Tango in Mexico: Mal hombre (Bad man)

Tango travelled throughout the Spanish speaking world, but the songs that became popular abroad were not always the same ones that were popular at home. A case in point are the tangos that became successful in Mexico, and across the border in Texas, which had a large Spanish speaking population. This region had its own musical culture known as música norteña, referring to the north of Mexico, whilst the nascent Spanish music scene in the south of Texas was called tejano. Certain tangos were incorporated into the local repertoire. For example, in 1934, the Mexican singer Lydia Mendoza (1916-2007), known locally as La Cancionera de los Pobres, The Poor People’s Songstress, was catapulted to fame by her recording for the American label Bluebird Records (a subsidiary label of RCA Victor) of Mal hombre, whose words she had learnt from a bubble gum wrapper. She now became the most famous woman in the region, earning two new epithets: La Alondra de la Frontera: The Meadowlark of the Borderlands, and La Reina Tejana: The Tejano Queen. She went on to make over a thousand recordings; in 1977, she sang at the inauguration of US President Jimmy Carter.

Lydia Mendoza, 20, records for RCA-Victor in San Antonio on Oct. 21, 1936.

Mal hombre is a sensational tango, completely altering our idea of the landscape presented by tango lyrics. The lyric is set, as so many are, in the Buenos Aires underworld. It’s a tale of the poor girl who leaves her barrio in search of a better life, and is ruined. But here’s the twist: instead of condemning the woman for her choices, the lyric tells the story from the woman’s point of view. She is seduced, abused – the lyric hints at a rape, and a life and death struggle – and cast aside.

Era yo una chiquilla todavía
cuando tú casualmente me encontraste
a merced a tus artes de mundano
de mi honra el perfuma te llevaste.
Luego hiciste conmigo lo que todos
los que son como tú con las mujeres
por lo tanto no extrañes que yo ahora
en tu cara te diga lo que eres

Mal hombre
tan ruin es tu alma que no tiene nombre
eres un canalla, eres un malvado
eres tú mal hombre

A mi triste destino abandonada
entable fiera lucha con la vida
ella recia y cruel me torturaba
yo más débil al fin cai vencida.
Tú supistes a tiempo mi derrota
mi espantoso calvario conociste
te dijeron algunos – Ve a salvarle
y probando quien eres te reíste.

Mal hombre,
tan ruin es tu alma que no tiene nombre,
eres un canalla, eres un malvado,
eres tú mal hombre.

Poco tiempo después en el arroyo
entre sombras mi vida defendía
una noche con otra tú pasaste
y al mirarme oí que te decía:
¿Quién es esa mujer? ¿Tú la conoces?
Y a la vez respondiste: Una cualquiera
al oír de tus labios adultraje
demostrabas también Lo que tú eras

Mal hombre,
tan ruin es tu alma que no tiene nombre,
eres un canalla, eres un malvado,
eres tú mal hombre.

I was but a young girl
when, by chance, you found me
and with your worldly charm
you crushed the flower of my innocence.
Then you treated me like all men
of your kind treat women,
so don’t be surprised now that when I tell you
to your face what you really are.

Bad man
your soul is so vile it has no name
you are despicable, you are evil,
you are a bad man.

Abandoned to a sad fate,
my life became a fierce struggle
suffering the harshness and cruelty of the world
I was weak and was defeated.
In time you learned of my downfall
how my life had become a road to hell.
Some people advised you, “You can help her,”
but being who you are, you just laughed.

Bad man
your soul is so vile it has no name
you are despicable, you are evil,
you are a bad man.

Shortly after in a gully
among shadows I defended my life.
One night you passed by with another woman
and on seeing me I heard her ask you:
Who is that woman? Do you know her?
And looking at me you answered: She’s a nobody
and when I heard adultery from your lips
you demonstrated again what you are.

Bad man
your soul is so vile it has no name
you are despicable, you are evil,
you are a bad man.

Who wrote Mal hombre – and when? On the labels of Lydia Mendoza’s records, it sometimes says: José Rodriguez. We don’t know who he is. The earliest known recording dates from 1926, when it was recorded on Victor by one Elisa Berumen in Los Angeles, California. In short: we don’t know really know who wrote this tango, or when, or how it made its way to North America. In 2011, after Mendoza’s death, the song was registered in her name at SADAIC.

