Fernando Piana
| Rodolfo Barrese

Piana - The last interview

ebastián Piana, who died in Buenos Aires on July 17, 1994, at 3 PM, is in the hall of fame of the great creators of our popular music. This interview, made on June 16, 1994, at his homeplace in the neighborhood of Almagro, is a posthumous homage paid by its authors from the pages of Desmemoria, a publication that, through one of its directors, Miguel Unamuno, had requested to the historian and journalist Rodolfo Barrese, some months before, an article about the life and the work of the lasting composer.

Barrese, a fellow workman of the young journalist Fernando Piana, nephew of the late musician, took advantage of this connection to suggest to the maestro's relative that the request by “Desmemoria” had the shape of an interview. The intention was to present a natural household Piana, breathing passages of a past ever-present in the heart of the Argentines. Within that frame, his word flowed sustained by the strength of a great work, his, remembered with a simplicity that, for two hours, surprised the ones responsible for this evocation.

In this, his last interview, Sebastián Piana longs for his father, a barber and musician; the ineffable Homero Manzi, poet and politician; great women of the Buenos Aires song, such as Rosita Quiroga, Mercedes Simone and Azucena Maizani; the very affectionate Cátulo Castillo and his father, with whom he shared his first hit, the tango “Sobre el pucho”, premiered in 1922. Neither he forgets recalling the figures of maestro de Bassi, of Piazzolla, of the unavoidable Borges.

The composer of “Milonga sentimental” (a subject that he uses as an excuse to narrate the evolution of the milonga, from country style (criolla) to urban style, of which he was, together with his brother-in-law, Pedro Maffia, the forerunner), of “Silbando” and “Tinta Roja” —a man who met Carlos Gardel—, tells us scenes of his journey throughout this world, from which he passed away at the age of 90, like what he was, a great name of music and tango.

There is no age when life, judge and party of existence, summarizes in a consecrated talent the reality of a mission accomplished.

The last interview

—What memories of your father, also named Sebastián, do you keep?

—My father was a barber, a trade he inherited from my grandfather. However, he was very fond of music and he had capabilities for that. His great devotion for music made him learn to play mandolin and guitar, instruments with which he played popular music, not classical music. He arrived from Italy at eight; by then tango was popular- a song, a genre pertaining to Buenos Aires. With his guitar he was a great accompanist for tangos.

Together with his friends, that studied other instruments —like the violin or the flute—, they played tangos at family houses. As the years went by my father studied piano, learnt to read music, what is called solfege. By that time it was easier to buy a piano. He put together a quartet that played good popular music (tangos and waltzes) at cafés and ballrooms. It was made up of piano, flute, violin and bandoneon.

—Do you share the opinion, held by the Bates brothers, that tango (in its development as musical genre) takes elements from candombe, the habanera and the milonga?

—Certainly. The habanera was almost the mother of tango. The milonga, on the other hand, belonged to country music, what today is known as folklore. Later the milonga arrived in town, but it was not yet that milonga of which I was the forerunner: it was a rural milonga, sung by gauchos, by that country people that, sometimes, improvised....

—Was it the milonga that Gardel and Razzano sang?

—It was a country milonga, that the Gardel-Razzano duo sang as well. The Argentine and Uruguayan payadores (itinerant singers) that had the ability to improvise lyrics: they were naturally born-poets that, among them, they ad lib rivaled to the beat of a milonga. It would not be strange that the habanera, a Spanish air well-known in Cuba, blended with black music and took advantage of the candombe small drum. Later this spread all over America. All this produces the musical origin of tango in Argentina. But tango is a Spanish word. The tanguillo is a Spanish dance.

—Originally the milonga was a music for strings, was percussion added in Cuba?

—I guess so. The Negroes, that have a great intuition and a rhythmic sense, made «their» habanera. This seems to have spread throughout America. That would be the origin of the early tango beat.

—Can we talk of a «Piana's Revolution» as far as milonga is concerned?

—It is, simply, the change from a milonga —which was regarded as belonging to the south and the Pampas, without dance or danced in privacy, and dug by gauchos and payadores—, to the milonga porteña, owed to Maffia and to me. They were melodically quite alike. The renewal, the porteña and suburban milonga, is owed to a request made by Rosita Quiroga to Homero Manzi. We had given to her a tango that she would sing. However, she asked for a milonga. Astonished, Manzi told me; «Rosita asked me a milonga». I answered him: but if all milongas are nearly the same thing, very much alike, because of that people improvise on them... «Look, Sebastián, I don't understand anything about milongas», Manzi answered to me.

