Talk with Carlos Puente about Juan D’Arienzo

November 2014

Summer afternoon in downtown Buenos Aires. Suitable scenery, this center that once was the center of the heart where tango lived through its golden era, for a meeting with Carlos Puente, who arrives at a tranquil pace, without strutting the treasure he carries with him.

For those who don’t know him, Puente is, among other things, a renowned collector and historian, who also performs as lecturer at the Universidad del Tango (University of Tango), as well as being an active member of the Academia Nacional del Tango (National Academy of Tango). As a valuable transmitter of this part of culture, throughout the years he has worked in the recording industry, as well as leading and participating in several radio shows focused on tango. As he himself states it, with a temperance that’s free of ostentation, we’re dealing, above all, with a man of tango.

Carlos takes a seat, amiable, and with a trace of melancholy in the voice–and even the occasional sigh–he shares with us some threads, strokes, excerpts from those golden years, when the exceptional congregation of so many stars took place. We’re still talking about them, we’re still dancing to them. They give us still much to wonder, imagine, enjoy. The following text is a transcription of some fragments of such precious material. 

D’Arienzo’s Early Years. His Instant, Promising Initial Success

When Juan D’Arienzo formed his first orchestra in 1928, he had already been part of several orchestras of the time. Since he was related to the owners of the recording company Electra –the owners were his mother’s siblings-, he was able to get his orquesta típica to record. D’Arienzo wasn’t all that well known then, but he had the chance to gather very good musicians such as, just to name a few, Ciriaco Ortiz, Nicolás Primiani, Vicente Gorrese, Luis Visca and Luis Cuervo. D’Arienzo himself knew his way around with the violin, but was aware of his limitations as instrumentalist. At the same time, said musicians participated in several other orchestras, such as the Típica Víctor, or with Carabelli; they were what was known as musicians who “read well,“ in other words, they had good training in sight reading, so it was perfectly fine to place any score in front of them, because they would play anything, in any style. It was intelligent of D’Arienzo to choose them to form his first orchestra. Even though success didn’t come at that time the famous orchestras were then Canaro, Firpo, Fresedo, Pacho, Lomuto, Donato-Zerrillo, the access to the disc was a good starting point, and he thus built an initial discography of around 30 discs, close to 60 pieces, in some of which the orchestra accompanied the singer Carlos Dante and Francisco Fiorentino. By the time D’Arienzo achieved success, arriving at the year 40, both singers became two of the great voices of tango, Fiorentino with Troilo and Dante with De Angelis, after having been part of many orchestras.

It was precisely because of his many recordings, that D’Arienzo became quite known in the scene as an orchestra director. And in spite of the label Electra’s shutting down in 1929, he continued performing. With Luis Visca, with whom he had already played, for instance, in Anselmo Aieta’s orchestra, he created the D’Arienzo-Visca orchestra.

By the end of 1932, D’Arienzo was offered to participate in the first sound film produced in the country, “Tango,“ alongside the orchestras of Poncio-Bazán, Pedro Maffia, Osvaldo Fresedo, Edgardo Donato, as well as other great artists of the time. That proves D’Arienzo had already achieved a certain status within the sphere of tango. The orchestra with which he performed in the film could be considered intermediate, that is to say, right in the middle of its trajectory, both time- and sound-wise, halfway between the 1928-1929 orchestra, and the triumphant one, from 1935 on. This film is the only link we have between D’Arienzo’s primitive orchestra, and the posterior one, well known by everyone.

Simultaneously, D’Arienzo kept performing. He eventually began to play at the Chantecler, which was to be the cabaret of his great triumphs, also at downtown cafés, at dances, and, apparently, the orchestra continued to be a success among the audience. And I say “apparently“ because there aren’t a lot of testimonies left from newspapers and magazines where D’Arienzo was named; according to the comments of musicians and other people of the time, however, D’Arienzo’s orchestra wasn’t at all unknown. Let’s just think that the Chantecler was the most important cabaret at that moment. It was said that executives from the label Victor would attend the cabaret in order to find artists of talent, who were well received by the audince. And so it was, that Victor became interested in D’Arienzo and his orchestra; they signed a contract and on July 2nd, 1935, the first recordings were made: two great hits, the vals “Desde el alma“ and the tango “Hotel Victoria.“ The following month they recorded another disc: “Tinta verde“ and “Penas de amor.“ Even though D’Arienzo’s first recordings at Victor suffered from technical problems that affected the sound, the discs were such a selling hit that they recorded again in July, August, October, November and Decemberin December they even recorded twice. For a relatively new orchestra, to record six discs in six months was a very important thing, especially at a time when success wasn’t still guaranteed. But the discs were sold.

