Thursday, 24 April 2014

Gricel: un amor en tiempo de tango

Three films I've recently come across: this one is Argentine, with one Argentine and one German/Argentine to follow.

Contursi is a big name in tango lyrics: it was Pascual Contursi who met up with a young singer called Carlos Gardel in Violettas in 1917 in Buenos Aires, and sang him his latest song, Mi Noche Triste. Gardel recorded it, and it made him famous. It's regarded as as the first tango song. (These days you might not be allowed into Violettas with a guitar, and almost certainly you wouldn't be welcome to work through your latest song with a friend, but you can get the best chocolate mousse in town and a pot of green tea to go with it. & you can enjoy a wonderful Art Deco interior.)

Pascual Contursi's son, José María Contursi, was a prolific tango lyricist who wrote the song called Gricel. The lyrics and a translation are here, and this is probably the best-known version, Troilo with Fiorentino. It's a tortured song: the poet has seduced a woman, regrets it and can't forget her. According to his daughter and friends, Contursi always maintained that Gricel was a fictional character, and the story behind the song was imagined. But after his wife's death in the early 1960s Contursi asked his daughter's permission to bring someone into his house... and it was Gricel. The song quite definitely was not a fiction. Contursi had met Gricel when he was in his mid-twenties and she was a beautiful 16-year old on a visit to Buenos Aires, around 1936. There is a photo of them from around this time. She returned home to the hills around Córdoba, and he returned to his wife, but they kept in touch, and he visited Córdoba a few times. Then in 1942 he sent her the song, Gricel. It's a sad outpouring of love and regret, and as he titled it with the name of the woman herself it was personal, and also a message. She married in 1949 and had a daughter, but her husband abandoned her. In 1962 Contursi's wife passed away, and in 1967 he and Gricel married. He died just five years later.

The trailer for Gricel: un amor en tiempo de tango (2012: dir. Jorge Leandro Colás) is on YouTube, and it includes extracts from interviews with Contursi's daughter and with one of his friends. However, instead of being just a remarkable documentary of an era of tango history, the film uses a framing device: Pablo Basualdo, a lead singer with the Teatro Colon company, wants to make an opera around the story of Gricel, a story which might well have inspired a Puccini or a Busoni. The film follows him as he researches the story and interviews people who knew Contursi, and as he sings extracts of the opera. He's a great singer, but the music doesn't come from a tango background which I thought is a pity, as a tango opera on the story of Gricel could be a really interesting project. Perhaps the entire opera is in the full film: it's impossible to tell from the trailer. However, the cast list on IMDb  shows that a lot of people talked to camera, so I hope the film is more documentary than opera, and I certainly look forward to seeing it. It doesn't appear to have a DVD release yet.

Gricel herself passed away in 1994. This must be a photo of her late in life, as it's said the dog survived her.

(Information and photos from Todotango.)

Tuesday, 15 April 2014


... to someone who occasionally emails me from my reply to your email got bounced back with a message that this is a permanent error and that the domain has no valid mail exchangers. 

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Nocturno a mi Barrio

I came across another pre-golden era tango to add to the above (below, actually) list: it's here, and dated 1920.  I was curious who the Orquesta Típica Select might be – and it turns out to be led by a bandoneonista called Osvaldo Fresedo, who must have been about 23. The regular, repetitive habanera rhythm of the two earlier recordings is being replaced by a kind of syncopation: it's just three years after the first recordings of jazz, and it sounds as if Fresedo had already heard this recently recorded North American music and is working hard to incorporate syncopation into tango.

I also came across a TV performance by Troilo from the 1960s, which I find very poignant. By this time, the great Troilo of the golden era can no longer afford to perform with an orquesta: it's the time of the quartet. It's also the era when his recording company destroys all the masters of his great recordings to free up space for the new music: tango is just an outdated product. So here he is in a carefully staged TV performance, a cultural relic performing an old music, surrounded by solemn young faces who listen sympathetically to a song about an era that has long gone, their parents' background, not theirs. This is their cultural heritage and is treated with respect: perhaps they are briefly moved, but it's not their world and they are probably looking forward to an evening of rock and roll. Then Troilo snaps shut his bandoneon and stands up, towering over them. Troilo himself wrote these words and music in the mid-1950s when tango was already in decline. The tango of the golden age was often nostalgic, but Nocturno a mi Barrio is doubly so: that era when the radio was always tuned to tango, when dancing was a family activity and everyone's social life, is largely over. I can't help wondering if any of those young faces now sit at milongas, thinking 'Yes, I saw Troilo perform once'.