Then I told Homero that he should call me in two days, to see if I was able to devise something. During that time I had in my head the idea of a new milonga. I knew its beat because I had written a previous one so that José González Castillo (Cátulo Castillo's father) would write lyrics to it. I had the need to make different milongas; and these were: they kept the simplicity of the beat, but with a defined musical shape, as if they were tangos to be sung, but without losing the milonga's essence.

When Manzi called me, precisely in two days' time, I already have composed “Milonga sentimental”, whose music only took me half an hour (the one I had prepared for González Castillo's milonga had taken me a whole day). It was not the everlasting milonga, the one improvised by the payadores...

As Manzi, a magnificent poet, confessed to me that he did not understand about milongas, I thought for myself: will he undestand mine? He understood it. He arrived to my place on a Monday, he picked up the sheet music and, the next morning, he had the lyric already written. With the lyrics added I began to like the music more. Until then I was more satisfied with the one I had made for González Castillo.
So “Milonga sentimental” was born. It was my second milonga, which turned out to be the first milonga porteña known.

—Cátulo's father, finally did he add lyrics to your first milonga?

—No, no. It seems he forgot about it (laughs). He was a great friend of mine and of my father's.

—What kind of acclaim the milonga of that Buenos Aires in the 30s had?

—At the beginning not a wide acclaim, because they were unpublished. I remember that on a piano at de Casa América's radio, and for myself, I started to play “Milonga sentimental”. A speaker was around the place and he asked me: «What are you playing, maestro? It's a milonga, I replied. —How nice! Why don't you hand it to Mercedes Simone?», he continued.

I answered him: «I know she is a great female singer, but I don't know her personally.» «She works here —said the good man of the radio— come one day and I shall introduce her to you». And he introduced her to me. Mercedes Simone, very kindly, listened to me attentively. I was playing a rendition of our milonga.

«Tomorrow I'm leaving for Montevideo, to work at the Solís theater. I'm going to record and listen to your music. If I like it, we shall play it. See me in a month's time.»
After that time, the surprise was enormous. The talented singer told me: «I already premiered it. When the show was over Fernán Silva Valdés came to my dressing room.»

Mercedes Simone told him that she knew me, but she didn't know Homero Manzi, author of the lyrics. «When you come back to Buenos Aires —Silva Valdés told the female singer—, from whom I repeat these textual words: Tell Piana, on my behalf, that he the milonga itself.» I repeat, these are textual words said by Silva Valdés to Mercedes Simone.

For me it is an indelible memory. I wrote to the poet to thank his encouraging concepts and, taking advantage of his enthusiasm, to suggest that he might write a lyric that I would musicalize. (I remembered “Clavel del aire”, a number that Silva had written together with Filiberto). He sent me the lyrics; and I sent the music to him so that he would promote with his prestige, in Montevideo, our common feeling.

—Then who premiered “Milonga sentimental”, was Mercedes Simone. And Rosita Quiroga?

—Nothing happened with dear Rosita. Manzi, finally, handed her the theme but it seemed she did not understand it well. Rosita used to sing another kind of milongas.

—When did you work as musician in the orchestra of Pedro Maffia?

—That came later. It was after the milonga was premiered in Montevideo. Subsequently it was recorded in Buenos Aires, it was the only thing that represented the new genre, an evolution from the older milonga.

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—How does the story of “Milonga sentimental” go on?

—On an occasion an actor, Máximo Orsi, who worked at the theater company of revues that the maestro Arturo de Bassi led, asked to me if I should write the music for one of its country songs. As he was member of the cast, he would ask de Bassi to premiere it.

Some time later the director called me to comment this: «See, Piana, I'm going to be sincere: I liked the music, but I didn't like the lyric by Orsi.»
As I had some successful tangos (“Sobre el pucho”, “Silbando”), de Bassi asked me another thing, that had to be better than what said actor had done. I introduced “Milonga sentimental” to him. The renowned director liked the idea. About it, he said: «I'm preparing a short theater sketch, in which two girls and two tough guys take part. They will answer each other with the music and the lyrics of the milonga. When we switch from Teatro Chantecler to Teatro Casino, we shall premiere it at the new revue.» The milonga was much acclaimed during the month that that revue was billed. Furthermore, it began to be known thanks to the recording by Mercedes and because it appeared in the chronicles written about the revue published on different papers. It was a pleasure for Manzi as well.

—What did Homero Manzi feel deeper, poetry or politics?

—Both things. At the time I came to know him he belonged to the Radical party and he was much involved in politics. He was then 18 years old and was studying at the School of Law. He was expelled from there due to his political commitment: he did not finished his studies to become a lawyer. He was quite a politician, but with the feeling of a poet. He always used to say: “I shall write lyrics for politicians and, also, lyrics for people”.
He was very intelligent, he had a florid way of speaking. By the time when I began to be in touch with him, F.O.R.J.A. had not yet been created. From that group I came to know Jauretche and Dellepiane.

