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 samba 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 six as the Trío Victor backing the violinist Elvino Vardaro (you’ll see eight on the link, but in the last two recordings, form 1930 Bueno Lobo and Oscar Alemán have left for Europe and Vardaro is recorded by different guitarists). 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).

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 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?