La Noche de las Milongueras
August 7, 2003: Last night I almost didn't take the camera along to Sin Rumbo, thinking that there wouldn't be anything to film, but it turns out that it was La Noche de las Milongueras. They had invited the 20 most famous living milongueras to be honored and to dance. All of them were there, with two notable exceptions—Carmencita Calderon, who must be more than 95 years old, and Maria Nieves—but I didn't mind because I have already seen both of them dance. And there were other photographers there, so I was able to film out on the floor, and I got some very good shots of their different styles. Margaret, the best known, was introduced as the “Milonguera of the century”, and she danced a lot. She was featured and interviewed in the documentary Obsession and she's also been in others. Portalea was also there—he’s one of the great old milongueros who danced in Tango, Baile Nuestro. In the film, he is interviewed at home, and also at the cemetery where he worked for tips by cleaning up the graves. He looked a bit frail (and I am told he is almost blind), so he didn’t dance much. But “El Chino”, another famous milonguero was also there, and he danced a lot. He is a very tall and elegant dancer who seems to have lost none of his skills. You would recognize him if you have watched many tango films.
Margaret and El Chino danced alone on the floor, and then Margaret danced with another man, and El Chino asked Alejandra to dance (through me). While I was moving around the floor filming them, a woman touched my arm, and said in castellano, “He dances well, eh? Watch the feet, watch them touch the floor.” She was right. He is famous for the way he steps. His feet touch the floor in a very smooth, strong, precise way. The woman who spoke to me turned out to be Sra. Balmaceda, the mother of Ernesto and Julio Balmaceda. Later that night I filmed her dancing with her son Ernesto. He steps a little like El Chino (maybe he studied him), and I also filmed Sra. Zotto dancing (the mother of the other famous brothers). Then I filmed two little kids who came in to perform for the older generation, representing the future of tango, and they were fun to watch.
In an earlier report I said that it is by editing your writing that you give it meaning. And I said that this applies to tango dancing as well. That was pretty smart! I must have been drinking when I wrote that. From a million steps, you must decide not only what to do when the music begins, but also what to leave out! Here is an interesting example. When Alejandra danced with El Chino, it was a milonga tanda. It was her first time dancing with him, and she is accustomed to dancing downtown with guys like Dany and Cacho who are milonga experts. They dance milonga with a lot of movement, but El Chino remains very still in his upper body when he dances milonga. The feet of course move in a rhythmic, stabbing, traspie, but they carry the body in a smooth, flowing, turning path around the floor. Alejandra said it was great. Where many people rock and roll a bit, or use some small twitches to express the melody of milonga, El Chino chooses to express the music with stillness, by doing nothing with his upper body. Less is more! For me, he has added meaning by editing out movement. This focuses attention on his feet, and he is the master of the feet!
Many years ago, on the back wall of Club Sin Rumbo, the original owner and lucky horse picker painted a mural, which he proudly signed: “Painter: Tanguito Oliveto.” It has a huge bandoneon, and an 8-foot high wreath, with the names of 27 orchestras arrayed along it. I asked the manager if all of them had played in the small room, and he said, “Yes, of course.” I didn't recognize all the names, but I remember seeing Troilo, Piazzolla, Maffia, Laurenz, Minoto, and Fresedo. But what was Fresedo doing there? I thought he had a big orchestra that played mostly for the rich people in Recoleta in large fancy halls like the Palais de Glace. Imagine what it would have been like to dance with those maestros rocking away in that small room at Sin Rumbo. Laurenz playing live, with Casas singing Como dos Extraños or Vieja Amiga. Troilo with Fiorentino and Yo Soy el Tango or Tristezas. They say that when Piazzolla was playing in the orchestra, he would fool around and make strange noises to drive Troilo crazy. He just liked to see him look around and glare. He finally stopped when Troilo was about to fire him, but then he would occasionally talk other members of the orchestra into making the noises. I would give almost anything to hear one night of that live music in Sin Rumbo.
