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."

Interest in tango dancing in the United States has come and gone in waves throughout this century, usually popularized by people who are not natives of Argentina. It was first introduced in 1913, by the famous dance team Vernon and Irene Castle, who picked up the steps in Paris. In the Thirties and Forties, variations on the tango were staples of dance orchestra repertoire. It remains on the Arthur Murray dance-school roster. A decade ago the spectacle of the gymnastic-like exhibition dancing performed in the Broadway show Tango Argentino made it fashionable again. When Al Pacino lustily danced a few steps in 1992's film Scent of a Woman, widespread interest in tango dancing surged once more.

This fall Spanish singer Julio Iglesias will release a cover album of Carlos Gardel's greatest hits. The CD's unimaginative title, Tango, will ensure that everyone gets the point. And Madonna's appearance as Eva Perón in Alan Parker's upcoming film is sure to stoke moviegoers' desire to learn the dance. In Miami, a city with a large Latin population, as well as an area where style-consciousness easily takes the place of substance, tango teachers have started bracing for a full-fledged fad.

"This year is going to be decisive in Miami, now that Madonna and Julio are making it popular," says Jorge Nel Giraldo, a Colombian immigrant who has been giving tango lessons in Miami for a decade, currently at the Elks Club in Coral Gables. From a studio in his South Miami home, Nel presides over Club Amigos del Tango, an association of tango dance aficionados that has 2000 members in Dade and Broward. "Tango has great potential here, because we have such a big Hispanic population who are used to social dancing, who can accept it as another Latin dance."

Nel heads a tango dance company that is frequently called upon to perform at parties. Recently, the dancers gave a demonstration at the Biltmore Hotel at a reception for Christian Dior's new perfume, Dolce Vita. The four couples, dressed in fedoras and flapperish dresses, were hired to personify the tony scent's slogan: "All the good things in life captured in a fragrance." Nel considers the event good advertising for tango.

"All it needs is a little publicity. Without publicity nothing moves," he asserts. "There's going to be an explosion, and I'm going to be ready. I've been preparing all these years for what's coming."

Not everyone is so excited about tango's born-again popularity. Stefano, who has been playing tango music since he was a seven-year-old boy in the provinces outside Buenos Aires, is less impressed by the onslaught of yet another epidemic of tango fever.

"A few years ago Al Pacino did that dance in that movie," he shrugs. "That was no big deal, but suddenly tango was popular. People want to dance tango because tango is trendy. Unfortunately, that's the way it is. Nobody goes searching for the essence of things."

It is generally acknowledged that tango developed in the late 1800s in brothels and bars in the ports of the Rio de la Plata, which runs between Argentina and Uruguay. It was danced by pimps, prostitutes, and johns, amidst brawls by knife-wielding sailors and thugs. Tango is distinctly urban music, created by the working class of European immigrants, African blacks, and South American natives who were thrown together in Buenos Aires at the turn of the century. But like the origin of the universe, the exact roots of this far-flung musical genre are an enduring subject of debate. Southern Italian folk music, Andalusian flamenco, African candomble percussion, and the violins of Eastern European klezmer music are all frequently acknowledged elements. One popular theory is that it derived from a mix of the milonga -- the Argentine country music sung by gauchos on the Pampas -- and the Cuban habanera, which has the same 2/4 rhythm as the tango.

"No, no, no, no, no, no," protests Osvaldo Barrios, shaking his head, at the mention of the habanera. "I keep reading that, and I want to die. People are always trying to discover something. Why can't they just leave things alone? I'm not old enough to know for sure where it came from, but it all originated in Buenos Aires. I don't know exactly how it was born. Tango is the music of a city. And that city is Buenos Aires."

Barrios was born to Italian immigrants who lived in Flores, a working-class neighborhood in Buenos Aires where his father was a welder. Early on, the boy was exposed to tango at home.

