by José Gobello
Leader and violinist.
(December 14, 1900 January 14, 1976)
n 1936 Juan D'Arienzo successfully appeared in the disputable territory of popularity. He was just 35 years old, one less than Julio De Caro stylistically placed on the other end of the musical horizon of tango- he had been a star since 1924 and D'Arienzo started to become one when Pablo Osvaldo Valle took him to the brand new El Mundo radio station. What in no way meant, at all, that D'Arienzo were a late tango player. Like almost all the musicians in those days, he started in tango as a boy. With Angel D'Agostino on piano, the bandoneon player Ernesto Bianchi -aka Lechuguita- and Ennio Bolognini Remo´s and Astor´s brother he played, at a very early age, in very insignificant theaters. His first memorable performance, that he himself did not recall very well, goes back to 1919. On June 25 that year, Arata-Simari-Franco theater company premiered, at the Nacional theater, the comic play by Alberto Novión, "El cabaret Montmartre". D'Arienzo, in an interview in 1949, said that he played on that premiere: «We, D'Agostino and I on the violin, took part in the opening night of Alberto Novión´s sainete "El cabaret Montmartre"/.../. At the play a small tango orchestra appeared, led by us, and which accompanied Los Undar's, a famous dancing number formed by the partners la Portuguesa and El Morocho, two stars of tango canyengue». Doctor Luis Adolfo Sierra has established, however, that at the premiere of that play Roberto Firpo´s orchestra played. When it (Firpo, on piano; Cayetano Puglisi, on violin; Pedro Maffia and Juan Bautista Deambroggio, on bandoneons, and Alejandro Michetti, on drums) left on September 1, that year, it was replaced by that of D'Arienzo-D'Agostino.
From then on, D'Arienzo continued linked to theater. Always with D'Agostino on piano, he accompanied Evita Franco, who was his same age and beautifully sang tangos like "Loca", "Entra nomás" or "Pobre milonga"; he played his violin in the Frederickson jazz band and assembled an orchestra with D'Agostino, in which the latter, naturally, played piano; the other violin was Mazzeo; on bandoneons were Anselmo Aieta and Ernesto Bianchi, and Juan Puglisi on bass.
When D'Agostino left, he was replaced by Luis Visca, who was then composing "Compadrón". That was a sextet.
1935 is the key year in D'Arienzo´s career; this is the year when the D'Arienzo we all remember really appeared. That happened when in his orchestra Rodolfo Biagi was included, a pianist who had played with Pacho, who had accompanied Gardel on some recordings, who had also played with Juan Guido and with Juan Canaro. D'Arienzo was performing at the Chantecler by then. Biaggi´s inclusion meant a change of time signature for D'Arienzo orchestra, which changed the four-eight for the two-four; that is to say, he returned to two-four, the fast frolic beat of the primitive tangos.
When Biagi left him in 1938 to assemble his own orchestra, D'Arienzo had already identified himself with the two-four definitively. Facing the martial rhythm by Canaro, the somewhat street band-like platitude of Francisco Lomuto, and De Caro´s symphonic attempts, D'Arienzo contributed a fresh, juvenile, enlivening air to tango. Tango, which had been an ostentatious, challenging almost gymnastic dance, turned one day, according to Discépolo, into a sad thought which can be danced to... It can be... The dance had become subsidiary then; but then had been displaced by lyrics and the singers, and now it is displaced by the arrangement. So: D'Arienzo gave tango back to the dancers´feet and with that he made the tango be again of interest for the young. The "king of beat" turned into the king of dancing, and by making people dance he earned a lot of money, which is a nice way to get it.
Tango lovers despise D'Arienzo. He is considered as a sort of tango demagogue. But D'Arienzo as José Luis Macaggi has very well said made possible that tango renaissance called "la década del cuarenta" (the 40s), a decade which represents for tango something like, mutatis mutandis, what the Gold Century meant for Spanish literature.
Of course neither tango started in 1940. Nor the tango players in 1940 are more important than those in 1910 or 1920 (as Cervantes was not more important than Berceo or king Alfonso). Sometimes people deny, with a criterion half aestheticist half aestheticizing, Canaro, Contursi, Azucena Maizani, Luis Roldán, the pioneers, those who placed, rightly or wrongly, the foundation on which the complex structure of tango has been built. Piazzolla has some time complained that always the music of the dead is played... For God´s sake! It´s like complaining because children in school read Miguel Cané or José Hernández.
