The Victor company were the first to bring electrical recording to Argentina. Although their rivals Odeon were not able to follow suit until November this did not give Victor a competitive advantage: both parties had an interest in not advertising the new technology because – if it was really so much better than acoustic recording – who would buy the stocks of old acoustic discs? Victor and Odeon came to a gentleman’s agreement, and no announcements were made. Accordingly, Victor made no changes to their numbering system, continuing with the same matrix numbers, and there was no way of telling if the disc had been recorded acoustically or electrically. Once Odeon went electric in November, Victor’s discs would bear the monogram VE: Victor Electrical.
The first electrical recording was matrix BAVE (Buenos Aires Victor Electrical) 753 and this was given to Rosita Quiroga. It sold over 14,000 copies. By way of contrast, Agustín Magaldi would sell between 5,000 and 16,000 copies, Carabelli’s Jazz Band 7000 copies, and De Caro 1,500. Quiroga’s third disc, Mocosita c/w Horas tristes, sold 26,000 copies.
And who is this Comandante Ramón Franco guy? If you think he sounds like a military type, you would be right: this is General Franco’s younger brother. He made history in January by flying a Dornier flying-boat named Plus Ultra (!) from Spain to Buenos Aires, a distance of just over 10,000km. The flying time was nearly 60 hours.
If you’re not sure about Maglio then try this album, compiled by Carlos Puente and released by Euro Records in their “Colección 78RPM” (EU-17052), and now present on all the digital platforms. Vardaro plays on all the 1927 tracks (tracks 1 to 5), but that’s not to say that those are the best tracks on this compilation – not at all!
A prototypical figure of the old guard (guardia vieja), Maglio made changes to his band to respond to the changes being wrought by the new guard of De Caro et al. In 1929 he assembled a new bandoneon lineup with Federico Scorticatti, Gabriel Clausi and Ernesto Di Cicco (Minotto’s brother) – all top players, and in En un rincón del café they unleash a variación which is simply stunning.
From November 1929 Vardaro was occupied by the Vardaro-Pugliese sextet but he is present on some of the 1930-1931 recordings such as the creamy Abrojos – and just listen to his tone in the long intro to the vals Princesa. From 1932 onwards he is again present in all the recordings, with a superb solo in Mi queja.
Finally, for the most complete arrangement of the album listen to Alma triste. As well as Vardaro’s beautiful violin we get a final variación on the bandoneons which is clearly in multiple voices (the different men play different notes). This is the era of which Troilo commented that Maglio could not understand the music that his own band was making – not only did he no longer play in these lineups, he sometimes didn’t even attend.
Thanks to Osvaldo Vardaro for confirming in which years Elvino Vardaro is present in the band.
A delicious album of late 1920s Firpo from RGS with an astonishing resemblance to CTA-741. Reasonable transfers of fairly clean discs make this easy to enjoy. Teófilo Ibáñez is the vocalist on four tracks including an unusual vocal version of Marejada (a track more familiar to us from the 1941 version of Carlos Di Sarli) although Organito del suburbio is more satisfying.
Firpo’s special qualities – his romantic sense of melody, the deep wailing melancholy of the violins – come to the fore in the instrumentals, with 9 de julio | Nueve de julio, A la luz del candil, Cotorrita de la suerte, La cumparsita, Entre tangos y champagne and Oí malevo all being stand-out tracks. That’s a lot of stand-out tracks – an excellent album, especially if you’re not familiar with the artist in this period.
Geek note: The title of Entre tangos y champagne is given incorrectly, with “tango” in the singular.
Published on both Spotify and Youtube:
Tango artists such as Alfredo Eusebio Gobbi and his wife Flora (the parents of Alfredo Gobbi) travelled to Paris to record in 1909, when the possibilities to make recordings in Argentina were very limited, but the export of tango music from Buenos Aires to Europe seems to have begun only in the 1920s. Recordings of Canaro’s típica began to be released in Paris in (we think) 1925, presumably to capitalise on his arrival in the City of Light. Odeon France released, for example, Francesita (matrix 1721, DNO 6958-A) c/w (coupled with) Griseta (mx: 2365/1, DNO 4026-A) on the disc 49.110 / 49.111 (the two sides had different numbers in those days).