How was it that this tango found such a market in North America, when it did not in South America? I can’t answer this entirely, but for a partial answer, consider where and how people listened to music. The people frequenting bars and cafés in Buenos Aires were mostly men: they did not want to listen to a tango like this. The other place that records were listened to was in the home, where women could hear them as well as men. In Mexico Lydia Mendoza played in restaurants, hotels and carpas (tent shows) – places where women could hear her music as well as men. The local culture seems to have been less Catholic and moralistic than it was in Argentina, and the song was permitted, despite – or perhaps even because of – the fact that there is a strong culture of violence against women in Mexico, something reflected in the lyric.

PS: A footnote for tango geeks: the version of this tango printed by Bluebird at RCA-Victor’s pressing plant in Camden, New Jersey, is pitched one semitone higher than the version printed in Mexico: conclusive proof that RCA Victor were deliberately manipulating the speed of records in 1934.

PPS: It turns out that this recording appears in the 2009 film Crazy Heart, in which Jeff Bridges plays a washed-up country & western musician in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Troilo-Grela

In the mid 1950s, Troilo formed a quartet with the guitarist Roberto Grela which operated in parallel with the orchestra. It’s still quite easy to find their recordings, which fall into two periods.
In the 1950s they recorded 12 tracks on TK, re-issued by Euro Records in both CD and mp3 formats

EU-14033 Troilo-Grela
Just listen to Palomita blanca, and let yourself be transported…
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In 1962 they recorded 10 tracks on BMG which were released on an LP, AVL-3464. BMG reprinted this on CD as Pa’ que bailan los muchachos (BMG 659449), part of the series Aníbal Troilo en RCA Victor. Although the whole series is deleted, BMG re-released the original LP on CD and as a digital download with the original LP cover in 1994:

BMG 24418 – Aníbal Troilo (Pichuco) – Roberto Grela (Cuarteto Típico)
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As a bonus, it’s also still possible to find this album from Melopea of Grela’s recordings as a guitarist. Many of these are light and joyful:

CDMSE-5114 – La guitarra del tango
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Click on the tag “digital” below to see all posts about re-releases of CDs as digital downloads.

D’Arienzo for Export

The demise of the CD has created big problems for tango music fans looking to start their collections.
Today we look at the D’Arienzo albums from the “Tango for Export” era (the 1960s).
RCA-Victor released four LPs called D’Arienzo for Export, and in the CD era these were recompiled over three CDs.
Finally there was a very popular compilation CD, El rey del compás – of the many albums with this title, this was the one with a night-time photograph of Buenos Aires’s Calle Corrientes on the cover – printed back-to-front!






Now, Sony BMG (owners of RCA-Victor) have not released any of these albums digitally.
However in 2015 they released the four original albums digitally, although only in Europe – not in the US. Here they are:

D’Arienzo for Export
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D’Arienzo for Export vol.II
Some of the best tracks from this period: Gran Hotel Victoria, Pura trampa, El amanecer and 9 de julio.
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D’Arienzo for Export vol.III
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D’Arienzo for Export vol.IV
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The album El rey del compás is available on Apple music in Mexico, but nowhere else that I could find.
Those who want to learn about all the original LPs from the 1960s and 1970s – not just the four in the “For Export” series – can try reading Jens-Ingo’s article Darienzando.
Click on the tag “digital” below to see all posts about re-releases of CDs as digital downloads.

Juan D’Arienzo on Radio Gouda

In summer 2019, I returned to the studios of Radio Gouda to chat with Oliver Kruse-Dougherty, this time about Juan D’Arienzo and my new book about his life and work.

Part One looks at the beginning of the D’Arienzo phenomenon and the key elements in his sound – most notably, Rodolfo Biagi.

In Part Two, we heard how D’Arienzo reacted in March 1940 when he lost his entire orchestra.

Rock and roll! Part Three looks at how D’Arienzo regenerated himself in 1950, returning to his roots.

Django Reinhardt playing tango?


