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“The Little Window in My Shanty Street”: Urban Romanticism in Latin Music Between the Wars

The world was expanding, growing louder, faster, more itself. It was all terribly exciting. You walked out onto the streets of the city and you could feel it pulse, a mass of humanity all striving together. To what end? That was for the future to care about. Today, here and now, with this air in your nostrils and these sounds in your ears and this pavement under your feet, this was what mattered.

Para Todos cover illustration, October1927, by J. Carlos (Brazil)

Nowhere did you feel this more strongly than in the music. Melodies wild and sad from immigrant ghettos, rhythms nervous and insistent from neighborhoods where the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of slaves gathered, performances that were all limbs and mouths on a brilliant stage in a smoky room, and the shining eyes and grinning teeth on covers in the sheet music stalls, on advertisements for the new recorded hit, on the quicksilver screens that flashed in darkened cathedrals to the new technologies of vision and, later, sound. The music sang that you were here, that you were modern, that you had done away with the squalid, stale past and were rushing into the bright, beautiful, glorious, and free future.

The city was many. It was New York. It was Chicago. It was Rio de Janeiro. It was Philadelphia. It was Buenos Aires. It was Detroit. It was Los Angeles. It was Havana. It was Mexico City. It was America, and the whole world pulsed and quaked and shivered to her rhythms.

Those cities, in that order, were the nine most populous cities in the Americas in 1930. In a world-historical sense, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, Havana and Mexico City are just as important cauldrons of music and media centers as any city in the United States — in fact, in one sense the United States was behind the curve.

I. Tango, Buenos Aires, and the Home

Arrabal de Buenos Aires, 1929, by Lino Enea Spilimbergo (Argentina)

Calle Florida, Buenos Aires, 1930

When the United States embarked on its Jazz Age, South America had already been moving for a decade to its own Age of Tango. The tango, with its sensual, irregular rhythms mimicking a highly stylized version of sex, sometimes codes as rather old-fashioned and camp today, but it was a scandal and a heresy when it was created in the bordellos, in the milongas or dancehalls, and in the taverns of Buenos Aires around the turn of the century, full of low-life humor and irony, peppered with lunfardo — underworld slang — that made grinning reference to sex, violence, and the exchange of money for both.

Carlos Gardel (1890-1935)

The story goes that when Carlos Gardel first sang tango songs in concert in 1917, he had to do it alone, because his accompanist feared the condemnation of society; but by 1920 even the strictest aristocrats danced the tango, and by the thirties it had been thoroughly domesticated, and Gardel had become the most famous singer in Latin America. In his 1934 hit “Mi Buenos Aires Querido” (my beloved Buenos Aires), he sings as a man returning to the city after having been long away, and almost exclusively in terms of domestic imagery — the light hung over the door, the window where his girl used to sit, the back alley where they trysted. Even though it’s very much tango as glossy international pop music — Gardel would star in a movie of the title — it remains a humble vision, not far removed from the low-life origins of the tango, set in the arrabal, the sort of lower-class neighborhood that in American English we might refer to with words like slum, ghetto, hood, or barrio.

Rosita Quiroga (1896-1984)

Not all domestic tangos romanticized the arrabal, of course. Rosita Quiroga, who was a genuine arrabalera, was also the most successful female singer of tango, as the cosmopolitan Gardel was the most successful male. But her 1927 record “A Media Luz” (in half-light) is a description of an upper-class apartment, fashionably lit in chiaroscuro, filled with sumptuous furniture and decorative touches — a Victrola that weeps tangos, a porcelain cat that doesn’t meow — all working together toward a single effect, which she names in the chorus: “la media luz de amor,” the half-light of love. It’s the apartment of a seductress, in charge of her own life and her own sexuality, wealthy enough to afford not just bourgeois electricity but the decorative effects of the aesthetes, as modern and liberated as any flapper; in fact more so. Popular song in the U.S. wouldn’t be quite this direct about women’s economic (and implicit sexual) freedom for another twenty years.

II. Samba, Rio de Janeiro, and the Street

Baile de Carnaval, 1930, by Bigio Gerardenghi (Brazil)

Avenida Central, Rio de Janeiro, 1930

Now let’s turn from domestic spaces made romantic and mysterious by the tango, the private turned public by performance, to the urban space set aside as public, which music also transfigures into a space of private contemplation. The Brazilian samba is, of course, identified with street festivities; as the sound of the Carnaval since the turn of the twentieth century, with hundreds of escolas de samba (samba schools) competing against one another for supremacy. Lighter and more rhythmic than the melodramatic tango, it originated in Brazilian slave dances in the coastal Bahia region; but it was not until black Brazilians, freed from slavery and eager for the opportunities of the city, descended en masse on Rio de Janeiro in the early 1900s that the samba coalesced into a sophisticated, flexible music that could express both festa (party) and saudade (longing).