In 1926, Parlophone (a sister company of Odeon) released three discs in their premium ‘R’ (‘Royalty’) series. The first two featured Roberto Firpo, whilst the third was shared by Canaro and Maglio. These were acoustic recordings. The advertisement below appeared in the “Ladies’ Mirror” magazine in New Zealand in June 1926:
R3202 contained Humberto Canaro’s Alfredo, recorded in Bs As in 1924 and released there on DNO 4009-B.
The £ sign on the label represents the letter ‘L’ and thus the name of the parent company, Lindstrom – not so strange when one considers that the pound sign itself comes from the latin ‘L’ for libra pondo, the basic unit of weight in the Roman Empire, which in turn was derived from the Latin word libra, meaning scales.
With the success of Canaro’s trip to Europe (1925-26) Odeon embarked on a series they called ‘Odeon Tango’ – OT for short – in 1927. This series was the tango version of their Odeon Dance recordings (‘OD’); the fact that OT also stands for ‘Orquesta Típica’ is probably a happy coincidence (although not all the releases are tangos). These discs were printed in London, in the Netherlands, and even in Switzerland, and issued on the Parlophone and Odeon labels. All the discs present electrical recordings. Parlophone included either the matrix number or the Argentine disc number on the records, sometimes both. As far as we can tell, 191 records were issued and many remained in the catalogue for many years.
OT 117 (Dutch pressing) La cumparsita – photo courtesy Serjan Pruis. The Argentine disc number (4262) appears on the label, whilst the matrix number is scratched into the wax in the run-off area.
At the same time, Odeon made their own issues on the continent (France, Spain, Germany and Italy) with their own couplings. In France for example 238 084 presented Zaraza c/w Margaritas, neither of which appears in the OT series. Particularly interesting on this disc is evidence of an Odeon Europe internal reference number with the prefix ‘Bao’: Zaraza is Bao 1209, and Margaritas is Bao 1198. These numbers never appeared on OT series discs but we know that e.g. Alma del bandoneón (OT 133) was Bao 1678.
Finally, not all the Odeon Tango recordings were Tangos. (OT 141) presented a pair of pasodobles by Roberto Firpo. At least one of these was released by Columbia in Japan.
Milonga con variación
Canaro en Paris
Juan Caldarella – Alejandro Scarpino
Río de oro
José María Rizzutti
Roberto Fugazot – Alfredo Navarrine
Caído del cielo
Pedro Polito – Antonio Polito
Juan Rodriguez – Juan Miguel Velich
Noche de Reyes
Pedro Maria Maffia – Jorge Curri
Raúl Joaquin de los Hoyos
Francisco Canaro – Luis Riccardi – Juan Andrés Caruso
Robert Zerrillo – Juan Carlos Howard – Enrique Cadícamo
[*] Regarding OT 176 Por vos… yo me rompo todo, the ‘dry’ matrix Take 1 was sent to England, whilst Take 2 (9814/1) was printed in Bs As on DNO 1.5093-A
 On OT-184, Salud, dinero y amor is the correct title, but the order of these three felicities was changed to accord better with European sensibilities.
[*] Regarding OT 190: alternate takes were sent to Europe for printing. For En un beso… la vida…! the ‘dry’ matrix 10716 was printed in Argentina, whilst take 4 (matrix 10716/3) was sent.
For Un amor, the ‘dry’ matrix 10770 was printed in Argentina, whilst take 3 (matrix 10716/2) was sent.
Back in the day, many record companies used to publish catalogues. Here is the Canaro listing from the Parlophone-Odeon catalogue of 1937-1938. You’ll observe that at this time the highest number released is OT-155.