—As years went by, what sort of recognition did the milonga achieve?

—The milonga had no widespread recognition until my brother-in-law, Pedro Maffia, was hired for a great show at the old and now disappeared Teatro San Martín on Esmeralda Street. La Voz del Aire, a radio station of that period, organized a great show, broadcast live for the public in the studio and for its audience.

The orchestras of Maffia and Edgardo Donato were there. The actor Roberto Airaldi was as well appearing, among other interpreters. Pedro had put together a special orchestra for that show (with great arrangements) and the female singer Rosita Montemar. He premiered again “Milonga sentimental” and, since then, the genre began to draw people's attention. Until that time everything was tango, country songs.

Manzi, at that time, had forgotten about milongas. He went to his hometown, Santiago del Estero, to get married. One day he came and told me: «Man, what happened -because it is as well Argentine, so let us go on with this genre.»
I already had written the music of “Milonga del novecientos”. Manzi added lyrics to it. No less than Azucena Maizani premiered it. Some time later the milonga went to ballrooms.

—Simultaneously, you dug tango. When was “Tinta roja” created?

—In the 40s. It is one of the numbers most played among my 500 works. “Tinta roja”, originally, was an instrumental tango.
As I needed money for a present to my wife I went, only with the music in my mind, to see a friend publisher. After playing the tune, I asked $150, in advance for the future edition. I told him that I would bring the composition ready the following day. In fact, I have nothing composed yet. That same day, fortunately, I finished the music. Of course, I had no need to limit myself for fitting to a lyric. The publisher liked it. He suggested to me: «Lyrics are missing, why don't you see Cátulo, maybe you're lucky and he writes it?» Cátulo Castillo, who was a musician too, finished the lyrics the next day. «Sebastián, I titled it “Tinta roja”», he told me. So this tango was born. Time later Aníbal Troilo premiered it.

—Of your relationship with Cátulo Castillo, which is the most vivid memory you have?

—I knew Cátulo since he was a child, through his father and, he also knew that we had won an award with the tango “Sobre el pucho”. He learnt to play piano and as lyricist he had a tango called “Caminito del taller”. One day he came home and told me: «Look, I have written the first part of a tango, if you like it, please write the second; we can make it be premiered by Azucena Maizani that is working at the Teatro San Martín under the direction of my father.» So I answered that I thought it was a good idea and I finished the music that day.
When I saw him again he told me: “if we ask for a lyric to the old man (he was referring to José González Castillo) then Maizani” may sing it. So “Silbando” was born, Gardel sang it years later.

—Did you have any relationship with Gardel?

—Yes. First because Cátulo's father was a close friend of his and he premiered “Sobre el pucho” which, later, the Zorzal Criollo also recorded. Anyhow, I had the chance to speak to him because we worked at the same cinema. Then, once I greeted him and told him that I was who had composed the music for “Sobre el pucho”.
- Cátulo had composed a tango with lyrics by his father titled “El circo se va”, then, don José told me: «Do me a favor, Piana, on Sunday morning Gardel rehearses at this place on Corrientes Avenue. I would like you to go there, so you can make him hear it». So I went, that Sunday, at ten in the morning. Isabel Del Valle greeted me, a very pretty woman that lived with him. I entered where the musicians were and Gardel told them «Pay attention that the maestro Piana is going to play so that the melody lingers on in your ears.»That was the occasion I was nearest to him. But exactly that day he was hoarse.

—Was Gardel really popular at that time?

—Yes, he had already recorded very much. But there was a period during which he had declined a little. It was when he traveled to Spain, and later to France. When he arrived in Spain they not even had any news about, they only knew that he sang. Previously, an Argentine singer named Francisco Spaventa had been there; he had been very successful in France and, later, in the United States, where he worked at movies.

—In the 30s and the 40s what was the life of a tango composer like?

—We had to hang around the orchestras with our compositions; they preferred to record tangos of their own in a more classic style.

—Who made the revolution in tango as far as the orchestral sound is concerned?

—There were three great orchestras: Roberto Firpo's, that of yesterday tango; Francisco Canaro's and Osvaldo Fresedo's. Without forgetting those of Julio De Caro and Pedro Maffia. By that time, tango was evolving into different styles. The Quinteto Ases Pebeco was important as well, which I joined and was lined up with the four best bandoneons of the period: Ciriaco Ortiz, Pedro Maffia, Pedro Laurenz and Carlos Marcucci. Instrumental tango began to become popular around 1934, when we made our debut with the Maffia orchestra at the Teatro San Martín.

