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from Buenos Aires
by Karina Cristina Demitrio
Much Talent. Little Opportunity.
from Buenos Aires
Astor Pantaleón Piazzolla was born in Mar del Plata on March 11, 1921, the son of Vicente 'Nonino' Piazzolla and Asunta Manetti. In 1924 the Piazzolla family migrated to New York, where they lived until 1937. Astor’s passion for music began when he was a child in The Bronx. His father gave him a ‘bandoneon,’ (an accordion-like instrument imported to Argentina from Germany in 1886) when he was only eight years old and sent him for lessons with an Italian teacher who taught him the basics of the instrument. Young Astor was more interested in American jazz than in tango, but ‘Nonino’ did not want his son involved in that kind of music, and that was the cause of several family quarrels.
As one anecdote has it, Piazzola named his first tango ‘Paso a paso hacia la 42’ (Step by step to the 42nd--42nd being a police station) and his father made him rename it ‘La Catinga’ (a vulgar girl without good manners in a pejorative way) because he thought it would be more popular.
When he was 15, the great tango singer Carlos Gardel asked him to play the bandoneon in the film "El día que me quieras" ("The day you love me"). Gardel was so impressed by the young man's performance that he offered Piazzolla a job touring with him around South America. Astor rejected the offer and returned to Buenos Aires with his family in 1937. Back in Argentina, Piazzolla played with Anibal Troilo's band until 1944, when he created his own band and started to study classical music. In 1954, he got a grant to study with Nadia Boulanger, the famous Parisian teacher and conductor who influenced a generation of American and European composers, including Elliott Carter, Aaron Copland, David Diamond, Roy Harris, Walter Piston, Roger Sessions, and Virgil Thomson..
On his return to Buenos Aires, Piazzolla revolutionized the world of tango, endowing it with new elements that he incorporated from his interests in jazz and classical music. After trying different combinations, he formed the Quinteto Tango Nuevo (New Tango Quintet) in 1960 and his fame began spreading around the world.
The one place that his music was not readily accepted was at home--in Argentina.
‘I am sick and tired of everyone telling me that my music is not tango," he said in 1963. "I tell them (since I am tired) that my music is Buenos Aires music, if they like. But, how do you call Buenos Aires music? Tango. So, my music is tango’
Why was his music not accepted in the place where tango music was born? To understand that it is fundamental to know a little history.
was born in the late 19th century in the arrabales--the crowded districts
surrounding the city of Buenos Aires that were populated by the thousands
of men who were forced to leave their homes, their families, their wives
and their lovers during the last 25 years of the nineteenth century by
the desperate poverty of a disintegrating Europe. At night, the Italian,
French, Irish and German immigrants crowded into the bars and the streetcorners
where they dulled their pain with cheap wine and sang the mournful neapolitan
and andalucian love songs to the women left behind. Their music blended
with local elements--the relentless rhythms that the African slaves--the
candombe--beat on their drums (known as tan-go); the popular music of the
pampas (flatlands) known as the milonga, which combined Indian rhythms
with the music of early Spanish colonists; and other influences, including
Piazzolla's approach was rejected by tango purists who couldn’t understand his phrasings and Mozartian harmonies, who felt that he was betraying the spirit of the Argentina's greatest musical contribution to the world. He divided tango lovers between the ones who admired him and the ones who didn’t think of him as a tango player, but no one ever failed to recognise his musical talent.
The people who lived arrabales--compatriots from the interior, European immigrants and some porteños with little money--formed a new social class. Perhaps in search of a way of being identified as a group and to invest their new home with a sense of ownership, they began to create cultural manifestations as a result of that mixture. Most important among these manifestations was a peculiar and secretive language called lunfardo. Rich in Italian dialectal terms and also French words, lunfardo became the language of tango and also a kind of language of thieves because it was cryptic and secretive enough to speak among themselves and at the same time was unintelligible for the police. This was the beginning of the tango, sentimental and concentrated in the dance, love stories and betrayals in the songs, characterised by a special language and very closed codes, and only approachable by the working classes.
Initially, the "moralistic" (but not necessarily moral) Argentine high society rejected the tango. But, slowly the spoiled children of the landowners and cattle barons began to make their way to the "enramadas" and the forbidden music.
Shortly after World War I, a group of Argentine intellectuals on their annual sojourn to Paris decided to have fun by teaching the "indecent" tango to their friends. To their surprise, the tango quickly became the craze of the Parisian ballrooms.
And, Argentine society, always looking towards Europe (a popular saying in Argentina describes society as a Spanish culture that speaks Italian, admires the French and wishes it was English) reimported the tango back to the shores of the Rio de la Plata.
Piazzolla's approach was rejected by tango purists who couldn’t understand his phrasings and Mozartian harmonies, who felt that he was betraying the spirit of the Argentina's greatest musical contribution to the world. He divided tango lovers between the ones who admired him and the ones who didn’t think of him as a tango player, but no one ever failed to recognise his musical talent. I have, as an example, his descriptive tangos, such as ‘Adiós Nonino’ and ‘Verano Porteño’, and this is just a little part of all his works, which are a lot. If I have to name all of his songs, I would need an entire section, that is why I decided not to put them in this homage, but you have to believe me when I say that there is no waste between them. His most ambitious work, perhaps, is 'Concierto para bandoneon,' commissioned by the Banco Provincia de Buenos Aires for a 1979 radio broadcast, which resembles a baroque concerto grosso.
He was an ambassador, he was a genius, he created controversy, but, above all, Piazzola was the person who gave tango a turning point and made it eternal, emotional and recognised all around the world. And that is not easy to accept for a society that is still struggling after so many years to achieve a distinctive culture of its own.
Demetrios is a musicologist and writer who lives in Buenos Aires.