"On Sundays friends would come over," recalls Barrios, seated at one of the white-cloth-covered tables at Gaucho's Cafe on a Thursday afternoon. "Remember, they were Italian -- the women made all of those pastas, and all of that food, and we'd all get together to eat it. My father had a friend who played guitar and another who played bandoneon. I liked the guitar first. Then I saw the bandoneon. I said 'I want that, Papa.'"

Barrios opens a leather case at his feet and takes out his bandoneon, which he estimates is about seventy years old. He runs his fingers over the mother-of-pearl buttons on each side, and points out where the letter A is inscribed in the wood, indicating that it was made by the A. Arnold company of Germany, maker of premier bandoneons. The factory burned down during the Second World War, and since then the prized instruments have become harder and harder to come by. To the chagrin of Argentine musicians, many have been bought up in Buenos Aires and taken home by Japanese tango fans.

The origins of the bandoneon are cloaked in some of the same obscurity as tango itself, lending the instrument a mysterious air. Its invention is generally credited to Heinrich Band, from Krefeld, Germany, who around 1860 gave it its name, which he spelled bandonion (probably a combination of Band and the German word Akkordion). But some Argentine historians contend that Band had a predecessor, Herman Ulgh, who constructed a similar instrument in 1835. In any case, the instrument that in the whorehouses of Buenos Aires came to be called the bandoneon was conceived for use in religious processions and services in organless churches.

The bandoneon was brought to Buenos Aires in the 1880s by a sailor -- again, theories on this man's origins differ. Many accounts name one Thomas Moore, a British maritime officer, as the culprit. Whatever. The accordionlike instrument, also known by musicians as the "asthmatic worm," joined the existing tango ensembles of violin, guitar, and flute, defining the sound of tango from then on.

"The bandoneon is the obligatory instrument, the symbol of tango," says Barrios. "Since the turn of the century, when you say tango you want to see a bandoneon."

It is not an easy instrument to play. Each of the more than seventy buttons on the sides of the box produce one note when the bellows is compressed, and another when it is expanded.

"I think if you don't learn as a child, you can't learn at all," says Barrios, who compares its degree of difficulty to that of playing classical music on the violin.

The bandoneon can sound like an organ, a cello, a clarinet, or a flute. Its dense resonance brought a slower, heavier feeling to the tango, which had previously been characterized by light, merry rhythms. The bandoneon's melancholy tone provided the perfect accompaniment to the immigrants' hard-luck stories. The portenos (literally, "port workers," the colloquial term for people from Buenos Aires) began to write words to what had previously been instrumental tunes. Spoken more than sung, the lyrics written by tango poets swung easily in with the rhythm of the bandoneon. The exaggerated, Italian-influenced musical accent of Argentine Spanish found its match in the instrument's dissonant notes.

"The tango has the spirit of the people of Buenos Aires," says Barrios. "We're melancholy, sometimes we cry, we're fun, sometimes we fight. And that way of being is what the tango has."

Barrios began performing professionally at age seventeen, playing gigs with several tango orchestras in Buenos Aires. In 1967, when he was 29, he came to the United States and settled in Los Angeles. He formed a trio that became a fixture at Norah's Place, an Argentine restaurant in North Hollywood, where tango lover Robert Duvall was among his fans. He has performed steadily over the years, and once appeared in a movie, the failed Cindy Lauper vehicle Vibes. But there's not a lot of money to be had in bandoneon playing, so he has another career as an interior decorator. Six years ago, Barrios moved to Miami with his family, where he performs occasionally at private parties. Six months ago he began moonlighting at Gaucho's Cafe on a weekly basis.

