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.

Tango Stories – Editions map

The table below presents a map of the various editions of “Tango Stories”:

Version Date
1.0 English
1st ed
978-0-9573276-0-3 (h)
978-0-9573276-1-0
8/11
1.5
corrected
reprint 3/12
1.7
revised
German
1st ed
978-0-9573276-2-7 (h)
10/13
2.0
revised
with index
English
2nd ed
978-0-9573276-4-1
12/14
corrected German
2nd ed
978-0-9573276-3-4
2/15
Spanish
Argentine edition
978-987-28607-4-5
4/15
Spanish
International edition
978-0-9573276-6-5
2/16

Version 2 (i.e. the 2nd editions of the English and German text) has an index and, as a new appendix, an essay on listening to tango music. If you only have the first edition, you can read this essay on todotango in English or Spanish.

Tango-Geschichten: Was die Musik erzählt

Here is the German cover:
Tango-Geschichten: Was die Musik Erzählt
As you can see we are colour coding the language versions. English is teal, German is green, and we have more planned. I think my designer has done a really good job adapting the German title to the label. Huge thanks as well to Daniela Feilcke-Wolff of Mala Junta who came up with the winning title!
The ISBN number of the German edition is: 978-0-9573276-2-7. The book is being published in England, but will also be registered in Germany so that it appears on the Verzeichnis lieferbarer Bücher (VLB) database and can be ordered from German bookshops. You will of course be able to buy the book online as well. The retail price will be € 25 / CHF 30.

Tango Stories launching in German in October!

I’m excited to announce that “Tango Stories” will be launching in German in October! There has been a lot of interest in the book in Germany, which is a nation with a strong book culture. German was thus the clear choice for the first language into which to translate the book. We started work on a translation in the spring and I have a team working hard to bring everything together.

The launch party is planned for Berlin on Saturday 5th October.

We still haven’t settled on a title. The English title is not perfect in that it doesn’t really tell you what the book is about. We have come up with a number of possibilities, but they are all longer. The title has to fit nicely into the record label and be legible. Feel free to make any suggestions below!

I will be making more announcements in the next days, including about distribution – watch this space!

On having an opinion

Writing the book was an experience of being in flow and I never really thought about what the public reaction might be. As I approached publication time, I asked a few people to review the book. Everyone I approached agreed with enthusiasm. Imagine my dismay when, disagreeing with something on the book’s website – and this was before we had gone to print – one such reviewer chose not to contact me personally but to flame me on facebook instead. The point he made was a good one and I learnt something from it, but it seems he didn’t have any interest in improving the book as a resource for the community.

Tango Stories is a work of opinion. I was clear about that in myself and I took pains to be clear about it in the book. The little appendix on getting started as a tango DJ also caused a storm in the blogosphere. I was worried that I was being too prescriptive by outlining some rules, but the objections came from those who found me too lax.

In a recent blog post, Melina Sedo writes how people have accused her of insulting a world heritage simply for not liking certain orchestras, songs or styles, declaring that she is “surely a crappy DJ who hasn’t got a clue”. I have received similar criticisms, for instance for DJing at milongas with a no cortina policy. Clearly they are not “real” milongas and I’m not a “real” DJ. Oh please!

Don’t get me wrong: an Argentine style milonga with cortinas and cabeceo is a beautiful thing, the maximum expression of everything we love about tango. Personally, I find it very uncomfortable to be in a tango environment where the cabeceo is not functioning. But the idea that this is the only kind of milonga, and that any other kind of milonga is bad and wrong… ? I’m lost for words.

What is an authentic milonga, anyway? For instance, many “traditional” Argentine milongas have breaks of tropical (cumbia) and swing music, something that almost never happens over here, especially at the events that brand themselves as “milonguero”. Let’s not forget that the milonga itself is in a process of evolution. Even the tanda that we now take for granted as a sine qua non of the milonga probably didn’t exist in its present form in the Golden Decade of the 40s.

Tango is alive and resists our attempts to define it, to pin it down, just as a real person does. It is generative and creative, generous even. I don’t know what it is; I love it, and I think it will always be bigger than our idea of it. Maybe God will come down and define tango, but until then, let’s allow one other our opinions, okay?

In Munich

Recently I visited Munich at the invitation of Theresa Faus of Bailongo. Theresa also gives music seminars so she had asked me for some more advanced topics. The lectures were over three days and we had great attendances, sometimes over thirty people.

During my visit Theresa interviewed me for the German tango magazine Tangodanza. The interview concluded with a couple of difficult questions which I was happy to answer. DJs in particular might find these topics of interest.

Theresa: Now some difficult questions. You DJ at festivals and marathons. There’s been some discussion here recently about the importance (or otherwise) of using lossless formats for ripping music to your computer. What’s your opinion?

Michael: Technical aspects are important but only up to a certain point. In DJ-ing, the limiting factor is usually the sound design of the milonga. Very few milongas have a sound system that is good for tango music, particularly in regards to the type, number and positioning of the loudspeakers. The room suffers from reverberations. It will have a frequency characteristic which will need equalising. I have only ever been to one milonga where this was done, but in any case it’s impossible to do perfectly because the characteristics of the room change as people arrive. These aspects make a huge difference to the sound that you hear and are seldom attended to, if ever. In addition, the milonga is a social environment. People are talking and moving, making noise. It’s not the same as listening quietly at home with expensive headphones.

Regarding mp3, in the early days the coders were poor and people often used a bit rate that was too low. Today, the differences between a lossless file and an mp3 file that is ripped with an adequate bit rate are very small. My experience is that you will never hear them in the real-world environment of a milonga. If you are worried about mp3 and your hard disc is big enough to rip everything lossless, then go ahead – why not? Just remember that there are bigger factors that are not under your control.

How adventurous should a DJ be? Should he try to educate the dancers, or should he just play it safe?

There is a consensus about which tangos are good for dancing, but, in my opinion, the idea of an accepted canon of good music is an illusion. To give a simple example, fifteen years ago you didn’t hear Canaro with Maida at the milonga, and “Poema” was unknown, even in Argentina. If we all play only what is already accepted, then we would never hear much of the music that today we think of as “core repertoire”. There is such a thing as a core repertoire, but it is not fixed. It is changing slowly over time.

On the other hand, I’m a bit uncomfortable with this notion of trying to educate the dancers. It could imply that the DJ knows best. Of course, the DJ needs to know tango music well. From his (or her) knowledge and experience he might decide to try some new music. However, it’s the whole community that decides whether or not they like dancing to this music – not the DJ, or some group of experts. So yes there is a process of education but I think we need to be humble about it.