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 smaba 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 he 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?


The Hawaiian guitar in tango

On some early tango recordings we can hear the sound of a steel guitar being played with a slide, much like a blues guitar. It was used in more than a dozen recordings by Francisco Canaro in the years 1928-1930, for example his tango Mimosa (27-11-1929), in which the guitar starts it’s work at 1’08”:

Tango aficionados often refer to this as a Hawaiian guitar (and one of Canaro’s recordings featuring the instrument is a slow vals entitled Bells of Hawaii). If one only knows the Hawaiian guitar of today, which is an electric guitar played with a lot of vibrato, this might be a bit mysterious. Slide guitar is played all over America and is an essential part of blues music – why should we call this Hawaiian guitar?

It turns out that the Hawaiian guitar was a massive and important musical phenomenom in the 1910s and beyond, influencing music from the United States to India.

The guitar first arrived in Hawaii in 1832 with the Mexican and Spanish vaqueros (cowboys) hired by the King of Hawaii to work in the cattle ranches that had been set up by the Americans. When they left, the guitar remained, with its playing adapted to local tastes. As far as we know, the guitars brought at this time were tuned not in the modern tuning of a classical guitar, but in an open tuning. If you don’t play guitar, this means that it’s not necessary to finger any of the frets to produced a chord. This would greatly facilitate the later development of the Hawaiian style.

In the 1880s a young Hawaiian schoolboy named Joseph Kekuku discovered, supposedly accidentally, that if he slid a railroad spike along the strings, he got an interesting new sound. Placing the guitar in his lap and exchanging the spike for a steel bar, he developed a new style which was so successful that he would later tour first the USA and then Europe, where he played for royalty. The use of a steel bar gave rise to the terms “steel guitar” and later (perhaps to differentiate it from American blues styles) “lap steel”. It’s quite possible that the use of slides by American blues players was influenced by Hawaiian guitarsts such as Kekuku.

Hawaii and its music became fashionable in 1912 thanks to the Broadway production of The Bird of Paradise, a melodrama set on the island. The show was a smash, running for twelve years. Following on from the impact this created, the world’s fair held in 1915 in San Francisco brought in lots of Hawaiian musicians in order to promote tourism (Hawaii having been annexed by the USA in 1898). The presence of Hawaiian musicians created a craze for their music that lasted for years, and in 1919 the show (incorportaing Kekuku on Hawaiian guitar) began touring Europe. This was not the first contact of Hawaiian culture with Europe, however: the dance troupe featuring Jennie Wilson (Kini Kapahu) had toured Europe in 1894. These groups were successful with audiences of all social classes, but especially with the upper class and royalty. Groups penetrated as far as Russia and India, where it not only infiltrated Bollywood but also generated the guitar style of Indian Classical Music – if you want to hear that, check out the 1992 collaboration between American guitar guru Ry Cooder and the Indian guitarist Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, A Meeting by the River.

In 1931, the Ro-Pat-In Company (later renamed Rickenbacker) in the United States invented an electric version of the Hawaiian guitar, and the sound that the modern listener thinks of as Hawaiian guitar was born. Because the guitar was now electric, it no longer needed a large, resonating body. You can tell what the shape of the new guitar reminded its inventors of from the name they gave it: the frying pan guitar! This was the first successful electrified instrument of any kind, fully two decades before the advent of solid body electric guitars such as Gibson’s iconic Les Paul.

The new electric Hawaiian guitar was a big hit and propelled Hawaiian music back into the mainstream. The breakthrough song was the big hit of 1933, My Little Grass Shack In Kealakekua, Hawaii here being played with an acoustic lap steel guitar by Sol Hoʻopiʻi (who only switched to an electric guitar two years later):

This song was a massive hit; the 1934 recording by Ted Fio Rito and His Orchestra reached Number 1 in the United States. My favourite US version, however, is that of Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra. An intriguing detail on the linked video is the subtitle: Mi casita en Hawaii, implying that the song was widely performed in South America.

1935 saw the inception of a radio programme in Waikiki (a beachfront neigbourhood of Hawaii’s capital, Honolulu) called Hawaii Calls. The show became so successful that it ran for 40 years; at its height, it was relayed to more than 750 stations around the world. The house band was initially conducted by the American musician Harry Owens, musical director of The Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Waikiki. One of his compositions was Sweet Leilani, which he wrote for the birth of his daughter in October 1934. The song was included in the 1937 Hawaiian themed Bing Crosby film Waikiki Wedding, winning the Oscar for Best Song:

As the Hawaiian bands toured, the music took root. Local groups sprang up such as the English band Felix Mendelssohn and His Hawaiian Serenaders. In the video below, from 1939, one can see an electric Hawaiian steel guitar with 8 strings instead of the usual 6. (Mendelsohn isn’t playing: like Juan D’Arienzo, much as he loved music, he had little musical talent himself). All pretence of the instrument resembling a guitar has now been lost:

So, what sort of instrument were Argentine guitarists playing when they played Hawaiian guitar – and how did they play it? To answer this, let’s turn back to the recordings made on the Victor label in 1927-1928 by the guitar duo Les Loups, whose players were the Brazilian Gastão Bueno Lobo – the man who introduced both the banjo and the Hawaiian guitar to Brazil – and the Argentine Oscar Alemán. (The Victor company also used them in eight recordings to back the violin of Elvino Vardaro, calling the resulting aggregation the Trío Victor).

The publicity photo below shows Bueno Lobo playing the guitar in his lap. In the caption below the photograph, Victor promote the duo as “extraordinary players of the Hawaiian guitar”. As you can see, it’s Bueno Lobo (R) who actually plays Hawaiian guitar, whilst Oscar Alemán (L) accompanies him.
Here they are playing their own composition Hawayanita (Little Hawaiian girl), which according to the sheet music was a hit for songstress Mercedes Simone:

Investigating this topic was a surprise for me. Hawaiian music has had a big influence on music worldwide, far out of proportion to the tiny size of this island nation. Its effects stretched from the United States to England, Greece, Egypt, Russia, India and our beloved Argentina.


  • “Rethinking Race in Modern Argentina” ed. Paulina Alberto & Eduardo Elena, ISBN 1316477843, p76.
  • “The Hawaiian Steel Guitar and Its Great Hawaiian Musicians” ed. Lorene Ruymar
  • Oscar Aleman weblog: oscar-aleman.blogspot.co.uk