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The Gods of Tango. A novel by Carolina De Robertis

The Gods of Tango, by Carolina De Robertis.

During the last 25 years, Argentine tango has gone through a worldwide renaissance of interest. You can now dance tango in almost every major city on all continents. When you dance, the accompanying music comes from a very long tradition of respect for the past that is nonetheless enriched by constant innovation. A few tango musicians — Carlos Gardel and Astor Piazzolla, most notably — have passed into the pantheon of world renown, as have a few of the dancers, like Juan Carlos Copes, María Nieves and Carlos Gavito.

Photo: Gabriela Padhila

Photo: Gabriela Pailha

Carolina De Robertis is a novelist living in the United States and writing primarily in English. She is of Uruguayan roots, however, and has written provocatively and deeply about characters whose entire consciousness derives from the land, the traditions and the politics of Uruguay and Argentina. Her novel Perla is for me one of the most perceptive — and startling — accounts of the results of the terrible military governments that destroyed so many lives in Argentina during the 1970s and 80s.

De Robertis’s new novel is The Gods of Tango, published by Knopf. In 1913, 17-year-old Leda arrives by ship in Buenos Aires, from Italy, ostensibly to be greeted by her new husband Dante. Once on shore, she learns that Dante has recently been killed in a street battle between syndicalists and the police. With only the clothes on her back and a single trunk containing her things, a little money, and the violin that her cherished father gave her after having been given it by his father, Leda moves into a conventillo, named La Rete, in the poor wharf-side neighborhood of La Boca. Conventillos basically were tenements, some set up by the Argentine government, others privately run, to house the many thousands of immigrants pouring into Buenos Aires during the first years of the twentieth century. The conditions were uniformly terrible, with many people crowded into warrens of single rooms. The conventillo would often have a central patio with a source of water for cooking and washing, which would be the gathering place for the tenants. These sprawling edifices housed people from all over the world, and must have been a polyglot confusion of languages, cultures, manners of dress and, most principally for Leda’s purposes, music.

She hears her first tango in La Rete, and is immediately smitten by it. She has never even imagined such rhythmic intensity before, or such soulful intent and passion, in any of the music she has ever heard. She can play her father’s violin (although at first her efforts are insubstantial), and she determines to master the tango.

There is, however, a problem.

Tango in 1913 Buenos Aires was the domain of men, and men alone. The only women involved were those who worked in the many boliche cafes and bordellos of Buenos Aires, and the duties of those women had little to do with music. The very idea of a woman playing tango was ridiculous to the men. Women were incapable of doing so, it was thought. There was no place for them on the street corner or in the café. The first requirement for any tango musician was that he be a man.

Leda comes to understand this quickly. Despite her very conservative Catholic upbringing in Italy, her complete isolation in Buenos Aires, her worries about what her family would say and the considerable physical danger that could lay waiting for her, she decides upon a change. Wrapping her breasts to diminish their presence, getting her hair cut in the style of a man, and dressing in her deceased husband’s clothes, Leda leaves the conventillo and takes to the Buenos Aires streets, now calling herself Dante, after her husband. She does so with violin in hand.

Leda remains so disguised for the rest of the novel, and she becomes remarkably well known as a musician. Working at first in the poorest of little boliches, she hones her talent until she becomes one of the best tango violinists on the Buenos Aires scene. But she does so as a man, and the disguise — and what it teaches her about the privileges that men enjoy that are forbidden to women — becomes the very vehicle for her rise to tango eminence.

Women are fascinated by this strange fellow Dante, and during her first years as a man, Dante becomes involved with a few of them. Suddenly, a new kind of heart is opened in her, and she finds avenues to affection with those women that surely, she thinks, must be sinful. But she cannot draw away from such affection because it also leads Dante to deep, compelling love. The way De Robertis presents the confusions that arise, for Dante and for her lovers, is one of the great innovations of this novel. De Robertis writes with considerable passion and beauty about the kinds of love that Dante finds and, of course, the kinds of sex that she finds. This novel contains some of the loveliest and most riveting writing about sensuality that I’ve ever encountered.

Dante’s efforts to keep her secret are threatened numerous times through the book, and her close calls with possible discovery are all memorable.

For anyone who cares about tango, this novel is a fine addition to the history of that soulful music in its Rio de La Plata birthplace. It is also a sensuous, thoughtful and beautifully rendered look at the complications that can arise — and the solutions that can be found — when a woman is told that she cannot do something upon which her heart insists.

