Tango By Year

When the pandemic struck, my friend and colleague Dag Stenvoll (Bergen, NO) had an idea: how about doing a free online Zoom show for the tango community? To slice the cake differently, his idea was to choose a particular year. He would choose the year and the tracks to play, and I would talk about them. The twist: I wouldn’t know which numbers he was going to play – only the year. I agreed, and Tango By Year was born. Over the next 18 months we did 38 shows – over 130 hours of programming, covering 1927-1955 – the core years of tango – with a few bonus programmes. All the episodes are freely available for listening on the TBY Soundcloud (optional donation).

1st March 1926: Electrical recording arrives in Argentina

Victor 79632-A - Rosita Quiroga - La Musa Mistonga

It’s an electrical recording – but can you tell?

In March 1926 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.

date matrix artist title genre disc
1st March BAVE 753-2 Rosita Quiroga La musa mistonga tango 79632-B
1st March BAVE 754-2 Rosita Quiroga Beba tango 79632-A
BAVE 755-1 Ramón Franco Todo por la raza monólogo 79633
BAVE 756-1 Salutación del Mayor Zanni al Comandante Franco monólogo 79633
BAVE 757-2 Carabelli Jazz Band Ingenuamente fox trot 79634-A
BAVE 758-1 Carabelli Jazz Band Gitana de ojos moros paso doble 79635-A
BAVE 759-2 Carabelli Jazz Band Comandante Franco paso doble 79634-B
7th April BAVE 760-1 Rosita Quiroga Como luces de bengala tango 79638-B
7th April BAVE 761-1 Rosita Quiroga Son grupos tango 79638-A
BAVE 762-2 Rosita Quiroga / Juan Velich El amor a golpes escena cómica 79639-A
BAVE 763-2 Compañía Victor de Comedias Pum… Garibaldi escena cómica 79639-B
8th April BAVE 764-2 Rosita Quiroga Mocosita tango 79641-A
8th April BAVE 765-2 Rosita Quiroga Horas tristes tango 79641-B
BAVE 766-3 Carabelli Jazz Band Voronoff fox trot 79635-B
BAVE 767-1 Trío Los Nativos El crucifijo tango 79640-B
BAVE 768-1 Trío Los Nativos La china Hilaria ranchera 79640-A
12th April BAVE 769-2 Julio De Caro Mary tango 79636-A
12th April BAVE 769-2 Julio De Caro Feliz viaje tango 79636-B
12th April BAVE 771-2 Julio De Caro Mis desvelos Tango 79637-A
12th April BAVE 772-1 Julio De Caro Quince abriles vals 79637-B
14th April BAVE 773-1 Agustín Magaldi ¿Dónde estás? shimmy 79642-B
14th April BAVE 774-2 Agustín Magaldi Hilos de plata tango 79643-A
BAVE 775-2 dúo Magaldi-Noda Lirio azul vals 79642-A
BAVE 776-1 dúo Magaldi-Noda Sauces del Chorrillo tango 79643-B

And who is this Comandante Franco guy? If you think he sounds like a military type, you would be right: this is General Franco’s younger brother Ramón Franco. He made history in January 1926 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.

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.

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)
reprint 3/12
1st ed
978-0-9573276-2-7 (h)
with index
2nd ed
corrected German
2nd ed
Argentine edition
International edition

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.