Carmen Miranda (1909-1955)

Rio, as the media center of the nation — and indeed the continent — amplified samba from the music of the Afro-Brazilian streets to the music of the radio airwaves, cinema screens, and celebrity singers. The most famous sambista of the 1930s, Carmen Miranda, returned the city’s favor with her 1934 hit “O Samba É Carioca” (the samba is from Rio). It’s a song of triumph, boasting of the music’s reach as far as Europe, but boasting also of how wonderful the povo carioca (people of Rio) are; and her deep, elastic voice makes a line like “the people of Rio are frank in [matters of] love” echo with possibility.

Francisco Alves (1898-1952)

Samba moved in ways and directions far too numerous to catalog here. Samba-canção (samba song), which turned the public dance into private pain; batucada, emphasizing the percussive African elements of the dance; and samba-exaltação, or High Samba, which moved the music from the streets or even the home to the concert hall. Ary Barroso’s “Aquarela do Brasil” (watercolor of Brazil) pushed samba into art music, a multipart suite and impressionistic poem in honor not just of a city, but of the nation, that took up both sides of a 78 when it was recorded by Francisco Alves in 1939. As “Brazil” it would even become a standard in the United States for decades; but the original recording, with its juxtaposition of clattering percussion and thick cinematic strings, remains a landmark in world music history.

III. Son, Havana, and the Stage

El Triunfo de la Rumba, 1928, by Eduardo Abela (Cuba)

Havana Cinema, Havana, 1933

The relationship of the United States to Latin American music is too often discounted, as patriots on all sides are correctly suspicious of anything that smells of either appropriation or exoticization; but as we move from the local-public vision of the Street to the global-public understanding of the Stage, the United States, the largest theatrical market in the world, looms large. No Cuban story can afford to ignore the U.S. — and the story of the Cuban son is inevitably international. The son came to prominence in the 1920s as the next step in the evolution of Cuban rhythm after the nineteenth-century habanera and the pre-War danzón — the son is more rhythmic still, with clearer African roots and an emphasis on groove. Son first developed in the rural Oriente province, but as Miguel Matamoros sang, “son de la loma, pero cantan en el llano,” — they are from the plain (Oriente) but they sing on the hill (Havana). The music may have started in Oriente, but it became a world-beating music in the dancehalls, nightclubs, and theaters of Havana.

Antonio Machín (1903-1977)

Because of the difficulty of Anglicizing the word son, when it came to the United States the music was usually called rumba or rhumba, fueled by the success of Don Azpiazú’s Havana Casino Orchestra, which, during a 1930 residency at the Palace Theater on Broadway — the pinnacle of American vaudeville — presented “El Manisero” (the peanut vendor). The magnetic Afro-Cuban singer Antonio Machín dressed in costume tossing peanuts out to the crowd as he sang lyrics based on the pregón, or sales cry, of a Havana street vendor. It was an instant success, and the record Machín and the Orchestra cut went on to sell over a million copies, becoming the best-selling record in Spanish in the United States for many years. Victor, the record company, billed it as a “rhumba-fox trot” (record companies called anything you could dance to a fox trot), and the name stuck. The fad for Cuban music — or Latin music generally — in the United States had begun.

Rita Montaner (1900-1958)

But in Havana, the son was both less theatrical in Azpiazú’s flashy, crowd-pleasing style and more theatrical in the sense of maintaining continuity with older theatrical traditions. The zarzuela, or Spanish opera, was immensely popular with Havana’s large middle-class population — the largest in Latin America — and the undisputed queen of the zarzuela in the 20s and 30s was the Afro-Cuban Rita Montaner, friend and peer to Josephine Baker and one of the few predecessors who could be considered a match for the great Celia Cruz. She sang every style of music, Cuban and otherwise, but the son brought out her best, most vivacious personality, as in her 1927 rendition of “Rumba Guajira”. Here she plays a country girl who has come to Havana to sing son — although the record is simply her voice and piano, it’s as rhythmically inventive as Azpiazú’s full band. The chorus, in which she bursts into onomatopoetic noise in imitation of the bongos which would surely accompany her on stage, is one of the era’s most delightful irruptions of nonsense singing — almost scat singing. Which is one indication of the way Cuban musicians would influence Latin jazz in the years to come.

IV. Bolero, Mexico City, and the Air

Noche de los Ricos, 1928, by Diego Rivera (Mexico)

Zócalo, Mexico City, 1930

For the generation born before World War I, theater was a technology that collapsed differences; all theaters everywhere were similar, and the same performance being created over and over again on so many different stages had something of the universality of a sacramental rite, bodies uniting across time and space in the same gesture, the same words, the same notes held for the same period of time. With the advent of broadcast technology, however, that universality became literalized — now a singer could make an expulsion of air in a room and be heard all over the city, the nation, the continent, the world. The Mexican bolero — adapted, refined, and given melodramatic weight from a Cuban original — was the most characteristic Latin American response to the new medium. Of the four musics treated here, bolero was the last to arrive but flourished the longest and most completely, thanks to its utter domination of the airwaves.