Many of you will have listened to the beautiful D’Agostino – Vargas tango Agua Florida, but what does that curious title mean? Florida is the adjective of flor, flower, so means ‘floral’ or ‘flowered’, but it has also given its name to things, such as the state of Florida in the US. Here it refers to an eau-de-cologne made from grain alcohol to which orange blossom was added, along with a mixture of spices. Agua de Florida was created in New York by the perfumer Robert Murray in 1808. The name took on additional significance when George Du Maurier (1834-1896) designed a label for Murray, who had been joined in 1935 by David Lannam. Du Maurier took his inspiration from a myth about the Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León who was said to have discovered Florida in 1512 while searching for the Fountain of Youth (!). Murray & Lannam’s ‘Agua de Florida’ quickly became used not just as a cologne, but also as a household remedy; today it remains especially popular in Peru, where it has become part of the essential equipment of the nation’s shamans.
Around the turn of the Century – in tango’s very early days – Agua de Florida became popular in Argentina, where it was known as Agua florida (dropping the ‘de’).
In this tango, lyricist Fernando Silva Valdés (writing in 1928) wrote about how the smell of this perfume immediately transported one back to that time. D’Agostino-Vargas is the perfect artist to take us on this sentimental, nostalgic journey.
Agua Florida, vos eras criolla.
Te usaban las pobres violetas del fango
de peinados lisos, como agua’e laguna,
cuando se bailaba alegrando el tango
con un taconeo y una media luna.
Perfume del tiempo taura que pasó,
pues todo en la vida ha de ser así,
cuando las percantas mentían que no
mientras las enaguas decían que sí. 
sencillas y querendonas,
que al son de las acordeonas
bailaban un milongón.
que oliendo a Agua Florida
se metían en la vida
a punta de corazón.
Florida Water, you were Creole.
The poor “violets of the mud” used you
with hair as smooth as water from the lagoon,
when a happy tango was danced
with a click of the heels and a media luna .
Perfume of those lively days that have passed,
because everything in life has to be like that,
when the girls, lying, said no,
while their fluttering petticoats said yes.
simple and loving,
used to dance a milongón
to the sound of the accordions.
with the smell of Agua Florida
they launched themselves into their lives
with their hearts.
 – Vargas changes the lunfardo batían to decían
 – Media luna (crescent): a figure making a crescent shape upon the dance floor.
You can read more about Florida Water in a superb article by Sonia Bartol on her blog.
Over the past decade the tango community has become aware of the topic of musical pitch in the transfers, and even in the manufacture, of old records. In brief, if you turn the record more quickly, not only will the tempo (the number of beats per minute) rise, but the pitch will also. Turn the record more slowly, and the tempo and pitch both fall.
A 10″ diameter shellac record from 1934. This is Canaro’s “Un jardín de ilusión” but issued in Europe by Parlophone
In the ideal world, the old shellac 78rpm discs were recorded, manufactured and played back at exactly 78rpm (revolutions per minute) – okay, actually 77.92rpm if we want to be precise. This was achieved through the use of a special motor locked to the 50Hz frequency of the mains electricity supply. In the real world things were more complicated. Various problems could affect the speed at which the physical master disc was recorded. Furthermore, when the record companies first made LP compilations of old tangos in the 1960s, they decided to speed them up a bit to make them sound more exciting, as well as adding reverberation and even echo (hey, it was the 60s!).
An example: Juan D’Arienzo’s Pensalo bien (1938)
In 1997 Sally Potter used the tango Pensalo bien for a memorable scene in her film “The Tango Lesson”. Here is what BMG (owners of RCA-Victor) presented us with, taken from the archives prepared for LP release in (I think) 1980 – long after the masters were destroyed. The sound sample has a piece of the introduction and then cuts to Echagüe’s voice:
This was all we knew and we danced to it with great pleasure. But imagine if you were a member of Akihito’s Baba “Club Tango Argentino” in 2001, when this dropped through your letter box:
Lower, slower, clearer, more detailed, there are so many differences it’s just ridiculous. But when we first became aware of the second version, many people (Argentines included) preferred the processed one. It was what they were used to, and sounded more exciting. Nearly twenty years later, we know better what to listen for and the first sample is plainly ‘wrong’ – much too fast and too high (about a semitone in fact): the second one is much more natural. Listen in particular to the timbre of Echagüe’s voice. In the first sample he sounds like he’s on helium; in the second, we hear the voice of a man, a creature of flesh-and-blood. As it turns out, even this version is still a little bit too quick. Here is what we think it should really sound like:
Can you notice that it’s a bit slower? (Don’t worry if you can’t). Does it make you feel different? For me, the strong D’Arienzo beat stands out even more strongly.