What’s this – Django Reinhardt, the genius gypsy jazz guitarist, playing a tango? This performance was flagged up when a reader became curious about a tango performed in the Martin Scorsese film Hugo, which wasn’t one anyone recognised. However the community soon identified it as the tango Cariñosa, and the version with Reinhardt came to light. Knowing the deep connection to tango of Reinhardt’s contemporary, the Argentine Oscar Alemán (see my earlier post), I was naturally curious.
It’s easy to hear that Django’s role in this orchestra is relatively small; after his opening flourish, he largely comps along behind the accordion, but listen closely and he makes some nice runs behind the melody. This must date from before the time of Django’s fame and the Hot Club of France, and it turns out that it’s a 1931 recording by the dance orchestra of Louis Vola, made in Toulon. Vola had invited Reinhardt to join his band after hearing him jamming on the beach with his brother.
So is this tango just a footnote in history? Perhaps, but the encounter with Vola is not. In 1934 he was directing a 14 piece orchestra which played at the Thé Dansants at Claridge’s Hotel in Paris. Django was also there, and in the breaks between sets the men jammed backstage, with Stefane Grapelli on violin, and Louis Vola putting down the accordion for the double bass. This group was the forerunner of the famous Quintet of the Hot Club of France, and it was Vola who brought the men together. Here’s a photo of that group.

References
– Georg Lankester: ‘Louis Vola and the birth of a quintet’ on the blog

Carlos Di Sarli on Radio Gouda (Part 3/3)

Part 3 of my interview with Oliver Kruse-Dougherty about Carlos Di Sarli and my new book. This segment focusses on the orchestra in the 1950s, especially the early 50s recordings on Music Hall, which are often neglected in favour of the brighter ones from the late 50s on RCA-Victor.

As a case in point, the broadcast opens with the 1952 recording of “Cara sucia” – much more muscular than Di Sarli’s better known 1957 version.

Carlos Di Sarli on Radio Gouda

On 16th June, Oliver Kruse-Dougherty invited me into the studio for a wide ranging, three hour interview about Carlos Di Sarli and my new book. Here is the first part. We focus musically on the sextet, but there is a lot of interesting material in the early part of the interview about Di Sarli’s place in the tango pantheon, and the reasons for writing about Troilo and Pugliese before Di Sarli and D’Arienzo – musically speaking, a strange choice.

Oscar Alemán: Argentine King of Swing

When I first went to Bs As back in the 1990s, the tandas of tango, milonga and vals were punctuated by tandas of other rhythms: tropical, which usually meant Argentine cumbia, and swing. As far as the latter was concerned, the song most often heard was Bésame mucho by the Argentine swing guitarist Oscar Alemán (1909-1980)

As it turns out, this recording sold more than a million copies.

Oscar Alemán with his brother Rodolfo in the Sexteto Moreira

Alemán was born in the province of Chaco in the north east of Argentina, relatively close to the Brazilian border. I had always thought of Alemán as an Afro-Argentine – a perception that was useful to his later jazz career both in Paris and back in Argentina – but the truth is rather different. His father Jorge Alemán Moreira was a guitarist from Uruguay, and his mother Marcela Pereira a pianist of the native Argentine Toba tribe. This heritage was not enough to explain his dark skin colour. Alemán remarked: “Some of my six brothers were even darker than I: we think there was a black man somewhere”.
In 1915, when he was still only six years old, he became part of the family music group, the Sexteto Moreira together with his parents and three of his siblings. This group styled itself as a troupe of black gauchos – a well-known type at this time. Oscar specialised in dancing the malambo, the gaucho stamping dance, but he also tap danced and even did a juggling act.

Oscar in Madrid 1929
photo (c) José Iacona

They moved to Buenos Aires in search of work, with only modest success. Finally, they were convinced by an agent called Figueroa to try their luck in the city of Santos in Brazil. Oscar’s mother stayed behind in Buenos Aires with the two youngest children. In Santos news reached them that his mother Marcela had died – possibly from malnutrition, as the money he had wired back had been embezzled by the unscrupulous agent. Oscar’s father never recovered from this desperate news and committed suicide the following year, leaving the children orphans. The family broke up and Oscar, just 10 years old, found himself alone, distraught, and on the streets.
He earned money in various ways, including opening car doors for tips at the the Miramar Cabaret. Meanwhile he taught himself to play the cavaquinho, the small four stringed guitar used in Brazilian samba and choro music. He liked it so much that in 1922, when he was just 13 years old, he commissioned one from a luthier, specifying that only the best materials should be used.

