Soy cantor – The evolution of the tango singer

In the elder days of the tango, but also in other genres of the time, the singer’s role has been considered to be no more than that of another instrument. Estonishingly the early singers somehow camouflage into the line of the other instruments of the orchestra. This has been the fashion during the 1920’s and the 1930’s in all sorts of dance orchestras not only in tango. And it still exists nowadays in what is called backing vocals. Often the singer was recruited amongst the musicians of the band and would sing an extended chorus, entering quite late into the performance, around the second chorus or even later. And just because of this short and late appearance, he remained in the background of our perception. It happened that I danced a beautiful tango with refrain singing and asked my partner during the cortina how she liked the singer and she responded: “Has there been a singer?”

Most of the time tango uses the strophic form of the Kunstlied, where contrasting verse – chorus (refrain) parts alternate, more or less as in the following schema in a binary alteration where each part takes approximately 30 seconds:


Depending on the length of the piece, this scheme might vary or contain more or less parts. So let’s listen to a typical refrain structured tango where the singer enters at the second chorus in the older style refrain singing of the 1920’s and 1930’s:

Tipíca Enrique Santos Discépolo con Tania (estribillo/refrain style), Desencanto, 1937

Here are the main formal characteristics of the estribillo or refrain style of singing:

  1. Entry of the singer at the second chorus, +/- at minute 1:30, or later
  2. Singing the refrain or an increased refrain

I have chosen this example because the same orchestra, Enrique Santos Discépolo, recorded the same title twice, once in estribillo style (refrain singing) and a second time where all the lyrics are presented (tango canción).

Tipíca Enrique Santos Discépolo con Tania (canción style), Desencanto, 1937

apodestaThis last example represents yet another style of singing as you can recognise. It’s not estribillo style but tango canción. Tania, Discépolo’s wife, has been a very famous singer and actor, a tango diva, who just starred in the movie “El pobre Pérez“. These two recordings of the tango Desencanto were made on the 1st February 1937, just a couple of days before the public release of the movie. These records were therefore a kind of early soundtrack issued to cash in on the eventual success of the movie. In the second recording the orchestra starts with a reduced intro and immediately backs off into accompaniment. This let’s the singer enter into the performance and the orchestra then gently follows her voice quasi solely imitating the rubato of the voice at a considerably lower loudness to let the singer shine in the forefront. This genre had a long tradition with the cantor nacional, like Carlos Gardel, Ignacio Corcini, Agustín Magaldi, Charlo, Alberto Gómez, Agustín Irusta, Roberto Díaz and many others and still is very present nowadays. I’m thinking about the legendary Alberto Podestá who still today appears in public, accompanied just by some musicians. The biggest historical star of the tango canción genre has certainly been Carlos Gardel who’s discography is nearly exclusively composed of canción titles. With tango canción, the accompaniment is often done with guitars and the aim is to listen to the song carried by the beautiful voice of the singer. It is a purely recital presentation of the complete song lyrics, less suited for dancing and more aimed for listening and contemplating. Whereas the estribillo version of this recording is the presentation you will hear at the milonga because it’s better suited for dancers as it has a steadier and faster tempo and another balance between the singing and the orchestration. If you are a tango DJ, you should be aware of these different kinds of song interpretations.

On canción recordings the name of the singer is written in big letters and mentioned first on the label of the records. Often the name of the orchestra or the guitar players are not given (in the database at you therefore might see the mention –unspecified guitars or –unspecified orquestra). Whereas on the estribillo recordings, the orquestra is mentioned first and the singer second, like in the current example “Estribillo cantado por Tania“. But sometimes the refrain singer wasn’t mentioned at all and replaced with the words “Con estribillo” (in some meta databases you might therefore find the mention –unspecified male|female singer). To sum up: On the tango recordings with refrain singer, estribillista, the singer wasn’t considered as very important, and given only sparse credit, on the opposite, when the singer presented the tango in tango canción style, he was considered back then to be the most important performer.


