Nicolás Sosa Baccarelli

Italian immigration and tango

uch has been said about the Spanish and black roots of tango. Instead, the influence of the Italian immigration has not been fully taken into account by the scholars of the genre. Did Italians have an important influence in the inception and development of our national genre?

Important journals in the early years of the twentieth century regarded the «Italian gone native as a famous cultivator of tango». The chronicles of the period had already noticed that that overly sentimental «tano» of the near to last room of the tenement house round the corner used to rock to the beat of a tango the memory of a street, of his mother or of a lover that had stayed beyond the ocean for ever.

Leopoldo Lugones himself, who had regarded tango as «a brothel reptile», in a lecture in 1913 pointed out: «The suburbs of our cosmopolitan cities filled with immigrants engender and spread on those lands what they call national dance (tango) but it is just a dishonest mulatto woman procreated by the contortions of a black man and the mewing accordion from the trattorias». Neither the mewing accordion of the Italians nor Lugones were the choice of tango. Instead of the Italian accordion, a German relative (the bandoneon) was preferred and at the post of the poet from Córdoba, center and figure of the literary and moral canon of the Buenos Aires of that time, sprung up men with a worse French pronuntiation, a less rigorous Latin, but with giant souls and a canyengue and refined poetry.

Ricardo Ostuni, in his work Tango, voz cortada de organito takes care of examining the issue. In it he brings two opinions of the Rio de la Plata area. One, by the Uruguayan essayist Daniel Vidart who thinks that the blend of the street barrel organs and accordions that came from Italy made tango a weeper and opened the gate for elegies with cuckold men and dismissed women.

The other opinion comes from this bank of the river: the one by Jorge Luis Borges. He regretted, as the reader may remember, that tango had replaced its initial bravery by a decadent, and even unbelievable for a tough guy of the outskirts of the turn of the century, sobbing. Borges made a distinction between, says Ostuni, a criollo tango and another one «spoiled by gringos».

Next, Ostuni warns that «the special thing in these opinions is that they forget that the early tangos, those that displayed that happiness of fighting for the sake of it and the coarse bravery of the outskirts —the «tangos pendencieros» according to the clever Borges’s coinage— were also mostly composed by the early Italian immigrants or by their descendants».

In fact, Ostuni’s objection does not reach Borges who, in his “Evaristo Carriego” ironically highlights that the «criollos viejos» that gave birth to tango «were named Bevilacqua, Greco or De Bassi». Family names, clearly Italian, that effectively correspond to the tango composers of the old days.

Those «tanos» remained in tango. Some of them kept their last names, others modified them into a criollo fashion, even some of them also changed them in a French way but they always went on playing, writing and dancing throughout the century.

Having already mentioned some Italian family names that were part of the inception and growing time of tango, let us remember some other names, of a later period, that honor the same origin.

Amleto Vergiatti was born in Parma. He used the sobriquet Enrique Alvarado but was well known with a stage name loved by everybody: Julián Centeya, the gray man of Buenos Aires. He arrived with his family from Italy. His father, an anarchist journalist, was persecuted due to his political ideas and decided to travel to America. Thereafter the poet would remember in his poem “Mi viejo” (My old man):

Vino en Conte Rosso
fue un espiro
tres hijos, la mujer, a más un perro
como un tungo tenaz cinchó de tiro
todo se lo aguantó: hasta el destierro.

Luis César Amadori, the prolific lyricist and movie man (who was greatly envied because he married the beautiful Zully Moreno) was born in Pescara.

Mario Battistella shares the same origin. The wordsmith of “Cuartito azul” —among other hundred of tangos— was born in Verona. From this land also was one of the best vocalists in the history of tango: Alberto Marino whose true name was Vicente Marinaro. And Ricardo García Blaya rightly highlights that Marino, not only brought his Italian blood but also brought with him the influence of the Italian singing school.

We know that Ignacio Corsini was raised between Almagro and the province of Buenos Aires but the truth is that this criollo singer was born in Sicily, even though his family name was of a northern Italian origin.