D’Arienzo and the Radio

In November, 1935, Radio El Mundo appeared in the scene, with studios similar to those at the BBC in London. Buenos Aires had, then, an important radio station. I’m lucky to have had a conversation once with one of the engineers who participated in the assembling of the sound and transmition equipments at Radio El Mundo, and it was he, who told me that the best of the tecnology available at the time was used. The studio were the audience would go to watch the shows live is the current studio of Radio Nacional. At the beginning, Radio El Mundo’s transmisions had a somewhat elitist character, because its programming included a lot of classical music, and only three or four tango orchestras: De Caro, Tanturi, Canaro, Lomuto… A short time later, though, a new director was designated, Pablo Osvaldo Valle, to whom it was cleat that tango was the most popular music. And then, as well as keeping the ones who already worked at the radio, he started to hire valuable and popular tango artists. Among them, at the end of 1936, entered D’Arienzo, with already a big discography under his arm, for what the standards of the time were.

Before D’Arienzo’s first appearance on December 25th, 1936, several of his recordings had already been played, with great success: a lot of people who didn’t know the orchestra began asking about it, and the comments made were very favourable. The official debut happened on January 1st, 1937, but it was accustomed to make a debut, previous to the official, where the orchestra was presented with a lower profile, at noon, as a sort of test. And so was it that when D’Arienzo and his orchestra appeared on January 1st, they were at ease and confident, because they had already had a big success and knew that the audience was awaiting them. At the National Library one can still see the newspaper where there’s an article about the debut of D’Arienzo’s orchestra, stressing the brilliance of the group’s success. A month later, they got to make appearances on the radio four times a week, on the best spots. At the time, the orchestra’s repertoire consisted mostly of tangos from the Guardia Vieja, very likeable. From then on success began to magnify.

The year 37, it is said and I agree with that, was the opening year of D’Arienzo’s greatest success. Rodolfo Biagi was already at the piano, the place once occupied by Vicente Gorrese, Alfonso Lacueva, Juan Polito, Luis Visca and Lidio Fasoli. Before his entering D’Arienzo’s orchestra, Biagi’s playing had the style that was common to the time. In my opinion, the development of his particular way of playing was achieved during his time with D’Arienzo. Biagi was as well in charge of making the orchestrations, always with D’Arienzo’s approval, of course, and the contributions of Domingo Mancuso, Moro, Della Roca, etc. The arrangements were very simple, and it was precisely that simplicity what gave D’Arienzo all the fame that followed, even when Biagi left the orchestra to form his own, halfway through 1938, and Juan Polito took his place, brought by D’Arienzo himself.

On that same year−1937, that is−Alberto Echagüe had entered the orchestra as singer. However, the directors of Victor weren’t fond of his voice at all, and so Enrique Carbel was hired instead to make a record with D’Arienzo’s and his orchestra. Carbel was a soloist at the station Radio El Mundo, and performed there with quite a unique success; he had shared shows with D’Arienzo, though performing separately: Carbel with his guitars, and D’Arienzo with his orchestra. So was it that Carbel made the first recording of one of D’Arienzo’s greatest hits, “Paciencia,“ which Echagüe wouldn’t record himself until 1951.

It’s hard to believe, but many of the greatest voices that formed the great pairs of tango history were, at the beginning, somehow contrary to the taste of directors of record labels and the radio stations where the orchestras would perform. Such was the case of Fiorentino, Raúl Berón, Ángel Vargas, Alberto Castillo. What the orchestra director would do in such a situation, with the purpose of establishing the singer in the group, because he knew he would go well with the orchestra, was to introduce him gradually. That’s why Alberto Echagüe would sing but one of the four or five pieces the orchestra would play, and even then it was only to sing one stanza, a part of the tango and nothing more.

The recording with Carbel was successful, but I don’t know the details of how it all went, because the fact is they never recorded together again. D’Arienzo, as well as the rest of the orchestra had an interest in Echagüe. His first recording was the tango “Indiferencia“ and was made in January 1938, but the fact that the record releases that followed were of instrumental tangos shows that they were still cautious and expectant regarding the success Echagüe would achieve among the audience, before they decided to keep making records with him as singer. We all know what happened then: success was great, and so Echagüe recorded “Milonga del corazón.“ The records were a selling hit and Echagüe started recording with D’Arienzo often, without waiting to see the commercial results. Moreover, by the fifth or sixth disc, both sides of the discs produced contained songs with Echagüe’s voice on both sides.

