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A Rag to Riches Tango Tale
Francisco Canaro was a promoter and an ambassador of the Tango, from neighboring Uruguay and Chile to Spain, France and the United Sates. Perhaps his most important outreach was Japan were Pirincho's fertile compositions set the foundation for the Rising Sun Empire’s infatuation with the Argentine Tango. His compositions number over five hundred titles spanning fifty years of dedicated labor to the development of the business of Tango.
History doesn't keep records about weaklings. To name Francisco Canaro is to name someone who represents the very essence of the development and growth of the Tango both as a musician and a director. Few examples of perseverance, dedication and passion for his trade are as evident as in the case of Canaro. His legacy includes an example of constructive tenacity applied not only to the circles in which he reigned, but also to the rest of the community at large. He was a typical example of a self-made man who rose from a life of misery and poverty with an uncompromising determination. His struggle was primarily motivated by a materialistic purpose, lacking in brilliance and everlasting creativity. Somehow for him the end justified the means, but the hefty benefits resulting from his hard work also trickled down to the bohemian Tango movement of which he became the undisputed captain: the fearless navigator that sailed through the troubled waters of unfair labor practices to bring the rights of authors and composers to a safe port.
His critics from the academic halls of the Argentine tango establishment have been quick to point out his lack of artistic temperament. Francisco Garcia Jimenez wrote, "because of that, he (Canaro) couldn’t introduce a single note of significance in the interpretation of the music of Buenos Aires. He adhered to a familiar rhythm impressing on it an accentuated sonority." In other words, no devoted purist would find ecstasy listening to any recording of his orchestra, but for the rest of the world Canaro’s name and sounds will be forever associated with an irresistible desire to hit the dance floor because dancers were who Canaro played for.
Canaro wanted to be a musician, and intuitively he was one from an embryonic stage. He lacked resources, means, principles and mentors to guide him through the scholastic paths of the art of music. What he had instead, all around him, was the continuous spin that emerged from the popular harmonic sounds and cadenced dances that stuck to his
ear, matched his cordial heartbeat, communicated through the lips and incited his sensitive fingers to want to join their legion of interpreters. The rhythms danced at the dawn of the twentieth century in Argentina were foreign by adoption, but progressively being naturalized. Waltzes, polkas, mazurkas were quickly changing their original threads to enter the vernacular prairie. The European waltz settled in Buenos Aires and became Creole. Soon the mazurkas would evolve into rancheras, and polkas into chamames, moving deep inside the countryside.
In Buenos Aires another dance music was cornered by a growing underworld of disenfranchised citizens. It had been born out of the conjunction of various immigrant rhythms. It possessed the evident genius and silhouette of the city demographics. The tango, music and dance, after a period of splendor during the last twenty years of the nineteenth century had fallen out of grace in salons and family living rooms being held in disrepute because of its association with back room illegal gambling, bordello waiting rooms, seedy bars and the irrational fear of the characters populating the dangerous empty lots of the outskirts.
This was the state of things when Francisco Canaro was born on November 26, 1888 in San Jose de Mayo, a small city of the Republica Oriental del Uruguay. As a matter of trivia, it is said that a neighbor quickly noticed the baby’s rebellious fuzz of hair and exclaimed, he looks like a ‘pirincho’ (a South American bird of the magpie family), and the nickname stuck to him for the rest of his life.
What also followed was almost fifty years of uninterrupted labor for the music and the tango which set Canaro apart as one of the key men of the history of the music of Buenos Aires.
Dodging poverty in a crowded tenement room
The Canaro family, numbering ten between immigrant parents, sisters and brothers, crossed the River Plate and moved to Buenos Aires towards the end of the nineteenth century. They struggled to make the essential ends meet, living in the extreme poverty of a tenement’s crowded room. Barely ten years old, Pirincho took to the streets as a shoe shiner and a paper boy. Entering adolescence, he first graduated to a thick brush wall painting job, and eventually to an apprentice job at an olive oil can factory. There, the dawn of his musical vocation awakened, and with the help of a friend he built a violin with wood and an empty oil can and begun to play the makeshift instrument “by ear.” With the rudimentary instrument he joined other youngsters forming minor groups with whom they entertained neighborhood parties and family reunions. As his musical ambitions continued to grow, at age eighteen he purchased his first violin, an old and beat up instrument with a sound that matched its inexpensive price and the limited technique of its player. However, this made his incipient dream about owning a real violin come true.
