The last interview to Sebastián Piana
"Life as the reality of a mission accomplished"
by Rodolfo Barrese and Fernando Piana
ebastián Piana, who died in Buenos Aires on July 17, 1994, at 3 PM, is in the hall of fame of the great creators of our popular music. This interview, made on June 16, 1994, at his homeplace in the neighborhood of Almagro, is a posthumous homage paid by its authors from the pages of "Desmemoria", a publication that, through one of its directors, Miguel Unamuno, had requested to the historian and journalist Rodolfo Barrese, some months before, an article about the life and the work of the lasting composer.
Barrese, a fellow workman of the young journalist Fernando Piana, nephew of the late musician, took advantage of this connection to suggest to the maestro's relative that the request by "Desmemoria" had the shape of an interview. The intention was to present a natural household Piana, breathing passages of a past ever-present in the heart of the Argentines. Within that frame, his word flowed sustained by the strength of a great work, his, remembered with a simplicity that, for two hours, surprised the ones responsible for this evocation.
In this, his last interview, Piana longs for his father, a barber and musician; the ineffable Homero Manzi, poet and politician; great women of the Buenos Aires song, such as Rosita Quiroga, Mercedes Simone and Azucena Maizani; the very affectionate Cátulo Castillo and his father, with whom he shared his first hit, the tango "Sobre el pucho", premiered in 1922. Neither he forgets recalling the figures of maestro de Bassi, of Piazzolla, of the unavoidable Borges.
The composer of "Milonga sentimental" (a subject that he uses as an excuse to narrate the evolution of the milonga, from country style (criolla) to urban style, of which he was, together with his brother-in-law, Pedro Maffia, the forerunner), of "Silbando" and "Tinta roja" -a man who met Carlos Gardel-, tells us scenes of his journey throughout this world, from which he passed away at the age of 90, like what he was, a great name of music and tango.
There is no age when life, judge and party of existence, summarizes in a consecrated talent the reality of a mission accomplished.
The last interview
- What memories of your father, also named Sebastián, do you keep?
- My father was a barber, a trade he inherited from my grandfather.
However, he was very fond of music and he had capabilities for that.
- Do you share the opinion, held by the Bates brothers, that tango (in its development as musical genre) takes elements from candombe, the habanera and the milonga?
- Certainly. The habanera was almost the mother of tango. The milonga, on the other hand, belonged to country music, what today is known as folklore. Later the milonga arrived in town, but it was not yet that milonga of which I was the forerunner: it was a rural milonga, sung by gauchos, by that country people that, sometimes, improvised....
- It was a country milonga, that the Gardel-Razzano duo sang as well. The Argentine and Uruguayan payadores (itinerant singers) that had the ability to improvise lyrics: they were naturally born-poets that, among them, they ad lib rivaled to the beat of a milonga. It would not be strange that the habanera, a Spanish air well-known in Cuba, blended with black music and took advantage of the candombe small drum. Later this spread all over America. All this produces the musical origin of tango in Argentina. But tango is a Spanish word. The tanguillo is a Spanish dance.
- Originally the milonga was a music for strings, was percussion added in Cuba?
- I guess so. The Negroes, that have a great intuition and a rhythmic sense, made "their" habanera. This seems to have spread throughout America. That would be the origin of the early tango beat.
- Can we talk of a "Piana's Revolution" as far as milonga is concerned?
- It is, simply, the change from a milonga -which was regarded as
belonging to the south and the Pampas, without dance or danced in
privacy, and dug by gauchos and payadores-, to the milonga porteña,
owed to Maffia and to me. They were melodically quite alike. The renewal,
the porteña and suburban milonga, is owed to a request made
by Rosita Quiroga to Homero
Manzi. We had given to her a tango that she would sing. However,
she asked for a milonga. Astonished, Manzi told me; «Rosita
asked me a milonga». I answered him: but if all milongas are
nearly the same thing, very much alike, because of that people improvise
on them... «Look, Sebastián, I don't understand anything
about milongas», Manzi answered to me.
- Cátulo's father, finally did he add lyrics to your first milonga?
- No, no. It seems he forgot about it (laughs). He was a great friend of mine and of my father's.
