Today is Tango Day in Buenos Aires. The date was chosen because it is the birthday (1899) of famed tango musician, Julio de Caro (as well as of Carlos Gardel). I wouldn’t say it is a major celebration in Buenos Aires because tango is nowhere near as popular there as it once was. It’s now mostly old people and tourists who care. Shame. One of the great things about tango is that it is distinctively Argentino; it is not European. By gradually losing interest, younger generations are losing something of profound historical and cultural importance. I won’t go on a major rant nor spend a lot of time going over the history of tango – just a few key points followed by a little biography of de Caro (Gardel next year).
There are many kinds of tango. Tango as performed outside of Argentina is not tango. There is, for example, a ballroom style of dance that is called tango, but it is tango in name only. In Buenos Aires you can find roughly three styles of tango – milonga tango, street tango, and show tango. Milonga tango is the most traditional. Milongas are dance halls where people go to dance a number of classic dances, especially tango. There are often a lot of couples dancing so this is not the arena for flashy, complex moves. But the style is not necessarily simple. You have to know what you are doing. I can’t find a video of milonga tango, probably because it is not a spectator sport: you go to a milonga to dance, not to watch. But in this scene from Scent of a Woman, Pacino does a decidedly passable version of milonga tango to a well known tune.
The clip also includes this great, but false, line:
“No mistakes in the tango, darling. Not like life.” If you want to screw up royally, go to a milonga and see how quickly you can break one of a million subtle rules.
Show tango is at the opposite end of the spectrum. It is largely a tourist trap, but with important elements of classic tango inherent in it. It’s expansive, athletic, and showy, requiring a large space and an audience. Here’s a typical example.
I don’t care for this style much, but I’ll watch if it is free. The whole thing is choreographed, which goes against the core value of tango. Tango is improvised (the man always leading).
Street tango is somewhere in between the two extremes of the milonga and the stage. The space is smaller and the dancers more intimate. The dancing may be partly choreographed but is looser than show tango. The dancers are performing for tips, of course, and it’s only out-of-towners (and me) who watch. But the dancers are not professionals, and have usually grown up in the milongas. This group dances regularly at the intersection of calle Florida and Lavalle — a pedestrianized area in Microcentro.
Julio de Caro was a master performer and composer in the early 20th century, playing in milongas much of his career. Julio’s father opened a conservatory in San Telmo barrio (near where I used to live), in 1913, soon becoming one of the city’s best known sources for music, instruments, parts, and lessons. Julio and his brother, Francisco, were both taught the piano and violin, respectively; though their father ultimately granted them their wish to exchange instruments (a third brother, Emilio, learned the violin). Against his father’s wishes, Julio obtained a spot as a second violinist at the Lorea Theatre for a 1915 performance of a zarzuela (music-dance performance). Despite their father’s punishment and objections, the brothers began attending Buenos Aires’ popular tango recitals. Some of these early influences included bandleaders Eduardo Arolas, Juan Carlos Cobián, and Roberto Firpo.
At his friends’ prompting, de Caro played for a tango performance at the Palais de Glace, an elegant multi-purpose venue, in 1917. His solos earned him a standing ovation, and led to a permanent spot in the orchestra, led by tango legend Eduardo Arolas. The elder de Caro (who disdained popular music generally) objected vigorously, so Julio kept it secret that he had joined the orchestra for which he wrote his first tango, Mon beguin.
Eventually, his father forced Julio, at 18 years old, to leave the house, a move that pushed Francisco to join his brother. The two traveled with Arolas’ orchestra, which was very popular in both Argentina and neighboring Uruguay. The brothers contributed greatly to its fortunes, composing – among other standards in tango: Mala pinta (Shady Look), Mi encanto (My Charm), Pura labia (All Words), Don Antonio, A palada (In Spades), Era buena la paisana (She Was a Good Country Girl), Percanta arrepentida (Lamentful girl), Bizcochito (Lil’ Biscuit), Gringuita (Blondie) and La cañada (The Brook).