Cradle of thugs and tough men
The year was 1906 when he made his professional debut in a remote village far away from Buenos Aires with a trio consisting of his violin, a guitar and a mandolin. This is when he first made the decision to choose the popular music of the tango to entertain those on the dance floor. We all know now how popular and prestigious the tango would become because of his influence in rescuing it from scorn and contempt, and earning it the credential of citizen of the world. But first, young Canaro had to witness the worst spectacle of human behavior at sleazy cantinas and seedy houses of prostitution lined up along the dirt roads that dug deep into the guts of the desolate province of Buenos Aires. A rigorous childhood and the daily contact with thugs, tough guys and dangerous criminals toughened Canaro’s character. His music in the beginning didn’t pretend to please anybody’s ear, but to keep moving the swift legs of the rowdy element that made up his audience.
His adventurous spirit constantly took him to the most remote villages in the province of Buenos Aires. He spent lengthy periods with the trio playing at dances and social events. In 1908 he finally left the boondocks and returned to set roots in the capital district of Buenos Aires, joining trios and ensembles that competed for popular acclaim with the likes of Vicente Greco (Rodriguez Peña, El flete), Agustin Bardi (Gallo ciego, Que noche), Roberto Firpo (Alma de bohemio, El apronte) and others. He performed at the legendary cafes of the Italian quarters south of downtown by the mouth of the river, today known as La Boca. He established friendships with Eduardo Arolas, the tiger of the bandoneon (Derecho viejo, Comme il faut) and Angel Villoldo (El choclo, El porteñito).
Stepping up to the plate
From the cafes of La Boca to Hansen’s in the garden district of Palermo, well-to-do men mixed it up with the thugs from the arrabals in their pursuit of female favors. Seeking the acceptance of one of those gangs, Canaro wrote his first composition, La barra fuerte (The tough gang), a mercifully forgotten piece that deflated his pretensions of being a composer. That did not deter him from continuing to step up to the challenge of his fellow tanguistas. With a limited education and unrefined manners, he resorted to using a resolute practical approach to test the ground where he would step on, always moving forward. The images of his initial poverty and misery drove him to seek the accumulation of money as his main priority. In that, he foresaw clearly the fortunes afforded by the tango as it captured the imagination, heart and adoration of the mass population. This was also going to be his ticket for admission to the higher strata of society where he become the Tango caterer de jour.
Pirincho’s guiding law was to work; to work hard and to earn money no matter how much or how little. He’d rather be the head of a mouse than the tail of a lion. This led him to join his screeching violin to the good bandoneon sound and the inspiration of Vicente Greco. What followed was a successful enterprise that attracted multitudes to the center of the city as the duo made their way to hold court in Calle Corrientes where the tango would become synonymous of the legendary street’s name. Canaro and Greco played to the delight of the best dancers at the milongas of Salon La Argentina located on Rodriguez Peña, steps away from Calle Corrientes.
It was during this period that the record label Casa Tagini produced their first records, a milestone of sorts in tango history. Seeking a catchy slogan, Vicente Greco coined the phrase Orquesta Tipica Criolla to identify the group. This denomination, Typical Creole Orchestra, with the Creole later dropped, became the defining phrase to identify any group that interpreted Argentine Tango with authenticity.
Eventually Canaro moved on and out from the shadow of Greco to join an intuitive pianist named Martinez in a trio that began playing at Teatro Olimpo. They soon converted it into a dance academy of tango con corte led by another legend, Benito Bianquet, better known as El Cachafaz. It was there when Martinez wrote a Tango of fresh inspiration and named it Canaro as a show of appreciation to his friend and colleague. The name Canaro flying on the wings of a catchy melody became a household word. Meanwhile Pirincho continued bringing water to his windmill.