The songs that Barrios and Stefano play with considerable art are tango classics: "El Dia Que Me Quieras" ("The Day that You Love Me"), "Volver" ("Return"), "Cambalache" ("The Junkshop"). Although Barrios is a lifelong traditionalist, he respects Astor Piazzolla, the renowned tango modernist who brought the bandoneon to a more erudite audience and won international recognition for tango as a musical form. Under Piazzolla's hand, tango became concert music. His experimental instrumental compositions turned tango inside out, shifting the melody and introducing dissonant chords, building on the basic tango rhythm. Piazzolla also combined tango with classical music, and composed for the avant-garde string ensemble Kronos Quartet. But the songs that Barrios and his cohorts thrive on are tangos that follow the traditional musical format, whose lyrics are melodramatic tales of turbulent love affairs or odes to Buenos Aires.

"The tango is what it was, and what it is, for its simplicity," Barrios asserts, absently stroking the bandoneon in his lap. "In my modest opinion, there's only one tango."

Sitting with his back to the glowing golden arches of a drive-in McDonald's across the street, Quiroga sucks on a silver straw stuck in a polished black gourd filled with mate, the stimulating herbal infusion that in Argentina is as common as coffee. A tango tape is playing on a cassette deck near the stage. On a television in the back corner of the restaurant, a waiter is watching soccer.

Gaucho's Cafe was once a shrine to that other typical Argentine pastime. The restaurant used to be called Mundial '78, after Argentina won its first World Cup soccer championship. Quiroga, who opened the restaurant in 1988, sold it to some Colombians in 1990, then bought it back in 1992 and rechristened it Gaucho's Cafe. Quiroga is from Mendoza, the Argentine wine country on the Chilean border. He moved to Miami in 1984, and has since had a string of Argentine restaurants with snappy names: Casona de Carlitos on Miami Beach, then Che Bandoneon on Flagler, Dolce Vita on Collins (now Porcel), and Lito's Place.

Gaucho's Cafe is an unlikely name for a tango palace. Gauchos, cattlemen who live in the countryside, are not from Buenos Aires and do not dance tango. But in Argentina, Quiroga was a singer of country music. He recorded several albums with a popular group called Ecos del Ande. Then he went solo as a club singer and started performing tango as well as the country music of different Argentine regions. Now, at 60, he has thick eyebrows that look like smears of black shoe polish, and long fingernails on his right hand, which he uses to strum the guitar. On weekends, in between tango sets, he plays folksongs called cuecas with another guitarist, while Hector Perez bangs a bombo leguero, a South American drum made from a tree trunk.

It was about a year ago that Quiroga decided that Miami was lacking a venue for tango. Although tango classes in the area were easy to find, and Jorge Nel was holding occasional Saturday night parties with an orchestra, there was nowhere to consistently hear live tango and dance to it -- not since Carlos Gardel, another restaurant on Eighth Street with live tango, shut down more than a decade ago.

"In Miami, we needed a place that was complete," says Quiroga. "A place where people can dance, and where they can come and listen to a tango, and talk about tango."

He enlisted Perez, who is a friend from Mendoza. Stefano was another long-time friend. Barrios heard about Gaucho's and showed up one day with his bandoneon. During their weekly celebrations of wine, women, and song, with Quiroga telling bad jokes, they're like an Argentine version of the Rat Pack, in their own humbler version of the Sands in Las Vegas.

"The thing about this house is that it has identity," Quiroga asserts. "Argentine identity cien por ciento [one hundred percent]. You know why? Because if I go to a Chinese restaurant, I want to eat Chinese food, in a Chinese dining room, and listen to Chinese music. And if an Argentine comes out and starts singing in Chinese, I don't think it would be very good. So I make sure that everyone who works here is Argentine, and everything we do here is authentically born in our country. I would never come out and sing any song from a country that wasn't mine." He gets up to point out an Argentine flag in a glass case, which is for sale along with bottles of wine from Mendoza and packages of mate leaves. The only thing in the restaurant that is not completely authentic, Quiroga acknowledges, is the meat. The steaks are from Nebraska. Because of a historic case of hoof and mouth disease in Argentina, Argentine beef has not legally been imported into this country since before 1930.