Terence Clarke’s new novel The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro was published on May 1. This piece first appeared in Huffington Post.

Ada

Ada_FalconThe tanguera Ada Falcón made her stage debut in 1910 at the age of five. Known then as La joyita argentina (The Little Argentine Jewel) she was an immediate hit as a singer during interludes between acts in Buenos Aires stage productions. At the age of thirteen, Ada made her first film and became an immediate star.

Her voice was mezzo-soprano, and so has a profundity not shared by the more usual women sopranos. When she sings a sad tango, there is nonetheless a kind of playfulness in her voice that seems to make fun of the possibilities for betrayal and desperation that fill so many tango lyrics. When she is singing of the disappointment life can bring…when she’s seen how the love she’s given away has then been thrown away…now that she’s given up what she had in such abundance as a child: innocence, trust, laughter…now that the only thing she has left from that time is the memory of the madreselva, the honeysuckle that grew up a wall, to the flowers of which she confided her closest secrets…when there’s nothing left at all, Ada still sings with a smile in her voice, fresh and genuine, and with a suggestion of jaded desire for the person to whom she is singing.

She is a Judy Garland-like figure. Evidently she did not attend school. Rather she had personal teachers who worked with her when she was not making movies or singing or making records. She was also quite remarkably beautiful, notably so. By the time she was in her twenties, she was driving around Buenos Aires in a fast, red luxury convertible, she owned a fabulous three-story home in the Recoleta neighborhood, and she was appearing in public wrapped in fur and glittering with jewels. In the early thirties, she made approximately fifteen recordings a month. She was a superstar, and when you listen to her recordings you understand why. There are few singers in any genre who approach their songs with as much casual authority, yet fine artistic judgment, as Ada Falcón.

She was not as successful in matters of love.

She fell for Francisco Canaro, who was himself one of the most successful tango orchestra leaders of the twenties and thirties. This man’s music is extremely popular to this day. Many of Falcón’s greatest recordings were made with Canaro, and I have listened to most of them, wondering how much of the passion that is so evident in her voice came about because Canaro himself was standing near her as she sang, behind her, watching her and marveling at the feeling with which she gave him back the songs that he had given her.

For an example, listen to Tengo Miedo, in which Falcón sings, “Tu cariño me enloquece,/tu pasión me da la vida./Sinembargo tengo miedo./Tengo miedo de quererte.” (“Your affection drives me wild,/your passion gives me life./Nonetheless I’m afraid./I’m afraid to love you.”)

In 1943, at the age of thirty-eight, at the peak of her career, Falcón abandoned it. Her retirement was sudden, completely unexpected and extremely strange. She began to appear on the streets of Buenos Aires in disguise, it seemed, her head swathed in scarves, shawls hanging about her shoulders, her considerably lovely eyes hidden behind slab-like sunglasses. She stopped recording. There were reports in the newspapers about strange nighttime peregrinations, about her odd dress, her raving. What was more unexpected was that she abruptly left Buenos Aires one day in the company of her mother, traveled to Cordoba, Argentina and there entered the Molinari Convent of Franciscan nuns.

There is a great deal of speculation about her decision to leave show business, the life she had known almost since birth, and to enter the contemplative life under vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Most center upon her love for Canaro. Because Canaro had a wife.

Evidently Falcón had been very guilt-ridden about her affair with a married man, yet overwhelmed by the love she felt for him. She had pleaded with Canaro to divorce his wife so that she could marry him. Canaro had agreed, but did not actually go through with the divorce action. He kept Falcón on one arm and his wife on the other, for years. There were family reasons, Canaro said. The Church, you see. We just have to wait for a while to keep it respectable. Careers. Obligations. Falcón waited, until the day on which Canaro admitted to her that he would never leave his wife under any circumstances.

Falcón, the theory says, went mad. She went to the streets, wandered the streets, swathed in craziness. Shortly thereafter, her mother took her away and she entered the convent.

Ada Falcón died in 2002, at niney-six, in the convent in Cordoba. She seldom left the convent, she never recorded another song, and it’s my guess that she never recovered her heart.

Terence Clarke’s seventh work of fiction, the novel The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro was published this spring.

