Osvaldo Pugliese


Below follows a personal retrospective of Carel Kraayenhof, artistic director, bandoneón player and founder of the Kraayenhof Tango Ensemble and the Sexteto Canyengue.

The article was written on the death of Osvaldo Pugliese, Grand Master of the tango.



Amsterdam, 15 August 1995.

In his hometown of Buenos Aires died on Tuesday 25 July, the widely beloved Maestro Pugliese, the 89-year-old pianist, composer and orchestra leader, who during his lifetime already became a tango myth. After he was admitted to the hospital because of severe stomach complaints, he developed such heart problems that it became necessary for him to get a by-pass. Don Osvaldo fell into coma and died five days later. His wife Lydia was with him.

With Osvaldo Pugliese tango loses one of its major innovators; energetic and creative as he was, he left an extensive oeuvre and many of the  records in his name are  hard to track down. Looking back on his long life it strikes one how versatile he was: in addition to his intensive musical career Pugliese  was also active in  politics.

He was one of the founders of the first trade union of musicians in Argentina (1935) and had a leading position in the Communist Party. Often he was put into prison by the various dictatorial regimes; the people then wrote on the walls: “the tango is taken captive”.

His orchestra continued to play and laid in front of the empty chair of their absent Maestro a red carnation on the keys of the piano, a Clavel Rojo.


Osvaldo Pugliese was born on 2 December 1905 in the Villa Crespo neighbourhood in Buenos Aires. His mother Aurelia was textile worker, his father Adolfo was a shoemaker and played the flute: so he earned some extra money as a musician at weddings, parties and dance nights, in salons and on patios. The two oldest sons, Vicente and Alberto, played violin; the small Osvaldo scraped away obediently on his little violin earning him the nicknames Chicharra (Cricket) and El rasca (the scraper). Father found that three violinists in one family was too much, so Osvaldito got a piano to develop his musical talents. At a young age, he left the school and was working as a shoe shine boy, newspaper boy and assistant in a print shop.

He began his career as a pianist as accompanist of the silent film, subsequently he joined various tango ensembles including the trio of the famous bandoneón player Paquita Bernardo.

He studied piano with Maestro Antonio D’Agostino, along with Sebastiàn Pain, and already at young age developed the habit of writing down bits and pieces  of melodies which came to him when walking or when sitting in the tram. He completed his first major composition at the age of 19, a piece later on called  ‘the tango of the tangos’: Recuerdo (1924). This was the first tango with a three-part structure, with a quick melodic variation in the third part played by the bandoneóns.

The quality of Recuerdo was soon noticed by Julio de Caro who was first one to  record this tango on gramophone record with his sextet and make it a hit.

So Pugliese was in contact with his admired models  Julio and Francisco de Caro and their colleagues and friends Pedro Maffia and Pedro Laurenz. When Maffia founded his own group in 1926.

He asked Pugliese as pianist; he also worked in ’34 as pianist and arranger in the sextet of Pedro Laurenz. In his first own ensemble, founded together with the violinist Elvino Vardaro, some talented musicians like Aníbal Troilo and Alfredo Gobbi were part of it; unfortunately this was a short-lived sextet.


It was only in 1939 that the economic conditions were so favorable and the tango so popular that yet another attempt of Pugliese to create an orchestra was rewarded: his Orquesta Típica would more than 50 years have big success inside and outside Argentina.

In its long career the orchestra would mount the stages among others in Japan, China, the Middle East, the former Soviet Republic, France, Portugal, Spain, Belgium, The Netherlands, Finland and almost all South- and Central American countries. For his work the maestro received high cultural distinctions, including from the Argentine, French and Cuban Governments.

A big wish from mother Aurelia became true when, thanks to the initiative of a couple of friends, her son gave a concert on 26 December 1985 in the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires. To his enormous satisfaction Don Osvaldo, eighty years of age, witnessed that this beautiful theatre, stronghold of the classical music, opened its gates for the tango. In the same year his first concert in our country took place.

In 1989, on the occasion of his 70 years with the tango and the 50-year anniversary of his orchestra, Pugliese was invited to perform at the Royal Theatre Carré in Amsterdam. As a guest his fellow-countryman and colleague Astor Piazzolla joined in with his new sextet, and both Maestro’s closed the concert together by playing La Yumba and Adiós Nonino, a truly unique moment in the history of tango.

The history of the orchestra of Pugliese has been written about extensively; unfortunately, there has never been a sound musical analysis  published on his compositions, arrangements and style. After all, it is not common to do this in tango circles.