Los bailes del internado
On September 21, 1914, marking the beginning of the Spring season, the students of the Medical School called him to headline the first Baile del Internado. These were lavish balls organized by the interns of the city’s hospitals. At the first ball held at the famous Palais de Glace, Francisco Canaro premiered his tangos El alacran ( The scorpion) and Matasano (Killer of the healthy, a humorous way to make fun of the medical doctors). Sharing the stage, Roberto Firpo premiered El apronte (The heat or preliminary horse race). The following year Canaro presented one of his everlasting compositions, El internado (The intern) dedicated to preserve the memory of those outrageous Tango parties.
In 1916 the Bailes del Internado moved to a more ample venue, El Pabellon de las Rosas (The Rose Pavilion) located at the site where today stands the Argentine Automobil Club building on Avenida del Libertador in the posh Barrio Norte. The pavilion was demolished after the carnaval festivities of 1929.
These were orgies of excess to the beat of the tango. Year after year the pranks got out of hand and a few days after the 1924 edition of the Bailes del Internado, a hospital administrator shot and killed an intern because of a practical joke played on him. The interns of all Buenos Aires hospitals went on strike and the yearly parties were forever suspended. Osvaldo Fresedo was the last headliner and for that would-be-historical occasion he composed and premiered El once (The eleventh, following the tradition of naming tangos written for each edition of Bailes del Internado) with the subtitle A divertirse (Let’s have fun).
A blueprint for success
Towards the end of 1915 the tango named Canaro had achieved such a popular success that a promoter from the city of Rosario located a few hundred miles north of Buenos Aires hired Canaro to headline the 1916 Bailes de Carnaval in the second largest city of Argentina. There he shared the stage with Roberto Firpo and Eduardo Arolas with such a success that he went back for the Carnaval celebrations in 1917 and 1918. The friendship developed between Canaro and Firpo and their professional association had the undertone of a cordial and sincere envy on the part of Canaro for the inspired composer of Alma de bohemio, the hit of the most prestigious cabarets. Canaro’s envy also was aimed at Firpo’s successful recording career with the prestigious label Max Glucksman. Towards the end of the 1920’s decade, Canaros’ primary goal of amassing a fortune focused on the emulation of his friend Roberto Firpo. It took him five years to get a break, but finally he moved into Firpo’s territory at the Royal Pigall during the Summer season when Firpo played the Armenonville, located in a garden setting that offered more pleasant summer nights for the crowds.
By the winter of 1918 the Canaro orchestra became the headliner at Royal Pigall, and at the Armenonville in summer time. Here is when his entrepreneurial vocation began to take over his musical career. With an uncanny vision for business he managed three orchestras simultaneously. One in which he played, a second one led by his brother Juan (bandoneon) and a third one led by his brother Humberto (piano). Soon the number of the Canaro orchestras were four with yet another brother, Rafael (counter bass) at the helm.
Canaro in Paris
With presentations in cabarets, night clubs and other venues, Francisco Canaro managed to cut a deal to take his orchestra on a tour of Paris and New York in 1925. In his memoirs Canaro boasted about the experience as one of greatest and most significant triumphs in which not only his orchestra achieved international recognition, but the tango also reached a world wide diffusion.
The truth is that the tango had already become a huge success in Europe after an impasse forced by World War I. The music of tango ruled Paris played live by the resident orchestras of Manuel Pizarro, Tano Genaro and Juan D’Ambroggio “Bachicha.” At the beginning of the 1920’s thanks to the talented pianistic fingers and dancing feet of Angel Villoldo ( El choclo) and Enrique Saborido (La morocha), the voices of the Gobbi’s, a husband and wife duo, and the legendary legs of Casimiro Ain, El vasco, the tango explosion in Europe reached new heights.
Canaro’s performances contributed to enhance the hegemony of the tango in all of Europe even when he received some criticism at home for dressing up his musicians with gaucho outfits for added effect while using Canaro et sa Symphony and Attraction Canaro to present his shows disguised as variety acts.
