Oscar Alemán

Real name: Alemán, Oscar Marcelo
Guitarrist, composer and leader
(20 February 1909 - 14 October 1980)
Place of birth:
Machagai (Chaco) Argentina
Néstor Pinsón

or the one who came to know him his name means jazz. However, he devoted his time also to tango. The circumstances of his life led him to that foreign rhythm.

He was born in the Argentine northeastern area, in the province of Chaco, in the locality of Machagai. He started with folk music and playing local dances. It was in 1915 when he, only six years old, was member of the Sexteto Moreira, along with his father Jorge Alemán Moreira —an Uruguayan guitarist—, his mother Micaela Pereyra —a Toba Indian that played piano— and three of his siblings.

They went to Buenos Aires looking for a job. They worked in second level casts. Oscar did a juggling act, danced malambo, played tap dancing. Finally, he with his father and siblings went to the city of Santos in Brazil. His mother did not travel.

Soon later his father committed suicide and his siblings broke up. In order to get money he used to open the doors of the cars that came to the cabaret Miramar and he dreamed of being a guitarist. He got a cavaquinho, a four-stringed instrument like a ukulele. One day somebody heard him playing and soon he became the main attraction of that venue.

He was fifteen when he teamed up with the local guitarist Gastón Bueno Lobo. They named themselves Los Lobos and recorded some tangos and some adaptations to the tango beat: “Vividor”, “Mi chiquita”, “En un pueblito de España”, “La cumparsita” and “Guitarra que llora”. The latter was composed by him and later Enrique Cadícamo wrote lyrics to it. It was premiered by Agustín Magaldi and was committed to disc on August 25, 1928.

They arrived in Buenos Aires in 1925 and, after the suggestion of the Victor label, they joined the company led by the actor Pablo Palitos, along with Elvino Vardaro, to form the Trío Víctor. They cut several numbers: “Recóndita” music by Fausto Frontera and lyrics by Celedonio Flores, “Página gris” by Enrique Cantore, Vardaro’s “Un beso” and Villoldo’s “El presumido”.

He happened, in his youth, to accompany Magaldi in some recording session and also Rosita Quiroga. He is easily recognized by the sounds of a Hawaiian guitar.

«Later we went to Madrid. It was 1929. There we split up, I stayed in Spain for some time and then I hit the road to Paris. By that time I had a show number with a dancer, Harry Fleming. In 1932 I was hired by the famous Josephine Baker. I used to accompany her in some numbers and soon later I led the orchestra. We were known as the Baker Boys. There I frequented the Hot Club de France, I met great musicians and made many things until 1940. After the war had broken out, when the Germans arrived in France I came back to my country».

He never studied, he was completely intuitive. His music had a lot to do with his faraway African genes. He used to harmonize with such a perfection that he amazed his renowned peers. When he was an old man somebody asked him who were the musicians he thought were the ones who armonized well and he answered: «Here I like Horacio Salgán and Astor Piazzolla. I like Enrique Villegas very much even though they say he’s sort of nuts».

From the old classical composers he liked Johann Sebastian Bach: «He’s the father of music. He is much older than jazz and he made a lot of jazz without knowing it, of course». About the most recent classical composers he stood out Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel: «They make see things». As for tango, when he was asked to make a choice between Aníbal Troilo and Piazzolla, he used to say: «They are two different things. Piazzolla introduces a lot of jazz into tango, Troilo has a pure way of playing. It doesn’t mean he’s a better bandoneon player or a better musician. I regard Piazzolla as a great musician. Salgán is also greatly influenced by jazz, I love him, he’s got much musicality inside».

The young ones who frequented the old Gong, the Richmond Suipacha, the Adlón tearoom on Florida Street danced in the 40s with the music Oscar played. In 1941 he put together a pianoless quintet to feature him as soloist. There were three violins —one of them was the Chilean Hernán Oliva—, a double bass and drums.

In 1974 he lived with his wife in an apartment on Maipú Street, a half block from Corrientes Avenue: «I’ve been living here for 16 years, people often see me, but nobody has dared to call me for the “Maipo” or “El Nacional” or another important show. I have some students. At this time there are twenty-four, and I go on composing and playing.

«The jazz guitarist I liked most was Charlie Christian because he played like a Negro, jazz, jazz. I was much acquainted with Django Reinhardt who used to say that jazz was gypsy. I didn’t like that saying and we quarreled about that phrase. He was gypsy and he liked to introduce that influence into a music that was not gypsy. He played very well but with many gypsy touches. And he had a very good technique with both hands. He always played with a pick, not with his fingers. Here with Piazzolla it happens that he adds a lot of jazz things to tango. I admire him but I also criticize him. On the other hand, Troilo is flesh-and-bone tango.

«As a professional I never played Argentine folk music except on one occasion. It was on a Christmas Eve in Budapest when I was Josephine’s sideman. She had rented a restaurant so that the whole cast was together. After dinner he asked everybody to play something, but it had to be something unusual. When my turn came I thought on the spur of the moment to play a gato (a folk dance whose name means “cat”) which I improvised with tapping feet and all. There was a great applause. I run away towards the kitchen and began to play it again because I didn’t want to forget it. I didn’t forget it and, much much later I recorded it under the name “El perrito” (Little Dog) the way I had played it then».

As a soloist he recorded some tangos adapted according to his taste as jazz pieces and with his own arrangements and improvisations. Those were the cases of “Milonga triste”, in which he sings part of the lyrics in a hardly conventional way; his number as homage to Salgán “Al gran Horacio Salgán” and “La cumparsita” in the same vein as the previous ones.

In 2002 Oscar Alemán, vida con swing was premiered. It is an excellent documentary film, written and directed by Hernán Gaffet. Released in 2002, it is a work that depicts the brilliant musical life and painful personal life of the genial guitarist. It has become a fundamental piece of rescue and reference about one of the greatest —and also forgotten— musicians born in Argentina.