By 1924 he was performing at a hotel in Santos where he was discovered by the guitarist Gastão Bueno Lobo. Bueno Lobo gave Alemán a guitar and told him to learn it:

Un día vino un señor que se llamaba Gastón Bueno Lobo y me preguntó si queriá hacer un número con él. En ese momento comenzó mi vida, una más seria. Me dio una guitarra para que estudiara, pero él no venía a enseñarme porque trabajaba. No tenia quién me enseñara. Entonces, de acuerdo con lo que yo sabía del cavaquinho, me las arreglé. Pero la guitarra era mucho más difícil: era grande, había que abrir los dedos y yo tenía la mano chiquita.
Pero fui aprendiendo lo suficiente.

One day a man called Gastón Bueno Lobo came and asked me if I wanted to play with him. At that moment my life began – a more serious kind of life. He gave me a guitar so I could learn, but he didn’t teach me because he had to work. There was nobody to teach me. So I managed with what I already knew from the cavaquinho. But guitar playing was much harder: it was large, I had to open my fingers and I had small hands. But little by little I learned enough.

Alemán’s modest story confirms that he was entirely self taught whilst concealing the fact that he would go on to become one of the most exciting and original guitarists of the 20th Century.

Bueno Lobo now formed a duo called Les Loups with Oscar as second guitar. (Les Loups is a play on Bueno Lobo’s name: Loup is French for Lobo, wolf). Bueno Lobo specialised in what was called Hawaiian guitar: laying the guitar in one’s lap and fretting the strings not with the fingers, but with a steel bar, much as bluesmen in the USA were playing the guitar with a metal slide or bottleneck. After playing around Brazil the group moved to Buenos Aires at the end of 1927 where Bueno Lobo changed his first name to the more Spanish sounding Gastón. They made their first recordings on December 6th 1927, with the Victor label, recording 16 titles, including a guitar version of La cumparsita, and a further eight as the Trío Victor backing the violinist Elvino Vardaro. These recordings were sufficiently influential that by March of the following year, Francisco Canaro started incorporating a Hawaiian guitar in some of his recordings (La eterna herida, 28th March 1928. The identity of the guitarist is unknown).

Early in 1929, Les Loups were invited by the Afro-American jazz musician Harry Fleming to join him in a review he was staging called Hello Jazz. This premiered in Montevideo in January and then moved to Europe the following month. By March they were in Paris, moving on to Spain for the summer, Belgium in the autumn, and then spending the following year (1930) touring Germany. In 1931 they were back in Spain. It all sounds very glamorous, but Fleming was financially disorganised and the musicians never knew whether the band would even have enough money to pay for the tickets to the next venue. In the end, no-one would hire them anymore and the band broke up.

The Harry Fleming troupe, complete with dancing girls.
Les Loups are front and centre, just behind Fleming.


One of the musicians working with Fleming, the Belgian jazz trumpeter Robert De Kers, started his own band, The Cabaret Kings. One of the players he took with him was Oscar Alemán. They played at various jazz clubs in Madrid such as the Alcazar and the Stambul. Later that year De Kers was asked by Josephine Baker to help assemble a band for her. De Kers brought Bueno Lobo to Paris but some of the other musicians had also worked in Fleming’s band and asked for the “brilliant other guitarist”, meaning Oscar. Bueno Lobo returned to Brazil, bitterly disappointed, whilst Alemán was summoned to Paris and became part of Josephine Baker’s band, The Baker Boys.

Josephine Baker and her Baker Boys (Brussels September 1933) (photo © Jack Glazer)


Alemán was a huge success with Baker, a triumph, and with her he lived a golden decade in the Paris of the 1930s. They played at the Café de Paris and toured all over Europe, travelling as far as French speaking North Africa.

Oscar Alemán in Egypt. Photo: (c) hermanos Iacona

These tours were tiresome: Oscar preferred to be in Paris, where he could play with American jazz musicians and hang out at the Hot Club, where he became friendly with Django Reinhardt. The two would met in Reinhardt’s gypsy caravan to jam. The two men held each other in great respect, occasionally appearing together under the rubric of El Indio y El gitano – The Indian and the Gypsy. Alemán would occasionally substitute for Reinhardt if, for example, the latter decided to take a girl out on a date instead of playing a gig.

