Review: Rodolfo Biagi con Hugo Duval 1956/1961

Dancers and DJs have recurring arguments about the 1950s and newer music.

One side says it's difficult, decadent, and not as much fun to dance to than the Golden Age repertoire. The counter is that the songs have more "(d)epth and emotional intensity", as Warren Edwardes writes.

Your tango is not my tango, and I am not arguing that either side is right or wrong. There's enough space for everyone. And I concur with Warren that tango DJs should be "more individualistic and branded themselves as such according to their musical bent" (ibid.)

As it happens, the 50s are the focus of my current exploration phase, and I have collected a few CDs in the past weeks that have pleased me immensely. Among others, a CTA albums of Roberto Caló and Eduardo del Piano, the RCA anthology of late Ángel Vargas titled "El Ruiseñor de Buenos Aires Vol. 3", and the subject of this article, album "Rodolfo Biagi con Hugo Duval 1956/1961 - Archivo Columbia (EU-18008)".

I think Biagi is a good gateway drug to the 1950s. If I were to nudge a recalcitrant "traditionalist" towards newer music, I could very well start with this album.

It has musical qualities necessary to fill a good ronda:

  • regular, clear, and comfortable walking beat with most songs clocking at 62BPM
  • a combination of characteristic Biagi staccatos that provide a constant drive to move forward with melodic expression that goes straight to the heart
  • most songs follow the major/minor pattern in tonalities, and so even a very lyrical song will have a contrasting theme that is upbeat

The last point is very important. Given that the 50s music is very charged lyrically, the dancers can end up emotionally exhausted at the end of the tanda. Think of Varela with Lessica from the same period.

That's not the case here. The emotional range is wide and rich but not over-powering.

Biagi used a pallete that is rich in the elegant and joyous tones. En el lago azúl, Amor mío, Soñemos leave a smile on your face.

There's a few songs that are darker, such as the iconic Espérame en el cielo. Many others fill you with a heartrending mood but wrap or interleave it with lighter themes. Note the "Ave Maria" coda in Ayúdame.

The album is a rich well of many tandas with no weak tunes. The exception might be the adorable vals Ramona and only due to its rather slow beat.

Here's a tanda I played at a milonga in Görlitz last Sunday:

  • Mi vida en tus manos
  • En el lago azúl
  • Espérame en el cielo
  • Ayúdame

Starting with resolute, upbeat notes, I lead my dancers through the darkness of Espérame en el cielo and to the resolution provided by Ayúdame. Next time I want to try a purely upbeat tanda and compare the effects.

Before I close, I want to address the "elephant in the room", so to speak, and that elephant is Mr. Biagi himself and his earlier work.

In his book "Tango stories - Musical secrets", Michael Lavocah writes on page 84:

"In 1956 Biagi switched to Colombia where he recorded 20 more tracks, before recording a final LP on Music Hall in 1962. This period is quite forgettable - be careful because Hugo Duval is still on board."

Respectfully, I quite disagree with this assertion. We must conclude, however, that the late Biagi sound is a departure from his formative years. And if you prefer those, then it follows you might be unhappy with this development.

Consider the well-appreciated Yuyo verde with Ortiz from 1945:

And then play back the opening track Mi vida en tus manos from the playlist above again.

Gone are the nervous ticks and off-beat accents that used to be all over the place. Biagi "straightened up" yet retained his characteristic charge. He made much more space for melody and no longer chopped it up with the incessant staccatos.

The technical quality of the newer recording is better. And this lets Hugo Duval shine. You can only enjoy Ortiz, Amor, and the rest of Biagi's earlier singers through the veil of scratches and squeaks. Duval had the fortune of better recording technology, and we benefit from that.

Still, even if you are fond of Biagi's Golden Age repertoire as I am, I urge you to open your mind to Biagi's mature phase. There's an abundance of emotions re-live in the embrace on the dance floor, with the steps being calmer and slower than before.