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You walk down a sidewalk in Buenos Aires at your peril. Potholes, immense cracks in the cement, deteriorating curbs, and sudden whole absences of pavement can plague every footstep. This is worsened by the fact that sidewalks in this city are often very narrow as well. You must walk with your head down, watching, which is perhaps why so many Buenos Aires citizens appear lost in thought, a bit resentful, and put upon. They’re afraid they’ll fall, and so they have to concentrate.
It’s the same in tango, which of course comes from Buenos Aires. Dancers of tango very frequently look as though they’re angry with someone, which cloaks them in an ambiance of dismissive arrogance. When women in tango have such a disdainful veneer, they appear to be implying to their partners “Okay chico, show me what you can do.” This look has as much to do with concentration as it does with dramatics. The difficulties of dancing tango well make it imperative that you pay attention, otherwise you’ll look like a fool as you stumble through some radical misdirection. One thing you learn quickly about the citizens of Buenos Aires is that they do not want to look like fools.
Weather makes the sidewalks even more perilous. Parts of Argentina — including Buenos Aires itself — are subject to violent hailstorms and heavy rain. When this happens at night, the sidewalks become simply un-navigable because you can’t see anything, you’re usually running in order to get out of the tempest, and your concentration is being scattered by hailstones that are like globules of the cement missing from the sidewalks. During such storms, the rain really seems more like a driven, concentrated cataract. It bangs against the ground and soaks you coming down and going back up. Generally it makes you feel like a rat in a sewer.
This may sound like an exaggeration — and it is — but not much of one, and there are saviors in this city who, for a slight fee, will help you through just such torment.
Bea and I had been dancing tango one recent night in Buenos Aires. We’d begun around 11:00 PM, and we came out of the Viejo Correo club at about 3:00 in the morning. Sweaty, heated, and exhausted, all we wanted was a taxi and bed. It had been drizzling lightly when we’d gone into the club, bringing to mind a famous tango entitled “Garúa” (“Light Rain”), with its finely-rhymed lyrics of dark solitude:
Solo y triste por la acera,
va este corazón transido
con tristeza de tapera,
sintiendo tu hielo.
Porque aquella, con su olvido,
hoy le ha abierto una gotera.
Como un duende que en la sombra…
Alone and sad up the sidewalk
Goes this spent heart
With the sadness of an abandoned shack,
Feeling your icy cold.
Because that cold, with its forgetfulness,
Has opened up a leak on this day.
Like a ghost in the shadow. . .)
But coming back out onto the sidewalk, we found that the very awning over our heads was groaning beneath the weight of the water now coming down. A more or less slick sheet of it cascaded from each side of the convex canvas. I felt we were inside a constantly descending comber at some famous Hawaiian surfing spot.
Out on the Avenida Díaz Vélez, rain battled the pavement, lit by the headlamps of the heavy traffic. There were, as always in this city, numerous taxis, but they all seemed occupied or traveling so quickly that it would be impossible for their drivers to see the blur of an imploring hand waving for attention in the midst of the storm. I knew I’d be soaked in seconds if I moved further into the avenue to make my presence known. There was a flash of lightning, an immediate bang of thunder and, like shrapnel falling from heaven, hail. I glanced at Bea. She smiled, but I could tell she was as intimidated as I.
It was then that Narigón came to our aid.
The doorman had noticed our plight and whistled for Narigón. He came out of the dark. About 23, he was an over-the-hill street urchin. His name is Buenos Aires slang for “Big Nose,” and there was an Italianate heaviness to his own. His nose was, actually, muscular. In twenty years, it would have the look of a much-used doorstop. He looked like a laborer from contemporary Rome, his broad face already shaded with the beginnings of a dark beard. His hands were very large, as were his teeth, and they were similarly soiled. He had been out in the rain and, although his clothing appeared for the most part only damp, his shoulder-length black hair was pasted in meanders to his cheeks.
At first I was intimidated by him because, though he was only of average height, there was a severe, even angered look in his eyes that made me think he could take a swipe at me with a club when my back was turned, in order to get to my wallet. He’d been waiting outside the club for someone such as us, lost tangueros intent on a cab, but not so intent on one that we’d run out into the flood.
“Che, man, ¿taxi?” he said.
He was wearing an old coat, old pants, and running shoes without socks. His voice was arrabalero, a word that in Buenos Aires means “of the rough neighborhood,” as though he’d already smoked way too many cigarettes and drunk a good deal too much whiskey. It’s a voice you hear everywhere on the streets of Buenos Aires, and frequently in tango.
I assented, and Narigón ran out into the street. He had to contend with two elements: the tempest and the taxis, both of which seemed to want to run him down. He pulled his coat over his head and raised his right arm, his hand like a splayed flag over his head, waving back and forth. He was able to whistle, very loudly, at the same moment. While the rain pelted the street and ricocheted from it, the rain that pummeled Narigón sunk into the shoulders and the back of his coat, rendering them immediately soaked. He jumped back and forth, dodging taxis and other cars, his shoulders hunched beneath his jacket, his shoes splashing in the puddles, the water whelming over into them so that his feet must have been badly inundated within seconds.
