"and maybe one day I can broach the idea of informally joining my decade-long soft boycott of D'Arienzo's music from after he went total - um - unabashed government propoganist. You hear it blaring in his music - covered by his fig-leaf leap into Lunfardo and big-sound stridency. Of course I've remastered it all to be available for the record, but ..."
- (from a Keith note to a regular customer dj)
I play D'Arienzo by Biagi religiously and prominently every night I dj around the world. In the 10 years plus of my (daring?!!) protest, I have never had a request for anything I don't play by D'Arienzo. I do carry everything in his catalogue with me, and would of course play a request. There's just no demand for the bad stuff - as long as you play the good stuff all the time. A better concise description of this is at the bottom of the page, I think. What follows first is the why.
The cover-up always makes things exponentially worse. The "Tango por Export" marketing attempt to cover for the kill tango tango agenda surely ought not to be given an equal place in history. Or in this case, the dance floor. It was, after-all, music made to listen to on the radio - as the curfew had closed all the milongas and too many artists were severely restricted from making records. But from the sponsors' point of view, it presented a plausible image of peace, love (sans the sex) and stability to the outside world always casting accusatory glances at Argentina for it's outrages. Juan D'Arienzo was a marketing brand for the nice, new, clean, orderly Argentina brought to you by the nice military in place of Juan and Eva and all the filthy tango they liked.
The spin at the time: It started in the brothels, don't forget! When you go out to dance, you are NOT having a good time. It's not safe for your daughters or your country! ...
Furthermore, they continue, everybody now sees Peron was obviously a fool and Eva stole all the money from the country - and even his share! (This part of their spin story, as you know, has been actually born out by evidence long ago). We had to get rid of the evil Perons and with them had to go the evil tango they sponsored. Now we have good order (curfews are working better than anybody thought they would) and government. Everything is better than ever. The best in history.
The placebo tango campaign worked very well and for a very long time. It has lasted to this day, even though the very idea of Argentine tango and what it could be became a kind of huge brush-fire with successive thrusts after Tango Argentino made it to Broadway and far beyond. It spawned travelling successors for 25 years. But nobody let on about the dark secret of Tango por Export (dancers would teach playing D'Arienzo por Export music; it was simpler for the non-Argentinos to hear. You could teach some damn thing to the aliens, at least). It has always been necessary to be pragmatic in the Argentine sense when gracing the world with your tango dance artistry. I say this having known many over the years and having fallen happily under their tango people spell. Explanation point from me about that. And then a road of thirty years ... and then at this pit-stop I still say the same thing.
Have I wandered off-topic? Nope. We're peering back through 70 years to the banks of the Argentine Tango Rubicon and there is General D'Arienzo, the lone band leader brave enough to accept a shitload of money to lead a crusade across it. To save the people from having to listen to good tango music. By making it worse, year-by-year. Until he was a cartoon icon that had ostensible credibility to the masses consuming government-controlled media. Shocking, I know.
Like all effective spin campaigns, the Tango por Export product was excellent at muddying the waters. He's the King of Rhythm - what's not to like? You've got a nice family there; it would be a shame if something happened to them because they like the wrong kind of tango ...
In the end they couldn't fully "disappear" dancing tango as they desired - but they definitely ended the golden age arbitrarily and prematurely. Why would we feature their placebo tango today? I feel it is because we are a bit low-information about that time. Argentinos understandably have never wanted to talk about it, really; war stories are of course like that for people who lived through them.
It has happened repeatedly in the music biz to end an amazing run: Elvis goes into the army and becomes a speed-and-whatever-else addict; the Beatles feel 13 years of being joined at the hips is quite enough; Biagi will not dumb down his music so he leaves the D'Arienzo orquesta.
To understand the popularity and impact of the Juan D'Arienzo orquesta in the late 30s, comparison to Elvis and the Beatles is apt because of the similar populace-frenzy level.
D'Arienzo's business acumen (connections) and Biagi's musical genius proved to be an explosive combination. Their music swept through Argentina like a tsunami, infusing new energy into the life of the 20 year-old tango music business and culture in 1935.
There was a sound to the orquesta which had never been heard before. A positively exciting energy that shocked and delighted.
It was great to listen to, but it also made dancers move in new ways because it called up new polyrhythmic expression (the Nigerian Yeruba dock workers in the mix back at the inception would smile at how the white folks was doin' at not losing the good stuff). In that sense, it gave tango a new direction. You saw all kinds of new moves on the floor. Hordes of new people wanted to go dance every night, giving birth to an outrageously big milonga scene within a heartbeat of that seminal orquesta's records first coming out. The fun and stimulation of it all added a new dimension to tango dancing.
Rodolfo Biagi had come in and added "something" extra (piano unlike anyone; over-all concept of intention, flow and feel) and then an amazing period of creativity happened across the tango world. Tango had been growing for all the short time it existed. Now it came of age because it found its band on the mass level - no disrespect to those who came before.
This D'Arienzo orquesta has elastic, breathing, rolling, layered subtle polyrhythms moving you around the floor right from the opening pick-up piano Rodolfo often starts with. We're off before we know it. It's so interesting that it makes you not only want to dance, but additionally asks you to express yourself. Urgently. And you feel like dancing it differently every time you hear it. The musicians (reading Rodolfo's charts) are strong, but subtle, intelligent. Every note in Rodolfo's original new personality for the piano in tango makes total sense. The brazen bounce and ring of his piano adds so much texture to the sound.
