Juan D’Arienzo – El Rey del compás


Juan D'Arienzo
Juan D’Arienzo

Juan D’Arienzo was born in 1900 in Buenos Aires. He was a violinist and a notable composer but he is mostly remembered as an orchestral director. In a long career, he recorded for the Disco Electra label between 1928-29 and for Victor between 1935-75. He died in 1976 aged 75.

He led the rhythmic school of tango music and was very important in popularising social dancing through a reinvigoration of an earlier style of playing with a clear beat and strong rhythms.

The Thirties

There are very few duds in the 1930s D’Arienzo discography. He continued to record until a year before his death, but it is the recordings of 1935-39 that are most frequently heard at milongas, today, and quite a lot of the later repertoire is never played.

Pianist: Lidio Fasoli (1935)

In a 1975 interview, just a month before he died, D’Arienzo said,

The foundation of my orchestra is the piano. I regard it as irreplaceable.

Three different pianists played in the D’Arienzo orchestra between 1935 and 1939. The first, Lidio Fasoli, is the least notable, but the ten recordings made between July and December that year are still very fine. There are five tangos, four valses and a milonga, all instrumentals.

D’Arienzo (Instrumental) 1935

Pianist: Rodolfo Biagi (1935-38)

Rodolfo Biagi replaced Fasoli at the piano after a few months and the first recording session in which he plays was on 31 December 1935. He stayed until he was sacked in mid-1938 (effectively for being too popular), making sixty-four recordings: forty tangos, eighteen valses and six milongas. These are D’Arienzo’s greatest recordings: they have an irresistible drive and are loved by dancers.

D’Arienzo (Instrumental) 1937

D’Arienzo (Instrumental) 1937-38 (Vals)

It’s a shame that all the versions of Valsecito de antes available on listening service Spotify have the same added reverberation, robbing the music of much of its energy. Typically, reverberation was added to LP compilations to disguise surface noise and nearly all CD releases by the big record labels are derived from LPs. Here’s an excerpt from a recent transfer made directly from a shellac disc (by TangoTunes) for comparison. I have processed the file to further reduce running noise:

D’Arienzo (Instrumental) 1937-38 (Milonga)

Pianist: Juan Polito (1938-39)

Juan Polito succeeded Biagi at the piano and while he couldn’t quite replicate Biagi’s flair, the orchestra maintained its high musical standards and commercial success. Singers were growing in importance too, and just before Biagi’s departure, D’Arienzo had recruited his most notable singer: Alberto Echagüe. At the end of 1939 Polito left to form his own orchestra, but he also persuaded Echagüe and nearly every one of D’Arienzo’s musicians to join him. D’Arienzo, who had to reform his orchestra with new players, was absent from the recording studio for several months, but he returned as popular as ever.

There are forty recordings: twenty-nine tangos (twelve with Echagüe), five valses and six milongas (all with Echagüe).

D’Arienzo (Echagüe) 1938-39

D’Arienzo (Echagüe) 1938-39 (Milonga)

The Forties

… tango is, above all, rhythm, nerve, strength and character. Early tango, that of the old stream (guardia vieja), had all that, and we must try never to lose it. (D’Arienzo, 1949)

Pianist: Fulvio Salamanca (1940-57)

By April 1940, D’Arienzo was back in the studio, with 18-year-old pianist, Fulvio Salamanca and with Carlos Casares and Alberto Reynal on vocals. The first recording, Entre dos fuegos, presented Salamanca’s credentials, leaving us in no doubt that the role of pianist remained central to the orchestra’s sound:

The instrumental recordings of the early 1940s are straightforward vintage D’Arienzo. Compared with the repertoire of the later 1930s they have perhaps traded some finesse for vigour. But by 1942 and Tierra negra the orchestra has adopted a more sophisticated sound – a response to changing times?

D’Arienzo (Instrumental) 1940-42

The early 1940s were a time of considerable change in tango music. The high energy rhythmic music-making that D’Arienzo had done so much to promote was slowing down, mainly to accommodate the rising popularity of the orchestral singer. The change was not lost on D’Arienzo, who replaced Casares with the voice of  Héctor Mauré at the end of 1940. This called for a change of gear for D’Arienzo but also presented a paradox: his orchestra was built on a foundation of driving rhythm, while Mauré took the orchestra further and further into the realms of lyricism.

Mauré’s recording debut came in April 1940 with Ya lo ves, which has the usual D’Arienzo rhythmic stamp, and yet you can hear Mauré beginning to stretch the compás to suit the delivery of the lyric, but not yet sufficient to force the orchestra to depart from the pulse to follow him:

By November 1943, Mauré has taken the orchestra to a new world of sound with a masterpiece, Uno. I can’t improve on Michael Lavocah’s description of this version as being …

… perhaps the greatest ever recorded. The music swells and tumbles in great tides in a most un-D’Arienzo like manner.

D’Arienzo (Mauré) 1942-44

The tension of the clash between Mauré’s lyricism and D’Arienzo’s hard-driven rhythms led to Mauré’s inevitable departure in 1944, prompted by the return of Echagüe. Amarras was his last recording, made in July 1944.