One of the other names on the wall is not so famous. The name “Aieta” painted in small brown letters refers to Anselmo Aieta, who had an orchestra that was rarely recorded. Someone wrote from the list to ask me to try and track down a CD, so I went to see Oscar. He works in a small cluttered room on the 5th floor of an office building at 123 Parana, just off of Plaza Congreso. On the door are the words: “Club de Tango- Oscar B. Himschoot- Proprietor.” Oscar is very old and gentle, and he is a gold mine of tango information. He even wrote a book about tango, and I bought a copy for Alberto. It's the place to go for things that are impossible to find elsewhere, and if Oscar doesn't have it, he knows where it is. He was able to track down one recording of Anselmo Aieta, so he called someone and had them make a copy for me. I'm listening to it right now, and I like it. It is the old marching tango music of the guardia vieja, like Francisco Lomuto, Orquesta Victor, or Orquesta Minoto. It's perfect for the old neighborhood clubs, and both Minoto and Aieta have played in Sin Rumbo.
I told Oscar I would write about him on the website. Some of you may already be familiar with Oscar, but in case you're not, here he is: Website: www.clubdetango.com.ar Email (Write in Spanish): firstname.lastname@example.org He is a one-man operation who publishes a magazine, and runs the business. BsAs has two main tango magazines, BA Tango, and El Tangauta. Susana Miller’s son Diego, and his wife Luz publish Tangauta. Both magazines are essentially the same, with ads and milonga schedules, some light articles, and pictures of people at parties- the kind that are published in local “lifestyle” magazines everywhere. Oscar's magazine is mostly about tango history and music, with a few ads, and a very small milonga schedule in the back. Oscar said he was doing all right until Menem (the former Argentine president who is blamed for much of the current economic problems) came along and destroyed his business, so now he's trying to start over at the age of 75 with his small tango shop. Oscar is looking forward to hearing from people on the list. He's a little frail, so take advantage of his knowledge while you can.
Gabriel emailed me to point out that in the Uruguay that I said that the population of Montevideo was 4 million. It is actually 1.5 million. The entire country is a bit less than four million. He also correctly pointed out that we were in Montevideo on the weekend of July 18, which is their Constitution Day, and that this could account for the reason that the city seemed so quiet.
In my interview with Alejandra I quoted her saying she is "surrounded by the music" when she follows. She read this later, and told me it should be "surrenders to the music". Either way it makes sense to me. Sometimes she and I misunderstand each other. Last year I was looking at a map of the Malvinas, and I asked her how you say "sheep" in castellano. She said, "barco". Another time I asked her how you say "salesman", and she told me: "marinero".
[Note: I have since learned that the woman I described as the mother of the Balmaceda brothers is not actually their mother. She is either their stepmother, or the novia of their father. Still not sure which.]
We are off to Cordoba for a week. Chau.
July 14, 2003: We went to Cordoba and Iguazu Falls last week. Cordoba is Argentina's second city. It sits in the middle of the Pampas, and for me it has the feel of a prosperous mid-continent U.S. city. The first thing I saw at their neatly manicured little airport was a bunch of good old boys in baseball caps that looked like they were used to handling livestock—exactly the sort of guys you would see waiting for a family member at an airport in Colorado Springs or Amarillo. Cordoba is slower paced than BsAs, and it is also more spread out because it isn't jammed up against a coastline. It has a pretty river running though it, and they have closed some of the downtown streets to car traffic and made some very nice walking around space. We found a Wednesday night milonga that was so much like something in the U.S. it was scary. It was in an upscale restaurant called El Arrabal, that looked exactly like a thousand similar places in affluent U.S. suburbs. The dancers all had a sort of well-manicured dentist/tennis player look. Almost none of them smoked, and they all looked lean and fit from working out at their athletic clubs. It was quite a switch from the gritty dissolutes we're used to rubbing elbows with in the BsAs clubs. They even had a sort of inhibited, analytical gringo way of dancing tango that made me swear I was back in the States—and they spotted Alejandra and me as big city folk right away. I'm from the Mountain West, so it's not easy for me to feel like a sophisticate, but both here and in Salta that's what we were. After the Salta experience, where we became more or less celebrity guests every time we went to a milonga, we try to keep a low profile... but in Cordoba they were going to have a show with a bandoneon and tango singer, and the first thing the man with the microphone did was head straight for my hiding place in the corner. I won't go into the details. Let's just say it's never easy trying to be clever with a microphone in your face- especially when the conversation is taking place in castellano.
We rented a car and drove around the Sierras de Cordoba Mountains a little, and then we flew to Iguazu Falls. Iguazu is a well-known tourist attraction in the north on the edge of Paraguay and Brazil. I was hoping to walk across the bridges and set foot in both countries just to say I'd done it, but since 9/11 easy border crossings seem to be a thing of the past, so I looked but couldn't touch. Paraguay supposedly has some terrorist activity, and the place did look a little dangerous from our viewpoint across the Parana River . The lady at the souvenir stand said don't go over- those Paraguayos are not to be trusted!
