by José Manuel Araque
While Thomas A. Edison was granted a patent for the first cylinder phonograph in 1880, his original design was flawed in many respects. For one thing, his prototype used a thin foil to record the sound, which proved too brittle for continuous operation. A few years later Alexander Graham Bell introduced the use of hard wax, a much more durable material for Edison’s cylinders. In 1887 Emil Berliner patented the gramophone, an alternative design to Edison’s, consisting of a flat record where the stylus would travel along a spiral from the center to the edge of the circular surface. Eldridge R. Johnson, an associate of Berliner, perfected the original design of the matrix plates, and is credited with introducing shellac as the ideal medium to print the records. Berliner and Johnson also formed the Gramophone Company in England, and the Victor Company in North America, to produce contents for their player. In 1894, Columbia Records in the United States, and Pathé in France, companies dedicated to recording and distributing cylinders, started selling their own phonographs. Edison himself did not quite understand how revolutionary his invention would be, it wasn’t until 1897 that the first recordings of Music appeared in his cylinders. By 1901, Columbia was also selling records for Berliner’s players. Cylinders were produced until around 1914, but eventually Berliner’s design triumphed over Edison’s, and the cylinder became a historical curiosity.
What both designs did share was the use of large horns to capture the sound waves that moved the needle that recorded onto the matrix. Until 1925, when the microphone was introduced, these horns were the essential element in this process, and a limitation too. For one thing, instruments like violins were difficult to record because the acoustical-mechanical device relied on the loudness of the sound to move the recording needle. Enter the Brass Marching Band, which had become one of the most popular ensembles in the United States after the Civil War. Military Bands were also a regular feature in England and France, and played regularly in gazebos around the World. Up until the end of the cylinder era, these ensembles were favorites in the new era of sound recording. The major recording labels, Edison and Columbia, even created their own Bands (and other ensembles) to record music. From the beginning, the repertoire of these ensembles spanned the Classical to the popular, and from the North American and European to the "International", including Cake-walk and Spanish Fandangos. The Habanera was well known, and Sebastián Yradier's popular La Paloma was committed to cylinder by Edison as early as 1898.
In the Edison Cylinders Catalog there's a listing dating from 1897/98 for one Argentine Tango, "La Belle Créole", composed by one Richard Farban, and performed by the Grand Concert Band. Farban was a conductor from England, known in the 1890s for composing some dances. The cylinder is lost, but the entry in the Catalog serves to illustrate the fact that Argentine Tango was already known as a distinct musical genre around the turn of the Century, even before Tango composers from the Rio de la Plata were known in the Northern Hemisphere. This Tango, as many others of the Era, are not quite what we recognize today as Argentine Tango (Criollo), the form was evolving.
The recording industry was seeing exponential growth, by the year 1900 at least 5000 recordings had been made by Gramophone. Many new labels arose in Europe, most were licensing Berliner’s designs. Since at least 1902, recordists were traveling to remote regions of the World in search of talent, with Gramophone’s Fred Gainsberg conducting recording sessions in India and Japan. Similarly, the Zonophone company, an offshoot of the Berliner companies, sent recordists to Buenos Ayres in 1902. They recorded an eclectic mix of more than 200 matrices, including Uruguayan folk singer Arturo de Navas, and the first Tango ever recorded, Eduardo Lalanne's "Ensalada criolla" by the Orquesta del Teatro San Martín. The latter had been featured for years in a popular play, it was through theater than Tango reached the Argentine mainstream. By 1903 Zonophone had folded, its assets were sold to Gramophone.
While recordings were already being registered in Buenos Ayres, the actual manufacturing of records and cylinders still took place in the US or Europe. It was the visit to London of Uruguayan singer Diego Munilla (payador), and monologuist Eugenio López, that formally introduced Argentine Tango to the Northern Hemisphere. In early April 1905 the Royal Military Band (Banda Real Militar), under the direction of Norfolk Megone, published a notice in the journal Talking Machine News advertising its availability "to make Records".
We presume this is how Munilla engaged Megone, and went on to record a handful of tracks with the Royal Band for Gramophone. In these sessions the Band also recorded a Pericón by Antonio Podestá; the popular march Ituzaingó; and other pieces from the Rio de la Plata, a hint that Munilla brought sheet music with him, and shared it with Megone. On May 2nd, the Band recorded José Luis Roncallo’s Tangos Guido and La Payada. From the matrix suffix we infer that Will Gainsberg (brother of Fred) was the recordist. Munilla and López then traveled to Paris, where Munilla recorded the Tango Bartolo.
According to researcher Dick Spottswood, as early as April 1905, Columbia Records sent recordists to the Rio de la Plata, with Ángel Villoldo committing to record some of the earliest matrices of the 55000 Series. Villoldo was an all-round performer, singer, jester, actor, composer, and is considered by some to be the Father of Tango.
In mid-1906, espouses Alfredo and Flora Gobbi, and Eugenio López, from the Podestá troupe, traveled to London to make some recordings. The Gobbis (who also went by the surname Campos) registered 56 cylinders for Edison-Bell's Series 2M-9000, including the first recording of the Tango La Morocha by Enrique Saborido (with lyrics by Villoldo). And on July 19 of the same year, the Gobbis and López, arrived in New York from Liverpool on the liner Majestic.
They were in the US to record for Berliner’s Victor Company, in their Philadelphia recording studio. Over the next two weeks they recorded dozens of tracks, with solo and duo renditions of many popular songs, milongas (camperas), monologues, recitations, and even comic dialogues. They also recorded a few Tangos, including some by Antonio Podestá, some by Villoldo, and a new version of La Morocha.