- What kind of acclaim the milonga of that Buenos Aires in the 30s had?
- At the beginning not a wide acclaim, because they were unpublished.
I remember that on a piano at de Casa América's radio, and
for myself, I started to play "Milonga
sentimental". A speaker was around the place and he asked
me: «What are you playing, maestro? It's a milonga, I replied.
-How nice! Why don't you hand it to Mercedes
Simone?», he continued.
- Nothing happened with dear Rosita. Manzi, finally, handed her the theme but it seemed she did not understand it well. Rosita used to sing another kind of milongas.
- When did you work as musician in the orchestra of Pedro Maffia?
- That came later. It was after the milonga was premiered in Montevideo. Subsequently it was recorded in Buenos Aires, it was the only thing that represented the new genre, an evolution from the older milonga.
- How does the story of "Milonga sentimental" go on?
- On an occasion an actor, Máximo
Orsi, who worked at the theater company of revues that the maestro
Arturo de Bassi led, asked to me if I should
write the music for one of its country songs. As he was member of
the cast, he would ask de Bassi to premiere it.
- What did Homero Manzi feel deeper, poetry or politics?
- Both things. At the time I came to know him he belonged to the
Radical party and he was much involved in politics. He was then 18
years old and was studying at the School of Law. He was expelled from
there due to his political commitment: he did not finished his studies
to become a lawyer. He was quite a politician, but with the feeling
of a poet. He always used to say: "I shall write lyrics for politicians
and, also, lyrics for people".
- As years went by, what sort of recognition did the milonga achieve?
- The milonga had no widespread recognition until my brother-in-law,
Pedro Maffia, was hired
for a great show at the old and now disappeared Teatro San Martín
on Esmeralda Street. "La Voz del Aire", a radio station
of that period, organized a great show, broadcast live for the public
in the studio and for its audience.
- Simultaneously, you dug tango. When was "Tinta roja" created?
- In the 40s. It is one of the numbers most played among my 500 works.
originally, was an instrumental tango.
- Of your relationship with Cátulo Castillo, which is the most vivid memory you have?
- I knew Cátulo since he was a child, through his father and,
he also knew that we had won an award with the tango "Sobre el
pucho". He learnt to play piano and as lyricist he had a tango
called "Caminito del
taller". One day he came home and told me: «Look, I
have written the first part of a tango, if you like it, please write
the second; we can make it be premiered by Azucena
Maizani that is working at the Teatro San Martín under
the direction of my father.» So I answered that I thought it
was a good idea and I finished the music that day.
- Did you have any relationship with Gardel?
- Yes. First because Cátulo's father was a close friend of
his and he premiered "Sobre el pucho" which, later, the
Zorzal Criollo also recorded. Anyhow, I had the chance to speak to
him because we worked at the same cinema. Then, once I greeted him
and told him that I was who had composed the music for "Sobre
- Was Gardel really popular at that time?
- Yes, he had already recorded very much. But there was a period
during which he had declined a little. It was when he traveled to
Spain, and later to France. When he arrived in Spain they not even
had any news about, they only knew that he sang. Previously, an Argentine
singer named Francisco Spaventa had been there; he had been very successful
in France and, later, in the United States, where he worked at movies.
- We had to hang around the orchestras with our compositions; they preferred to record tangos of their own in a more classic style.
- Who made the revolution in tango as far as the orchestral sound is concerned?
- There were three great orchestras: Roberto Firpo's, that of yesterday tango; Francisco Canaro's and Osvaldo Fresedo's. Without forgetting those of Julio de Caro and Pedro Maffia. By that time, tango was evolving into different styles. The Quinteto Ases Pebeco was important as well, which I joined and was lined up with the four best bandoneons of the period: Ciriaco Ortiz, Pedro Maffia, Pedro Laurenz and Carlos Marcucci. Instrumental tango began to become popular around 1934, when we made our debut with the Maffia orchestra at the Teatro San Martín.
- In the 40s, which were your great hits?