A business disagreement led de Caro and pianist José María Rizzuti to leave Arolas’ group in 1919. They formed a quartet with bandoneonist Pedro Maffia and violinist José Rosito, with whom they performed regularly to acclaim at a café near the Argentine Supreme Court. The group separated in 1920, however, and de Caro and Rizzuti joined bandleader Osvaldo Fresedo, with whom they toured in the United States. De Caro relocated to Montevideo, where he married and joined Minotto Di Cicco’s orchestra (1922). He was then reunited with Maffia in Buenos Aires under Juan Carlos Cobián’s direction, in 1923. His marriage ended, shortly afterwards.
Cobián’s decision to follow a love interest to New York led to the de Caro brothers’ being reunited in need of a band, at the end of 1923. Their success at a high society New Year’s Eve ball led to lucrative contracts in popular downtown cafés and for a new medium: radio. The Julio de Caro Orchestra later received a recording contract from RCA Victor and, in April 1925, performed for Edward, the Prince of Wales. U.S. jazz bandleader Paul Whiteman introduced de Caro to the Stroh violin, later that year. The device (a violin with a cornet horn at one end) had been invented for radio performances for its ability to project sound above the rest of the orchestra, and the conductor soon found it an indispensable tool. The renowned bandleader composed numerous pieces in honor of some of the prominent figures in Argentine life that attended his performances, notably chief surgeon Enrique Finochietto and President Marcelo Torcuato de Alvear.
The orchestra toured France by invitation, in 1931. They performed at Nice’s Palais de la Méditerranée, for Prince Umberto di Savoia, for the Rothschilds’ galas, and for Paramount Studios in the making of Luces de Buenos Aires (one of several the studio made, starring Carlos Gardel). The orchestra remained successful in Argentina, debuting at the nation’s leading opera house, the Colón Theatre, in 1935, and at the Teatro Opera (1936), where they presented a comprehensive “Evolution of the Tango” – leading listeners through its development from 1870, onwards. A surprise visit by the brothers’ aging parents following one of these performances led to the family’s reconciliation.
His orchestra continued its prominence among tango fans for years, introducing young talent such as vocalist Edmundo Rivero. His audiences later declining, de Caro retired from his orchestra in 1954. He remarried in 1959 and returned to a recording studio only in 1975, collaborating with author Ernesto Sábato, composer Ben Molar, composer and arranger Luis Stazo and others to make Los 14 de Julio de Caro (Julio de Caro’s 14). He was honored by the national government with a declaration of December 11 as “National Tango Day;” on that day in 1977, he received a standing ovation at Buenos Aires’ Luna Park Arena, complete with a rousing Happy Birthday to You.
Julio de Caro died in the seaside resort city of Mar del Plata, on March 11, 1980, at age 80. He was interred at Buenos Aires’ Chacarita Cemetery, beside his brother, Francisco.
Milongas are not places to eat, and show tango joints serve flashy, overpriced meals along with expensive show tickets (hawked by shills in Microcentro). I’ve never been inclined to go to one. So the only resort I have is to fall back on classic Argentine cuisine. Here’s a recipe for chipás. Chipás are small, baked, cheese-flavored rolls, a popular snack and breakfast food Argentina, especially in the north. The original name is from Guarani but the product now is quite different from the original, made with cassava starch. Now chipás are made with tapioca starch, flour, and cheese. Use a good melting cheese such as mozzarella.
⅔ cup milk
6 oz shredded melting cheese
3 tbsp butter, melted
1 ¾ cups tapioca starch
1 cup self-rising flour
Preheat the oven to 350°F/175°C). Grease a baking sheet and set aside.
Stir together the egg, milk, cheese, and butter in a large bowl. Sprinkle in the tapioca starch and flour and mix well to form a dough. Knead the dough for two minutes on a lightly floured surface, then pinch off and roll up golf ball-sized pieces. Place them on the prepared baking sheet.
Bake until golden brown, 10 to 15 minutes.