In a few moments, an errant taxi pulled across a couple lanes of traffic to answer Narigón’s request, and as soon as it stopped in front of the club, he was there, at our side, with an umbrella. Where he’d gotten it was beyond me, but he sheltered Bea as she got into the taxi, and then me as I fumbled in my pants pocket for a tip. It took me a while because I had been watching him and admiring his dance-like movements in the run of all that rain and traffic. He’d been jumping around, bringing his fingers to his lips for loud whistles, waving his arms, all the while intent on the search for an empty cab.
As I searched my pockets, I considered my own admiration of this man. Of course, the effort he was making was for himself. Perhaps he had a family, maybe some children, but even if he had only himself, he was indigent and trying to make a peso. I myself have encountered have-not moments when a few extra dollars meant a great deal, but I’m pretty sure I’ve never had the problems that Narigón has had. He was a very poor man, but standing beneath that umbrella (underneath which, by the way, he was not standing) I felt I was in the company of a man of intense values, who was living a hard life, who had found me a cab under circumstances very threatening to his own health.
I pulled the bills from my pocket and handed them to him.
“Chau, señor,” he said, clapping me on the back as I got into the taxi. “Suerte.” This last is a Buenos Aires salutation. It means “Good luck.”
Terence Clarke’s new novel The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro will be published this month.
In Argentine tango, there is “Before Piazzolla” and “After Piazzolla.”
Astor Piazzolla (a master of the bandoneón, the concertina-like instrument that many consider the soul of tango) revolutionized tango in ways that either electrified his numberless fans (most of them outside of Buenos Aires, Argentina, which is the home of tango) or infuriated his many detractors (most of them inside Buenos Aires). He once remarked how dismaying it was to him to be able to fill every seat at the huge Olympia Theater in Paris, while barely thirty people — and many of them loudly hostile — would come to see him in a club in Buenos Aires.
Astor brought into tango many elements of sophisticated classical music that it had never heard before. Fugue, counterpoint, extraordinary poly-rhythms and dissonances that few of the usual tango musicians in Buenos Aires — as fine as surely they were — could even comprehend. Indeed Astor spoke of his own compositions as “music based on tango”, rather than as tango itself, and this is a fair judgment.
But woe betide the tango fan who does not understand the importance of traditional tango to Astor’s work. Astor was, after all, the principal arranger for several years for the renowned Buenos Aires orchestra of Anibal Troilo, himself a truly innovative composer.
The noted tango composer and pianist Osvaldo Pugliese was a great fan of Astor, and vice versa, although their styles of tango were markedly dissimilar. In his book Astor Piazzolla: A Memoir (compiled from interviews by Natalio Gorin), Astor writes “I wrote a special arrangement of my ‘Adiós Nonino,’ and Osvaldo looked clueless — he couldn’t play a note. Later I tried to play [Osvaldo’s] ‘La Yumba’ his way and I couldn’t. I felt bad, as if I’d dirtied his music…”
There was a further quite special moment earlier in Astor’s life, when he met another tango revolutionary, Carlos Gardel. Generally regarded as the greatest singer of tango ever, “Charley”, as Astor called him, was an international recording and film star when he met the thirteen year-old Astor Piazzolla in New York City, where Astor and his parents Vicente and Asunta were living. Vicente had taken his family from Argentina to New York in 1924 (when Astor was three) in order to find work, and they lived on the Lower East Side (ironically, near Astor Place) for many years.
Astor was a scruffy kid with a limp caused by an accident of birth in one foot, which required surgeries throughout his childhood. He walked funny, he was little, and he talked funny with an Argentine accent. He got into a lot of fights.
Astor began playing the bandoneón in New York at his father Vicente’s insistence, and as a thirteen year-old in 1934, ever alert to job possibilities, he got work as an errand boy on the set of El día que me quieras. This was one of Carlos Gardel’s several musical comedies that were filmed at Paramount’s Astoria, New York studios. Within a few days, Astor and the great Charley became pals.
Astor told Charley that he played bandoneón. As a result, the singer and his musicians tutored Astor on his instrument, and indeed Astor accompanied Charley on a couple of occasions at the Campoamor Theater on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Charley thought so well of Astor that he gave the boy a bit part in El día que me quieras. Gratefully, Vicente Piazzolla, an amateur wood carver, made a small carving of an Argentine gaucho with a guitar, which Astor delivered to Charley.
Charley was killed in a fiery airplane accident in Colombia on June 24, 1935. Many years later, Astor received a message from his very first bandoneón teacher, Andrés D’Aquila, who still lived in New York. Andrés had been passing by a pawnshop in Manhattan and had spotted a small wood carving of a gaucho with a guitar in the window. Curious, he looked at it more carefully and saw the name “Vicente Piazzolla” carved into its base. The carving itself was charred in many places, the evidence that it had been in a fire. Next to the figure was a hand-lettered sign that read “This belonged to an Argentine tango singer.”
Andrés went into the shop, to buy the gaucho for Astor. But the price was $20.00, money that Andrés did not have on him that day. The shop owner agreed to hold the carving overnight. But when Andrés came back the next day, the gaucho was gone, sold.
In his memoir, Astor writes, “I never lost hope that I would find [the carving] and that whoever has it some day would call me.” That never happened, and among the gifts offered by a fan to a performer, that gaucho carving, wherever it is, surely conveys a far more personal artistic affection — equally to the young prodigy who delivered it and his mentor the immortal star who died with it — than almost any such gift ever could provide.
Terence Clarke’s recently completed screenplay Astor & Charley is based on these events. This piece appeared originally in Huffington Post.