Iguazu Park is a tropical forest with a huge cluster of spectacular waterfalls sitting in the middle. We stayed at a hotel right in the park. If you're the kind of person who likes your wilderness experience along with about thirty thousand other people, say in Yosemite Valley or the South Rim of the Grand Canyon in August, then Iguazu is for you. The park logo shows a colorful, smiling toucan bird with a large bright yellow beak. In reality, there are none—other than the wooden ones sold in the dozens of shops in the park. The helicopters that roar over the falls every minute of the day, and the power boats that roar up the river, have long since driven them over to Paraguay to live with the terrorists (who are much quieter and friendlier). It gets worse. Each evening at 6 p.m. we were sealed inside the hotel, to “protect the wildlife” until 8am, when we were awakened by the roar of the boats and choppers. Late the first night, sealed in the hotel, I looked out and saw lights flashing in the forest and around the falls. I asked about it, and they said there were special tours. For $80 you could go out into the park at night and shoot off flash bulbs.
Airport architects must have designed the whole park infrastructure. This is the truth: you are NEVER allowed to touch the ground! They have a people mover type shuttle train that goes from the parking lot at the entrance and deposits everyone onto metal ramps that are set on pylons. The ramps are very similar to the ones used to board planes in airports, except the tops are cut off, so you can see out. You enter the ramps, and then move along at a the speed of the slowest person ahead of you, just like boarding an airplane. Except that people can't smoke boarding airplanes, and here people are smoking in front and behind. The entire park consists of a couple of miles of these ramps. You can see the forest around you, and they lead to some spectacular views of the falls, but the “lookout modules” are literally jammed with people. There are professional photographers on stepladders constantly yelling at people to get out of the way, so they can shoot customers pictures with the falls in the background. There is only one way to get out of the chutes, and that's with a pass. Travelers can buy different colored badges that run from the Cub for $30 up to the Shackleton Explorer for over $100. I was a little too timid for such things, but I did see people wearing bicycle helmets and life jackets being rowed away to adventure in inflatable rafts, as guides in Marlin Perkins outfits and loudspeakers entertained them with jungle stories.
There are supposed to be monkeys, birds, and jaguars, but the only wildlife we saw was a small band of coatis that roam from the shopping arcade, to the hotel pool, to the snack bar at the Garganta del Diablo people mover station. Each little animal is fitted with a blue ear tag, and a large orange collar, and they are constantly followed by tourists with cameras. As I watched them scavenge I had a sudden pang of sympathy for Gavito and his pals as they ride the circuit from Canning, to Nino Bien, to El Beso. I suppose if the guys in the funny hats who dance street tango in San Telmo turn you on, you might love Iguazu.****
So I was lying in the hotel room, working myself into a bad mood. Alejandra spends a good part of her time trying to keep me entertained so this doesn't happen, but she was having a tough time at Iguazu. She wasn't able to get the hotel to find us a little space with a CD player where we could dance (the first time in about 10 hotels we haven't been able to work out something), and I was getting tired of beating her at ping pong, so there wasn't a lot to do. I was thinking how I don't like trucho things. “Trucho” is a lunfardo word that means phony, and I learned about it first hand a couple of years back when the waitress at Porteño y Bailarin passed me a counterfeit $50 pesos note. I was thinking that there are some trucho things in tango as well, and about how I like to try to find things that are somewhat genuine if possible, like some of the old clubs and the people who dance in them. The Club Leales y Pampeanos in Avellaneda really isn't much to look at, but it's beginning to seem like home. Cacho keeps a separate non-smoking room for Nestor and Cristina and us, and the last time we were there I counted 14 other couples who came in to dance with us, and some others who just came in to watch. It's very friendly, and they like to give me mate. It's part of the show that I make a big face every time I drink it, and Cacho's standing joke now is that I will have to perform every time I'm there.
