The tango is a musical style that is always being reborn, as the renewed popularity of tango in several world capitals can testify. Few musical styles are as associated with a country as the tango is with Argentina, where it was born. The tango resulted from the fusion of different rhythms: the “candombe” (a rhythm of South American Blacks), the Cuban “habanera,” brought to Argentina in the nineteenth century by Cuban sailors, the Buenos Aires “milonga,” and the Madrilenian “cuplé.” Tango evolved slowly, following the great immigration waves to Argentina since the 1880s.
One of tango’s best definitions is that of expert Horacio Ferrer, “Tango is music, a dance, a way to see the world, a philosophy, a feeling, a sensitivity, an emotion. It is the mythical dimension of reality, nostalgia, abandonment. It is lovers’ separation, the sadness of lost love, the indifference of the world to pain, the poetry of neighborhoods, the value of friendship…”.
To those themes one should add those tangos that were devoted to a particular street or neighborhood. One of the first tangos dedicated to a street is the one called Caminito (Little Walk), a street located in the neighborhood of La Boca, in Buenos Aires. Although it was created in the decade of the 1920s, Caminito is still one of the most popular tangos of all times.
All neighborhoods in Buenos Aires have their own soul, but perhaps in no other neighborhood is that soul as vibrant as it is in the one called La Boca. Located in the Southern part of Buenos Aires, it is an area of tenement houses, many of them made with the wooden planks from the ships which used to dock nearby in the port of a river called Riachuelo. Initially, those precarious houses were painted with left-over paint from those ships, a feature which gave this neighborhood a unique characteristic.
La Boca is one of the first areas the original Spanish conquerors came to in Buenos Aires. Since the 1880s, Italian immigrants -particularly those from Genoa- who came to Buenos Aires, lived there. That neighborhood was also inhabited by gauchos, creoles and country people. La Boca is now one of Buenos Aires’ poorest neighborhoods. Only the street called Caminito, whose houses are now being repainted, retains something of its older allure.
The birth of the tango Caminito is an unlikely story of a musician and a poet, both of them tango experts, and how their friendship with an artist, a painter who gave the name to the street, sparked the creation of that tango. It is also the story of how the street called Caminito became one of the most visited streets in Argentina, an obligatory stop for all tango lovers worldwide.
The creator of Caminito’s music was Juan de Dios Filiberto, a native of La Boca. The writer of the lyrics was the poet Gabino Coria Peñaloza, born in Mendoza, a province in Argentina bordering Chile. And the artist was Benito Quinquela Martín, also a native of La Boca. Quinquela Martín has immortalized that area in a gigantic collection of paintings characterized by their bold colors.
The history of the tango Caminito is still shrouded in mystery. According to some, the name comes from a small road in the town of Olta, in the province of La Rioja. For other tango enthusiasts, the name of the tango is related to the street in La Boca, the neighborhood where the musician Filiberto was born and grew up. Both sides seem to have part of the truth.
The composer Filiberto didn’t achieve his musical expertise very easily. When he was young he worked in different trades. Talking about his musical beginnings he used to say, “When I entered the musical Conservatory I was over twenty-five, and my shoulders were used to the work of the stevedore, blacksmith, metal fitter and caldron maker. My fingers were stiff and clumsy for the keyboard and the fingerboard.” He was, however, passionate about tango and when he became famous he used to say, “My music is many things put together but, overall, it reflects my feelings. In art it is not enough to feel, but to know how to express that feeling.”
He studied violin and music theory in a musical academy in Buenos Aires. Later, Filiberto was given a scholarship to study with a well-known musician, Alberto Williams, and took lessons in counterpoint, piano and guitar. But it was in Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires’ most prestigious classical music theater, where he worked as a technical assistant, where he had a shattering musical experience. In Teatro Colón, Filiberto heard for the first time Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which opened new musical horizons in his life. “Beethoven,” he used to say, “was my musical God.”
Filiberto frequently walked through one of La Boca’s narrow roads to meet his friends. They were frequently greeted from a window by a young woman living in that area. Some believe that he created the music of Caminito as an homage to that little walk and to that woman. Filiberto later formed his own orchestra, continued composing and his music became known all over the world. Ten years after his death, as a special homage to him, the Juan de Dios Filiberto National Orchestra of Argentine Music was created.
When Filiberto was looking for somebody to put words to his music, the painter Quinquela Martín introduced Peñaloza to him. Quinquela Martín, who called Peñaloza a “crazy poet,” thought that he was the ideal person to put words into Filiberto’s musical compositions. Although Filiberto collaborated with Peñaloza in creating other tangos, none of them surpassed the popularity of Caminito.
At a meeting in a Buenos Aires coffee place, Filiberto told Peñaloza that he had composed the music of a tango inspired in his strolls through an alley in La Boca. After humming a few bars he asked Peñaloza if he would write the lyrics for that tango. Peñaloza responded that he already had something he had written after a love affair in La Rioja and recited it to Filiberto. Filiberto enthusiastically adapted the music to those lyrics and Caminito was born.
Peñaloza’s lyrics were written while visiting La Rioja, a province in Argentina, where he had been stranded by heavy storms in the town of Olta. In that town, Peñaloza met a pretty young school teacher called María and created the lyrics in a rapture of enthusiasm after meeting and falling in love with her. With María, Peñaloza used to take long walks along a narrow dirt road.
