Roberto Selles

Rivero - Last interview with Rivero

ot for a long time we were in touch with Edmundo Rivero. We met by chance when we occupied a chair at the Academia Porteña del Lunfardo —he occupied the one that is under Carlos Gardel's advocation; and I occupied the one that remembers Dante A. Linyera—. But that brief time was enough to discover in him, besides the excellent singer we admired since childhood, a simple warm, cordial and generous being.

Once he interviewed us on his radio program Hablando del lunfardo (Talking about slang at Radio Nacional). We wanted to pay back that attention with another interview that, due to those foolish things of life, was never published.

Although somewhat late, we pay you back the honor of that radio interview, dear Edmundo. This was our conversation:

The conversations of the interview were held between October and December 1985. On the 24th day of this last month, Edmundo Rivero had a miocardiopathy that made it necessary that he be taken to the Sanatorio Güemes. He died there on January 18, 1986, at 10.35 AM

We are before the last of the national singers. Maybe the phrase reminds us of Fenimore Cooper. But it occurs that Edmundo Rivero is somewhat that Uncas of Last of the Mohicans: he is the final representative of a pleiad of singers on the verge of extinction.

What else can be said? His personality, his style, his communicativeness already are of public domain. Don Edmundo walks along the street and everybody says hello to him. Little matters if people do not know him personally; when they see him for the first time, to say good morning becomes a necessity –he cordially answers-, because this man has turned out into a treasure of the people, a part of the people itself. In other words, they feel that he expresses what they would like to say and they finally believe that Edmundo Rivero is not a person but the voice of a city. We believe it too. And we do not ask. We let the voice talk:

Pompeya y más allá la inundación
—I was born under the same sky to which I have sung with Homero Manzi´s verses; that of Pompeya and the floods far beyond. It was on June 8, 1911, a few blocks from the Nueva Pompeya church; from the southern big wall, that still remains on Esquiú street(2); close to the bridge of the Ferrocarril Belgrano (railway), that at that time was called Midland, exactly at the Puente Alsina station, where my father was station master. Who would have imagined that 37 years later I would have the luck of premiering the tango that tells about the landscape that saw my birth!

—And with which you have been identified since then. By the way, when did singing and guitar step into your life?

—In my childhood, because children try to imitate their parents. Mine —Máximo Aníbal Camilo Rivero and Juana Anselma Duró— sang, and from them I learnt the first songs I sang. Much later I committed some of these songs to record. For example, my mother taught me “Milonga en negro”, written or recreated by the payador (itinerant singer) Higinio Cazón...

—And that has its antecedent in some poem by Quevedo.

—Yes, I don't know if Cazón might have read that poet of the Gold century. As I was telling you, from my father I learnt “China hereje”, a waltz by another payador, Juan Pedro López. My grandmother liked singing as well. I recall having heard her singing several tangos and milongas of the past century. I have not forgotten those old sayings: Dicen que no caben dos / en la cocina / haremos la prueba/ con Juan y Josefina (They say two cannot in a kitchen be seen, we´ll see it with John and Josephine) or Por la Calle Larga / de la Recoleta / iban muchos negros/ con tamaña jeta (Along the Long Street of Recoleta there are sounds: many Negroes walked with such a mouth) or even Vamos al prado / que hay mucho que ver:/ hombres a caballo,/ mujeres a pie (Let´s go to the prairie, there´s a lot to see: men riding on horseback, women on their feet.

Further on, my uncle Alberto —who played in a tango trio— taught me to play the guitar and he gave me the music notes of the “Pericón Nacional”. When I was in third or fourth degree, I used to take my guitar to school for some school celebration, and at the end I sang for my companions some sextets from Martín Fierro in milonga style.

First pay: a fish
—And in your youth?

—I teamed-up a duo with my sister Lidia Eva. Later, in 1929, I arrived at the radio together with my brother Aníbal, with whom I also sang in duet. In that repertoire we included things like “La yegüecita [b]” or “Mírala como se va”, that we accompanied with our guitars. The first pay I got on the radio was the result of an exchange between the broadcasting –we used the English word then- and a sponsoring house: a fish!... but I had to choose between mackerel and hake.

—How many brothers and sisters are you?

—Those I have already mentioned and I; it was a curious thing that my mother gave us names taken from the books she read. Aníbal —the eldest— owes his to the old conqueror and not, as you may think, to my father that bore it as well; Lidia Eva —the youngest— to the Greek region of Lydia, scenery of some literary work; me, to Edmundo Dantés from The Count of Montecristo. My other name, Leonel, remembers instead my English grand-grandfather, Mr. Lionel Walton, who was killed by the Pampas' spears.

