Oscar Zucchi

patriarchal figure of tango, a bando player of the heroic period. When people talk about the outstanding bandoneonists of the time when bandoneon became the instrument most representative of the groups devoted to tango, he is generally unjustly forgotten. His contribution to the definitive adoption and recognition of bandoneon and, consequently, of tango in the different milieus and social strata has been valuable and decisive.

For that reason we think that his name deserves to be placed on the same level given to remarkable figures such as Vicente Greco, Juan Maglio, Genaro Espósito, Arturo Bernstein, Eduardo Arolas, José Arturo Severino and Vicente Loduca, who followed the way paved by that fundamental forerunner named Domingo Santa Cruz.

As far as composition is concerned he brought to tango that breeze from the southern “pampa”, the same that blew on the tangos composed by Greco, Firpo, Posadas, De Leone, Raimundo Petillo, Arolas –in a part of his output–, by El Gallego José Martínez and El chino Agustín Bardi. In his role of leader, his famous Quintet Augusto was one of the most renowned and capable of its time and, with the later aggregations he evidenced a clear interest to evolve.

In the latter years of his long career as leader he followed a criterion similar to the one adopted by Maglio, Canaro and Firpo: putting together a large instrumental aggregation with refrain singer and choosing young qualified players as members of his ranks like the noted bandoneonist Eduardo Del Pianoa> and the promising and still unknown vocalist Ángel Vargas.

Furthermore he carried out an outstanding role as unionist. He became president of the Sociedad de Autores y Compositores (Society of Authors and Composers)(SADAIC).

He was born in the city of Bahía Blanca, located in the south of the province of Buenos Aires, 600 km from the Capital. At age five he settled with his family at the tango neighborhood of Villa Crespo.

He was self-taught in the art of playing mandolin and guitar. Later he studied violin.

But in 1905 he began to study bandoneon, an instrument he was much interested in when he heard the early bandoneon players: Santa Cruz, Pablo Romero, Sebastián Ramos Mejía. Once when somebody asked him if he knew who Ramos Mejía was, if he was an aristocrat because his last name seemed to indicate that, he answered: «No, he was a Negro that worked taking care of an extra horse for dragging street-cars.»

Berto affirmed that tango was born before it was known in the neighborhood of La Boca. And he used to say that: «...tango was danced at the baterías of Retiro. The low people, la chinada, danced it with a beat that has never been used again». He later added: «Soon it was taken to the heart of the city and the early meetings were held on Sarmiento Street in front of the dead-end street named Carabelas. Much later, around 1904 it was taken to the Romerías (gatherings) of Palermo.»

About the first bandoneon he says: «Don Tomás, (El Inglés, alluding Thomas Moore), an extraordinarily nice character, imported it from the Old World. And the first bandoneon player I knew was José Scott, a cow slaughterer that played it fairly well. The first café that kept a permanent bandoneon on its stage was La Morocha located on the border of the neighborhoods of Villa Crespo and Almagro.»

His bandoneon teacher was José Piazza, (Pepín), who as well started Pedro Maffia on the instrument. Time later he became self-taught and devised his own exercises according to the music theory he already knew. So his bandoneon method, which later would be the cradle for so many musicians, was born.

Around 1906, he started as professional musician in the city of San Martín -a small town then, located on the northwest border of the Buenos Aires Federal Capital- at the venue called La Milonga de Don Juan y doña Virginia alongside Antonio Scatasso, the composer of “Ventanita de arrabal”.

Some time later he played with a quartet which included violin, guitar and flute at a country house in Floresta. His first tango dates back to that period: "La payanca". «One evening when the dancers had run though our repertory I had to improvise and that was the resulting number. After seventy or eighty pieces one after another you had to adlib.»

Later he joined the orchestra led by his teacher Pepín Piazza that played at the café La Morocha. Subsequently he played at the small night cafés of Montserrat, at different cheap locals of San Telmo and at the cafés with waitresses of La Boca until he finally headed downtown.

In 1910, he performed at the Café de los Loros (Café of the Parrots). It was known by that name because the local was frequented by the personnel of the Lacroze Streetcars Company, whose uniforms were green. The group was a trio that later became a quartet. It was comprised by the violinist Julio Dutry, (El Francés), José Martínez, (El Gallego) on piano and the flutist Vicente Pecci also known as (El tano Vichenzo).

Two years after, he successfully put together a trio with Francisco Canaro on violin and Domingo Salerno on guitar. The words of praise the trio arose were heard by a fifteen-year-old boy, Osvaldo Fresedo, who one evening went up to hear them.

As culmination of his ascending career Berto was required as recording artist by the Atlanta label, owned by Améndola y Cía. In 1913 he made his debut on the recording studios leading his Quinteto Criollo Augusto accompanied on violin by Doutry, Salerno on guitar, the piano was played by El Gallego Martínez and the flute by Luis Tesseire.

Despite appearing on the record labels as quintet, the piano does not appear on the recordings. The series begins with José Martínez's tango "La torcacita" and Berto's polka "La cocota".

It would result very long to enumerate all the items of this great musician's career, so we'll simply summarize his most important performances. He opened the Café Parque of Lavalle and Talcahuano, and the cabaret Montmartre. His was the first orchestra that played on a carnival ball at the Teatro Nacional. Until then only the bands used to do it. Later came his well-remembered appearances at the Bar Domínguez of Corrientes Street, his recordings for Victor and Columbia and, in 1918, his tenure at the Bar Central of Avenida de Mayo and Piedras with a quartet lined-up with Peregrino Paulos and Horacio Gomila on violins and Domingo Fortunato on piano.

In 1920, he played at the seventh ball of the Internado (boarder, intern). He then composed his tango "El séptimo". Later he returned to the Victor label and in 1924 he cut his last recording for the Ideal label with his tango "Papá en puerta" and on the other side, "Bichito" by Marini. That same year he was entitled to conduct the Teatro Opera's orchestra. The vocalist was Juan Carlos Marambio Catán, who premiered his tango "Perjura".

In 1926, he started a long successful tour with a theater company. About it he says: «...a great experience was, no doubt, a tour I did with my orchestra accompanying Camila Quiroga's company. It was very long. Several years traveling. All the Pacific, all Central America, Antilles, Cuba, Mexico, the United States and Spain». In New York he appeared backed by the virtuoso violinist Remo Bolognini at the Manhattan Opera House.

Undoubtedly, out of his important output the most outstanding numbers are "La payanca", "Don Esteban" and the widely spread "Dónde estás corazón" with lyrics by Luis Martínez Serrano. But furthermore, among others, we have the tangos "Azucena", "Belén", "Curupaytí", "De la vida milonguera", "Don Adolfo", "El periodista", "El séptimo", "Fray Mocho", "Jenny", "La biblioteca", "La oración", "La telefonista", "Papá en puerta", "Perjura" with lyrics by Luis González, "Presidio" with lyrics by Jesús Fernández Blanco, "Recóndita", "Que bronca", "Que dique"; the waltzes "Penas de amor", again with Fernández Blanco, "Corazón de madre", "Dulce quietud" and "A merced de las olas"; the polkas "La cocota" and "La oportuna" and the march "Sarmiento".

In the autumn of 1953 his heart stopped beating. So a man that like Canaro, like Firpo, like Maglio that cannot be replaced, died. Paraphrasing the poet: «empty spaces that are impossible to be filled». Furthermore he was a gentleman in every sense of the word, generous, honest and loved in the milieu. Among the many tangos written in his honor, let us mention only one as sample: Juan de Dios Filiberto's "Quejas de bandoneón" on whose sheet music is written: «dedicated to my friend Augusto Berto».