Tracing the history of the tango's famed anthem

We look into the song’s history, ahead of a showcase of the music in Abu Dhabi

Tango dancers. Getty Images
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When Gerardo Matos Rodríguez completed his composition for a folk song called La Cumparsita (The Carnival) in 1916, he wanted a second opinion. It made sense; 19 years old at the time, the Uruguayan was only beginning to flex his musical muscles, having quit his architecture course to focus solely on being a musician. Rodríquez enlisted his friend to take the song to famed Argentine band leader and composer Robert Firpo, who at the time was in the midst of a successful residency at Montevideo cafe La Giralda.

Firpo wasn't blow away, but with its swaying two-four rhythm (ta-ta, ta-ta-ta-ta), he could see potential in La Cumparsita turning into a nifty tango tune. With the song initially composed in two sections, Firpo added a third part that included elements of his 1906 tangos, La Gaucha Manuela and Curda Completa, to give the piece a sense of unity.

He would go on to perform it that evening at La Giralda to an enthusiastic response. Rodríguez was thrilled and thought it marked his arrival as a composer.

“Rodríguez walked around like a champion,” Firpo recalled years later in an interview. “But the tango was forgotten; its later success began when the words of Enrique Maroni and Pascual Contursi were associated
with it.”

Indeed, the track took on a second life in 1924 when it was sung to the lovelorn lyrics of the Argentine poets. Since then it has become a mainstay of popular culture: Gene Kelly danced to it in 1945 film Anchors Aweigh, while crooner Julio Iglesias scored a hit with his 1996 cover – and it continues to be favoured soundtrack to gymnastic routines.

A hundred years on, La Cumparsita is widely viewed as the anthem of tango music, and it is set to be celebrated tonight with a sold NYU Abu Dhabi performance by Hector Passarella.

The master Uruguayan composer remembers hearing La Cumparsita for the first time on the radio as a 6-year-old.

“I was immediately bewitched,” he recalls. “What makes it so magical is how simple it is. But at the same time, the track is deep as well. There is a spiritual intuition to how it is composed, and that is what makes it so expressive and why it resonated with so many people. It is also the reason why each person who plays it performs it differently.”

Passarella will be joined by a five-piece band, and the evening is viewed as not only a celebration of Uruguayan culture – indeed, the country’s ambassador to the UAE, Nelson Chaben, will accompany on piano – but also a showcase of one of classical music’s most underrated instruments: the bandoneon.

Developed in Germany in the mid-19th century, the bandoneon remains a pillar of traditional music in the Río de la Plata area on the Argentine and Uruguayan border, as well as in folk music in Lithuania.

While it resembles an accordion, the bandoneon is a trickier affair: each side’s keyboard can play opening and closing notes. In addition, each side’s keyboard is set up differently, meaning a player must learn four different keyboard configurations to take on the instrument.

That complexity gives the instrument its power and range, Passarella says. "It looks small and compact, but it gives you this great powerful notes," he explains. "It is like an accordion that plays notes with the force of an organ."

That emotive quality allowed it to be the most popular instrument of tango musicians. When the bandoneon arrived in the Río de la Plata in the early 1900s, tango music was being played primarily with a guitar and flute. Passarella says musicians quickly noticed how the bandoneon could capture the tango's signature melancholia.

“The bandoneon’s have this deep richness and can really capture a sense of sadness,” he explains. “Tango music is about that capturing that torrent of despair within. Musicians aim to really find that spirit because that is how the music really hits you emotionally, and the bandoneon does that beautifully. This is also explaining this saying by one Argentine poet who said: “The bandoneon doesn’t know how to smile.”

But when it comes to Passarella, the instrument allowed him to express himself. Growing up in the Florida, an inland city north of Montevideo, Passarella was a quiet child in a loud household. Born to father who was a full-time shoemaker by day and amateur musician and bandoneonist by night, Passarella was drawn to its vibrancy.

“I was never one for too much talking, especially as a child,” he says. “But I found I can say so much with the bandoneon. It was easy to say what I felt and for people to respond. It is still like this for me now. I feel that not only am I showing my feelings on stage, but also carrying on the heritage of my father, something which I have passed on to my son Roberto, who will also play with me here in Abu Dhabi.”

Passarella was classically trained in the instrument in Uruguay and Italy, and hopes his tango-heavy programme will illustrate the musicality of the instrument. He is rueful at the fact that tango's compositional qualities are over-shadowed by its popular accompanying dances.

“I guess this is something that comes when something becomes really famous,” he says. “But people need to know that tango is first a music form. It is meant to be listened to and appreciate it first. Now, if you ask someone about it, they think it is just a form of dance. And since we are talking about the dance, while it is also beautiful, when you are involved in it you are really not thinking about the music. The thing that is going through your mind is you counting the step steps to make sure you get it right.”

Passarella concedes the popularity of the dances resulted in a generation of musicians composing accessible pieces called milongas (named after the term milonga, which is used to describe an event where tango is danced), specifically for dance recitals, performances or competitions

To restore some balance to the art form, Passarella set up the Centre of Bandoneon in Rome. In five years, it has welcomed more than 100 students from Uruguay to Turkey in studying the instrument, in both tango and classical music.

“I tell the students that I am not there to teach them, but to instead complete their understanding when it comes to the bandoneon and all of its aspects,” he says. “If they are going to play, they need to listen and understand what the music is about and what it can do to different artistic words, including the tango.”

Hector Passarella plays tonight at the The Centenary of La Cumparsita – The Anthem of the Tangos performance at The Arts Centre at NYU Abu Dhabi tonight. Tickets are sold out. The event is organised by the Abu Dhabi Festival in partnership with the Embassy of Uruguay.


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