In order of not exhausting the reader we shall merely remember that the following were direct descendants of Italians: the brothers Julio and Francisco De Caro, Armando and Enrique Santos Discépolo, Vicente Greco, Ernesto Ponzio, Pascual Contursi, Roberto Firpo, Juan Maglio (Pacho), Francisco Canaro, Francisco Lomuto, Carlos Di Sarli, Juan D'Arienzo, Astor Piazzolla, Pedro Maffia, just to name some at random.

Besides the nearness of a familiar birth in the Italian peninsula, Italian blood floods the history of tango. The mere mention of the family names confirms the judgment: Francini, Pugliese, Manzione Prestera (Homero Manzi’s family name), Biagi, Ruggiero, De Angelis, D’Agostino, and a long etc.

There are numerous tango lyrics inspired by the Italian immigrant and his world. Let us read some of them:

Con el codo en la mesa mugrienta
y la vista clavada en el suelo,
piensa el tano Domingo Polenta
en el drama de su inmigración.
Y en la sucia cantina que canta
la nostalgia del viejo paese
desafina su ronca garganta
ya curtida de vino carlón.

The lines belong to Nicolás Olivari and are from his tango “La violeta” written in 1930. In it the drama is about that «he was imprisoned in the belly of a ship». The poet goes on saying:

Canzoneta de pago lejano
que idealiza la sucia taberna
y que brilla en los ojos del tano
con la perla de algún lagrimón...
La aprendió cuando vino con otros
encerrado en la panza de un buque,
y es con ella, metiendo batuque,
que consuela su desilusión.

LTango as well talked about the issue concerning social climbing and the wish of the immigrant that his son becomes a professional. In 1930 a number about this was released and later recorded by Carlos Gardel. The number written by Guillermo Del Ciancio is entitled “Giuseppe el zapatero” and describes it in lines that scarcely honors tango poetry but that represents a testimony of the epoch:

E tique, tuque, taque,
se pasa todo el día
Giuseppe el zapatero,
alegre remendón;
masticando el toscano
y haciendo economía,
pues quiere que su hijo
estudie de doctor.

The place that the «tano» found to think over his pains was the «cafetín» (cheap cafe), that sordid and gray venue which a large number of pieces allude to.

Cátulo Castillo, for example, in his tango “La cantina” placed the music of a tarantella that made the people on the boat be happy, but it made his tango profoundly sad:

Se ha dormido entre jarcias la luna,
llora un tango su verso tristón,
y entre un poco de viento y espuma
llega el eco fatal de tu voz.
Tarantela del barco italiano
la cantina se ha puesto feliz,
pero siento que llora lejano
tu recuerdo vestido de gris.

His dad, José González Castillo, in 1926 had recalled in “Aquella cantina de la ribera” the misfortune of a lost love beyond the ocean:

Pero hay en las noches de aquella cantina
como un pincelazo de azul en el gris,
la alegre figura de una ragazzina
más breve y ardiente que el ron y que el gin.

In the lyrics of the great Homero Expósito in 1947 returns the poetical image of a ship, the lyricism of the smothering pain of the past and distance. Memories of a man that drowns his heartaches in the vapor of alcohol in a... “Cafetín” (1947):

Bajo el gris
de la luna madura
se pierde la oscura
figura de un barco.
Y al matiz
de un farol escarlata
las aguas del Plata
parecen un charco.
¡Qué amargura
la de estar de este lado
sabiendo que enfrente
nos llama el pasado!...
en tu vaso de vino
disuelvo el destino
que olvido por ti...

In sum, from the beginnings of tango Italian immigrants and their descendants had an important presence. Their problems, the exclusion that made them victims, their anguishes, their failures were expressed by poetry and music.

In Ernesto Sabato’s words, to tell to what extent criollos went Italian or Italians went native is not easy and turns out an impossible task.

They sang about the nostalgia for the faraway fatherland, of the lost chilhood. They sang about the pain for the estranged love, about that which was gone forever.

Tango, like many other cultural, social and political expressions of our country, is greatly indebted to our Italic ancestors.