It is almost unheard of that a fine bandoneon player will sing, or that a passion-driven singer will play the bandoneon. The incomparable Rubén Juárez was celebrated for doing both.
Starting out as a sometime rock and folk singer, Juaréz became a friend of Julio Sosa, a major star on the Buenos Aires tango scene who died in 1964, only thirty-eight years old, in an automobile accident. Juárez went on to devote himself exclusively to tango.
Argentine writer and poet Héctor Negro wrote about him in the magazine Los Grandes del Tango:
When he appeared on the great tango stage, there was something of a celebration on the part of old and new devotees alike, writers from various generations and different perspectives…commentators, musicians, and regular people in general. It was one of those rare cases in which someone young and new was accepted without resistance of any kind, almost unanimously recognized as a figure with a very promising future.
There was no doubt about his singing: his interpretive force, his presence, and his personality were overwhelming. He played with new themes and demonstrated that he could light up the classics as well. He was truly a figure of popular song and the stage.”
Star of stage, screen and television
Juárez made many recordings and had full careers on television and in film as well. My personal favorite recording of his is almost not tanguero, although the song itself is Malena, one of the most famous tangos ever written. At first it sounds almost like a blues tune. But as soon as his bandoneon enters in, it begins a gradual change to something more tango, and the conclusion is entirely, clearly and vibrantly tanguero.
Juárez was known for his stage appearances, and you can see an excerpt from one of them in a 2008 performance of the tango Pasional. Here Juárez showcases his rough, insistent voice (rougher and more insistent as he got older), and accompanies himself on bandoneon. I love this performance because Juárez is alone for almost the entire song, without any other instrumental accompaniment than his bandoneon. Yet his singing is filled with anger and sadness, and he uses repeated chords, extensively, to emphasize the troubled betrayal of love about which he is singing.
“No sabras, nunca sabras
lo que es morir mil veces de ansiedad.
No podrás nunca entender
lo que es amar y enloquecer.”
(“You won’t know, will never know,
what it is to die a thousand times from worry.
You’ll never understand
What it is to love and go mad.”)
My love, Beatrice Bowles, and I had the good fortune to see Juárez in concert the year before he died, at Torquato Tasso, a small club devoted to contemporary tango that still is in operation. It is well worth a visit the next time you’re in Buenos Aires.
Rubén Juárez died in Buenos Aires in 2010. For a fine late recording of his, I recommend El Album Blanco, which is available on Apple iTunes.
Terence Clarke’s new novel, When Clara Was Twelve, will be published in March, 2020.