He claims in his memoirs that the attire and the packaging of his show was supposed to be a way to get around labor union regulations that blocked the performances of foreign musicians. So, rather than presenting an orchestra, he was bringing in a show. However, according to brother Rafael Canaro, who stayed behind in Paris at the helm of one of Canaro orchestras, the Parisian promoters wanted to impress with a genuine touch of localism to all of their productions, and the stereotype for everything Argentine at the time was gauchos and pampas. To that effect, there were extreme cases where musicians were forced to wear their gaucho outfits on the streets from the hotel to the night club and back, in order to add to the attraction and interest of a cosmopolitan public.
This honestly does not matter any longer. He was a hit in Paris. Meanwhile in Buenos Aires, musicians Alejandro Scarpino and Juan Caldarella could not come up with a title for a great tango they had written together. One morning they saw the headlines in the local newspaper heralding the arrival of Francisco Canaro to the City of Lights. That’s how the phrase Canaro en Paris was attached to one of the most brilliant compositions of the time.
Tango Inc. goes public
The Canaro story from rags to riches could have happened in America. He was the prototype of rugged individualism, a self-made pope of the tango industry who was driven to success by the haunting images of poverty and misery he had logged onto his childhood memory.
Once he returned to Buenos Aires, Canaro dedicated a great deal of time to recording hit after hit. By the time his half a century of artistic life was over he had pressed over seven thousand records. On them, the voices and instruments of the best singers and musicians of greater renown have been preserved forever as a testimony of one of the best moments for the Argentine tango. Musicians of the caliber of Cayetano Puglisi, Minotto Di Cicco, Mariano Mores and Ciriaco Ortiz. Famous singers Ernesto Fama, Charlo, Agustin Irusta, Ada Falcon and Nelly Omar among others, at one time or another were part of Pirincho’s orchestras. Canaro’s extraordinary vision allowed him to profit both financially and as an entrepreneur.
He had taken the big leap from an obscure tenement room where he lived with an oil can makeshift violin to a trio performing in the boondocks of the vast province of Buenos Aires. He kept growing with the city, formed his own orchestra, recorded, traveled to the Old Continent. But he still needed to do more. Without neglecting his prolific recordings, he foresaw the oncoming changes brought by the movies and took advantage of people’s new favorite pastime, the musical reviews.
And if that weren’t enough he was an active fighter for the rights of the composers and interpreters lobbying for the passing of the Copyright Law. His efforts were crowned when, on May 4, 1940 he founded SADAIC, the Argentine Society of Composers and Authors of which he was its president for several terms.
Canaro had the vision of reinventing the musical comedy. From his long theatrical engagements he foresaw the possibility of producing a singing comedy for a general audience consisting mostly of middle class families. So, on June 17, 1932 he premiered the first one of many musical comedies with the participation of top actors and actresses of national renown: La muchachada del centro (The gang from downtown). In 1949 he ended the cycle after twelve productions which touched on themes of the porteño life, with Con la musica en el alma (With the music in the soul).
During this period he associated with playwriter Ivo Pelay. It is important to notice that a long list of tangos, valses, milongas, polkas and mazurkas composed by Canaro with lyrics by Ivo Pelay were first introduced as part of all twelve of those musical comedies. This also opened the door to a new generation of singers that grew up out of the opportunities created by the various Canaro enterprises.
He couldn’t resist the temptation of emulating the enormous success of Carlos Gardel in the movies. However contrary to Gardel’s lack of concern for the incipient national film industry, Canaro was tempted by the local production of movies even when his instinct was warning him that this aspect of his business was going to be a loss leader. What’s fundamental is the historic importance of his work. His first outing as a movie producer was Idolos de la radio (Radio idols) an artistic marathon which included the voices of Ada Falcon and Ignacio Corsini among many others. Paradoxically, his last movie production coincided with his last theatrical production, Con la musica en el alma, which premiered on January 10, 1951.
He also played on the radio like many other orchestras of the time, but this aspect of his career was brief since his plate was already full with his many different excursions in the movies, theater and of course the recording sessions.
He died on December 14, 1964 but like all those figures who contributed to the enhancement of the popular culture of Buenos Aires, his name is missing from the government sponsored National Week of Tango celebrations which only mention Gardel and De Caro, both born on December 11. However his creativity and his work were everlasting through many of his disciples as he continues to be an example of a vision for the future.
EL INTERNADO, Quinteto Pirincho's version, 1938