Wasn’t it criminal of the sound engineers at RCA-Victor to butcher the track the way they did? Yes it was; but it turns out that raising the pitch is an idea with a long and glorious tradition going back hundreds of years, as we shall see in a moment.
If I know what the correct pitch is then with the correct equipment I can simply turn the record faster or slower to produce a sound that represents the tempo and pitch of the performance. In the early days record players actually had a speed control to achieve this. Here is a photograph of the speed control of a “Victrola” made by the Victor Company in 1905. At this very early time the speed of a shellac record could be anywhere between 60 and 90 rpm, but Victor persisted with speed control into the 1920s, long after the world had largely standardised at 78rpm.
Speed control on 1905 Victrola. Image courtesy www.victor-victrola.com
How do we know what the correct speed is? Concert pitch is A = 440Hz, right (where A refers to the A above ‘Middle C’)? So surely we just measure the frequency of the notes, work out the deviation from concert pitch, and apply a correction? Well, yes, but… are you sure that tango orchestras played at Concert Pitch? And are you sure that concert pitch is 440Hz? It may be today, but it was not always so.
A Brief History of Pitch
Until the 16th century there was no way to even measure pitch because there was no way of measuring time with sufficient accuracy (pitch, or frequency, is cycles per second, so to measure pitch one has to be able to measure a very short time interval). Even in the 18th century there was no standard pitch. Pitch varied not just from country to country, but from region to region and even from village to village. In practice, the pitch “standard” was the organ in the village church. This was hard to re-tune (you had to bash the ends of the organ pipes around with a hammer), so everyone else tuned to the organ. And how much did pitch vary? People playing baroque music on period instruments today tune to 415Hz, but this is a rough average for the period. Mozart’s piano builder (Johann Andreas Stein) worked at 421.6Hz (we have his tuning fork), but at the time pitch varied wildly:
An English pitchpipe from 1720 plays the A above middle C at 380 Hz, while the organs played by Johann Sebastian Bach in Hamburg, Leipzig and Weimar were pitched at A=480 Hz, a difference of around four semitones. In other words, the ‘A’ produced by the 1720 pitchpipe would have been at the same frequency as the ‘F’ on one of Bach’s organs.
Whilst organs could be tuned anywhere without too many consequences, orchestras were not so adaptable. As we enter the 19th century, they were tuned around 424Hz. All this would change in Vienna in 1814.
The Congress of Vienna was convened to re-organise Europe after the Napoleonic Wars. This was a lavish event, the like of which is hard to imagine today. All of the major powers sent their most important statesman, and Tsar Alexander of Russia attended in person. For ten months, Vienna became the centre of the world. (BBC Radio, In Our Time: The Congress of Vienna).
During the congress Alexander presented the Austrian Army with a new set of musical instruments tuned to 440Hz – a great deal higher than what they had used before, making the music sound brighter. The difference was most to be heard in the string section, whose tighter strings generated more overtones and thus sounded more resonant. Like a musical trojan horse, the new sound was a hit, setitng in motion a period of pitch inflation that lasted for the rest of the century.
Symphony orchestras and in particular opera houses now competed to have the “brightest” sound. Verdi wrote his operas with a pitch of A=432 Hz in mind, but the pitch at La Scala in Milan reached the dizzy heights of 451 Hz. British orchestras played at 452.5Hz (fever pitch?).