When D'Arienzo achieved success with the new beat, he dazzled the Chantecler dancers and El Mundo radio station broadcasted it all over the country, D'Arienzo began to theorize about himself.
I don´t know if the merit of D'Arienzo consisted in suggesting, in devising or simply in allowing to do. It is not either worthwhile wasting time in criticizing the regretful concessions he made to bad taste, with compositions so shoddy as "El tarta" or "El hipo". We have better to forget about all that. In any case, that bad taste had some kind of parallelism with the original mood of tango, with the plebeian mark that the compadritos impressed to tango in the dancing salons, at the cafés waited on by maids, at the Politeama and Skating Ring dancings, it is worthwhile, instead, to spend some time in D'Arienzo´s theories.
In 1949 D'Arienzo said: «In my point of view, tango is, above all, rhythm, nerve, strength and character. Early tango, that of the old stream (guardia vieja), had all that, and we must try not to ever lose it. Because we forgot that, Argentine tango entered into a crisis some years ago. Putting aside modesty, I did all was possible to make it reappear. In my opinion, a good part of the blame for tango decline is on the singers. There was a time when a tango orchestra was nothing else but a mere pretext for the singer´s featuring. The players, including the leader, were no more than accompanists of a somewhat popular star. For me, that can´t be. Tango is also music, as is already said. I would add that is essentially music. In consequence, the orchestra, which plays it, cannot be relegated to the background to spotlight only the singer. On the contrary, it is for the orchestras and not for the singers. The human voice is not, it should not be another thing but an instrument more in the orchestra. To sacrifice everything for the singer´s sake, for the star, is a mistake. I reacted against that mistake which caused the tango crisis and placed the orchestra in the foreground and the singer in his place. Furthermore, I tried to rescue for tango its masculine strength, which it had been losing through succesive circumstances. In that way in my interpretations I stamped the rhythm, the nerve, the strength and the character which distinguished it in the music world and which it had been losing for the above reasons. Luckily, that crisis was temporary, and today tango has been re-established, our tango, with the vitality of its best times. My major pride is to have contributed to that renaissance of our popular music."
This is what D'Arienzo said, through that great journalist, that master of interview called Andrés Muñoz. So: the same day D'Arienzo was saying these things, or almost the same day, Aníbal Troilo, with Edmundo Rivero, recorded "El último organito". There the singer was in the foreground and, however, that was pure tango, and in the most demanding anthology of sound that beautiful version should not be absent.
Anyhow, also D'Arienzo placed, some times, the singer in the foreground, and even though he made him run at the orchestra speed, he looked for an additional and contemptible boom in lyrics so unpleasant as the before mentioned or like "Chichipía" or "El nene del Abasto".
In 1975, a month before his death, D'Arienzo theorized again: "The foundation of my orchestra is the piano. I regard it as irreplaceable. When my pianist, Polito is ill, I replace him with Jorge Dragone. If something happens to the latter I´m at a loss. Then the fourth violin appears as an essential element. It must sound like a viola or a cello. I assemble my group with piano, double bass, five violins, five bandoneons and three singers. Less members, never. I had even used, for some recordings, up to ten violins".
No doubt, the results achieved by D'Arienzo orchestra neither justified so much instrumental display, nor did they justify to have as first violin an artist like Cayetano Puglisi. With an equal number of instruments, in 1946 Troilo´s orchestra got that prodigy of sound we find in its version of Recuerdos de bohemia. But that is another issue. What is true is that, in 1975, when the avant-garde movement was in bloom, D'Arienzo went on saying that "if musicians turned back to the pureness of two-four, the passion for our music would come again and, thanks to the modern media of broadcasting, we would reach world importance".
To go back to the early two-four means, however, to erase Canaro, erase Cobián, erase De Caro, erase all the tango players in the 40s. Is it worth while?
D'Arienzo, at the end of his career, dug the camp style; of course, without knowing it and without even thinking of it. People saw him making faces in front of the musicians and the singers; they saw him with fondness, there was something of nostalgia and something of mockery. Of course, the orchestra beat was leading the dancers' feet. And the dancers' feet still follow the beat when D'Arienzo´s records are played back and his figure keeps on raising a great fondness. He deserves it for what he did for tango in the mid- 30s.
Originally published in Tango y Lunfardo Nº 132, Year XIV, Chivilcoy, 16 September 1997. Director: Gaspar J. Astarita