José Bohr – so who was Eva?

José Bohr was the talented composer of the tango Cascabelito. Born in Bonn, Germany in 1901 as José Böhr, his father, a vet, took the family to Constantinople but they had to flee after an attack on the Sultan. The family settled in Punta Arenas, Chile, in 1904, and José came to Buenos Aires in 1921. He tasted success in 1924 when Cascabelito was picked up by Carlos Gardel, and Francisco Canaro recorded his novelty hit Tutenkhamon.
Bohr took Argentine citizenship in 1925 and then travelled to the United States, recording tangos on the Columbia label. In 1930 he appeared in his first Hollywood movie, Sombras de gloria, a Spanish language version of Blaze o’ Glory. He appeared in eight Hollywood movies, performing mostly in Spanish but sometimes in English, as for example in Rogue of The Rio Grande, in which he plays a Mexican bandit “El malo”.
Now an established star, at the beginning of the 1930s he moved to Mexico where he directed (and starred in) his own films. In 1942 he returned to Chile where he successfully continued his career as a film director. Finally In 1980 he left Chile and settled in Oslo, where he died in 1994. By any measure, it is an extraordinary life.

To anyone who wants to research his tango recordings (made in New York) a good place to start would be the CD published by CTA in Japan in 2008, CTA-615. However, a surprise is in store if one inspects the labels. They clearly read Eva Bohr & su Orquesta Criolla Argentina: Eva Bohr, and HER creole tango orchestra. You can listen to this La cumparsita on youtube, combining the presence of the guitar and fine solo work with a strong sense of dynamic.

Who then is Eva Bohr? She’s Jose’s Bohr’s wife. Born Eva Limiñana Salaverri in the province of Entre Ríos (Argentina) and raised in Chile, she studied piano first in Santiago and then in New York. A newspaper clipping from San Francisco in 1916 tells us that she has given recitals as a concert pianist and counts Busoni amongst her teachers.
José and Eva met after he heard her play the piano in New York.
Once the couple settled in Mexico, she wrote the scripts for her husband’s films. After they divorced in 1942 – the year he returned to Chile – she produced and directed one film without him. She died in Mexico City in 1953, aged 57.
In the Columbia tango recordings it’s almost certain that Eva Bohr is both the director and the pianist of the group. What was her husband’s role? We know that he was a good composer: was he also a talented musician? The answer to these questions is not clear. José Bohr had first found fame as a musical performer with the musical saw, which he had played in his novelty hit Tutenkhamon. He could sing – he is the vocalist on three numbers recorded with the Típica Victor in 1941, but his voice is nothing special. Judge for yourself in a short film recorded in Cuba in December 1928 in which he plays the piano and speaks in English. (Thanks to Hideto Nishimura (Panchito el japonés) for uploading it).

It would be easy to criticise the society of the 1920s for eliminating Eva Bohr from the history of tango. However, as we’ve seen, this would be a mistake: at the time Eva Bohr was acknowledged, recording under her own name. It was subsequent generations who preferred to acknowledge only her husband. By the time Baba-san compiled his CD in 2008, he assumed that Eva Bohr was a pseudonym. I’m happy to tell you that it was not.

Agarráte Catalina (Hold on, Catalina!)

The meaning of this curious Argentine expression, known also in Spain, is clear enough, but what is the origin? Type it into your search engine, and you’ll find the following story: Catalina was a trapeze artist in the circus in the 1940s. Her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother had already died in falls, but despite this she continued with her profession. Whenever she performed, the people shouted: Agarráte bien, Catalina! Hold on tight! However she died tragically in an accident at the age of 25. Some versions say that she did not fall from the trapeze, but was instead hit by the human cannonball. Clearly it’s an urban myth, the proof of which will be provided shortly, but one can find any number of Argentine websites circulating this story.
Others maintain that Catalina was a horse ridden by the famous Argentine jockey Ireneo Leguizamo (1903-1985), he of the tango Leguisamo solo. Apparently, he would whisper the phrase into the horse’s ear before each race. This seems a bit closer to the mark (but only a bit) because there is a fuller version of this phrase: Agarrate Catalina, que vamos a galopiar – Hold on tight, Catalina, we’re going to gallop. This version can be found in the magazine ‘Caras y Caretas’ as early as 1901, where the answer to a puzzle is given as: AGARRATE CATALINA, MOS A GALOPIAR (Caras y caretas 5/10/1901, nº 157, p64). In case you are wondering, the puzzle given in the previous issue is a simple drawing of a creole and his wife on horseback. In 1898 there was already a tango called Agarráte Catalina, which we can find in a story about an organ grinder in Issue 9 of ‘Caras y Caretas’ (3/12/1898).

So it’s a phrase about horse riding? Well, let’s see. The true story is given by Jorge Horacio Richino on his blog Biblio TK popular. Catalina is the name used in Spanish for the czarina Catherine the Great, who overthrew her (much older) husband Czar Peter III in 1762 in a coup d’état. Like Queen Elizabeth I in England, Catherine decided not to marry in order to hold on to her power, instead taking a succession of lovers.
Her enemies set about destroying her reputation by describing her as sexually voracious and morally degenerate. In Britain, political cartoons attacked Catherine for her expansionist policies. Others were more coarse. Her great rival, Frederick the Great of Prussia, said about her: “A woman is always a woman and, in feminine government, the cunt has more influence than a firm policy guided by straight reason.”

Catherine The Great – An Imperial Stride. As Catherine steps from Moscow to Constantinople, the other rulers look up her skirt and make lewd comments.

When she died in 1796, aged 67, a story spread in France that she had been crushed by a stallion whilst copulating with it. (In reality, she died from a stroke whilst writing a letter). This story has to be seen in the context of the French revolution. Rulers always depicted themselves on horseback, and this story is a way of satirising this trope.

The phrase Hold on Catherine, we’re going to gallop, is a crude sexual euphemism, a man telling a woman that they are going to have sex. It would have appeared in old pornographic magazines. I suppose it’s a good thing that this fact is not well known in South America, where Agarrate Catalina is today the name of a popular murga (carnival group) in Uruguay, founded in 2001.

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.