- Well, my popularity began before the 40s. As I already said, when Mercedes Simone sang "Milonga sentimental" I began to be known. She later asked me to accompany her on piano. Much later, I went on composing with Homero Manzi and we made "Milonga del 900". Another successful tango was "El pescante", that Canaro played for the first time at a contest. It was awarded the second prize because the contest was previously arranged to grant the first award to another piece. Later we made "Milonga federal" and "Juan Manuel"; "Milonga de Puente Alsina" was sung by Simone with much acclaim. "Pena mulata" was another successful milonga but with a candombe style. On the same beat I composed "Papá Baltasar", with lyrics by Manzi as well. The waltzes I wrote were "Esquinas porteñas", that Ignacio Corsini sang and "Caserón de tejas", with a very good interpretation -years later-, by María Graña.
- Who were the singers of your choice?
- At that period there were two excluding singers: Carlos Gardel and Ignacio Corsini. Both had their own personality. Many imitated Gardel. I also liked Charlo, who besides was a musician. I knew him a long time before he married Sabina Olmos.
- Were you sought after to work with your compositions at the cinema?
- I was accompanying Mercedes Simone when she was hired by the Paz company to appear on one of their movies. Then, she asked the producers if they had already chosen the musician for the film and as the enterprise said they had not, she right away told them that I accompanied at her shows, so I had to talk to them. I had already written the score for Daniel Tinayre's "Sombras porteñas". I also worked for the Max Glücksmann company, that run twenty cinemas in the Federal Capital. At first I played at a cinema theater in Palermo, later they transferred me to the Palace cinema and, finally, to the Electric. There I played classical music during the projection of the movies, arrangements of operas and overtures. At that time I was fifteen.
- How do you start to study music?
- When I was only eight I began to study sight-reading with a violinist that was very much nervous. He was a good musician but he did not know how to teach. He explained to me very quickly. Then he told my father: «Look, make your son study another thing because he has no abilities for music.» My father's teacher advised him to make me study piano because in such a way I could have a assured future, and then I began with Antonio Eduardo D'Agostino, a great teacher and pianist. In six months I changed completely. It was the new school.
- In what year were you admitted in the Academia Porteña del Lunfardo?
- In 1963, a year after it was founded. I met José Gobello and I told him that I was no writer to be there. But he replied that they wanted to include a musician. For a long time I was the only composer, until I promoted the admission of the arranger of the Mariano Mores orchestra, Martín Darré.
- During the golden age of tango, did a musician manage to live well?
- The only ones that could live well, working hard, were the early composers: Firpo, Canaro and Fresedo. But it was not the same for musicians like me, who did not lead an orchestra. I earned for my living teaching music. Previously I had worked playing at the cinemas, until sound films came. And the royalties as composer were never enough for a living.
- Were you acquainted with Borges?
- Yes. I worked in two numbers with him: "Milonga del muerto", that was played by Eduardo Falú, and in another one, titled "Milonga del infiel". Furthermore, he was a home twice. The first of these milongas was titled "del Soldado" and the military authorities of the Proceso banned it.
- Did you ever have problems with the military authorities?
- At Onganía's period they behaved very badly with the artists, because they eliminated all live shows at radio stations and at cinema theaters. It even went against me personally. But ... we'd better forget it.
- Some people say that Astor Piazzolla was the great innovator in the music of Buenos Aires; What is your opinion about it?
- He did not bring any innovation at all. He was a musician thoroughly trained and that is not at issue. But the innovators in tango were three: Roberto Firpo, with the tango "Alma de bohemio"; later Enrique Delfino appeared and, much later, Juan Carlos Cobián, a great pianist. Piazzolla was a great player, his innovation was more propaganda than any other thing. Anyway, to compose a tango, there is no need of a deep technical instruction, you have to feel it. The early tango players were not musically trained, they were polishing themselves through time. Such was Eduardo Arolas' case.
- What other singers, besides Gardel and Corsini, did you like?
- Mainly Agustín Magaldi and Ángel Vargas. Also Héctor Mauré. But I think that Carlos Gardel was unsurpassable, not only because of his voice, but also for his personality. He was unique, even though I recognize values in the rest.
- What advise would you give to the young in order to spread tango?
- Young people by themselves cannot do anything. The ones that run
locals for dancing tango can help by charging a cheaper admission
ticket. In the old times, by paying for a coffee you were allowed
to listen to a good orchestra.
Interview made on June 16, 1994.