I have been wondering what makes the sound of Orquesta Típica Victor so special, especially in the early 1930s. We have tried to imitate it with Sexteto Viento and partially succeeded (according to feedback from our audience), but I have felt that something has been missing, something that makes OTV’s walking beat so unique, so groovy and irresistible. It’s fluffy and steady at the same time, and when you’re dancing to it, you won’t even notice when it lifts your foot off the floor and grounds it for a new step.
Meet the Arrastre
But before we continue with OTV, let’s talk a bit about arrastre (‘dragging’), which is one of the most fundamental phenomena in Argentine tango. To some extent, it has been present in all tango music from the early 1920s till the present. Jeremy Cohen demonstrates it on the violin.
Tango Techniques for Strings ARRASTRE
Arrastre is typically played by the double bass and bandoneons, and, depending on style, the violins or even the piano can take part in it. Bandoneons play the arrastre so that they start a chord before the designated beat and make an accent on the beat by hitting the bellows down against the knee. The double bass might play the arrastre with or without a slide. Lila Horovitz demonstrates the slided version.
Marcato. Double Bass Tango Technique
A strong arrastre reached its peak in 1928 with Osvaldo Fresedo. His bandoneons started the arrastre with low notes in the left hand making a growling ‘RUH’ effect. OTV’s arrastre is also strong but not as strong as Fresedo’s. This is how they played in November 1929. The tango is La rosarina by Ricardo González.
La rosarina Orquesta Típica Victor 1929-11-20
Arrastre and Walking Beat
You may have noticed that arrastre is not played on every beat. Traditionally, tango is written in 2/4 time with four quavers (1/8 notes) per measure, and these four quavers mark the basic beat of tango, marcato, as tango musicians call it. However, up to the mid-1930s, beats were not created equal. In every bar, the first and third beats are called strong beats, the first being the strongest one. This beat structure is called marcato en dos or dos por cuatro. What marks the strong beats is the arrastre, not just the obvious fact that notes on strong beats might often be played a bit louder.
Most dance music genres use percussion instruments (drum set, claves, maracas, etc.) to mark a beat structure, i.e. to create a characteristic rhythmic pattern. Thanks to the arrastre, tango neither needs these instruments nor a rhythmic pattern. In fact, in a tango orchestra, any instrument can take the responsibility of keeping the beat while others are playing the melody.
The term ‘walking beat’ comes from the fact that you can comfortably walk on strong beats that follow each other in a pace of 60 per minute in typical tango tempo. Dancers often elaborate the beat structure by tapping the floor with their shoe tips on weak beats.
Enter the Secret Weapon
Now let’s skip to 23 April, 1930 when OTV recorded the tango ¿Dónde estás corazón? by Luis Martínez Serrano and Augusto Berto.
Orquesta Típica Victor - Dónde estas corazón - Letra/Lyrics
Something has happened since November – the arrastre is deep and resonant, as is the whole bass line. You might have spotted the secret weapon already, but let’s take another example from the same studio day, Osvaldo Pugliese’s early masterpiece Recuerdo. For comparison, you might also want to listen the first recording of Recuerdo by Julio De Caro from 1926. It’s quite different, but we don’t go any deeper into that now.
SEXTETO JULIO DE CARO - RECUERDO - TANGO - 1926
Orquesta típica Víctor Y Roberto Diaz Recuerdo 1930
Can you hear it now? Listen carefully to the two cadential bass notes at 1:02 or the long notes at 1:40! What is this instrument that’s playing in unison with the double bass? The answer is: It’s a tuba!
The tuba is the lowest-pitched brass instrument, the big brother of the cornet or the euphonium. It plays the bass part in practically all kinds of brass and wind bands as well as in New Orleans style jazz. In early 20th century Argentina, using a tuba was commonplace in jazz bands playing foxtrot or Latin style music such as pasodoble. Before the advent of electric recording technique in 1926, the tuba was the only bass instrument loud enough for the acousto-mechanic engraving process.
So how did Orquesta Típica Victor adopt the tuba? The most obvious answer is that because RCA Victor published foxtrots, pasodobles, rancheras etc. all the time, they probably had a regularly paid tuba player at their studio in Buenos Aires. Even the OTV leader Adolfo Carabelli, when he recorded non-tango with his own jazz band, used the tuba on a regular basis. One example would be Carabelli’s own composition, Amapola por favor, which is something between a foxtrot and a pasodoble.
ADOLFO CARABELLI JAZZ BAND - AMAPOLA POR FAVOR - FOX TROT
Then, one day, Carabelli or the producer at Victor had the idea of using the tuba in tango to complement the double bass. The final incentive might have come through the fact that OTV also recorded rancheras and pasodobles, and just before ¿Dónde estás corazón? and Recuerdo they had recorded a pasodoble named Toro bravo. This recording is not preserved, but we can listen the famous pasodoble El relicario by the Spanish composer José Padilla. It was recorded by OTV on November 27 the same year.
