I’ve thought about this page for a long time, but I just couldn't seem to get going. I kept putting it off. Part of the reason is that there’s so much video—and so many memories as well. And part is that it may end up being a little too personal. But a website about tango wouldn’t be complete without Ricardo Vidort, so it’s time. I guess the best thing to do when you’re stuck is to follow the advice the King gave to the White Rabbit in Alice: "Begin at the beginning, and go on till you come to the end: then stop." So here we go.
The opening lines from the tango at the top of this page are almost seventy years old, but they refer to an even earlier time. Here's a translation Norte Americano:
“You stand there combing grease into your Elvis-style hair,
and talk about the old tough-guy tango.”
The lines are addressed to a man who believes that the only real tango is the early tango of the compadritos. Compadritos were the guys who hung out on the streets of Buenos Aires around the turn of the century (which would have been about 40 years before these words were written), and who played a big part in popularizing tango. You may have seen them portrayed in old Argentine movies. They usually had a silk neck scarf and embroidered vests, (which are also mentioned in the tango), and a “jopo”, which is a curl of hair that hangs over the forehead (something like the swirls of hair Elvis and James Dean used to have).
A compadrito was reputed to have been a kind of macho, but amiable scoundrel, who descended from the gauchos. He carried a knife (originally used by gauchos for skinning cattle), he avoided work, and he lived for women and tango. The word is such a part of the history of Buenos Aires that it’s sometimes used as a verb. For instance, there are lyrics in Tres Esquinas that say tango used to “compadrié” on the street corners in Barrio Barracas. (In Chapter 4, I translated compadrié as “strutted”, but it really encompasses the entire proud attitude and way of life of the compadritos.) Over time, I think the compadrito myth eventually evolved into what is known today as a milonguero. Which raises this question: What exactly is a milonguero? (Okay… no eye rolling. I realize we've discussed this so many times it’s ridiculous, but I have to return to it for a minute.)
In its broadest definition, a milonguero is anyone who goes to a milonga. Walk into a room in Denver where people are dancing tango, and you become a milonguero. So by that definition, the world is full of milongueros. There are millions. But we could narrow the field somewhat by defining a milonguero as someone who goes to the milongas every day, and who lives for tango to the exclusion of almost everything else. Someone for whom life without tango would be a meaningless vacuum. And also, someone whose absence from the milongas would change and diminish the tango world so much that it would never be the same. This strict definition narrows the field down quite a bit. In fact, it narrows it down to two: Alito and Tete. But up until last year, there was a third milonguero, who was even more “milonguero” than they are. In fact, he was a man who was something even rarer than a pure milonguero. He was a compadrito.
Begin at the Beginning
In 2001, just as the Argentine economy was hitting rock bottom, I wandered into a basement club on Esmeralda Street in downtown Buenos Aires. It wasn't a tango club, but I'd heard someone say that a famous milonguero was going to give a lesson there. Although I arrived on time, the place was dark and deserted—except for two men talking quietly at the bar. When I went up to ask if I was in the right place, one of them said vaguely, "Yes there should be a lesson. If you want I can put on some music." I said okay, and since no one else was there, I went onto the floor and began to practice my walking. As I was out there going around in circles, wondering if anyone who had anything to do with tango was going to show up, I lost the cadence. So I hesitated for a moment, and then when I got back in the music, I started up again. A minute later, the man who hadn't spoken came over and said, "What you did is very good. You lost the compás, but you stopped right away, and then you found it again. Most people don't do that." Then he went back and sat down at the bar, and I went back to practicing. A minute later a woman came down the stairs and sat down with to the two men.
In earlier pages I've talked about how profound turning points in life can sometimes sneak up on you. How you may not see them coming at all… and not only that, how they can slip right by and go unrecognized until much later. As I think back on it, there was certainly nothing that seemed special about that evening. And although I remember it well, I don't remember who told me about that inconspicuous club. I was the only person who showed up for the lesson, and three weeks later, the club and its milonga would both close. It wasn't until months later that I began to realize that the men at the bar watching me practice that night were two of the best tango dancers in the world. Both of them would eventually become like uncles to me… and the woman sitting with them would become my wife.