Pitch inflation was brought to an end by the tenors who complained that they could no longer perform the arias without damaging their voices. The French standardised at 435 Hz in the mid 19th century, the so-called “Diapason Normal” (diapason is french for tuning fork) – elsewhere it was called French or Continental Pitch. Other nations slowly fell into line, with two important exceptions. In North America orchestras continued to play at 440 Hz, which had previously been popular in Germany, whilst the British now abandoned their former pitch of 452.5 Hz for a new “Low Pitch” of 439 Hz. Choosing 439 instead of 440 was not as crazy as it sounds because the competing standards were specified at different temperatures – French concert halls, apparently, were colder than British ones.
A strange exception
British Brass bands, both military and civilian, continued with the former “High Pitch” because it gave a brighter sound which suited the music. Whilst the military bands converted in 1927 – leading in some cases to the purchase of new instruments – the colliery bands in the north of England persisted with the former “High Pitch” into the 1960s (!), finally changing only because the old style instruments were no longer being manufactured. But this was exceptional: by the early 20th century, most people were playing at either 435 Hz or 440Hz.
Pitch of tango orchestras
After the first world war the world slowly converted to 440Hz but tango orchestras were a special case because of the bandoneons. Like the organ which it was originally designed to replace, the bandoneon could not be tuned by the player, but only by a specialist. Bandoneons were manufactured at a pitch of 435Hz, and tango orchestras therefore played at that pitch.
The bandoneón: 71 buttons, 142 notes – not something you re-tune before a gig.
First to change to 440Hz was Fresedo, in 1934. Fresedo had already been twice to the United States, but the real influence on him now was the massively popular jazz band of Paul Whiteman which toured South America regularly. Following Whiteman, Fresedo now decided to incorporate the vibraphone into his ensemble. As Camilo Gatica points out, this was an American instrument with a fixed tuning of 440Hz. The band therefore had to tune to the vibraphone, which meant re-tuning the bandoneons. This is a drastic measure, both labour intensive and, to all intents and purposes, irreversible. The metal reeds are filed down by hand – for all 142 notes. Jens-Ingo Brodesser tells us that this change can be detected on Fresedo’s 1930s Victor recordings, transfers of which he is currently preparing for publication. As best as he can tell, the January 1934 session was recorded at 435 Hz, and the next one in April (i.e. after carnival, just as with D’Arienzo’s band) at 440 Hz.
How significant is this change in pitch? After all, it’s much less than a semitone (the interval between two notes) – the first two samples above of Pensalo bien are about a semitone apart. Instrument tuners divide a semitone into 100 cents; the change from 435 Hz to 440Hz is only 20 cents: a fifth of a semitone. No big deal, right?
Decide for yourself by listening to the third sample above, which is corrected from 440Hz to 435Hz. Most people can detect a shift of 10cents with a bit of practice and so can hear the difference, and a three minute tango recorded at 435Hz but sped up to the new standard will be two seconds shorter. And it’s this difference in pace which is the most significant. D’Arienzo in the years 1935-1938, correctly pitched at 435Hz, is not as fast as we thought it was.
1939: 440Hz becomes the standard – sort-of
In May 1939 an international conference in London recommended a tuning of 440Hz. Although it seems that at least some bandoneon manufacturers continued at 435Hz, the tango orchestras had already decided to retune – we still don’t know why, but clearly this decision was in tune (as it were) with the zeitgeist. Analysis of the D’Arienzo transfers of CTA by Frank Jin has established that the D’Arienzo orchestra recorded its last session at 435Hz on 3rd March 1939, waxing the milonga Meta fierro and the tango Dos guitas. The next session of 18th April was recorded at 440Hz. These dates would be consistent with the orchestra recording one session immediately after carnival (which took place in Feburary), with the bandoneons then being sent to the tuners whilst the band took its customary post-carnival break – the only holiday of the year for a working tango orchestra.
From this moment on the instrument importers now re-tuned the instruments from 435Hz to 440Hz when they arrived from Germany, before the instruments went on sale. The most famous and important manufacturer was Alfred Arnold (AA) and their exclusive importer in Buenos Aires was Casa America. Whilst AA would switch to 440Hz, the outbreak of the Second World War brought an end to the export of musical instruments by the end of 1941. Production ceased altogether in 1942 when the factory was converted to war production (I once read that it made diesel pumps); very few instruments were actually manufactured at 440Hz. Production did eventually re-start after the war but the Argentine market rejected the new instruments, finding their quality inadequate.