They have some good dancers there, too. There's a man called “El Gitano”, (the Gypsy), and there is also our friend Nestor Serra, who is better than many of the downtown milongueros. Also a man called “Pinocho” (because they say he looks like the puppet Pinochio) and his wife Graciela are also great dancers. I’ve filmed them there in the club, and they have a great, energetic, and distinctive style that is fascinating to watch. [Note from 2004: Another couple from the club, Osvaldo y Coca, won the 2004 World Championship tango competition held recently in BsAs, which is something of an honor for Avellaneda]
“Milonguero” is a term that is used so much that it's hard to pin down. There is a group of older downtown dancers (the numbers decrease every year) that everyone knows, and who some people like to think of as the elite milongueros. A couple of them travel and teach, and a couple are known on the stage, but most of them just live in the milongas, and dance very good tango. I'm friends with some of them, I know some of the others casually through Alejandra, and I've filmed many of the best ones. I would say that while these guys are not necessarily the best dancers in the world, they are certainly among them. And there are many other milongueros who are not from the city center, but who dance just as well, and have as much experience as the downtown group—but in different places. They are spread across the suburbs, and many don't even know each other, except possibly by reputation. If you are in BsAs keep your eyes open, because these are the world's best, and there is a lot to learn from them that is not in any video or workshop.
I try to keep an open mind, but the surprising thing for me is that so few of the famous names and performers that are talked about and idolized in other parts of the world seem to look very good on the dance floors in BsAs. Some of them are known, but many of the stars from the U.S. workshops wouldn't even be recognized. From what I've seen, they don't really seem to dance with much passion or confidence in the milongas. I don't know if they just aren't inspired unless there is a paying audience, or it's too crowded, or maybe all of the originality has just been choreographed out of them. Maybe they need to walk around so precisely and carefully all the time to protect their reputations, and there's no energy left for the music.
The little man who is the secretary of Club Leales y Pampeanos loves me (I tip a lot). He's the one who took us upstairs to see the treasures he guards in his office. The other night he walked by and quietly gave me an old newspaper. I hadn't had a chance to read it, but when I was sittin' on the bed in Iguazu, thinkin' there was nothin' to do, I decided to look through it. It was a club newspaper, La Carreta, from the 1940s, and the front shows some gauchos, with an ox cart. It must have been a paper of record in those days, because it had the Avellaneda city financial statement for 1945 published in it. I checked it out, and they seemed to be doing okay financially—but there wasn't much else. I was hoping for some type of neat tango ads, but all I could find were ads for plumbers and car dealers. I was reading it to Alejandra, and just when I was about to give up, I read the headline on a small article that said, “Homenaje a Razzano”. Alejandra said, “I think he was the one who sang with Carlos Gardel in the beginning.” I read through the article, and it talked about a lot of the club members, and then there was a throw away line at the end that said, “also present to honor Razzano were Homero Manzi, Julio De Caro, and Charlo” (who is another famous old time tango singer). So it looks like this modest little place in Avellaneda is for real.
There are all sorts of fancy clubs, theaters, and restaurants around BsAs that exploit famous tango names, but it's hard to know if any of those legendary people really even set foot in some of them. But here is a little hidden place on the side street in Avellaneda in which the biggest names in tango barely rate a mention in their monthly newsletter. The secretary wants us to come down in the day when there is better light in the dark office, so he can show us more of the history and papers of the club, and we're going to try to get down there before we leave. No one seems to go upstairs or have much interest in the history of the place, so it would be nice to get some of it written down before he is gone, and things just slip away unnoticed. For now, I think it's fairly certain that most of the big names in tango were intimately familiar with this little club where Gardel was a member. I'm sure they worked and played in the old room where the working people of Avellaneda still dance tango and sip mate today for $1peso.
Notes and corrections In the last report I dumped all over Iguazu Falls, and now Alejandra has jumped all over me. She says, yes it's over commercialized, but it is also one of the wonders of the world, and most people love it. All true.
I mentioned Jose Razzano in the last report. I admit I hadn't heard of him before, but by coincidence right after I sent the report, we were listening to 'D'Agostino Vargas 100 Anos CD, and there is a song on it called El Morocho y El Oriental. It's about Gardel (El Morocho) and Razzano (El Oriental) singing together on a BsAs street in 1911. I would have missed all of this without Alejandra's help.
I said in an earlier post that it hasn't been that long since knives were used to settle disputes in milongas, and that this was done within the lives and memories of people that are currently dancing. This came from a source that has been in the milongas forever, but who also sometimes tends to embellish. I asked a more reliable source about this, Nestor Serra, who has been dancing in some rough places since the 50s, and he said he has seen some shoving at times, but never a knife fight.
