Never a Last Tango

Loyal to this music of memories, traditionalists keep the faith at Gaucho's Cafe

Again and again on a Friday night, Hector Perez Paez walks over to a mound of chalk on the floor to the left of the stage at Gaucho's Cafe, an Argentine restaurant tucked into a corner of SW Eighth Street. The tango instructor rubs the slick soles of his brown ankle boots with white powder before he turns to squire one of his female students, or any willing wallflower, across the small parquet dance floor. As usual, several tables in the compact room are occupied by groups of unescorted women who are carefully packed into short skirts and low-cut blouses, and shod in high heels with ankle straps. They glitter like rhinestones against the wood-paneled walls of the modest restaurant, which is decorated with tooled leather pictures of Argentine cowboys and snapshots of Latin celebrities. It falls upon Perez to give all of the women a spin, a duty that Rudolph Valentino used to perform at Bustanoby's Domino Room in midtown Manhattan before he brought tango to Middle America in the 1921 film The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Compared to the dashingly handsome matinee idol, Perez is an unlikely galan: a tall, bearish figure with an unwieldy shock of brown hair riding atop his head, and dressed in a baggy charcoal suit; he mops his face with a dinner napkin between songs. Once a journalist in Argentina, Perez danced the tango for loose change in New York City subway stations before coming to Miami two years ago. Now, relishing his role as Gaucho's roving host and resident ladies' man, he brushes by the tables to the dance floor, his big hand pressed into the bare back of a fortyish woman in a sequined halter top. His eyes are already on a voluptuous Cuban-American blonde who has just come in the door.

On-stage, below a sign that reads "Parking for Argentinos Only," restaurant owner Lito Quiroga barks the last line from "Tomo y Obligo" ("I Drink and Oblige"). The song was reportedly the last one performed by the world's most famous tango singer and composer, Carlos Gardel. As legend has it, he sang "Tomo y Obligo" in the airport bar in Medellin, Colombia, before boarding the plane in which he died in a 1935 crash. Now Quiroga rhythmically recites the last line of the song in Spanish, wrenching each syllable from his throat: "AUn hombre macho no debe llorar!" ("A macho man mustn't cry!") Overcome by emotion, a sweet-faced balding man sitting in the corner pounds the table with his fist. As the musicians continue to work the melody, other diners in the crowded restaurant wave their forks like conductors' batons, and then take aim to spear the sweetbreads and steaks decadently piled on the individual warmers parked next to their chairs.

Quiroga pulls up the sleeves of his shiny black suit and toasts his musical accomplice, Ruben Stefano, with a glass of Argentine red wine. A pianist and arranger who used to play with Xavier Cugat's orchestra and now appears at Gaucho's twice a week, Stefano (pronounced Estefano) sits behind a Yamaha electric piano emblazoned with his name in stick-on letters. He has programmed the instrument with the sounds of an ensemble -- piano, viola, and violin -- which allows him to partially replicate the big tango orchestras that ruled Buenos Aires in the Forties.

One thing that Stefano has not been able to sample to his satisfaction is the bandoneon, the box-shaped button accordion that gives tango its characteristically melancholy tone. He has not succeeded in doing justice digitally to the bandoneon's variously sad, celebratory, and lusty timbres -- to the music that easily evokes the schizophrenic emotions of a torrid affair, or the love-hate feelings an exile has for his adopted homeland. Perhaps, he acknowledges, an instrument that expresses such human emotion must be played only by human hands.

Osvaldo Barrios, whom Quiroga introduces as "the first bandoneon of Calle Ocho," sits on the right side of the stage, a sprightly 58-year-old man with laughing eyes in a gray suit and white synthetic shirt open at the neck. A soft cloth rests on his left knee, where he holds his black lacquered bandoneon, a gift from his parents when he was a boy.

Quiroga tells a bawdy joke about a pantyless Chilean whore, then leaves the stage. Stefano and Barrios look at each other out of the corner of their eyes and begin to improvise. The bandoneon glides over Barrios's knee like an epileptic caterpillar, and he taps his feet so hard as he plays that his black dress shoes chip splinters off the wooden platform where he precariously perches, on the edge of his chair. He starts to laugh, showing wolfish incisors. Stefano runs a hand through his white leonine hair, then bears down on the keys and lets out a joyful whoop. By now they are playing the spiraling rhythms so fast that the dance floor has cleared, and the rowdy diners have stopped talking to listen to the music. It is past midnight, and the musicians indulge in a chance to jam.

"I know this is a restaurant, and people want to dance," acknowledges Barrios. "But sometimes they're concentrating on getting the steps right and they don't listen to the music. They don't feel it. Tango is not just a dance, it's music."

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