—In the 40s, which were your great hits?

—Well, my popularity began before the 40s. As I already said, when Mercedes Simone sang “Milonga sentimental” I began to be known. She later asked me to accompany her on piano. Much later, I went on composing with Homero Manzi and we made “Milonga del novecientos”. Another successful tango was “El pescante”, that Canaro played for the first time at a contest. It was awarded the second prize because the contest was previously arranged to grant the first award to another piece. Later we made “Milonga federal” and “Juan Manuel”; “Milonga de Puente Alsina” was sung by Simone with much acclaim. “Pena mulata” was another successful milonga but with a candombe style. On the same beat I composed “Papá Baltasar”, with lyrics by Manzi as well. The waltzes I wrote were “Esquinas porteñas”, that Ignacio Corsini sang and “Caserón de tejas”, with a very good interpretation -years later-, by María Graña.

—Who were the singers of your choice?

—At that period there were two excluding singers: Carlos Gardel and Ignacio Corsini. Both had their own personality. Many imitated Gardel. I also liked Charlo, who besides was a musician. I knew him a long time before he married Sabina Olmos.

—Were you sought after to work with your compositions at the cinema?

—I was accompanying Mercedes Simone when she was hired by the Paz company to appear on one of their movies. Then, she asked the producers if they had already chosen the musician for the film and as the enterprise said they had not, she right away told them that I accompanied at her shows, so I had to talk to them. I had already written the score for Daniel Tinayre's Sombras porteñas. I also worked for the Max Glücksmann company, that run twenty cinemas in the Federal Capital. At first I played at a cinema theater in Palermo, later they transferred me to the Palace cinema and, finally, to the Electric. There I played classical music during the projection of the movies, arrangements of operas and overtures. At that time I was fifteen.

—How do you start to study music?

—When I was only eight I began to study sight-reading with a violinist that was very much nervous. He was a good musician but he did not know how to teach. He explained to me very quickly. Then he told my father: «Look, make your son study another thing because he has no abilities for music.» My father's teacher advised him to make me study piano because in such a way I could have a assured future, and then I began with Antonio Eduardo D'Agostino, a great teacher and pianist. In six months I changed completely. It was the new school.

—In what year were you admitted in the Academia Porteña del Lunfardo?

—In 1963, a year after it was founded. I met José Gobello and I told him that I was no writer to be there. But he replied that they wanted to include a musician. For a long time I was the only composer, until I promoted the admission of the arranger of the Mariano Mores orchestra, Martín Darré.

—During the golden age of tango, did a musician manage to live well?

—The only ones that could live well, working hard, were the early composers: Firpo, Canaro and Fresedo. But it was not the same for musicians like me, who did not lead an orchestra. I earned for my living teaching music. Previously I had worked playing at the cinemas, until sound films came. And the royalties as composer were never enough for a living.

—Were you acquainted with Borges?

—Yes. I worked in two numbers with him: “Milonga del muerto”, that was played by Eduardo Falú, and in another one, titled “Milonga del infiel”. Furthermore, he was a home twice. The first of these milongas was titled “del Soldado” and the military authorities of the Proceso banned it.

—Did you ever have problems with the military authorities?

—At Onganía's period they behaved very badly with the artists, because they eliminated all live shows at radio stations and at cinema theaters. It even went against me personally. But ... we'd better forget it.

—Some people say that Astor Piazzolla was the great innovator in the music of Buenos Aires; What is your opinion about it?

—He did not bring any innovation at all. He was a musician thoroughly trained and that is not at issue. But the innovators in tango were three: Roberto Firpo, with the tango “Alma de bohemio”; later Enrique Delfino appeared and, much later, Juan Carlos Cobián, a great pianist. Piazzolla was a great player, his innovation was more propaganda than any other thing. Anyway, to compose a tango, there is no need of a deep technical instruction, you have to feel it. The early tango players were not musically trained, they were polishing themselves through time. Such was Eduardo Arolas' case.

—What other singers, besides Gardel and Corsini, did you like?

—Mainly Agustín Magaldi and Ángel Vargas. Also Héctor Mauré. But I think that Carlos Gardel was unsurpassable, not only because of his voice, but also for his personality. He was unique, even though I recognize values in the rest.

—What advise would you give to the young in order to spread tango?

—Young people by themselves cannot do anything. The ones that run locals for dancing tango can help by charging a cheaper admission ticket. In the old times, by paying for a coffee you were allowed to listen to a good orchestra.
Radios and television channels ought to broadcast our city music more. When I was music teacher at elementary schools I taught tango to my pupils.

Interview made on June 16, 1994. Published in Desmemoria Re-vista de Historia, no. 5, Buenos Aires, October-December 1994.