The teachers
-Who influenced your style of interpretation?
-Singing is an in-born emotional manifestation. Of course, nobody, is free from influences. On that respect, my background comes from my parents, my uncles and the payadores and improvisers —that are quite different things— that I heard.

—And Gardel?

—Even though he was the creator of tango singing, I can say that Gardel has not influenced me. I used to listen to him through those old radios and I liked him very much, but I dug another thing. I did not sing tangos yet but southern songs: milongas, estilos, vidalitas and some of those things. Instead, I did learn much from the opera, the lied. It happens that when you know Schubert or Beethoven or Rossini or Wagner, the great musicians, you can apply that knowledge to tango.

The tango singer
—Now that we talk about the subject, Rivero, when does tango appear in your life?

—Around 1935...

—That is to say that we lost Gardel but we got Rivero...How´s the thing?

—Hermelinda De Caro connected me with José de Caro —brother of both Julio and Francisco—. So I made my debut singing tangos in José de Caro's outfit. Two years later, I switched to the orchestra of Don Julio. I didn't last much. The audience stopped dancing to listen to me and de Caro did not liked that at all. In conclusion, I resulted unemployed.

—Well, but the important thing is that people stopped dancing to listen to a good singer. That must have encouraged you.

—Yes. And soon I was singing with Humberto Canaro —Francisco's brother and “Gloria”'s composer—. After that I gave up singing for several years: no one wanted to hire me and they even said that with a voice so gross I probably had some throat disease. Until in the forties, almost by chance, I sang a couple of songs on La Voz del Aire radio station. By chance, too, Horacio Salgán heard me and he hired me.

—Pichuco came later, didn't he?

—That's right. Carlos de la Púa drove us near. The meeting was at a local. D'you know that I drew up my guitar, sang some tango, later Troilo sang as well-that —although he had a hoarse voice, had a very good intonation— and we were forgetting about the reason of our meeting?... Only in the wee small hours of the morning when Fats remembered it. On April 29, 1947 we recorded our first tango in collaboration: “El milagro”, by Pontier and Expósito.

—A meaningful title, because there your success started. Tell me, Rivero, when you recorded that seminal work in the discography of tango known as “Sur”, with Troilo's orchestra, you modified some words in the lyrics, didn't you?

—Yes, I changed florando (flowering) by flotando (floating). What a beautiful term, florando! But when I started to sing it, people did not understand the meaning of that verb; they asked what that meant.

Then, with Manzi's approval, I replaced it by flotando. Also in the second part I made a change: I substituted «y mi amor y tu ventana» for «y mi amor en tu ventana»... Of course, Homero agreed. Write this: in the history of music, the popular singer is allowed to add something of his personality to lyrics and melodies, to be identified with them, as long as he does not change the meaning or the form of the text. The latter often happens, in instrumental music, with many modern musicians who distort the melodies. You can make a thousand variations, but once you have played the original work.

The national singer
—Yes, many things have changed in tango. Some, for an improvement, others, for worse. By the way, you are the last of the so-called «cantores nacionales», that is to say those who, besides tangos, interpreted provincial songs. Among women, Nelly Omar is still doing that. Why has the national singer disappeared?

—Everything is due to the way of life, to the changes that took place in the city. Long ago, neighborhoods were near the countryside. For that reason my parents sang country songs, not tangos. Furthermore, the itinerant singers could still be heard —accompanied some of them with my guitar—. By then I used to hear tangos on my radio, but without thinking of performing that genre; that came later. Aroung that time, I was especially interested in southern music (música sureña): décimas (poetic form of Spanish origin), long gaucho tales, some of them were about 25 minutes long.

—Don´t you think that the boom of the tango orchestra in the 40s contributed to that loss?

—It's possible. Although there were national singers then, those who joined the orchestras no longer interpreted the country repertoire.

La milonga
—The authentic milonga is lost as well. You are one of the few who have kept the character of the milonga. I would dare to mention a few other names, such as Rosita Quiroga or an early Gardel prior to the 30s.

—The thing is that I have heard the old milongas, such as those that my Granny and other relatives used to sing, because I have the privilege that almost all my ancestors were native born. She, my grandmother, was born around the year one thousand eight hundred, so she knew the origin well, without having studied it, that on the other hand, no one would have thought, then, of writing about those incipient musical genres. She must have learnt them by hearing them being sung in the streets. Those popular songs were all them quatrains and some of them, much picaresque, like that of Juan and Josefina that I have already told you. But you are meaning authenticity...

—Yes. The old milonga of the guitar strummers had not a habanera beat. That was added by musicians like Francisco Hargreaves that wrote them for piano and later it remained attached to the Sebastián Piana's milongas and in the later orchestral milonga.

—It's quite true. I still dig the classic milonga, that was born in the outskirts, which was the boundary between country and town, and later it reached them. And also the Uruguayan one, that is different to ours. (He hums the air of the Uruguayan milonga, which starts with an anacrusis [a pick-up note]).

—Did you mention picaresque milongas, and the old tangos?

—How many unashamed titles! Many of them were modified later for the sheet music, such as those that became known as “Cara sucia” or “La cara de la luna”. But there were cases in which the original title remained, though disguised in the illustrations of the covers of the editions. For example, one with the title “Dos sin sacar”, in the cover of whose sheet music a keen artist had drawn a scene of dancing with two girls seated, meaning, «dos sin sacar» (two without taking out), without being taken to dance.

En un viejo almacén del Paseo Colón
This conversation was held at El Viejo Almacén. But it was not totally made there. It was completed with other two encounters; one at a café on Santa Fe avenue, the other at the Academia Porteña del Lunfardo. It is impossible not to talk about, consequently, that temple of tango where most of the dialogue was made and that it is located a few meters from Paseo Colón, where Juan Andrés Caruso placed that old grocery store mentioned in the tango “Sentimiento gaucho”, and after which it was named.

—Rivero, how did the idea of establishing El Viejo Almacén spring up?

—It was a Carlos García and Alvarez Vieyra´s idea. And also mine. The project was born one night, while we were dining. We were enthusiastic and tried to spot an adequate place. And we found it in an old house on Independencia and Balcarce streets. It was a building with history; in colonial times the Hospital for Men was there, later it became the British Hospital —where the first surgical operation with anesthesia in South America was carried out— and later it was a «shop for seamen». Time seemed to have stopped among those walls. It was what we needed.

The opening night was on May 8, 1969. On that evening the teams of Horacio Salgán-Ubaldo De Lío and Ciriaquito Ortiz-Edmundo Zaldívar, the Carlos García´s orchestra and the singers María Cristina Láurenz and Félix Aldao performed. The introduction was in charge of Horacio Ferrer. By then, we composed a milonga with Horacio. We named it “Coplas del Viejo Almacén” (The deep communicative voice of the singer brings us one of the popular songs): En este Viejo Almacén / tengo un coro de gorriones./ sabios, poetas y chorros; / se mezclan por los rincones / un tango de antiguos sones / y un son de tangos cachorros.

Rivero in Japan
—It was by then that you traveled to Japan...

—One year before, in 1968. I could tell you so many things about that wonderful people... Something that shocked me and speaks of the wisdom of the Japanese: I had observed that every morning people bent before the door of their work place; I did not understand the reason and later I found out; they answered me that they used to do that to thank God for having given them one more working day. Another thing: when they are on strike, the Japanese go to work, but they bear a badge to indicate their adhesion to it. It is a people with a culture and a philosophy of thousand of years. I shall never forget the love, the admiration and the politeness of the Japanese during my performances.

—Switching to another subject, you are the first composer who put music to the lunfardo sonnet.

—Nobody did it before, surely, because the sonnet is short and difficult to be musicalized, because of its tercets. They interested me because both the poetic form and the lunfardo vocabulary are synthetic, in few words they portrait the world. Furthermore, the slang words embellish the poetry. I have recovered the great poets of our jargon for the songbook: Carlos de la Púa, Felipe Fernández (Yacaré), Iván Diez, at the beginning; Celedonio Flores, later; finally, some of the present ones, among them: Juan Bautista Devoto, Nyda Cuniberti or Enrique Otero Pizarro, now dead, who signed as Lope de Boedo and wrote sonnets so nice as this that is called “Dos ladrones”:

Hay tres cruces y tres crucificados
en la más alta, al diome, el Nazareno.
En la del wing lloraba el chorro bueno
mangándole el perdón de sus pecados.

Escracho torvo; dientes apretados,
marcaba el otro lunfa el duro freno
del odío, y destilaba su veneno
con el rechifle de los rejugados.

¿No sos hijo de Dios? Dale. Salvate.
Sos el Rey de los Moishes, arranyate.
¿Por qué no te bajás? ¡Dale, che, guiso!
Jesús ni se mosquió. ¡Minga de bola!
Y le dijo al buen chorro: Estate piola
que hoy zarparás conmigo al Paraíso.

—Undoubtedly, a poet «a la gurda», as it should be said. But, generally, you recite the first tercet, why?

—I do it simply for variation.

Cuando, llegue el final, si la de blanco/ me lleva con el cura antes que al hoyo,/ que el responso sea el lunfa, así lo manco./ Yo no aprendí el latín, de puro criollo. What can you tell me of these lines?

—¡Ah, yes! They belong to a poem of mine, “A Buenos Aires”. What other slang poems have you written?

—Some many... All about characters that I have known, creatures of the night, like Aldo Saravia, the one of the wet towel. I first met him “at a dark environment of nighters”, punters, scoundrels, pimps. Saravia used to tell his stories as dealer of women. He said that he beat them with a wet towel and that he used different techniques, like adding salt to the water in which he sank it, according to the cases. He said all these things with a special voice, of a bully, that he used only by night. In reality, there was a certain conspiracy, among those who listened to him, to believe all those fantasies. I wrote a sonnet for Osvaldo Pojatti that I titled “A un nochero que quiso ver el sol”. Pojatti was a brave man of the night, respected by scoundrels and policemen. Love rescued him from the night shadows and he finally, with a wife and three daughters, learnt to get up at sunrise. Another of these characters is Domingo, a concierge at a Mar del Plata hotel. We used to go there with Julieta and Domingo was always very respectful to us. On an occasion, we dropped in Mar del Plata and the concierge unexpectedly embraced us and started to adress us familiarly. We understood nothing. Afterwards he explained: «Now I'm a man of the night like you, Edmundo, how extraordinary is the night ambience! Since I'm working by night, I'm a different person». A guy like this was not to be overlooked and so I wrote “A un nochero”. He always considered himself very honored with the last stanza, in fact, it was sort of a joke

Veo en vos a Cacho Otero,
a Picabea, a Ruggero,
Julio el Gallego y con él
a cafilos y punguistas,
cuenteros y descuidistas.
¿Querés más?... ¡Vos sos Gardel!

—Haven´t you thought of publishing those poems in a book?

—I don´t know... I write my poems for my friends. But, you´re right, maybe some day I´ll publish those I wrote about characters of Buenos Aires. Now I´m writing about the Buenos Aires painters.

Today there is a different way of singing
The subject of slang poetry sprang up at a barroom on Santa Fe avenue. When we sat at a table, we ordered the usual coffee. Rivero surprised us asking the waiter if he could have mate cocido (a native infusion). The man said yes... While the singer was pouring hot water on the maté bag, he commented: «At very few locals they have mate cocido. It´s a pity. They ought to sell it in all of these places. We should get used to ask this Creole beverage instead of coffee». Yes, Rivero is an authentic criollo. A man that, like he does with mate, has approached the treasure of Argentine song from its sources. Because of that, at the following meeting —this time at the Viejo Almacén— we released the question about the changes that have taken place in the city song.

—You have kept the purity of our musical styles, but you have sung Piazzolla as well. What do you think of the present tango?

—There are very few or very few of them are widespread.

—I agree with this. I know there are many authors —and I am one of them— with a great number of tangos that no one sings. But, what´s your vision about tango today?

—Tangos today —at least, those I've heard— sing of the mercury lights, of pavement. They neither have the warmth nor the color of the past thing; that thing sung by Manrique: «Recuerde el alma dormida, / avive el seso y despierte» the ubi sunt that is present is so many old lyrics. Furthermore, today we sing in a different way. Now children do not see things that bring beauty to their eyes or to their spirit. Everything is in the landscape. See those modern buildings: plain, square; when before, architecture was crowded of embellishments. Consequently, today tango is not embellished. Besides, our genre is very difficult, because in it is better to tell than to sing. The ideal is to do both things and, besides, embellish singing. This thing of embellishments was introduced by Gardel into tango to be sung.

—It's true. And Gardel continually premiered tangos as well, something that now, certainly, does not happen.

—Yes, but that was not good for him. He had to sing abroad because here people preferred anyone else but him.

—Yes, so it was. But today, singers on TV or tango locals, besides not interpreting —new tangos, they have a repertory— «for export», as it is called today.

—Because tourists are who, generally, go to those places. And that´s another problem. A worker, an employee, cannot afford going to those tango venues. D´you know why? Because of the present high prices, it is impossible to present inexpensive shows.

—Anyway, there are still tango singers. Although many of them have inherited, unfortunately, the vices of the bad interpreters. I think there is no one else with so much authority to say how singing has to be made, how the new singers have to perform who, finally, are the heirs of the past.

—As I already said, it´s good that they tell a story and sing. That they have their style. A singer must be like a bird: each one singing on its bough.

(We said goodbye. We shook the singer´s hand so big and fraternal. We walked along Balcarce street up north. This street is stubborn in keeping a past of tango. We looked back towards the corner of Independencia street, there will always be a corner-; there, on the tree planted by the people´s devotion, Edmundo Rivero goes on singing on his bough).

Saturday January 18, 1986. The TV threw at us the news, which hurt our souls. On the right, the memory of Edmundo Rivero´s big hand hurts us. There is a tree with a lonesome bough.

The city has become voiceless.

Originally published in the magazine Todo es Historia, directed by Félix Luna, September 1987.