Despite this cordiality, the men disagreed musically. Reinhardt conceived of jazz as a gypsy music, whilst Alemán thought it American, and that Reinhardt played with “too many gypsy flourishes”. Comparing the two, Alemán has more drive and swings harder. His solos are well thought out with unusual harmonies that impressed other musicians, whilst Reinhardt relied more on spontaneity in his playing. Jazz critic Leonard Feather, who met Alemán in Paris in 1939, wrote: “His tone, phrasing, swing, and attack are so grand that if anyone ever mentions Django Reinhardt to me again, I shall stare coldly. Alemán has more swing than any other guitarist on the Continent.”

With his friendly, easy going personality and trustworthy nature, Oscar became a close friend of Josephine Baker, and in time became the leader of her band, even though he couldn’t read music. He concealed this by hiding in the toilets whilst they practised a new song, which he could then pick up by ear. With his natural ability, he was never found out. In 1933, Duke Ellington heard him playing with the Baker Boys and was so impressed by his talent that he wanted him to join a tour of the United States. Josephine Baker was having none of it, saying to Alemán: “Where will I find another negro like you Oscar? Someone who sings in Spanish, French, Portuguese and Italian, who plays the guitar just as well and who is also my friend?” Oscar remained, but musically this was a disappointment.

Alemán finally separated from Baker at the end of 1938 to pursue a solo career. The next eighteen months see him make some of his finest recordings; one example available on youtube is his masterful Russian Lullaby, recorded in Paris on May 12 1939.

The good times came to an end with the German occupation of Paris in 1940. The jazz scene continued, but as a black man Alemán had problems with German soldiers who abused him in the streets. He decided to return to Argentina and travelled overland to Spain with his three guitars. German border guards confiscated the National Steel Guitars at the border – being made of metal, they could be recycled for the war effort – but he managed to keep the Selmer guitar (the same brand used by Django, with the oval sound hole).

Volví a la Argentina el 24 de diciembre de 1940, con 84 pesos, pasándola fiero.
I returned to Argentina on the 24th of December, 1940, with 84 pesos, having a very hard time

Oscar Alemán with his Selmer guitar on LR3 Radio Belgrano


Back in Buenos Aires, Alemán formed a jazz quintet with the magnificent swing of Hernán Oliva on violin. They were soon appearing on Radio Belgrano and got a recording contract with Odeón at the end of 1941. By 1944 Alemán was at the height of his fame in his native land, appearing on Radio El Mundo and sharing the billing at dances with tango artists of the stature of Troilo and Laurenz.

Oscar Alemán y su Quinteto de Swing. This is the second incarnation of the quintet, with Manuel Gavinovich on violin after Alemán and Oliva split up. Like any good jazz quintet, it has six players 🙂 – when he replaced Oliva, Alemán also added a piano, which tells you how good a player he lost.

The 1950s saw him – much like the tango – at the beginning of a slow decline, with his music slowly moving away from its roots as he tried to keep working. He did however appear in the 1957 film Historia de una Carta, allowing us to appreciate his incredible showmanship and dancing skills:

A tour of Europe in 1959 ended in failure, and in the 1960s he fell into obscurity and poverty. He was forced to sell his Selmer guitar, but kept his beloved cavaquinho. Professional opportunities were few, and he spent many Christmases “with just mate and bread”.

In 1968, Duke Ellington was touring South America and asked to meet up with his old friend Oscar Alemán as soon as he landed at the airport in Buenos Aires. The local organisers didn’t know who he was talking about, but they sought Oscar out. The two men met up at the US Embassy, together with the US Ambassador. This meeting led to Oscar’s rediscovery as a musician. In 1972 he released a new LP and he was able to enjoy renewed professional success until his death in 1980. Today he is still not well known, but those who come to know his music appreciate his unique musical voice which reaches down to his through his recordings.

Some have called Alemán the Gardel of the guitar. It is not so; Alemán was never transformed into a myth, and never achieved the recognition he deserved. For me Alemán is more the Laurenz of the guitar: an underappreciated genius. Serjio Pujol, author of the Alemán biography La guitarra embrujada, asks us: can we be so sure that Argentine music is all sadness and melancholy?

References: