Enrique Santos Discépolo, in his tango Cafetín de Buenos Aires, wrote a tender testament to the cafes of Argentina's Buenos Aires; places which gave him his ‘first cigarette, the faith in dreams, and a hope of love.’ This nostalgic sentiment, written in 1948, is one of many tangos which celebrate the cafes and bars of the city; places where many of the compadritos of old first penned and performed their tangos.
Today, as the popularity of tango reaches unprecedented levels around the world, the cafes, once at the heart of the tango, are becoming lost amongst the expensive tourist spectaculars. “We just can’t afford to go to those places” claims Leonidas Valdez, a tango singer who occasionally sings at the famous Café Tortoni, a venue which is squarely out of his price range. Consequently, many cafes and bars scattered throughout the neighbourhoods of Buenos Aires are again becoming a meeting place for some excellent tango singers and guitarists, who join together at the weekend and sing of their memories and sorrows to friends of old. This is the tango of the barrio, the tango of the workers, the very type of place where tango originated; and it is in these old bars where one can encounter some of the most soulful tango that Buenos Aires has to offer.
"Ninety percent of the people who come on the weekend are young, they love the place, so old and ruined”
El Rápido is one such bar located on Godoy Cruz, between Santa Fé and Guemes. Although this tiny bar has only been open approximately ten years, it has an air of a bygone period. It is a place where the wine comes from the box, churrascos cost two pesos, and the walls are adorned with fake flowers and black and white horse racing photos; a sepia reminder of “the old tango culture of the compadritos when horseracing and playing cards were prohibited,” Juan, the waiter, dressed all in starched white, explains to me through the crockery piled precariously on the bar. “Here we try to maintain that atmosphere.” Whilst it can not be described as a beautiful place, within its walls is a culture that is more valuable than many antique decors.
Every Saturday night from 7 o’clock the café fills with retired workers, who gather with a couple of battered guitars and the occasional accordion and spend the evening singing tangos and folkloric music. They are the same people who have been coming since the bar opened. “I am among friends and I feel comfortable here,” Valdez tells me. And although the bar may appear at first to be unwelcoming, anybody entering is immediately made to feel at home and is instantly charmed.
However, an El Rápido favourite, Ricardo Majanini, is worried about the state of tango in Buenos Aires. One major factor, he claims, is that “the youngsters do not listen to tango anymore. Today it is all cumbia!” He is also sceptical about the schools, “I never learnt vocals, I carry tango in my heart, but what they learn in the academies is not from the heart.”
But El Rápido has become an important learning ground for young singers and guitarists, who occasionally come to learn from the ‘maestros’, as one young tango singer described them. In El Rápido, the young people who do get up and sing are always given a great reception by the older artists who are aware of the predicament of their art.
Similarly, throughout the weekend 12 de Octubre (commonly known as El boliche de Roberto, a bar little changed from the day it opened in 1873) on Perón and Bulnes, is replete with younger generations of tango lovers, who are also very welcome to come, learn and perform. Roberto’s son and heir Estaban Perez tries to explain its success to me: “it all started a couple of years ago with a few guys who came with their guitars and sang, now there is a whole new movement…90% of the people who come on the weekend are young, they love the place, so old and ruined”.
Whilst nobody could deny the importance the huge popularity of tango around the world has for the art and culture of tango, the grass roots as seen in these bars can not be ignored, for it is these places, full of the characters of tango, which to this day remain at the heart of the music. As Leonidas Valdez explains, “this is the music of the people…the workers, and my barrio.”
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