There's an excellent page in English in Todotango about the song and its creation. The words of the song are still in Spanish: thanks to Ozan Bulut for pointing out that much of the song is translated in the text. 'It's said that I left my barrio... When? But... when? I'm constantly returning'.

These five clips effectively bookend the tango of the golden age.

P.S. Enrique Binda, an engineer and tango researcher, has suggested that early '78s' were almost certainly not recorded at 78rpm. Early recordings were made at between 70 and 80 rpm, and the versions we hear these days may well be played too fast. Interesting to think that the jaunty, upbeat feel of some of these early recordings may be an illusion based on a technical error. The music may well have sounded more melancholic. His essay, At what speed were 78s recorded? is here.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Tango Negro

So what is this music Ricardo Suarez enjoys dancing to? It's certainly not a 'golden age' milonga like those of D'Agostino, Laurenz or Troilo. It sounds like a milonga that's arrived from a different direction, from common ground with Latin music further north, perhaps from Uruguay or Brazil. The milonga beat is in there, but there's more going on. The lyrics are on Todotango here.

Tango Negro is called a candombe rather than a milonga. The music, lyrics, vocals and piano are by Juan Carlos Cáceres, and it's dated Paris 2003. (There's also another Tango Negro, a milonga by Vicente Demarco dating back to 1940, but of course it's different.) Cáceres is an exact contemporary of film maker and politican, Fernando Solanas, and like him spent years in exile in Paris. More accurately, Cáceres left Buenos Aires for Paris in 1968, and still lives there. A musician and painter who lectures on art history and on the history of the music of the Rio Plata area, he's founded and recorded with a number of groups in Paris. Tocá Tangó is another of his tracks that gets played in milongas. 

Like Robert Farris Thompson (Tango: The Art History of Love) Cáceres argues for the black roots of tango, suggesting that tango has distanced itself from any African heritage. The music never uses percussion – although the instruments are played percussively. (I've heard a couple of Fresedo tracks with percussion, but it just sounds wrong.) Thompson suggests the dance ironed out any African background, adopting (and adapting) the upright stance of European ballroom in the 1920s and 30s. Childhood friends Rudolfo Cieri and Manolo were unfashionable in growing up dancing crouched (as in canyengue) rather than upright, as in tango: a crouching dance with bent knees was thought to be of African origin. 

I really enjoyed Thompson's book, but I wonder if he overstates the case. His arguments aren't always convincing: he draws attention to words similar to 'tango' in central African languages but I'm sure there are words similar to 'tango' in most languages. A 'tango' in Spanish is also a particular kind of flamenco song. I doubt anyone would disagree that there's African influence in tango dance and the music, but there's a great deal that's European too: the vals, polka and mazurka were popular dances in the largely immigrant population. To be fair, Thompson is in no doubt about the influence of these dances in Argentina.

As to the music, here are four recordings, 1911 to 1927, from YouTube:

Hotel Victoria (1911) Vicente Greco y su Orquesta Tipica Criolla
Mi Noche Triste (1917) - Carlos Gardel/Jose Ricardo (guitarra) 
Aromas (1923) Orquesta Osvaldo Fresedo
Coquetta (1929)Orquesta Tipica Victor

A simple over-view of pre-golden age tango: European roots seem broader than African. Perhaps it's a matter of semantics: a 'root' suggests a definitive source. There are African influences in tango music and dance, although the influences of European society and music might seem stronger. ('Criolla' meant locally born of Spanish origin. People of mixed-race origin could not be Criolla.)

Simba tango posted on the recent film, Tango Negro (2013: dir. Dom Pedro): I discovered a couple of days ago that it was shown in London at the end of March. I didn't see any notice of it on the TangoUK noticeboard or I would have gone over to Camberwell to see it.

& 'Tango Negro' is described as a candombe. Candombe is still the great street music of Uruguay. I filmed this prominent Uruguayan Candombe group in Buenos Aires for a festival a few years ago. (There are plenty of other candombe clips on YouTube.) This kind of candombe (I assume there could be others) is a very complex music: three types of drum playing three separate rhythms, against each other. It's very powerful, but I don't think it resembles tango – or even 'Tango Negro'.