There was a frenzy about the exciting new orquesta so powerful that virtually all the other orquestas sped up their beat and put new creativity into their arrangements (we need to put stop holes in every song, guys, like Biagi does with Juan) so as not to be thought old-fashioned. Canaro did it; Di Sarli did it when he made his come-back in 1940 (to his ever-lasting regret as evidenced to his slowing-down for the rest of his career); all of them. You did it or your income was in jeopardy. (Pugliese was not recording yet, so his name doesn't come up in this regard). All one has to do is listen to the totality of all the orquestas records between 1935-40 to understand how everything changed in a breath-takingly short time. Like Beatlemania and Elvis, as I say.
It was a wild ride of overnight success for Juan and Rodolfo. They were dominant; they owned the record charts and live appearance box-office.
Juan was the boss, so he made all the decisions - except he wasn't an arranger so he couldn't do that crucial part.
The boss increasingly wanted to go in a direction the arranger disagreed with. D'Arienzo insists on more of the definite beat without all the subtley stuff. He didn't care for sophistication. He didn't like dynamics, either - all part of the essence of tango before he came along. No, he wanted everything he did to knock people's socks off - not caring that that approach becomes really boring really fast.
So that was that. Biagi left the orquesta in 1938, immediately formed his own orquesta and started releasing records. There being several songs already in the can with Juan, for two years Rodolfo had hit records out as two orquestas at the same time. (Nothing he could do about that). You'd have to call that being the king of arrangers - in the hottest period tango ever enjoyed. His musical creation.
Rodolfo was the second great pianist of tango after Roberto Firpo 20 years before him. Juan would make sure that tonal element was on his records ever-after because that was "his" sound. Juan also faithfully copied a dozen of Rodolfo's breath-taking devices to excite from their early records. Juan's limitations about everything (he loved music so much he dropped his violin in 1930 and only pretended to care about music after) showed the minute Rodolfo left.
The split put Juan in a very difficult position, but he "only" had to replace one musician with someone who was also able to write the charts. You hire a great pianist (the D'Arienzo sound was now based on the piano being right up front and he wouldn't change that), tell him to copy Biagi - but play louder! - nobody notices. In fact, they'll love it because now we'll be really exciting!
No surprise Juan had always been about the money. He had at one point 8 orquestas out all across the city playing simultaneously under his name. Juan would pass by each event for a short time, get onstage to work his magic exhorting the band to play louder, make the audience smile, collect the money for the use of his name and move on to the next gig. This kind of enterprise would rankle a pure, original musican like Rodolfo.
Fresedo also had 4 bands at one point (Di Sarli made his living running one of them for a time), such was the demand for the big orquestas. Can you imagine Pugliese doing such a thing? Even Canaro, who knew how business works because he virtually created the business' structure, founding SADAIC, etc., didn't go there.
Into 1940 Juan just kept getting bigger and bigger as a name, but he knew he was rapidly losing his base because of the change and there was no way to get those people (dancers) back. Yet he didn't change his product - he simply changed the packaging. He unabashedly started calling himself el rey de compás.
Here is the un-remastered 1941 original in all it's insincerity. Nobody ever begs for that muddled cliché collage in a milonga (dancers tend to have good taste). I refer to it so as to mark the moment when D'Arienzo's whole charade went into high gear.
This record marks the beginning of the end of tango tango as supported by the government. People didn't know at the time that this was to be the official new tango. Unless they were dancers.
Disconcerted by the loss of his star arranger but not devoid of creativity, Juan alighted on using Lunfardo to highlight his nationalism and blur his intent to unsuspecting music lovers. One can actually hear anger both in the lyrics and the performance, and this is the fascist way to divide and conquer. Also textbook: the irony of using Lunfardo, the language of the prisoner under-class, to be pretend-street whilst serving the repression of the military machine.
The world-view of this musical intention had veered to the far right and is the evidence that D'Arienzo was doing the dreaded Tango por Export as soon as Biagi left - more than 10 years before Juan started calling it that (sponsored by the military, of course, to project an image of happy, tango-y Argentina to the world. Move along - no curfews or disappearances to see here, folks).
D'Arienzo wanted Argentine tango to have a simplistic, steady beat like European tango, switching the emphasis from traditional (from milonga) beats 1 and 3 to the more universally known beats 2 and 4. Very white bread in comparison to what Argentina and Uruguay had pioneered (as Jamaica was later to make staple with Reggae), but impressivley bombastic. No opportunity for people to snuggle up too close and feel passion. Why the generals loved him as they tried in every way they could to kill tango.
D'Arienzo took the roll out of the rock-and. And he accomplished much of the goal ... for it to just lay there. Shaking the body and party times with lots of other people was, in that climate, verboten. Sitting and listening was the preferred interaction with music going forward.
"Thank you" I can hear them sincerely announce on the radio, "Your generals appreciate your acceptance of this policy to have a better country (did they just say, on this obviously flat Earth?) where we must heal the wounds of the past by abolishing every memory of everything we don't like.
And now, the king of the official new tango, Juan D'Arienzo, will thrill us with his brilliant flashy tango music without socialist heart or soul! Very calming for you people!"
As the official tango star, he was #1 on TV and radio forever because of government backing. Everyone who wasn't a dancer just assumed he was really great. And sadly, that might be all that history remembers.
Unwritten but Golden Rule for DJs:
If a good dancer who has obviously been around tango for a while and is familiar with dancing in BA, or is from there or Uruguay, asks you to play D'Arienzo, you're supposed to know that they mean ONLY something from between 1935 - 38/9. Milongueros in general are very insistent - emotional - about this preference. They don't like D'Arienzo without Biagi. Reasons obvious.