By 1916, the 31 year-old pianist has run his own little orquesta for 3 years and is ready to unveil his ideas about what a tango orquesta should sound like and how the instruments should be arranged.

The usual combo making the music: guitar, violin, flute, bass (sometimes there had been a tuba), then bandoneon came in. The music had been in 2/4 - milonga. And Vals.

Roberto Firpo is the 1st person to introduce the piano to tango. He has a different concept.

He has discovered a song, in a café in Montevideo, that he really likes and put a lot of creative effort into using it to showcase his fresh and original ideas. The unknown song is called La Cumparsita.

He is the first arranger to write note-for-note what each musician (piano, bandoneon, bass, 2 violins) will play on a recording.

His Cumparsita recording and arrangement become the template for how every musician will play tango to this day. He makes the dynamics swell, die down, finish big - now the tango way. He introduces a counter-melody everybody assumes was part of the original composition. His accents, his rhythm, his voicing of the instruments - all so definitive of what tango should be that it is as if he has received the Ten Commandments and his work is the tablet of a new religion. All tango roads (to mix metaphors) lead to Firpo.

La Cumparsita - Roberto Firpo (end of 1916).

I've done everything I can to make the audio sound better, but this is from a time when "acoustic" recordings basically picked up very little. However, ignore that and listen to the ideas and the playing. It is really is a window into both the past of tango music AND the future.

Now we enter the "Golden Age" of Tango - which old-timers declare was from 1917-30.


To really get a feel for tango and its origins, early Firpo recordings must be heard.

Firpo's influence is almost beyond statement now. He first nurtured the careers of greats from Pedro Maffia to Elvino Vardaro, Osvaldo Pugliese and others. His songs have been recorded by orquestas over and over until this day.

Firpo is the only leader who kept the tango-milonga style in his music to the end of his recording days. This makes his small group recordings tricky for a dj to play. His most famous recordings are with his later quarteto and they must be carefully chosen so as not to confuse dancers. If you play a tango that feels too much like a milonga, or vice-versa, that uncertainly will pull down the energy of your milonga. The fine line must be understood and not crossed.

But the over-lay of rhythms in his music and the challenge therein makes him popular with many advanced dancers. In small doses.

However, his large orquesta recordings of the 30s and 40s are often majestic.

Firpo Orquesta 1937 - Di Di

Firpo as arranger is one of the best there ever was. The complexity yet sweetness of his strings harmonies wafting over those funky rhythms in a big, rich orchestral sound is music I always play on big occasions. There is a finesse and vision in his music in those days that says tango tango and inspired the other orquestas in a big way.

To this day, in every milonga everywhere in the world, the Law is: the last song - to signal that the night is at an end and to send everyone home with the best feelings possible - the last song MUST be La Cumparsita. No exceptions anywhere, ever. Everybody agrees to obey this law without question.

It is not popularly known that not only is this a tribute to tango's most famous and loved song, it is an ever-lasting prayer of homage and gratitude to the great, great Roberto Firpo.


The long and tortured legal saga of La Cumparista


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