Vasallo - Confessions of a bass player:
he first time was at a café when I was reunited with a few guys fond of tango and some rather old musicians. He was the first who stood up and left. I asked them who he was and they told me: «Juan Antonio Vasallo». Years before I had seen him during some public performances and my attention was drawn to some of his peculiar ways. Time later we met and we kept a pleasant friendship.
We used to talk walking along the streets near his domicile, Río Bamba near Lavalle, I recall it with fear. It turns out that Toto, as he was called familiarly, was unable to see well because of a serious diabetes and when he crossed a street, maybe because he trusted who accompanied him, he used to look to the sky disregarding the traffic lights and we arrived at the opposite sidewalk crossing fast among the cars and I hurried him by holding his arm. He was not fond of talking about his career, but one afternoon he told me:
«Have I told you I was born in Chivilcoy? Well, when I was eight besides going to school they sent me to study music with occasional teachers, those in the neighborhood and not far from home. One did what he could with the bandoneon, another blew the trombone in a band, with the latter I learnt to play a sort of bugle, small, very easy. Time passed and I saw a tango orchestra for the first time and God knows why a double bass struck me. But for the moment the thing stopped there.
«I graduated from technical school, I became a lathe operator and I devoted myself to that, without giving up music. By chance I got acquainted with a neighbor who had already visited Buenos Aires several times, he was Argentino Galván. This circumstance, the fact that my father was willing to go closer to the big city and my enthusiasm, drove us to leave Chivilcoy and settle in the town of Ezeiza. I went on with my job and, with some boys of the surroundings we formed a tango quintet. There I was the bandoneon player and we used to play in the vicinity.
«If there was something that annoyed me was listening to the bassist mistreating his instrument. Then one night I couldn’t bear it any longer and I told him “Leave it to me”. I had my knowledge and, furthermore, I had been studying violin for two years at the Williams conservatory. But the bass caught me.
«The first one I had was in 1948, I bought it in Casa Soprano for a hundred pesos. Then talking with the shop owner he recommended me to study with a Spaniard, a Catalonian named José Rovira. To be his student was a guarantee. One year later Alberto Caracciolo, the bandoneonist who time later adhered to Piazzolla’s style, turned up and asked me to play with him. He was looking for a more professional bassist because the one who played with him played by ear and was unable to play the arrangements. Here’s a piece of information he gave me, Caracciolo wrote the arrangement of “Tierrita” for Troilo.
«Later came Alberto Mancione. A few years ago at a rendezvous Caracciolo commented that he had been the one who introduced me to Gordo Mancione. I said nothing, but it was not that way. The bass player in that orchestra was Ítalo Bessa and one day he told me he was about to join Lorenzo Barbero. If I was interested in replacing him he would introduce me to Mancione. I agreed, he auditioned me and I was accepted. There were a lot of stints with Mancione. Caracciolo, instead, was a bohemian, he liked rehearsing, the friendly ambiance and some recordings from time to time, but I needed to earn money.
«Do you know which was my entertainment and my way of getting some money? This was: in the kitchen of my apartment I have a lathe and I manufactured the violoncello ferrules, then I sold them to the players.
«With Mancione I made my debut in 1951 on Radio El Mundo, I was with him until 1954. With Astor Piazzolla was by chance. He had to play and the bassist Hamlet Greco got ill. He went to Radio El Mundo to see what he could find and I was there. I played with his string orchestra, with the Octeto. I was always in good relations with my partners, but in my life I always had problems due to shyness, it was very difficult for me to start something and because of that I was somewhat apart sometimes.
«I was as well with Domingo Federico, with Alfredo Calabró, with Francini, with Alfredo Gobbi. He was a glory, to be with him was marvelous... you then learnt a lot!... so good a musician!... but with the gigs there were problems, in fact, they were his problems with alcohol. He arrived late or did not appear at all, it was not possible that way.
«In 1958 I applied for a contest for a seat in the symphonic orchestra of the Teatro Colón. I won and there I was until my retirement. But before that I was associated with Eduardo Rovira. We made a two-year tour. We traveled around Spain, Portugal. I'll tell you something funny. You know Rovira's style, so far from traditional tango. While in Portugal we appeared at a venue and in fact people were waiting for something different. All of a sudden someone in a loud voice asked us to play a pasodoble. We didn't know what to do, even Rovira himself. Then one of our bandoneon players, without embarrassment began to play "El niño de las monjas", and the orchestra followed him. Can you imagine Rovira playing pasodobles?
«In the mid- fifties I met Atilio Stampone. With him I was always, entering and leaving. I finished my career with Atilio.
«From the Colón I retired earlier, it's sad to say it but it was because of disability, my eyesight was already in bad condition. Since 1984 the only thing I do is meeting with friends. I organize barbecues at my apartment. You have to come here, many ones have already been here. Ah! If you see Pinsón invite him, I have a gift for him, a victrola, so he will hear the 78 discs I've got.»
He puts his hand in a pocket of his coat and takes out a photo showing a group of boys on a beach. He is wearing a little hat, he shows it to me. We can see the sea as background. Mar del Plata? I asked him. «No, the Caspian sea, a tour of the USSR with Atilio Stampone, I don't remember what country was that. Here I am, this is Néstor Fabián. Look at this woman, how pretty, she is the female singer Gloria Vélez. Everybody wished to have a date with her. Except me, of course.»
A daughter of his play oboe in the Symphonic Orchestra of the Federal Police. His son Eduardo has been living for years in Birmingham, England. He is the lead violoncello of the symphonic orchestra there. He visits often Buenos Aires and around 1994, he played at the Colón theater a concerto for cello and orchestra, it was aired by radio.
His diabetes and hepatic problems took him away from us on a winter day. This memory is for Juan Vasallo, a great musician and a good friend.