Although he felt a strong attraction for María, after the floods recessed, Peñaloza had to go back to his native province. A year later, when he returned to La Rioja, María was no longer there. She had been sent by her parents to another province to stop her romance with the young poet. Peñaloza, unable to find comfort for María’s absence, composed a tango which reflected his longing for his lost love. Their passionate romance gave birth to beautiful stanzas that would later become lyrics for the tango, like the one that says,
Since she went away (Desde que se fué)
she never came back (nunca más volvió)
I will follow her footsteps (seguiré sus pasos)
Little walk, goodbye. (Caminito, adiós).
Caminito was first heard in Buenos Aires at a contest for native songs for the carnival parade of that year, where it won an award. Soon afterwards, it was performed at the Rural Society of Palermo, in Buenos Aires and was later recorded by Carlos Gardel, a tango singer who went onto become a legendary singer from Argentina. Since then, Caminito became one of the three most famous tangos of all time.
Most Argentines can repeat by heart the beginning of the tango’s lyrics,
Caminito that time has erased
(Caminito que el tiempo ha borrado)
and that one day saw us passing by
(que juntos un día nos viste pasar)
I came for the last time
(he venido por última vez)
I came to tell you my woes.
(he venido a contarte mi mal).
Originally, the name of the street Caminito was given by Benito Quinquela Martín, an artist who lived in La Boca and whose vibrantly colored paintings are a historic portrait of life in that area. The story of his life reads like a novel.
In March of 1890, a few weeks old child was left in a Buenos Aires orphanage called Casa de Expósitos under the care of an order of nuns called the Sisters of Charity. The child, who was wrapped in expensive clothes, had with him a handwritten note that said, “This child has been baptized and given the name Benito Juan Martín.” Together with the note there was a shawl with an embroidered flower cut in half. Whoever left the child thought that perhaps it would be possible to reclaim him later by showing the shawl’s other half.
The child stayed with the nuns until he was 6 years old, when he was legally adopted by a poor couple, owners of a modest charcoal business in La Boca. He was lovingly cared for by this couple and forged a unique bond with his adopted mother, a woman with humble origins. His father worked as a stevedore in the nearby port area.
Because he had to help at home, Benito was unable to finish elementary school. When talking about his childhood he said, “I had to leave school before learning the multiplication tables.” When he was 15 years old his adopted father asked him to help him with his work as a stevedore in the port, a work that Benito did for several years. When he was seventeen years old, and while still working at the port, he started taking painting lessons at an academy in La Boca, where he met Filiberto and started a friendship that was to last all their lives.
Benito was part of a group of rowdy youngsters who used to go from house to house playing tangos. Once, when playing at a poor tenement house, they learned that there was a woman seriously ill. They were leaving the place when the sick woman asked them to play a tango. As soon as they finished playing, the woman died. Some of the youngsters felt a sense of guilt that their music had provoked the woman’s death but Filiberto retorted, “If she had to die it is better that she died this way. It must be wonderful to die listening to a tango!”
Benito had taken his adopted father’s name and was now called Benito Quinquela Martín. In the same way that Beethoven’s music had “illuminated” his friend Filiberto, Rodin’s book on art had illuminated Quinquela. He would later remark, “Because my academic studies were rudimentary, I had to rely a lot on intuition and emotion. In those two words I found my best guides and teachers.”
Although at the beginning Quinquela combined both his work as stevedore and charcoal merchant with that of painter, he later decided that he would dedicate himself only to painting for the rest of his life. Most of his paintings reflect harbor scenes and the shipyards in La Boca. They are a song to the working men through the prodigal use of color. It was that characteristic of painting workers that made Mussolini exclaim, after meeting the painter in Italy, “Lei e il mio pittore!” (You are my favorite painter!). When Quinquela asked him why he said so Mussolini responded, “Because you are a painter of the working man.”
One day, unannounced, Quinquela was visited in his precarious studio by Pio Collivadino, who was the Director of the National Academy of Art in Buenos Aires. It was a meeting that would dramatically change Quinquela Martín’s life. Collivadino was instrumental in Quinquela Martín’s showing his work –since the beginning to great critical and popular acclaim- at the Witcomb Gallery and then in the aristocratic Jockey Club, both in Buenos Aires. He later showed his work in Rio de Janeiro, Madrid, Rome –where, in a visit to the Vatican he was received by Pope Pious XI- New York, Havana, Paris, and London.
Received and admired by royalty in the countries he visited, Quinquela Martín became one of the best known Argentine painters. His paintings are now in the most important museums in the world. He also became a philanthropist who donated land to build schools, a children’s clinic, a theater and a museum in La Boca.
When he became famous and was financially comfortable, Quinquela Martín decided to improve the looks of one of the streets in La Boca which had been a pasture ground. Through donations of painting to the people living there, Quinquela helped to keep the tradition of having the houses painted in bright colors.
One of the brightest streets was a little walk, through which both Quinquela Martín and Filiberto used to walk. He decided to call it Caminito, and wrote that name on a piece of wood that was attached to one of the houses. In 1959, that name was officially adopted by the Municipality of Buenos Aires, in a ceremony with fireworks that had as a background the howling of the ship’s foghorns. Quinquela Martín would later say, “I think that we can say with optimism that in La Boca we have won the battle for color.”
In 1971, a street called Caminito was inaugurated in La Rioja, a belated homage to Peñaloza. Today, the other Caminito, the one located in La Boca harbors an independent theater, an open air art gallery where both professionals and aficionados sell their work and where tango enthusiasts dance to the music of tango. The name of Quinquela Martín is now indelibly connected to that street, and to La Boca.
Dr. César Chelala is an international public health consultant and an award winning writer and photographer.
All photos were provided by the author.