Record label of the refrain version


Record label of the canción version







The tango canción genre certainly found its climax in the mid-1930s incarnated by Carlos Gardel, the most prominent figure in the history of tango. “Gardel’s baritone voice and the dramatic phrasing of his lyrics made miniature masterpieces of his hundreds of three-minute tango recordings.” [Wikipedia]

Carlos Gardel played a very important precursor role and is known as the first tango singer. Let’s see how he earned this titel: Mi noche triste has been composed in 1915 by Samuel Castriota in Buenos Aires without lyrics. His instrumental version was called Lita. It was Pascual Contursi who later wrote the lyrics to this tango in Montevideo and Gardel, who liked it, performed this combined Castriota-Contursi vocal version in January 1917 in Buenos Aires. This is the first time that a tango received sentimental lyrics with a sad character fitting the music. Now all of a sudden, poetry and singing had been added to tango. If we check the discography of the important tango orquestras around that time, we can see that their whole production had been instrumental! Canaro and Firpo were struggeling to find new and more satisfying forms for the tango orchestra and the tango genre was developping its instrumental foundations, violins were added to counter balance the loudness of the newly arrived piano (Firpo), a little later the doublebass found its entry into the tipica (Canaro) but nobody had a singer. The tango Mi noche triste is considered to be the birthplace of the sung tango.

Now, lyrics weren’t completly unknown to the Guardia vieja, there are several recordings by Villoldo and others which testify this. But their music was faster and these lyrics missed the sentimental component, they were happy, sometimes burlesque or even vulgar. Also Gardel himself performed until then a folk repertoire which was composed of “Estilios”, “Tonadas” and “Milongas camperas”. When Gardel performed Mi noche triste, the tempo of the tango orchestras had slowed down and this tango hit the community with a huge impact and a new form of identification through the lyrics which were perfectly in sync with the tempo of the music! The title is program and we can see that there is a first person narrator and a plot with a beginning and an end. Somehow a very short story. This kind of narrative voice is very common for most of the tango texts which would follow. Full lyrics of Mi noche triste.

Without any doubt, as he confirms himself in his auto-biography, influenced by Gardel, 1917 is also the year when Francisco Canaro composed and recorded the first tango with a song himself called Cara sucia, cantado por Arturo Calderilla. It’s a transcript of an elder tango composed in 1884 by Casimiro Alcorta, el Negro Casimiro. Interestingly, this tango was known before under the title of Concha sucia, After some initial experiments the sung tango became more and more frequent in the orquesta típica and was generalised and in equal production compared to instrumental tangos at around the year 1928. Francisco Canaro later reflects this change in his auto-biography [Mis Memorias, 1957, p. 168]: “Always being demanding with myself, I didn’t feel satisfied and it seemed that to my records and the orchestra that, meanwhile, already it had been increased in the number of musicians, they needed something and were not yet complete: they needed a vocal part, that is to say, the singer.”

[Mis Memorias, 1957, p.177]: “In my long artistic trajectory I had the following singers in my orchester: Roberto Díaz, with whom I initiated for the first time on record refrain style singing for a tango composed by my brother Mario called: ‘Así es el Mundo‘ […]” This recording by Francisco Canaro of a first refrain style singing was made in 1926 and has the Odeon record number 4155B, technically still an acoustic recording but the starting point of a new style of singing derived from the canción genre. Interestingly, we can therefore date the usage of refrain singing in tango just at the transition to the electrical recording process which was introduced just a couple of months later in Argentina in 1926.

Gardel's funeral

Gardel’s funeral

On 24th June 1935, Carlos Gardel, died tragically. Such was Gardel’s prominence in Tango music that his sudden death left a void, but that was to change. Precisely 8 days after this sad event, Juan D’Arienzo entered the recording studio, signing an initially short contract with the Victor label for a series of instrumental themes.

If we take apart the vals and milonga recordings of Juan D’Arienzo in his pre-1940’s phase, there is one tango recorded with Enrique Carbel, Paciencia, and 14 tangos with Alberto Echagüe and it’s impossible to say that these recordings remained in the purest estribillo tradition of singing. We are about to enter into a transition period!

During this transition period which lasted from around 1937 to 1941, the role of the singer started to change again, more and more the singer presents at least two strophes of the song and sometimes he even comes back in the outro to finish the tango together with the orchestra. Later in the 1940’s a singer would even deliver the complete lyrics without therefore drifting necessarily into the tango canción genre. There has been nevertheless a general trend in tango starting towards the end of the 1940’s to a more recital, concert style with some orchestras as the public lost more and more interest in the dance. Check out the following example of a late 1940’s recording of the before mentioned tango Desencanto recorded by singer Alberto Marino. This recording dates from his beginning solo career. It has been recorded shortly after he left Aníbal Troilo’s orchestra:

Alberto Marino, Desencanto, 1947, (presenting the complete lyrics)

Here are the main characteristics of the new cantor de orquesta style of singing:

  1. Entry of the singer at the first strophe, +/- at minute 1:00
  2. Singing at least 2 strophes of the song (not just an increased refrain)
  3. Optional: Reentering of the singer in the outro to finish the tango together with the orchestra

The orchestras of the 1940’s, like the newly formed orchestra of Aníbal Troilo with its singer Francisco Fiorentino immediately integrated this style in their repertoire at least at their first recording sessions in 1941. Fiorentino himself started off as a bandoneon player in the late 1920’s and was asked to do estribillo for the bands from time to time. And he later became such an important singer with a solo carrière in the end. By the way, mentions Francisco Fiorentino in a very interesting article as to be the first glance of a cantor de orquesta:

En 1934, siendo estribillista de la orquesta de Roberto Zerrillo, produce el singular hecho de cantar un tango con la letra completa en la grabación del tema “Serenata de amor” del propio Zerrillo y Oreste Cúfaro. Se vislumbra el fin de la “era de los estribillistas” para dar paso a la nueva etapa de “los cantores de orquesta”.


Oreste Cúfaro, Roberto Zerrillo con Francisco Fiorentino, Serenata de amor, 1934

Some say D’Arienzo stuck to the old scheme and reserved therefore a reduced role to the singer to remain himself the most important star of his orchestra. There is though at least one recording where this isn’t the case, it’s in the movie Melodias Porteñas from 17th November 1937, interestingly also a tango composed by Enrique Santos Discépolo. Here Echagüe is singing surprisingly in pure cantor de orquesta style the tango Melodías Porteñas. Impossible to say if this form had been influenced by Troilo whose band just started to perform with Fiorentino in the summer of 1937. This is because Troilo didn’t have a chance to record anything yet. So we don’t know for certain how the Troilo – Fiorentino’s lyrics might have sounded that year …

melodias portenas

Original record of Melodías Porteñas

It seems also that in this situation Juan D’Arienzo didn’t dominate the recording market yet because the soundtrack of the movie “Melodías Porteñas” hasn’t been done by his orchestra, but again, was sung by Tania accompanied by Enrique Santos Discépolo’s own orchestra as you can see in the image to the left. Without any doubt the relation between Enrique Santos Discépolo and the Víctor company had been sealed with a precise recording contract. Don’t forget that Juan D’Arienzo was already under contract at the same record label but never recorded his version of Melodías Porteñas with Alberto Echagüe. He recorded only an instrumental version on the 21st December 1937. Whereas Tania’s version had been on the market already on the 9th November 1937, exactly 8 days before the release of the movie!

Analysing the other bands’ repertoire shows nevertheless that the form of the cantor de orquestra existed in an embryonic form since much earlier, listen to the following recording of Alma by Adolfo Carabelli with the singer Alberto Gómez. It anticipates some formal elements of the cantor de orquestra singing style already back in 1932, it is still missing a second sung strophe but it has the entry at the first chorus and the optional element of the singer coming back to prepare the ending of the tango together with the orchestra:

Adolfo Carabelli con Alberto Gómez, Alma, 1932

The return of the singer in the outro, is also present in several Francisco Lomutu recordings with Jorge Omar and Fernando Díaz, like Monotonía, 1936, No cantes ese tango, 1937 or Propina, 1934, etc.

In the Donato repertoire you can find a lot of recordings which give a more important role to the singer and you could qualify some of them as to be in perfect cantor de orquestra style. As if Donato refused the fashion of the refrain singer, setting his own trends. Listen to his recording of Madame Ivonne with the same Alberto Gómez from 1935:

Edgardo Donato con Alberto Gómez, Madame Ivonne, 1935

And if we have a look at what’s happening in Paris at around the same time we can see the same shift to more song in the danse music when we approach the end of the 1930’s. Compare these two versions of Campanas del recuerdo one by Rafael Canaro and the other by Manuel Pizarro recorded in the same year:

Rafael Canaro con Ricardo Duarte, Campanas del recuerdo, 1936

Manuel Pizarro con Manuel Pizarro, Campanas del recuerdo, 1936

Where Pizarro sticks to the older fashion of the estribillista, Rafael Canaro presents a nearly full blown cantor de orquestra! The Francisco Canaro repertoire with singer Roberto Maida is also spiced up with this more present role of the singer. Check out their version of Desencanto and compare it to Tania’s recording with Discépolo. Where Tania remained in estribillo tradition, Maida presents 2 strophes of the song:

Francisco Canaro con Roberto Maida, Desencanto, 1937

There has been undeniably an evolution which let to the music of the 1940’s and the new understanding of the singer. Nobody in particular invented this singing style, it just came upon, helped by some early adopters and sparsely spread singular experimental cases. All of its ingredients have been present all along the 1930’s in some blueprint form. It’s also worth to mention that the record labels in the 1940’s were still printed with the words “Tango con estribillo” even if the style has been “cantor de orquestra”. Only in the 1950’s the mention “Canta: …” replaced definitly the word estribillo on the records.

There is though an aspect which cannot be pinpointed and that’s the expression of the singer. In the 1940’s the singing has been more of a celebration of the tango lyrics where the singer would live all of the presented sufferings and feelings once again on stage. Whereas the estribillo singers had a more frivolous, nearly uninvolved, distance to the lyrical plot.

Now I know why I like so much Franscico Canaro’s recordings with Carlos Galán. It’s the gentle singer’s presence which blows some 1940’s modernism into these 1930’s recordings!

Checking for corrupt FLAC files

Recently I had some strange conditions during playback of certain FLAC files in my digital tango collection. First I thought there must be a bug in my player but checking the player’s logs showed that the problem was within the FLAC stream. Somehow, some of the files must have gotten corrupted. This could have different causes, like power failures and unclean shutdowns, maybe an error on the media or an uncompleted copy task. Once a byte get’s changed in the FLAC file in the worst case it might not be playable anymore. In my case, I had two different conditions: First the file would start playing and then after a certain point the music output stopped. In another situation the corrupted FLAC file would trigger an exception in the decoder and it crashed the whole player application.

As a matter of fact this is a feature of the FLAC audio format: “Suitable for archiving: FLAC is an open format, and there is no generation loss if you need to convert your data to another format in the future. In addition to the frame CRCs and MD5 signature, FLAC has a verify option that decodes the encoded stream in parallel with the encoding process and compares the result to the original, aborting with an error if there is a mismatch.”

So the good news are that the FLAC format has a MD5 checksum mechanism integrated which provides for an easy integrity check. There is also a command line programm to check a FLAC file:

flac -wst flacfile.flac

Here are the command options explained:
-w, –warnings-as-errors Treat all warnings as errors (which cause flac to terminate with a non-zero exit code).
-s, –silent Silent: do not show encoding/decoding statistics.
-t, –test Test (same as -d except no decoded file is written). The exit codes are the same as in decode mode.

Now this is useful to check an individual FLAC file but when you have to scan several thousand files it might be more useful to put it into a shell script and run it against the whole music folder. I found this script which I saved as in my home folder:

cd ~/Musique
if [[ -f flac-errors.txt ]]; then
rm flac-errors.txt;
touch flac-errors.txt
shopt -s globstar
for file in ./**/*.flac; do
flac -wst "$file" 2>/dev/null || printf '%3d %s\n' "$?" "$file" >> flac-errors.txt;

The script changes into the Musique folder in my home directory and then creates a text file called flac-errors.txt, if it’s running consecutively, it tests if this text files exists and when it exists it deletes and recreates it as an empty file prior to proceeding.

shopt -s globstar means that the Bash script will perform recursive globbing on ** – therefore matching all directories and files from the current position in the filesystem, rather that only the current level.

In the for loop it will loop through all FLAC files in the Musique folder and its subfolders performing the integrity test. If the FLAC file is OK, the output is send to /dev/null which means the output is deleted and if the test is not OK, meaning that there is corruption, it will be written into the flac-errors.txt file with a little formatting. So you will have the title and the path of the corrupt FLAC file written each on one line in the text file for a later analysis and eventual restoration of the dammaged files.

The script will take quite some time to loop through all files. What I do is opening the flac-errors.txt for continuous reading to see the progress in another console, like this:

tail -f /home/jens/Musique/flac-errors.txt

So every once in a while such a test might be a good idea to check if all the music files in the collection are still OK. This rules out bad surprises during playback!

By the way, the foobar2000 player has such an integrity test in the interface, Mixxx will write FLAC stream errors into its log file.

The test script can also be useful to be run on newly added folders in the music collection to check that all FLAC files are in OK condition and that the encoding worked out well, like a last test before playback or archival. The verify feature of the FLAC audio format is actually a big advantage compared to other formats which don’t have such a mechanism!

Fast money with Bandoneón arrabalero


pettorossi[París 1925] Al año de hallarse Pettorossi actuando en la orquesta de Bianco-Bachicha, realizó con el segundo de ellos un negocio no muy recomendable para los autores. El joven guitarrista era un inspirado autor de tangos y una madrugada cuando ya se habían retirado los habitués y el “Palermo” comenzaba a levantar las mesas y a cerrar sus puertas, esperó a que terminaran sus compañeros de orquesta de enfundar sus instrumentos hasta emprender la retirada, le propuso al bueno de Bachicha que le escuchara un tango recientemente compuesto por él. Bachicha extenuado por las horas de tarea complaciéndole el deseo se dispuso a escucharlo.

El autor comenzó a hacerle escuchar en su guitarra un tema de inspirada línea melódica que despertó sincera admiración en su oyente. Al terminar de ejecutarlo Pettorossi le preguntó:

-Qué te pareció…
-Muy inspirado. Te felicito… —respondió Bachicha dándole a entender con un enorme bostezo que era hora de irse a dormir.

Pettorossi le respondió a boca de jarro:

-1000 francos…
-¿Qué cosa… ? -preguntó sorprendido Bachicha.
-Te lo vendo… Esta noche o nunca… —dijo sonriendo el guitarrista.

Bachicha creyendo sacar de un imperioso apuro al bohemio sacó los mil francos y sin darle mayor importancia al préstamo se lo ofreció gentilmente, pero el guitarrista sabiendo que no era de los que tenían buena memoria para saldar deudas, desistió del ofrecimiento y repitió inflexible:

-Nada de deudas… Vengan los 1000…

Mediante esa suma la obra “Bandoneón arrabalero” —tal era su título— cambió de dueño. Operación cumplida.

Hallándose Pascual Contursi, el inspirado vate, de paso por París, Bachicha le hizo adaptar los versos y el tango fue mandado a imprimir.

Agreguemos que Pettorossi, para producir dinero inmediato, acostumbró muchas veces a realizar estas clases de compra-venta con muchas de sus obras que a la postre resultaban infalibles éxitos.

Enrique Cadícamo in “La Historia del Tango En París”, Corregidor Buenos Aires 1975

News from Don Esteban

On the 3rd of July 1936 the Juan D’Arienzo orchestra recorded the tango Don Esteban. Most reeditions, especially from the RCA Víctor company, for which the tango has been recorded in 1936, contain a different version as the one which can be found on the japanese CD-collection CTA (Club Tango Argentino), Juan D’Arienzo Vol. 2 CTA-302. This has been an ongoing discussion in tango newsgroups and found to be quite mysterious.

As Johan stressed it out in his article The Strange Case of Don and Mr. Esteban by comparing first the edition history of this tango through out the years and then analysing the tango itself, there might have been two takes during the recording session back on the 3rd of July 1936. This is his scheme with the differences between take 1 and 2 bar by bar:


I have found now by coincidence an original 78 rpm pressing of the 1936 recording (Victor record number 37955) and as a matter of fact there have been clearly 2 takes of this tango. The Victor Encyclopedic Discography by the University of California contains a glossary which explains the term take:

Take numbers can usually be found on Victor 78-rpm discs on the record surface area just outside the record label, in the nine o’clock position. First takes are usually not indicated; there is no number in that area when a record derives from take 1.

The 78 rpm record in my collection has a take number 2 in the nine o’clock position as you can see on the following pictures:

78 rpm of the D'Arienzo Don Esteban recording take 2

don-esteban-take-2Now the question is which one is the first and which one the second take? A question which remains so fare without answers. In a recent discussion a friend said: “The CTA-version for me is jazzier because of the first piano solo which is played sycopated while the other is straight marcato. It sounds to me more like Biagi’s idea, and I can imagine that D’Arienzo preferred the straighter one and gave Biagi two more solos instead.”

On the B-side of the record number 37955 is the vals No llores madre and to disambigue it has a little “1”, as for take one in the nine o’clock position right beside the label.

folder.versofolderTo keep it short, the version by CTA is the second take, and my 78 rpm too. Now we can speculate what happened that day on the 3rd of July 1936. Maybe D’Arienzo was late and the orchestra recorded without him, possibly led by Biagi on the piano. The wax was already galvanised, when all of a sudden D’Arienzo rushed into the studio and ordered for a second take, lowering the part of Biagi as the two piano solos are now missing. By the way, in this scenario the jazzman would have been D’Arienzo. But most probably they were all present that day and just arrived at two different versions, maybe one more in the sense of Biagi and one more in D’Arienzo’s style. Then RCA Víctor said that they would send out both on the market and let the music lover decide which version they prefer. As D’Arienzo records sold like hot cakes, this seems to be the most plausible scenario 🙂 And it could be that take 1 has been intentionally released exclusively in Uruguay and that take 2 was intented for the domestic market. That would be an even more plausible explaination for the existence of the two Don Esteban versions (In this case the two piano solos could maybe be seen as a concession to what D’Arienzo thought would better meet the Uruguayan taste).

Now, on the other side, it would be interesting to find an Argentinian 78 rpm containing the first take to contradict this theory. (From what I was able to check with other collectors so fare only take 2 exists from RCA Víctor Argentina). And also, as you might know the first take has been handed down by RCA Víctor exclusively with a very strong echo (reverb effect). All CD versions, like from El Bandoneon and the Magenta version seem to be taken from that 1980 RCA Víctor LP. There is still no carefully restored version of this 1st take! I’m also wondering why CTA did not mention the “2” for second take on their CD, though it’s really evident when you have the 78 rpm record in your hands.

Check out the two versions, first the only reedition by RCA Víctor on the LP sampler Serie Tango De Ayer from 1980 (based on take 1) and then my restored version (based on take 2). Which one do you find jazzier?

El cencerro

Since quite recently I observe a general shift in tango djing. A lot of DJs are today putting a lot of effort into recovering the most authentic sound in the milongas. This translates into investing in high end sound devices, prefering lossless sound formats over lossy codecs, analysing sound files and playing correctly tuned tracks. Trying to find tango tracks in unfiltered versions and without certain artefacts which have been added to the original recordings in later copy cycles. Unveiling somehow unplugged, purer versions of the presented repertoire with a close to perfect sound. They rather like to have some surface noise than a cleaned to death recording!

To visualise this effort, one has to be aware that the time interval which is of most concern to modern dancers, 1925-1955, the Epoca de Oro with pre and afterparty, is parallel to the technical invention of the electrical recording systems in the second part of the 1920s and ends with the introduction of the modern vinyl record and the first stereo systems around the mid-1950s when the full frequency-range recording had been finally made possible.

Westrex electrical cutting

Westrex electrical cutting

If we look at the records’s frequency spectrum we can see that in the beginning certain frequencies especially in the mid and high ranges weren’t yet completely present and towards the 1950s these frequencies were successively added as the recording systems improved. Let’s take the year 1926, most of the record companies licenced the new Westrex system and were able to reproduce a recording bandwidth from 50 Hertz to about 6,000 Hertz, beyond which the high frequency sensitivity declined. This had been a sensational improvement compared to the former acoustic recording systems (200 to 2,400 Hertz and sometimes less) which were in place until around 1927 mostly in an effort to empty their stock of acoustic records. None of the older acoustic recordings (nearly everything before 1927) are played in any milongas nowadays. They don’t suit our needs because they are close to inaudible and one gets easily tired from them. But listen to a very early electrical Argentinian recording, A media luz interpreted by the Orquestra Francisco Canaro from around November 1926. Though from the early electrical recording days the sound quality is astonishingly good and it still fits perfectly into a typical today’s milonga program.

The missing frequencies let the tangos, we like so much, sound to our contemporary ear like if they were recorded on a different planet. And that’s maybe one of the reasons why sound engineers who transferred the early 78 rpm records to vinyl from the 1960s to the 1980s had added artefacts so that they sounded more familiar to their comtemporary hearing habits. By the late 1960s it must have been almost 15 years ago since the last 78 rpm records were sold, by the beginning of the 1980s, these old records had already disappeared from the market 30 years ago and playing 78 rpm records had been by then impossible for the large public. Therefore a new media had to be used for public reeditions to be able to still listen to the Epoca de Oro tango repertoire.

This had been in the beginning exclusively the new vinyl record and later the tape and compact cassette. A lot of people I meet are unaware of this circumstance and very much focused on the CD editions as the ultimate reference. Often they try to show me some hidden logic in how the tangos are distributed over a particular CD. Whereas the CDs often represent just a lot of 78 rpm records put together in a chronological order sometimes covering all 30 years of the larger Golden Age but in an uncomplete manner as a tango CD typically holds only around 20 to 30 tracks. This batch is often put together on an availability basis and rarely in an editorial manner. There are some exceptions though like the English Harlequin CD collection. In reality the reference is neither the CD nor the vinyl or tape. The reference is the original 78 rpm record release for mostly every published tango before 1955. A 78 rpm record looks iLP Carlos Di Sarlin size like a vinyl LP record but contains only one track per side. After 1955 started the vinyl era and some of the still present tango bands recorded then vinyl albums. In the case of D’Arienzo there were often a series of EP records and at a later stage a LP regrouping the EP releases. Di Sarli’s last recordings with Philips were later published on a single LP. I have a 1980’s reedition of this stereo record.

Grampian 636 Reverb Unit 1966

Grampian 636 Reverb Unit 1966

A typical artefact which had been introduced back then to the original recordings, is called a reverberation effect. While listening through the same titles of my collection I can distinguish versions with and without an echo effect. Famous examples are some of the early D’Arienzo recordings with Rodolfo Biagi on the piano. The initial recordings date from 1935 to 1939. If you listen to the echo containing versions, you have the impression that the orchestra must have been quite huge, recorded in a big hall with a lot of musicians. Whereas the standard version without the echo effect, sounds like very close and intimate. If I compare it to classical music, the echo version is the symphonic orchestra and the version without echo the chamber music.

The first known delay effects where available since around the 1950’s and were called Tape echo. To be more precise the echo effect is called a delay effect. With reverberation there are multiple delays and feedback so that individual echoes are blurred together, recreating the sound of an acoustic space. And I think this was precisely the intention of the sound engineers when they later added the echo to the old recordings: To add more depth to the flat sounding recording of the mono era. With the upcoming stereo culture of the 1960’s and 1970’s they wanted to give these old records a face lift and make them enter into the stereo age. As a side effect the echo also camouflaged imperfections of the original sound recording. And indeed when you listen to the echoed versions there is nearly no surface noise left. They make a clean impression.

Let’s have a closer look to the edition history of some of these tangos.

El cencerro performed by Juan D’Arienzo in 1937 is in it’s original 78 rpm record version of course without any echo effect. Later the same label, RCA Víctor, reissued El cencerro on a LP sampler called Evocando el Ayer, Vol.4, Serie Apoyando el Buen Tango CAL-3234. d'arienzo-vol4The 6 D’Arienzo instrumental LPs of this collection are very accurate reproductions of the original 78 rpm releases. They just contain some dating errors and some have no date indications at all but the sound quality is outstanding with no to very few reverberation effects and close to perfect tuning. This series had been issued somewhere in the mid to late 1970’s. In 1980 El cencerro had been again republished by RCA Víctor, this time on a 10 LP set called Serie Tango De Ayer, Vol. 3 D’Arienzo Biagi, containing a strong echo effect. It’s interesting to see how this tango is transfered later to CD: The El Bandoneón CD edition El Rey Del Compás EBCD43 (1999) as well as the Serie Tango Argentino CD Juan D’Arienzo Sus Primeros Exitós Vol. 2 (around 2004), seem to be based on the 1980 echo remix by RCA Víctor.  Also Milonga del corazón is the same version on the newer RCA Víctor BMG CD El Rey Del Compás 70 años El folderfolder.versoEsquinazo 1937-1938. It looks very much as if this LP had been the initial matrix for all follow-up D’Arienzo echo containing transfers. Therefore most of the dancers in America and also in Europe know only (or at least only had access to) the echo version as you can see on nearly all Youtube dancing videos like this memorable performance by Puppy Castello and Graciela Gonzalez from 1991 (I guess the music is played from a turntable or cassette deck and just from that aforementioned 10 LP set Serie Tango De Ayer, Vol. 3 D’Arienzo Biagi as neither the El Bandoneón nor the Tango Argentino CD existed at the time of this video!):



78RPM master record

78 rpm master record

Please see also in this context the mystery about the Don Esteban recording as described on Johan’s website and which appears to be the only ever reedition of this tango by RCA Víctor. According to Johan it looks like the masters might have been lost. This is particularily sad as this reedition and all others have this strong echo effect and the El Bandoneón and RCA BMG CD copies inherrited it! Also this version of Don Esteban appears to be slightly different to the japanese CTA version which would suggest that there might have been two seperate recording sessions back in the 1930’s

See here the sound samples:

In a way the echoed version of El cencerro made it into the salón and became some kind of accepted sound icon.



Maybe as a tribute to Juan D’Arienzo as he only made one recording of this particular tango back in 1937 when the recording techniques were still evolving. The echo version could be seen as an attempt to port the thin 1937 recording to a more space filling version as represented by the late D’Arienzo repertoire.

On the other hand nothing prevented the King of the Beat to publish a monumental version of El cencerro during his lifetime recording sessions which covered still another 20 years during the full frequency range stereo era from 1955 to 1975 — but as a matter of fact he didn’t, maybe he just forgot to do so … 🙂

If you want a version without the delay remix, you need to get Audio Park’s Epoca De Oro Vol. 1 APCD 6501 or CTA’s Juan D’Arienzo Vol.3 CTA-303. The japanese editions are based on their own 78 rpm transfers.

Now with this particular case presented in detail, I don’t know in how far people are aware that the echoed version is a pure invention? From the strict point of view of authenticity the echo version is untrue, some would say a lie. Back in the end of the 1970’s it had another meaning as we have seen and just until a couple of years ago it had been the only available version of this tango on second generation media, LPs, CCs and CDs! A lot of music in that time used extensively delay effects. Like on the 1977 David Bowie album Low which is interestingly from the same record label as the Juan D’Arienzo recordings, RCA Victor. This suggests that there must have been an interventionalist sound engineer at this company who added all sorts of artefacts to the historic recordings: Echo, tempo acceleration, low pass filters, etc. As to update these tunes to the taste of the day. And indeed other lables have been much more fidel when they restored and reedited their historic tango repertoire. In comparison EMI who inherited the ODEON catalogue had issued mostly very correct and authentic sounding LPs …



Another added artefact to the original recordings is incorrect tempo as I just mentioned. This is actually by far a wider spread problem than echo effects, too strong noice reduction, wrong preamplification schemes or other record problems. The incorrect pitch which arises from incorrect record transcript sessions is the kind of problem which remains often unnoticed, but seems to haunt the listener unconsciously. Let’s see an example: Age Akkerman has described recently on his blog a case of an out of tune recording, Di Sarli’s interpretation of El ciruja. He  explains that he didn’t like this tango before and how retuning the tango to the correct pitch changed his mind and appreciation of this tango. Different tonal tunings can create different feelings or emotions in the listener. This can lead in the worst case to refuse and unlike a track. Most of these tonal shifts are due to a too fast running turntable during the transfer session. If you speed up or slow down a turntable you will hear how the keys of the music move around and change. Nobody really knows how these sometimes quite huge differences made it into the transfer recordings, it could have been via damaged transfer turntables or on “an early reel-to-reel tape recorder by changing the diameter of the capstan drive shaft, or using a different motor” [Wikipedia].  Nor do we really know if these changes had been done intentionally or by accident. But it seems that a lot of tangos are affected. Here is a quick test you can do in your own music collection to find such pitch problems: select the same tango, same recording date but from different sources/CD editions and check the duration and BPM fields. Are they different?

A couple of days ago I have recognised that there is something wrong with the pitch of Carlos Di Sarli’s Cosas olvidadas which sounded just too fast. Through an analysis of the partitionPartition Cosas olvidadas, determinating the original key most proberly used by the band in their arrangement and carefully listening to the voice in the recording, while slowing down the track, I have pitched down the track by a total factor of around 2.5%. Now it sounds natural. For a comprehensive guide to retuning tracks, please see Age Akkerman’s paper Lost in Keys and check the examples on his website. This kind of pitch shift can get really dangerous when women voices are involved. They are already very high and if they are then pitched up further they arrive in regions where they can produce a pain in the ear (See my article on Too fast El Bandoneón recordings).

See here the different version of Cosas olvidadas as selected from my music collection for a comparison:

Cosas olvidadas Carlos Di Sarli : Roberto Rufino TA Canta Roberto Rufino Sus Primeros Exitos Vol. 1 Duration 2:19
Cosas olvidadas Carlos Di Sarli : Roberto Rufino RR Various Artists 1941-1956 Vol. 3 Duration 2:15
Cosas olvidadas Carlos Di Sarli : Roberto Rufino BATC-DIEGON Milonga Del Sentimiento Duration 2:21
Cosas olvidadas Carlos Di Sarli : Roberto Rufino El Bandoneón El Señor Del Tango Duration 2:17
Cosas olvidadas Carlos Di Sarli : Roberto Rufino Retuned version from Sus Primeros Exitos Vol. 1 Duration 2:23

Now one could say that these different speeds don’t have any effect on the audience but I have talked to some dancers and it seems that often these pitch shifts are noticed, in most of the cases unconsciously, they say then, the music is not so nice or restless. With some DJ collegues I also recognised that they won’t play repertoire of which they have a lot of too fast transfers. they say then: “Ah, Donato, I don’t like” or “Late D’Arienzo is too hysterical”. Other DJs like these faster versions if they need to mobilise energy in tired dancers, then again I think it would be an advantage to first correct the tunings and to operate in a second step a further up pitching while locking the keys, this can be done live with modern dj programs like Mixxx or Traktor. That way tangos can be speed up without affecting the tonal keys.