It is a personal view, but I don’t much enjoy the repertoire from the remainder of the 1940s. Perhaps D’Arienzo over-compensated for his brush with lyricism, for the music-making becomes increasingly strident and starts to sound, well, just loud. It would be silly to write off the recordings completely, and yet, I don’t play them. There are always limited opportunities to play the music of any single orchestra, even in a milonga of four or five hours duration, and I find that this period always gets squeezed out in favour of better D’Arienzo.

The Fifties

Juan D'Arienzo
Juan D’Arienzo

As though someone had thrown a switch, there is a change in the feel of the orchestra’s sound from 1950. You could say that the orchestra had rather lost its way for most of the 1940s, but had now recovered its energy and sense of purpose. However, before the year was out, principal bandoneonist and arranger Héctor Varela had left to form his own orchestra. D’Arienzo took a short recording break to regroup and appointed pianist Salamanca to the role of principal arranger.

D’Arienzo (Instrumental) 1950-51

Tape mastering was introduced by Victor in 1954 and D’Arienzo became particularly active in the studio, re-recording his then-current repertoire for the sake of the improved sound.

D’Arienzo (Instrumental) 1954-55

Armando Laborde had sung with the orchestra since 1946 and overall I think his vocal contribution to the D’Arienzo orchestra was second only to Echagüe’s in the late 1930s (pushing Héctor Mauré into a close third place).

D’Arienzo (Laborde) 1954-56 (Vals)

Piano: Juan Polito (1958-75)

In 1957, Salamanca left (after seventeen years at the keyboard) to form his own orchestra. Interestingly, he seemed to take nothing of the D’Arienzo style with him, but Juan Polito (who had been his predecessor) returned, and thus the orchestra entered its final period. Singers Echagüe & Laborde left too, and from that point, I restrict my own interest in the orchestra’s recordings entirely to the instrumentals.

These milongas, while not particularly well-known, are a good example of the style of the orchestra in the late 1950s after Polito had returned at the keyboard. There is a better balance between the instruments: Polito doesn’t seem to hit the piano keys quite as hard as Salamanca!

D’Arienzo (Instrumental) 1957-59 (Milonga)


By the early 1960s, many tango orchestras had disbanded as social dancing was much diminished – the Golden Age was well and truly over – and yet several orchestras remained popular and continued recording. D’Arienzo was active until the year before his death in 1976. From 1963 Victor, seeking a new international market for its tango recordings, introduced stereo sound and made a series of albums under the title Tango for Export most notably with D’Arienzo and Troilo.

The music is very danceable and the sound is excellent.

D’Arienzo (Instrumental) 1963-67


The best period is 1935-39. Nearly everything is good. The earliest sides with Fasoli (before the orchestra really got into its stride) are good, the later sides with Polito are better and the middle period with Biagi is the best (by a long way).

The Salamanca years (1940-57) were dominated by a hard-driven sound that I can only take in small doses. The vocal contribution of Mauré (1940-44) is fine, but not typical D’Arienzo (but none the worse for that). The later vocals are largely undistinguished, but there are a lot of recordings with Laborde and some of them are good. It is necessary to be very selective.

The final period with Polito (1958-75) is only really of interest because of the good stereo sound from 1963. Purists will be horrified to think that a respectable DJ would play these recordings – and they can please themselves – I quite like them.

Postscript: The Twenties

Juan D’Arienzo

D’Arienzo was already in his mid-thirties when he secured the recording contract with Victor that made his reputation. However, he had already been actively involved in the tango scene for over a decade, making around forty tango recordings between 1928-29 on the Electra label. He also played on the radio (then, as important as recording) and also performed regularly at the prestigious Chantecler Cabaret.

I have never heard one of his early recordings played for social dancing and the sound quality of the transfers I have been able to find is pretty dreadful. These recordings are usually written off as being of no real interest but I don’t think that’s fair. I’ve listened to most of them, and if the limitations of the sound quality are put to one side, the arrangements and performing style are very typical of their date. Here’s an excerpt from Esta noche me emborracho, recorded in 1928, with Carlos Dante (who later sang with Alfredo De Angelis):

For comparison, here are excerpts from two other recordings of the same song, also made in 1928. The first is by Juan Maglio with singer Carlos Viván and the second by Franciso Canaro with singer Charlo. The arrangements are all slightly different, of course, but the D’Arienzo recording holds its own.

The other vocalist to feature on the early D’Arienzo recordings was Francisco Fiorentino (who was later to make his name with the orchestra of Aníbal Troilo). Here’s an excerpt from Noche silenciosa, recorded in 1929. It has quite an adventurous arrangement for its date:

If an enterprising record company were able to make new transfers from the original 78s of this period it’s likely that at least some of these early recordings would be heard more regularly.

More …

In this blog the music of D’Arienzo featured regularly in The Tango Years series and also in the Tango 250 series: Tango 250: Juan D’Arienzo.