Agustín Lara (1897-1970)

Though it grew in the bordellos, nightclubs and cantinas of Mexico City, it was — especially as guided by the master composer of bolero, Agustín Lara — the least tied to place of all Latin musics, an unremitting romanticism filtered through a swaying, universal rhythm, taking only the most private and personal emotions as its topic. Arriving over the airwaves throughout the American continents, the bolero was thought made manifest, the most intensely interior music millions of solitary listeners, dreamers, dancers and lovers knew.

Juan Arvizu (1900-1985)

For all that, it remained trenchantly urban, even mexiqueño (of the capital) — Mexico City’s domination of Spanish-language mass media begins with the bolero. Lara’s compositions were often too urbane and worldly to resonate with rural Mexican audiences, who had their own ideas about what made for emotionally resonant music. (Mariachi, norteño, and the many other forms of regional banda music were all rising at the same time.) His preferred interpreters were sweet-voiced tenors like the impeccably handsome Juan Arvizu, whose soft tones caressed the microphone just as those of crooners in the United States did. He could bring deep wells of emotion out of songs like the 1937 “Farolito” (little street lamp), in which the singer addresses a lantern that hangs over his door, confessing the pain his romantic affairs have caused him with an extravagance he would admit to no one else.

Toña la Negra (1912-1982)

But though the bolero was implicitly urban, its setting was not always — in fact, it was rarely — Mexico City. Lara was born in the port city of Veracruz, and the bolero costero (coastal bolero) was a popular offshoot, especially as sung by the great Afro-Mexican singer Toña la Negra, the greatest of the female bolero singers with a stunning career far beyond the brief span allotted here, also from Veracruz. Her late-1930s rendition of José Mojica’s “Nocturnal” is a masterpiece of beachside romanticism, evoking exactly the kind of tropical reverie dreamed of by city dwellers the world round, with Hollywood string glissandos and a muted trumpet solo that slinks into jazz and beyond.

V. Flamenco, Fado, and the World

Auto-retrato Num Grupo, 1925, by José de Almeida Negreiros (Portugal)

Plaza del Carmen, Granada, 1930

Central Lisbon, 1930s

Lara’s fondness for giving boleros romantic settings led him to be honored late in life by the fascist Francisco Franco of Spain, who gave him an estate in Granada out of appreciation for the song of the same name. There’s perhaps no better indication of the bolero’s total media domination at midcentury than this; for Granada was famous in musical circles as the home of the Cante Jondo competitions organized by Manuel de la Falla and Federico García Lorca to celebrate the flamenco of the southern Andalusian region of Spain. Flamenco, like the Portuguese fado, which originated in the multi-ethnic slums of Lisbon, was a disreputable urban music of the nineteenth century turned wholly respectable in the twentieth as the fascist regimes of Franco and Portugal’s António Salazar used local folkloric traditions to maintain a stranglehold on artistic expression. Unlike the tango, the samba, the son, or the bolero, flamenco and fado were kept repressively local, and never turned into the kind of million-selling, celebrity-creating, internationally-adopted pop music which keepers of tradition call watered-down and media industries look at with dollar-eyed reverence.

Pepe Marchena (1903-1976) Amália Rodrigues (1920-1999)

Not that artists like Pepe Marchena in flamenco and, a bit later, Amália Rodrigues in fado, didn’t attempt to scale the pop heights; but they were nearly always regarded outside the Iberian peninsula as a specialty kind of classical-slash-folk — the first stages in what would later be called “world music.”

And with that unsatisfactory phrase I’ll close. Today “world music” too often denotes a kind of bland one-size-fits all goop, atmospheric beats with bits of sound from all over thrown in to evoke hundreds or thousands of distinct cultures that the world-music listener has neither the time nor interest to actually dig into. A patch of tabla or bandoneón, a whiff of gamelan or reggae, a stroke of cumbia or chimurenga, is enough to do the job. What interests me, as you might have been able to gather today, isn’t this sort of sample-platter approach to the music of the world, but digging into history and culture, into specific times and specific places.

The 1920s and 30s oversaw a major explosion in urban musics around the world, not just in Latin America. Fado in Lisbon and flamenco in Seville, rebetiko in Athens, klezmer in Bucharest, biguine in Saint-Pierre, calypso in Port of Spain, Mandopop in Shanghai, enka in Tokyo, chaabi in Algiers, kanto in Istanbul, marabi in Johannesburg, highlife in Accra, jùjú in Lagos, musette in Paris, kroncong in Jakarta, plena in San Juan, merengue in Santo Domingo, tejano in San Antonio, mariachi in Jalisco … not to mention jazz in New Orleans, swing in Kansas City, the blues in Memphis, country music in Nashville, and on and on. There’s a whole world of local urban music — what I’ve begun to call Vernacular Pop — that emerged between the wars and roared forward into the future. I’ve barely begun to disturb the dust on the subject today, but I guarantee I’ll be listening, researching, and writing much, much more about it in the years to come. I hope to be able to share what I find with you. Thank you.

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