes, the fierce leader of the Provisional IRA (The Provos), who was instrumental to the planning of many horrific bombings and other IRA attacks, is also a principal in. this book.
There are many, many others, all of whom are described in fine detail by the author.
The book begins with the abduction of Jean McConville in 1972. A Belfast widowed mother of ten, she was disappeared by the IRA because, it was suspected, she was a spy for the British forces in Belfast. McConville was never seen again. The book ends with the discovery, almost fifty years later, of McConville’s fate and the identities of those ultimately responsible for her disappearance and assassination. In between, the fascinating story of The Troubles is told from the point of view of numerous individuals, the disappearance of McConville being the single event upon which Keefe hangs his entire tale.
A major event in the book is the Boston Project, begun in 2001, in which interviewers from Boston College in the United States spoke with many of the people who had been involved in The Troubles, Irish and English alike. This takes up perhaps the last third of the book. It is a tale of the genuine wish by a respected academic organization to engage in truth-telling, which goes badly awry because of the poor legal advice that that organization received, or ignored, or assumed was iron-clad and legitimate. Many people engaged in The Troubles were interviewed, with the guarantee that the tapes and transcribed interviews would be hidden away in Boston College library archives until everyone involved had passed away. Because the guarantees offered by the Boston Project to the interviewees were poorly drawn up and without merit legally, many of the interviews were obtained by Northern Irish police investigators, who then acted upon them. This particular story, ancillary to The Troubles themselves, makes up one of the most compelling parts of the book.
I doubt that you’ll read a better book about this very sad chapter, among the many such in the history of Ireland.