Now we have answered the questions “what” and “how”, but the question “why” is still to be answered. Why did OTV choose to use a tuba when they already had the double bass? If you didn’t skip my introductory comments a few paragraphs back, you might guess that the answer is arrastre. Being such a large instrument, the tuba has a soft attack, which means that a tone doesn’t reach its full volume until after a few milliseconds. This means that a tuba player has to start every note slightly in advance, and that’s just what arrastre is all about. Furthermore, the player can prolong and emphasize the attack with his embouchure, thus making a strong arrastre resembling a slide on the double bass. When carefully balanced, the tone color of the tuba mixes well with double bass making a sonorous bass part rich in overtones.
Why We Haven’t Seen It?
Now you ask why there are no pictures of tango orchestras with a tuba, and the answer is simple: Because it was a secret, and Victor wanted to keep it as a secret. Think of Coca Cola™: They never published their recipe, and neither did Victor tell all the details about what happened in the studio. Occasionally OTV might also incorporate other instruments like a vibraphone or a guitar, which all went under the Orquesta Típica Victor brand. And, of course, we must bear in mind that OTV never played in public, just in the studio.
So far, I haven’t heard a tuba in recordings by other orchestras – except one: Julio Pollero, who also recorded for Victor. The tuba is not very easy to spot in his work because the audio quality of the preserved recordings is not as good as those by OTV, but in Tristeza nocturna by Antonio Buglione, already from 1927, the presence of the tuba is apparent; just listen the cadence at 0:33. It’s needless to say that there is no picture of Pollero posing with a tuba, either. This brass instrument was associated with other music genres and didn’t fit in the public image of a tango orchestra.
Today's Tango Is... Julio Pollero - Tristeza Nocturna 05-12-1927
The End of an Era
OTV used the tuba in virtually all their recordings for a couple of years, including this vals A la mar se fue by Armando Acquarone, recorded on December 28, 1932.
Orquesta tipica Victor Y Luis Díaz, Carlos Lafuente A la mar se fue VALS 1932
The next tango OTV recorded a month later, January 31, 1933, was Adiós by an unknown composer. It was dramatically different.
Then, after two rancheras, they made this beloved recording of Ventarrón by Pedro Maffia.
Ventarrón - Orquesta Típica Victor con Elvino Vardaro (1933)
Now, what has happened? The tuba is gone, as is the walking beat. Was Adiós a goodbye to more than just one instrument? Yes, it was a goodbye to an era that started when guardia nueva was born in the early 1920s and Orquesta Típica Victor was set up in 1925. It was a goodbye to the relaxed marcato en dos that had to give way to the agitated marcato en cuatro. Thus, OTV was a vanguard in the beat revolution that made Juan D’Arienzo famous two years later and affected all tango music to come. The tuba or even the arrastre were no more needed because all the beats were now equal.
Should We Hire a Tuba Player Now?
Now that I have found the secret of OTV, I face the question of whether we should hire a tuba player in Sexteto Viento to be authentic when playing in OTV style. Well, I think it won’t be a good idea because we wouldn’t be a sextet after that. But, to be serious, there is no sense having another bass instrument in such a small ensemble. Luckily, the next OTV style piece we are going to play in May, vals Amor cobarde, was recorded by OTV when the tuba had left the scene.
However, I would like to recommend trying a tuba in an orquesta típica if the aim is to play in true OTV style. While digesting this idea, we could listen to Tubatango, a band that is guaranteed to be double bass free.
La Tubatango / Zorro Gris - Zorro gris
EDIT: Was It a Contrabassoon or a Bassoon?
I have been told that Victor had a contrabassoon (aka double bassoon) at their studio to reinforce the bass line. Bassoon and contrabassoon are double-reed woodwind instruments, and both their attack and sound spectrum are very different from those of the tuba. After carefully re-evaluating these examples, I am convinced that the instrument really is a tuba. Besides, a contrabassoon is a rare and very expensive instrument, and probably there was only one of them in Buenos Aires at the time, namely at Teatro Colón. Tubas, on the other hand, were all over the city.
It has also been suggested that a bassoon was used to reinforce the bass line, and in fact a bassoonist, Renato Zaffignani, has been mentioned as a member of OTV. The bassoon, "little brother" of contrabassoon, is a common instrument in symphony orchestras and woodwind ensembles. However, there is a problem, i.e. the range: The lowest note a bassoon can play is Bb1 (B, in German notation) whereas the double bass can go down to E1, some instruments even to C1. Thus, the bassoon typically plays an octave higher than the double bass - the way the violoncello does.
OTV may have used the bassoon in the late 1920s, but they soon found out that it couldn't make a deep and vibrant addition to the bass line. The bass tuba, on the other hand, is capable of playing the whole low range of the double bass, and even lower. In 1930 to 1932, the auxiliary bass instrument definitely is a tuba. In La rosarina (recorded on 1929-11-20) there might be a bassoon because it is lacking the juicy brass sound of the tuba.