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The violin in Argentine tango

Trumpet violin of Julio De Caro.
Trumpet violin of Julio De Caro, SADAIC. (C) Stephen Meyer

In my PhD research at the Royal College of Music, London, I am examining the stylistic development of the violin in Argentine tango music, exploring the relationship between performance practice and the larger socio-historical context. My focus lies between 1910, the year of the first tango orchestra (orquesta típica) recording and audible traces of performance practice, and 1943, a key year in Argentine history that marked the golpe de estado leading to the rise in power of Juan Domingo Perón. While a growing body of recent sociological and historical scholarship focuses on the place of tango within Argentine society, tango performance is not often approached historically; key texts such as Gallo (2011) and Peralta (2015) are practical manuals detailing lyrical and rhythmical conventions, without investigating how or why these changed at particular moments. However, tango music did not develop in a bubble; its development is intimately connected to the tumultuous social, cultural, and political events of twentieth-century Argentina. By examining the relationships between performance practice and the larger socio-cultural context, I seek not only to preserve cultural memory by documenting a primarily aural tradition through the use of archival sources, but also to fuel new developments in how this music can be performed today.

I requested a Postgraduate Research Support Grant from SLAS in order to undertake fieldwork in Buenos Aires, Argentina, from 7 July to 8 August, 2022. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I was unable to travel to Buenos Aires in 2020 or 2021, and it is very difficult to obtain archival materials outside of Argentina. My trip was highly successful. I visited many libraries and archives, including the Biblioteca Nacional, Biblioteca del Congreso, Biblioteca de la Universidad Católica de Argentina, Instituto de Investigación Musicología Carlos Vega, Academia Nacional del Tango, Academia Argentina de Letras, TangoVia, Sociedad Argentina de Autores y Compositores (SADAIC), Instituto Argentina de Música (INAMU), and various others. I also met a number of experts and collectors of tango materials, who graciously provided me with recordings, photographs and periodicals. After returning from Buenos Aires, I created a catalogue of materials that I collected, including more than 1300 articles gleaned from primary sources (1910-1943), several hundred recordings, dozens of secondary sources, and more than one hundred photos.

Elvino Vardaro. Archive of Fermín Barnard, INAMU. (C) Stephen Meyer

Some of the more noteworthy materials I collected include photos taken from the archive of Fermín Barnard, a photographer and tango collector whose archives are housed at the INAMU (Instituto Argentina de Música). Bernard collected thousands of photos, periodicals and books about tango music, and many of the photos were signed by the musicians themselves. For example, his archive included a signed photo of Elvino Vardaro, one of my case studies.

I was also fortunate to have been given access to the instrument archive at the SADAIC, which houses the trumpet violin of Julio De Caro, another of my case studies. I was given permission to photograph the instrument, which is extremely rare and of vital importance to understand De Caro’s performance style.

Equally vital were the thousands of articles that I was able to scan from some of the major Argentine periodicals of the day. A good example is this article from Sintonía, which features an interview one of the main executives of the Argentine recording industry and his experiences with some of the most important tango musicians of the day.

Sintonía, 22 December 1934. Archive of the Biblioteca Nacional Mariano Moreno. (C) Stephen Meyer

However, my trip was not without difficulties. Unfortunately, a pipe burst in the Biblioteca Nacional – the main archive of periodicals – causing the library to close until after my departure from Argentina. Following the closure, I had to contact many different archives and collectors in order to locate some of the vital periodicals I wished to consult, including Sintonía, Radiolandia, and Antena. While I wasn’t able to access everything I had hoped to find, I was able to scan thousands of documents, providing me with enough materials to complete my project. I would like to thank the Society of Latin American Studies for providing me with this generous grant, without which I would not have been able to undertake such a trip.

Stephen Meyer

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