While Quiroga doesn't mind cashing in on the current tango hype, the atmosphere at his restaurant is not one of fancy dancers or fashion seekers. Gaucho's Cafe has a populist feel that evokes tango's working-class roots rather than its sexy cinematic image. The same people, mostly Argentines and Cuban Americans, show up every weekend.

On this evening, a Tuesday, Perez is on the dance floor, as is Quiroga's daughter, Jimena, a pretty brunette with a Kate Moss figure. Jimena works as a waitress in the restaurant, but she is also Perez's teaching assistant. At the moment, she is trying to maneuver a rather uncoordinated young man across the dance floor. He keeps tripping over her feet.

Perez is having more success with his partner, who is easily swiveling her hips so that her foot, dangling from her bent leg, swings in and out between his legs. Their foreheads are touching, but their bodies remain about six inches apart, as the couple walks backward across the floor, then lurches forward again.

Later, taking a break, the instructor is eager to offer the secret to his success with his pupils. "I'm a guy who, when I dance, I make the women stand out," he confides, whispering. "A lot of teachers show off, but I want to show them off."

At a long table in the middle of the room, Ricardo Fantasio, one of the restaurant's regulars, sits with his family. His eleven-year-old granddaughter and nine-year-old grandson are taking lessons from Perez. Fantasio, a dapper gentleman with slicked-back hair and a mustache, takes out a duffel bag. He has brought his bandoneon. This one is varnished wood, not lacquered, and is slightly different than the one Barrios plays. A metal plaque on one end reads Bandonion in ornate lettering. Elsewhere, it is inscribed Alfred Band.

A retired magician and maker of magic tricks, Fantasio got the instrument from a friend who collects old jukeboxes. The bandoneon had come in a shipment of used jukeboxes and gum machines from the Midwest. Fantasio traded a book for it. He opens a folder that contains what little documentation he's been able to compile on the bandoneon. He believes that Alfred Band must have been a brother or son of Heinrich Band, and that the instrument was one of the first bandoneons, dating back to around 1860. It's an awe-inspiring sight for a tango fan. Jimena's dance student comes over to take a look, and his mouth hangs open. Fantasio slips his hands into the straps and moves the bellows in and out, and the bandoneon moans. Then he puts his little piece of history back in the bag.

"My beloved Buenos Aires/When I see you again/There'll be no more sorrows or forgetting."

Past midnight on a Friday, Quiroga digs into "Mi Buenos Aires Querido" ("My Beloved Buenos Aires"), another Gardel classic. As he sings, he bends at the waist, clutching the microphone closely to his chest. Then he stands up, flinging his arms toward the back of the room, where a photo of Gardel hangs on the wall. Idol is written in Spanish above the singer's image.

Perez maneuvers his favorite Cuban-American student around the floor. She can't help but add some salsa to the dance, shaking her hips a little too much as she does the eight basic steps she has learned. Behind her, an older couple is moving with such grace that it's obvious they've been doing this all of their lives. They float on their feet, moving slowly up and back in an embrace that has none of the theatricality of the less-experienced dancers'.

Then a dark-skinned man in a slim blue suit takes to the floor with a young woman. His remaining strands of hair are glued to his scalp with grease, and his sunken cheeks give his face a dangerous look. The man and woman face each other and start to dance. What the man does has absolutely nothing to do with the strutting and dipping stereotypically associated with tango. He moves slowly, deliberately, leaning toward, then away from, his partner, sometimes stopping for a few beats as though he might reach in his pocket and take out a knife.

"My beloved Buenos Aires/Flowery land where my life will end/Under your shelter there are no disappointments/The years pass and the pain is forgotten."

Quiroga finishes the song and leaves the stage to the musicians. He leans against the bar with a glass of wine, looking on as Barrios and Stefano clear the dance floor one more time. "This is a tango school," the restaurant owner says, struggling to catch his breath. "Here you don't just learn how to dance tango. You learn how to understand it.

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