The Phoenix: D’Arienzo’s New Orchestra

It was, precisely, based on that success, that on the early 40’s D’Arienzo’s musicians, Echagüe included, asked their director for a raise. The intermediary was Juan Polito, who had already been close to D’Arienzo for years. D’Arienzo himself, however, wouldn’t even hear about it, but the others insisted, only to get the same reply from the chief. About this episode there’s an interesting article in one of the volumes of Historia del tango by Oscar Zucchi, who heard the story from Polito himself: After the failed negotiations, his partners suggested he (Polito) insist under the threat of leaving the orchestra. Facing the new terms of the negotiation, and to the surprise of many, D’Arienzo offered more money only to Polito, while all he gave to the rest of the band was the chance to walk out comfortably. That’s what Polito told about it. Some words missing, some to spare, the fact is after fulfulling their commitments at the carnivals in Buenos Aires and Montevideo, all of D’Arienzo’s musicians went on to form their own orchestra: the Polito-Echagüe.

Right away word began to spread that it was the end of D’Arienzo, that it all had been nothing but a dream, a “summer orchestra“. Newspapers and magazines would display headers that read things such as “The end of D’Arienzo“, “The D’Arienzo frenzy is coming to an end“, etc., as they gave more importance to the brand-new Polito-Echagüe group, for reasons easy to understand, of course. They were all in for a big surprise, since all prognosis were defeated. The first thing D’Arienzo did was to go look for Héctor Varela, whom he had already checked out during his performances at cabaret Imperio and Radio Belgrano; they had also played together on occasion. Varela’s was a new orchestra; it had been playing for about a year and had something somewhat close to D’Arienzo’s rhythm, which was, however, a common thing back then, since D’Arienzo’s success was so great that most orchestras went and imitated him. Even the more experienced orchestras, which had a success of their own, such as those led by Canaro, Firpo, Fresedo and De Caro, don’t imitate everything, but there’s a clear trace of D’Arienzo in the vibrant, very danceable rhythm, pretty stacatto.

Carlos García once told Oscar del Priore a story, the latter then shared with me: Firpo’s orchestra had just played a song at Radio Belgrano, and they were about to begin another one when somebody said to Firpo: ’Have you heard about D’Arienzo’s success? It’s incredible!!’ Firpo, then, very nervous, went to Carlos García, the orchestra’s pianist, and asked him impetuously: ’Listen, do something, please, do something!’

Salamanca once told me that the situation around the debut of D’Arienzo’s new orchestra, on May 1st, 1940, was somewhat similar to what had happened the previous time: some brief performances of the orchestra at the station helped build the audience’s curiosity, so that even before the debut people where already asking about the orchestra—which in this case started happening before name of the orchestra was announced—, making it clear that success was guaranteed. And so it happened, that D’Arienzo’s triumphed on a higher level than ever before. Héctor Varela as first bandoneón and arranger, Fulvio Salamanca at the piano and Cayetano Puglisi as violinist, were the three stars of this new configuration of D’Arienzo’s orchestra. Every record that came out would sell, according to what Salamanca himself told me, at least 20,000 – 30,000 discs, and later on the first edition of any recording thought to be a hit consisted of up to 75,000 units. They would take a chance, and the expectations were always surpassed.

Simultaneously, the 40’s also were generous to Di Sarli, Troilo, Pugliese, Biagi, etc., as far as success is concerned. D’Arienzo never left the podium, but according to Salamanca, already around 1946 D’Arienzo started to see his popularity was falling. As I can see it now, that was by no means the case, rather, that it was only the other orchestras picking up. For Troilo, for example, it wasn’t until two or three years had passed that he became popular, and the same for Di Sarli, who had been around for some years, almost the same as D’Arienzo, but without the other’s success at the radio nor with record sales, despite the fact that he had recorded several albums for Victor. Later on that changed, and they started receiving awards, became well known. The same happened to Pugliese, D’Agostino, Laurenz, Demare, Caló… All the orchestras we know from the early 40’s. Competition for popularity became, all of a sudden, enormous. And it’s precisely because of that, that tango found in those years its finest moment. Before then, between 1937 and 1940, D’Arienzo had experienced a sort of exclusiveness, when he surpassed the success of Canaro, Firpo, De Caro, Fresedo, the Donato brothers, Lomuto, in other words, the great eminencies of the early days of tango, who had by then enjoyed 20 years of success, or even more. Juan D’Arienzo’s appearance, with his almost instantaneous success on the radio, the record and live performances, dimished the others’ popularity and years would pass until he found competition.

The D’Arienzo Style

About the origin of D’Arienzo’s innovative style many things were said. Among the musicians, though, an idea began to take form, the very simple idea that it just happened, that it gradually came to being on its own, naturally. D’Arienzo’s orchestra had that special character, directed towards the dance, and music for dancers was always a success. It was danceable tango what drove and stimulated the tango people, even the people who might be attracted to it. And it’s the same thing nowadays. It seems untrue, but according to what I hear, D’Arienzo is still among the indispensable orchestras at every milonga around the world. If only he were here to see that!

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