Remembering Horacio Ferrer

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Horacio Ferrer died this Sunday in Buenos Aires. A noted Argentine poet and tango lyricist, he wrote the libretto for Astor Piazzolla’s opera Maria de Buenos Aires as well as the lyrics for Piazzolla’s iconic “Balada para un loco”. In the early 1990s, he was on tour in the United States with the great violinist Gidon Kremer and a musical ensemble, performing the narrator’s speaking role in the opera. I met with Horacio for an interview in Berkeley, California. He was a smallish man with a finely trimmed beard, impeccably dressed as a kind of late 19th century dandy. The outfit was both humorous and very elegant. For me, the experience was fraught with a certain danger, because it was the first one I ever conducted in the Spanish language. Horacio was quite kind to me despite my obvious case of nerves. The authority about tango with which he spoke in this interview was enhanced by his amazing voice, a deep, expressive stream of sound that was the very soul of his performance later that evening.

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Horacio: (arranging a scarf about his neck)…my voice has tightened up so much that it sounds like a double base, when really it’s more like a violoncello. (Laughter.)

Terry: I think it’s not very usual to find a popular music tradition that attracts lyricists of such high quality as the tango has attracted, poets like Discépolo, Manzí, Borges, Blázques, Espósito and yourself. Why in your opinion has the tango brought in poets of such quality?

Horacio: At the very center of the question, the “why” of the tango’s being so attractive to poets is, I think, the fact that the tango is itself entirely poetic. The music is poetic, the dance is poetic, the singing is poetic, and the world from which the tango evolves is poetic. It’s the world of the night, it’s the bohemian world where money has little importance, and to be sure where love has a great deal of importance, triumphant love or destroyed love, the affections, distant affection, a love of looking back through space and time.

So they’re all colors taken from the poetic palette. And besides, the tango is one of the few song-forms in this century that undertakes not only a lyric excursion but a reflective one as well. The tango thinks. The tango thinks about the truth without claiming to modify it. It simply meditates upon it, which is also part of poetry.

Terry: Frequently the music of more modern tango composers like Piazzolla, you and others doesn’t get the respect it deserves. Can you help us with your opinion of contemporary tango, especially the reason that no one dances, or wishes to dance, to the more modern tango tempos?

Horacio: There has existed a dance tradition in the tango from the very beginning of the tango itself, that has gone through diverse stages, but that has always been quite attached to the kind of ambiance from which tango originally came. Tango is tradition. So the dance did not accompany the great poetic and musical evolution of the tango, and it has now been seized upon, instead of by milongueros (i.e. classic self-trained tango dancers), by dancers of classic and modern ballet. Because that musical evolution cannot be left to go without the dance. Besides, it’s very good to dance to. Every milonguero chooses his own music and type of tango. That’s no sin. But it would be a sin were the more modern kind of music to go on without the dance.

Piazzolla changed the internal metronome of the tango itself, and the dance has been taken over by people like Miguel Angel Zotto and Milena Plebs…who’s a veritable creation herself, no? Also some of the work that el maestro Juan Carlos Copes has done. And many others, many of them not milongueros at all.

Tango has always profited from people, talents, and situations that don’t belong to tango. For instance it has stolen some of rock’s instruments: the electric guitar, the electric keyboard, the drum set. Tango’s always been a bit of a thief, in that it enriches itself without losing its virtue, and that’s what has happened in the case of the dance today.    

Terry: You write in your book The Golden Age of Tango about the influence of rock music.

Horacio: Of course. Why not? Fundamentally, all cultures contain vessels that communicate with each other. And sometimes cultures clash with each other. And in the case of rock music, a true clash took place in 1960 or so, with such extraordinary talents as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, to be sure, and others. But in Buenos Aires, with so defined a personality, everything porteño, with its tango, its night, its bohemian ways, it was a clash that afterwards took on distinct consequences. Since the kids who were doing the rock music were living in the same places, the same city, the same night, with the same incitements as the tangueros, they started imitating the tangueros. And they began to find out that that art with which they had had such a clash was worthy of respect. And they started . . . given their abilities (because not all of them were good musicians or very good singers, and the tango is musically schooled while rock music is not). . . they started talking with each other, to figure out the harmonies the tango had, the tango’s counterpoint, its poly-rhythms, the tango poetic, and the singers . . . they began to like all that. And since they belonged in the same starry enclave, eh?, in the same night and the same pizza parlors and the same little black holes-in-the-wall and the same bars, they started going around with the tangueros. And I think they’ve done quite a lot quite well.

Terry: Can we talk about Piazzolla? Do you know that in English he had a New York accent?

Horacio: Of course. He spent his entire childhood there.

