Cows Walking

"Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex…
it takes a touch of genius to move in the opposite direction. "



"Laugh if you will… but without him, we’d all be out of work."


There was a time when there was a lot of criticism of D’Arienzo. He wasn't like some of the other more sophisticated tango musicians of his day. His critics said his music was simple, and he played too fast. He put the compás right up in your face, and he jumped around on the stage like a wild man. Some of his critics might have used the phrase “pop tango”… if it had existed back then. But we do know he filled up the milongas, and he caused a huge tango boom that made it possible for other great orchestras to thrive and create. Is he playing tango at an inferior level? Here is some classic D’Arienzo:


El CENCERRO, Juan D’Arienzo orchestra


What a name for a tango. El Cencerro… “The Cowbell”. As near as I can tell, it’s about cows walking. Well, we have a rule that says tango should be unpretentious, and this one certainly qualifies. Although this music may lack the polish of Pugliese, the intimidating talent of Troilo, or the innovation of Piazzolla, it contains genius. Cencerro is an incredibly effective tango that does exactly what it is meant to do. The beginning isn’t too promising. It has a sort of “Yep, here we are plodding along a path in the Pampas” feel to it. But then it gets interesting. The cadence begins to build… and build… and finally… wow! D’Arienzo uses a relentless compás that ebbs and flows, ebbs and flows, and finally creates an almost unbearable intensity… or at least it should for a tango dancer. In fact, it may contain the most intense minute of driving, pounding bandoneons in all of tango. D’Arienzo’s bandoneons almost induce a hypnotic state; an opportunity for dancing that is unequaled.

I've seen milongueros jump right out of their chairs when they hear the start of this tango. (There is a similar part in a Biaggi vals that we’ll discuss later.) Listen to how the solo bandoneon comes in and plays around the compás at 1:15, and then the strings join at 1:45. First, the bandoneon melody comes in, but still the STRONG-weak, STRONG-weak, STRONG-weak continues. The cows keep walking. Then he brings in strings from way up high, and wraps them around the bandoneons… and the cows still keep walking. I dance this tango waiting for the moment with the strings at 1:45. The momentum that builds to this point is so intense that the ending is almost a disappointment—although D’Arienzo finishes with a place for very quick, sharp footwork at the end—if we aren’t too spent to use it.

Here’s another one by D’Arienzo. This is a vals with the unforgettable name of “Tears and Smiles”. The vals compás is STRONG-weak-weak, STRONG-weak-weak. Listen to how D’Arienzo pauses, and begins again, and how he changes the music toward the end: 

LAGRIMAS Y SONRISAS, Juan D’Arienzo orchestra


This is a vals that immediately reveals who knows how to dance. The vals compás of Lagrimas is clear, the pauses are clear, and the changes of intensity are clear. Even a beginner should be able to hear them. In one sense, the music is simple—but it also allows the most advanced dancers to stretch themselves. Listen to the pauses at 2:20 and 2:27, and note the important change in the music at 2:40. You really must be able to follow the orchestra in this one, and if you can’t go from quick vals giros, into and out of smooth, balanced pauses on a crowded floor, you’ll be outed.  Cencerro requires the ability to dance in at least two different ways; and Lagrimas, probably three. For Cencerro, at a minimum, you must be able to walk well, and perform corriditas—short runs with varied cadences. The parts where the bandoneon and strings come in (at 1:15 and 1:45) call for the ability to make fast linked giros, also with varied cadences and with varied turning speeds: hesitate-spin-hesitate-spin. Finally, the quick bandoneon at the end gives the opportunity for other types of quick footwork.

Some tangos create emotion with words and intonations of the singer’s voice. Others use melody and the interplay of instruments in the orchestra. The best, like Troilo’s Farol combine all three. But in Cencerro, D’Arienzo uses the intensity of the compás to grab listeners—or maybe I should say dancers. His rhythms create a hypnotic effect that can be almost primitive in the way it sweeps people up and takes over the milonga. Listen again to the part that begins at 1:15—a full minute of pure and intense dos por cuatro. I used to think of a steam locomotive during this part, but after I learned the name of the tango, the image changed to cows walking relentlessly across the prairie. Now, I see D’Arienzo himself in those old 1950s kinescopes taken from television—he's right up into the front row of the bandoneons, crouching low and using all his body; moving from one to the other as the energy builds, his face right into them—and then suddenly he jumps up and laughs wildly, like his own rhythm has driven him crazy.

When you really have it down, a tanda of this music can induce the kind of flowing athletic trance that feels almost like fast skiing or windsurfing.  All of this seems like a pretty good thing—so why was there so much animosity toward this music by some people? To understand that, let's take a quick look at what was happening in tango before D’Arienzo became so wildly popular.