The momentum was building up, and the American "Victor Argentine Orchestra" was formed to record in Philadelphia, alongside the Gobbis. The Orchestra recorded two dozen instrumental tracks, including several Tangos from Argentine composers like Rosendo Mendizábal and Próspero Cimaglia. They also recorded instrumental versions of La Morocha, and Villoldo's El Choclo. Both Tangos were huge hits in Argentina, as well as in the US and in Europe. After the Philadelphia sessions, the Gobbis returned to Buenos Ayres.
In an apocryphal story, told by Enrique Saborido himself, the Tango La Morocha arrived in France in 1906 aboard the frigate Sarmiento. The pride of the Argentine Navy since its construction in 1898, the ship sailed across the oceans, in goodwill missions representing the Argentine Republic. The French press took interest in the ship since early on, but there is no evidence it went to France in 1906. But in August 1907, the frigate did visit Bordeaux, and from there Commander José Moneta and some officers went a few days later to have dinner with President Fallières in Rambouillet. And on August 9th they even offered a social gathering of sorts aboard the frigate, with music and dance.
On June 21, 1907, the Gobbis were back in the US on the S.S. Byron (which sailed from Santos, Brazil). Columbia invited them to record in the studios in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where they recorded yet another version of La Morocha. These recordings were eventually released in the Columbia T Series, which was produced for the Argentine market through 1920. Since 1906, Columbia was also recording Tangos with Charles A. Prince's Military Band, which used the name "Banda Española" to market Tangos to the Spanish-speaking markets. Among others, they recorded a brilliant version of El Choclo, with Alfredo Gobbi doing the introduction.
The Gobbis returned to Buenos Ayres later that year, where they recorded yet again for Victor. They truly were all over the place those years, recording for the Gath & Chaves, Era and Homokord labels in Europe the next year.
In May 1909, and January 1911, the Gobbis traveled from France to New York, and recorded cylinders for the Edison Series 19000 and 4M-7000 (BA 22100). The Edison Symphony Orchestra also registered some Tangos for this Series, with a notable rendition of Metallo's El Otario.
Back in France, the famous Musique de la Garde Répubicaine, under the direction of Gabriel Parés, was recording Tangos for Gath & Chaves. And the Bal Tabarin's Orchestra recorded Bergamino's Joaquina for Pathé.
The Apache and its depiction of violent love, became a sensation in itself, and soon the newspapers in the United States were talking about it too. By the end of 1908, Joseph C. Smith and Louise Alexander were performing it in the musical The Queen of the Moulin Rouge, in Washington and in New York. And by the end of 1909, Smith was performing the Apache in Chicago, in the play The Flirting Princess, along other novelties like the Vampire Dance.
From 1908 through 1910 there is still scant evidence of Tango in Paris or New York. Although the French press took great interest in Argentina, the cultural life of the porteños took second seat to the romantic views of the Pampas. In August 1908, the journal Comoedia started writing an occasional column from Buenos Ayres, with special attention to the newly inaugurated Teatro Colón, and the role of Charles Seguin in the Theater life of the metropolis, and his new trip to Paris. And in late 1910, Georges Clemenceau, the great French Radical leader, visited Argentina and wrote extensively, with his articles translated and published by The New York Times in early 1911. But Clemenceau barely mentioned Buenos Ayres, he wrote yet again about the possibilities of the vast Pampas, still seen as the frontier of Colonization. He even wrote about how the Gauchos "danced the Pericón and the Tango". This fixation with the rural, is one of the reasons why Europeans believed for years that Tango was music of the countryside, and not a product of the confluence of the Criollo with the increased sophistication of Buenos Ayres.
As researcher Enrique Binda points out, it's not like there was a gold rush for Tango either, or at least it did not seem apparent. Before 1910 less than 400 Tangos had been recorded. But there was demand for more content, and the Argentine rose to the occasion with the formation of new bands that played Tango accompanied by a bandoneon. The Era of the Orquesta Típica was inaugurated by Vicente Greco's ensemble, which included Francisco Canaro on the violin.
In Paris' Belle Époque there was a heightened sense of the possibilities of the new medium too, and of the brave new world of music and dance, and spectacle. On the August and September 1909 issues, the French fashion magazine La Vie Hereuse, reported for the first time on the craze for new dances, including the Maxixe and the Tango. In Paris, they wrote, "there's tango-lessons, tango-thés, tango-exhibitions, tango-conferences, tango-surprises, tango-dinner, champagne-tango, intimate-tango, charity-tango, etc etc etc". On August 19, the English paper The Wells Journal, quoted one Dancing Master from Paris, frustrated by "these ugly and ungracious dances [that] come from America".
1. The Sarmiento also visited France in October 1909, for the inauguration of the statue of General José de San Martín in Boulogne-sur-Mer. It got significant press coverage, and there was plenty of pomp and celebrations in the ports it visited. But Tango fever was well on its way already, this is not the trip that Saborido was talking about.
1. This piece would not have been possible without the generous advice from Enrique Binda, and his book "Los primeros 25 años de la Fonografia Argentina". Binda's books (see Bibliography below) have demystified much of the lore that accompanied the stories told by early Tango historians, it's mandatory reading. In short, at the beginning of the 20th century Tango was not the music of the Buenos Ayres underworld, it was already enjoyed plenty by the Argentine middle class. Binda also has his own YouTube Channel where he shares his amazing collection of shellacs.
2. The New York Public Library recently acquired a machine that reads cylinders using an optical contraption (laser). Their invaluable collection includes the cylinders for La Paloma and El Otario referenced in this piece.
3. Camilo Gatica for his corrections, annotations, etc.
6. archive.org for that wonderful Joaquina, and many others.
7. Brian Bockleman for that pic of Villoldo
8. Gallica.fr for the pic of the Sarmiento
9. Juan Cruz Rosas for the picture of Maglio.