Terry: I’ve heard him speaking on the radio many times, and his accent is, well, strange for someone who, like he, was born in Mar del Plata, Argentina, because for us the Lower East Side New York accent is fundamental to our culture. You know, Martin Scorsese and Coppola, The Godfather and all that.

Can you give us some comments about the elements of North American music, especially jazz, in Piazzolla’s music?

Horacio: I think that really there are not too many jazz elements in Piazzolla’s music. They’re there, but they’re not central. I think that Piazzolla’s idea…well, maybe he attained something different from what he proposed. I think he was very essentially a tanguista, playing the bandoneón. That instrument is very specific to the tango…other things can be played on the bandoneón, like Bach’s music, but the bandoneón is the very face of the tango, and he played the bandoneón.

Besides he came from a race of tanguistas, because he played in Troilo’s orchestra, who was a great innovator, and he was an admirer of Pugliese and De Caro, who had been the greatest of previous innovators. So that he was very involved, and all the elements of Piazzolla’s music are of the tango. What happens is that, in the harmonic and contrapuntal parts of his music, he finds things from other musical springs, like jazz, also from European classical music, with which he garnishes the dish. But the beef, the churrasco, was from Buenos Aires. The accompaniment, the decoration was from others…because, besides, he liked differentiating himself from the tangueros because he was different.

Terry: And María de Buenos Aires?.

Horacio: It came from two places: one is that, in 1965, I had written a book called Romancero Canyengue. It was the first book, or the first poems that had the good fortune to be in that book, in which I found that I had my own voice. The previous voice I had could have been OK, but it was like Manzí, it was like Espósito, it was like Lamadrid. But in that book I found myself…the voice in the tango. Piazzolla liked it so much that he told me, “From now on you’re working with me, because what you’re doing in words, I’m doing in music.” He invited me to do a piece. He said, “No, no, not a tango. Do a big work. I want to do something like West Side Story,” he told me. So I went about writing what he’d asked me to write…

Terry: I imagine your heart was beating.

Horacio: Please. Please. Of course! But that meant I would abandon everything else, and I like that kind of thing. And, well, I wrote it in 1967, starting in August or September. And in December Piazzolla came to Montevideo and I read what I had written to him…it was almost everything. And we went to a little bar in Uruguay, and on my bandoneón…because I played the bandoneón too…he wrote the music.   We finished it in Buenos Aires and we put it on for the first time on May 8, 1968. And it was so revolutionary.

Terry: Would you explain to us the importance of Buenos Aires to the heart of tango?

Horacio:   There’s a circumstance that makes Buenos Aires into the Paris of the Americas, but one which has a much richer root system, I think. Because Paris, which to be sure is a center of Anglo-Latin culture, like the French race itself, doesn’t contain anything that the Buenos Aires tango has in a very powerful way. The tango is a combination of the Indian and the American, which includes the Indian who, sadly, has now more or less disappeared, but who still remains in the gaucho and in the compadrito.

I was thinking just yesterday that if the cowboy is the North American equivalent of the Argentine gaucho, the cowboy nonetheless doesn’t have a literature. He’s got the movies, but no literature. The cowboy doesn’t have Martin Fierro. (Translator’s note: Martín Fierro is an epic poem by the Argentine writer José Hernández that was published between 1872 and 1879. It is the most famous work of Argentine gaucho literature.) Gaucho literature is a unique case, and it’s the very basis of the tango. That’s where the attractiveness of Buenos Aires comes from, no?, the city with a European aspect and an American content.

Terry: How was tango affected by the Argentine military junta during the Nineteen-Sixties and Seventies?

Horacio: That was a horrifying thing. Horrifying. The Spanish philosopher Ortega said, “A ‘military man’ is a warrior turned into a bureaucrat.” And those are bureaucrats, not warriors. They have lost all the guts the warrior has, and turned themselves into desk-bound cowards. Sadly, that’s the way it is. They brought their bellicose spirit to the citizenry, to the TV stations, to the ministries, the schools…a very lamentable thing. What happened…I hope we never forget it, because that happened in our beloved country, and it had better not ever happen again! No? It better not happen again! It’s an historical instance from which we can learn much, no? so that we can build a present that serves us into the future.

(Terence Clarke wishes to thank Guillermo García, of the group Trio Garufa , for his invaluable help with this interview.)

Piazzolla, Before & After

Astor Piazzolla

Astor Piazzolla

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…”

Carlos Gardel

Carlos Gardel


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.