Working on bandoneón reeds – photo Hanna White, courtesy Christoph Pass
So, from 1939 onwards the orchestras played at 440Hz, right? Well, yes, but… Pick up a bandoneón in Argentina today and you’ll find that it is tuned to a higher pitch, somewhere between 442Hz and 445Hz. What happened?!?!
Afinación brillante: “brilliant pitch”
In the 1950s tango suffered its own episode of pitch inflation. The new pitch was referred to as afinación brillante – “brilliant pitch”. As we know, an increase in pitch makes music sound more exciting. However, there was a problem: raising the pitch of a bandoneon requires removing material from the reeds. Prior to this, the pitch stability of AA’s reed plates had been legendary: no matter how hard one blew the reeds, the pitch remained the same. However as the reeds were tuned higher and lost mass, they also lost stability: when blown really hard (i.e. played loud), the pitch would drop. (Years later, Astor Piazzolla would consciously exploit this as an expressive technique). This drop in pitch meant that the bandoneon had to be tuned slightly higher than the piano. Héctor del Curto, who played with the Pugliese orchestra, informs me that the Pugliese orchestra played with the piano at 441Hz, with the bandoneons tuned just a touch higher (between 441 Hz and 442 Hz). However, other orchestras went higher: some tuned the piano at 443Hz, with the bandoneons tuned to between 444 and 445Hz. Whilst 435Hz and 440Hz were “standards” for the típicas, afinación brillante is not actually a standard.
When did this change take place exactly? We don’t know. Elvino Vardaro’s nephew Osvaldo tells us the Di Sarli orchestra retuned in 1956, the year in which he joined the orchestra.
Concert pitch today – standardised?
Concert pitch is still not absolutely standardised today. Yes, most orchestras play at 440Hz, but there are exceptions, and these include many of the most famous orchestras. The New York Philharmonic plays at 442Hz, and the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics at 443Hz.
Many people in the world of opera believe that today’s Concert Pitch of 440Hz is still too high, changing the “colour” of the voices. In 1988-1989, Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, Birgit Nillson and Renata Tebaldi asked the Italian government to return to the pitch of Verdi’s time, 432 Hz. This movement is viewed suspiciously because it has some dubious supporters, but the arguments are compelling. I cannot believe, said Tebaldi, that Italy, which gave to the world great voices, can no longer produce [them]… If we went back to the correct tuning, I am sure that we could return the Italian opera to its Golden Age.
Many people helped with the information in this article. In addition to Jens-Ingo Brodesser, Frank Jin, and Camilo Gatica, I’d like to thank some people whom we dancers generally overlook, because we don’t know about them – the bandoneon restorers and tuners:
My apologies if I’ve forgotten anyone – just let me know.
By how much were 78s sped up when they were transferred to LPs in the 1960s? In my experience it was commonly around 2/3 of a semitone, but the topic is still being investigated.
You say that “various problems” could prevent the master record being produced at 78rpm. Such as? Instability in the mains frequency was one problem; another was the resistance given to the cutting head by the wax, which increases as one gets closer to the centre of the disc. Tanturi’s 1937 recording of A la luz del candil slows down by half a semitone from the beginning to the end of the disc. Don’t believe me?
It’s crazy, isn’t it?! No-one noticed, and they printed it. So much for the quality control at Odeon.
You said that 77.92rpm was locked to the 50Hz mains electricity. What about in the US, which uses 60Hz? They used a different motor and gear ratio to produce 78.26 rpm, a negligible difference (0.4% – less than 1 cent).
What’s all this stuff on Youtube about 432Hz being a cosmic frequency? It’s nonsense. 432Hz is nicely divisible by 2, 3, 4, 6, 8 and 9, but so what? If you want a cosmic frequency, then it should be the one with Middle C = 256, this being an integer power of 2. This corresponds to A=430.54Hz. This is not a beautiful number, but even so I predict that it will become fashionable eventually.
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.
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 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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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