August 16, 2003: We went to this neighborhood club in Flores mostly because it happens to be just two blocks down the street from where Alejandra lived as a child. The milonga at El Pial is advertised to start at 10pm., so we walked around her old barrio for a while and she showed me the places she used to ride her bike when she was a little girl. At 10:15 we went to the club for our early clean air start. They were finishing up a class, but then they began playing all kinds of stuff like salsa, and pop music, and Gotan Project. We sat and listened, and watched people wander in. Everyone was very friendly- Horacio the organizer came by and talked to us for a while, and we saw some people from downtown, but for some reason they didn't seem to want to start the music. Finally, more than an hour later they started tango, but the music they started with was so bad I didn't want to dance. They began with some jumpy Troilo without Fiorentino, and then followed it with something worse I couldn't identify, where the orchestra kept sitting back and letting the singer wander all over the place with his voice. People were wandering all over the floor as well, trying to stay with the music. Maybe I just have different taste, but it seemed to me that this was bad DJing. Fringe stuff is okay sometimes, but why start the milonga with it? All the guy had to do is go downtown and buy a CD from Daniel or Natu and the night would have started out just fine. By then it was after 11:30 and the air was getting bad, so we left. As we were walking out, we ran into El Gallego. I had been wanting to film him ever since I saw him dancing in Gricel, and we made a date to meet him and his novia, Gilda, at Glorias Argentinas the next night.
The next night we went to Mataderos to meet El Gallego in Glorias Argentinas. If you haven't been to BsAs these names won't mean much to you, but like Avellaneda to the south of town, these western suburbs are drenched in tango history. Flores and Floresta, where Alejandra grew up, are next to Mataderos. This is the barrio named after the large building (which is still there) on the edge of the city where all of the cattle were brought into BsAs from las pampas (the fertile sea of grass that surrounds BsAs that gives Argentina much of its wealth). This means Gauchos, then compadritos, and finally, tango. Legend has it that tango began in and around these corrales, among the knife carrying people that worked the cattle.
El Gallego and Gilda are great people. “El Gallego” refers to Jorge's Spanish origins, and it may be a bit of a joke, because for Argentines, people from this part of Spain are considered a bit low and brutish, and Jorge is the most elegant guy in the milongas. We got a table with some champagne, and Alejandra’s friend Carlitos showed up and joined us. We know Carlitos from downtown. He is a professional tango singer, and it turns out he was there to perform. Before Carlitos, they introduced the lady sitting alone at the table next to us, and it was Beba Pugliese, Osvaldo's daughter. So when Carlitos was singing people kept coming by to pay respects to Beba. It wasn't really Beba's fault, but finally Alejandra told them to quiet down. Before he sang, Carlitos seemed a little down, but after he was pumped, and he came back to the table, put his hands on our shoulders and said, “We have friends, music, dancing, champagne, what more could there be?” Exactly! And it was a great night. Jorge (El Gallego) and I got to be friends, and I was able to film him dancing. He has to be the best dancer of milonga in the world. He's a very elegant lean man in his sixties, who moves like he's twenty years old. His posture is perfect, and when he and Gilda dance, his feet move so fast that you can barely see them. He has the smooth, quick style of Fred Astaire- he really does look that good. He said he has been dancing tango for 54 years, since he was 8 years old!
I've been in a bit of a tango slump since Iguazu, but I was having a great time with Carlitos, and El Gallego. Every so often I just go off, and this time I blamed it on the DJ. He played Hector Mauré (Amarras), then some great Canaro, followed it with a vals tanda, and then when I was soaked in sweat and ready to sit, he put on Rodriguez. I hadn't heard Enrique Rodriguez for a while, and sometimes his music just makes me crazy. Have you ever seen the old black and white TV tapes of D'Arienzo in front of his band? He hunches, jumps, laughs demonically, makes faces, and just goes nuts... he makes Mick Jagger look like Prince Charles with a stick up his butt. He hovers over the front row of bandoneon players like a mad elf, and you can tell he's embarrassing them. The band kind of grins, and looks at each other. “There he goes again. Why can't he settle down?” I mentioned Mick Jagger, but there is a difference, because Mick is trying hard to look cool—but D'Arienzo is being a fool, and he just can't help it. He’s completely goofy. He knows how he looks, but he's so drunk on his own rhythms and clowning around that there's nothing else he can do. He is shaking like a dog to the vibrations of his own music. I've heard people apologize for his behavior, and try to explain it away, but this is wrong, wrong, wrong!