The first time I attended a performance of his orchestra was during the tango festival in de Meervaart in Amsterdam in 1985, when I played in the preliminary program with Tango Cuatro; my Spanish was limited then to 25 words, supplemented by hand- and footwork. After my travels to Argentina in spring and autumn ‘ 87 I was fairly fluent in Spanish, so that at our next meeting – that was when he saw Sexteto Canyengue playing for the first time, and I dedicated Clavel Rojo to him – I finally could ask him all my burning questions. I must admit now  that I hardly ever have managed to get him talking about his

music, about the genesis of his compositions and the countless anecdotes of his orchestra.

His great simplicity and modesty did not allow him to elaborate on his own vision of the tango; he rather told about his great models. In addition, at his advanced age he had enough of serious talks, he preferred to  crack jokes and drive  his interviewers to despair by always  poking fun of everything.

Also at concerts in prestigious halls like Carré and the Doelen he made things humble by changing his jacket halfway

through the concert, or by discussing with his wife Lydia  on stage why he had been  dawdling before coming up to perform.

Yet it seems to me right to mention something about his work here.


The Orquesta Típica of Pugliese was called the composers ‘orchestra. Musicians like:

  • Osvaldo Ruggiero (A mis Compañeros, Locura tanguera, Bordoneo y 900);
  • Emilio Balcarce (El Tobiano, La Bordona);
  • Julián Plaza (Danzarin, Payadora, Buenos Aires–Tokyo)

and many others have with their compositions, arrangements and interpretations contributed to defining of the style of Pugliese. The maestro was center of the orchestra, supervisor and the one who kept everything together. He vision on tango was what gave shape to the orchestra whereby three sections of the orchestra played an important role: the rhythm section piano-double bass, the strings section violins-Viola-cello-double bass, and the bandoneón section.

Within these sections the soloists occupied  a central place. In the first large orchestra of 1939, in addition to  Pugliese on piano, three other musicians had a major influence: the 1st bandoneonist Osvaldo Ruggiero, 1st violinist Enrique Camerano and the double bass player Aniceto Rossi. Great importance was attached to arranging the repertoire pieces and how each person  could contribute. In La Historia del tango Luis Sierra writes about the tango style and aesthetics of Pugliese:

“What characterizes the orchestra of Osvaldo Pugliese is the participation of everyone and of each member of the orchestra separate – most of them composers and arrangers – both in terms of implementation, contributing ideas and in the compliance, the severity and the personal touch of them all”.

Important elements in the formation of Pugliese’s style are presented  in the famous trilogy, Negracha, Malandraca and La Yumba, written around 1943. Negracha and Malandraca were first played in ’43 and after a long maturation process successively recorded in ’48 and ’49; the first performance and recording of La Yumba took place in 1946; Recuerdo was recorded by his orchestra for the first time in ’44.


The new tangos were ahead of their time and had a great influence on later tango composers like Astor Piazzolla, who in  his own words said that after his performances with Troilo he would flee  the cabaret to go  across the street and listen to Pugliese’s orchestra with their interpretation of Negracha. In the above-mentioned trilogy, the melody gets a strong rhythmic function and often consists of repetitive, accented fragments. Sometimes the melody line leaves the two-part classification of the beat with a ‘ milonga’-movement (3-3-2), which sometimes extended to repeated groups of three notes spread across multiple measures (3-3-3-3-etc.). This creates a shift and a poly-rhythm in which the various sections alternating each other in turn.

The basic rhythm consists of a powerful marking of the first and third beat by the bandoneóns, piano and double bass, whereby the first beat is sometimes

preceded by a lingering movement (arrastre), sounding like a tremendous growling glissando. As counterparts of these powerful accents the second and fourth beat is played more weakly (lowest note of the piano).

This sound was named after the tango Yumba, as onomatopoeia: YUM-ba YUM-ba (sounds like Zjoemba). The four bandoneonists would  put the instrument on one knee, then raise their knee and , subsequently let the heel of their foot fall to the ground,  simultaneously let their fingers jump pliantly away from the buttons; the striking sound so produced sounds like the barking of a dog, and the bandoneóns with their fast-outward folding and inward folding bellows look like wild animals.

This does not leave the listener untouched. The most beautiful description after a concert was given to me by a sailor who was

struck by the orchestra of Pugliese when visiting Buenos Aires -he saw for the first time the sparks exploding from the knees-. This rousing rhythm stimulates  dancing and it is  a clever  dancer who can stay put on his chair!


In the words of Luís Sierra:

“Coming from the school of De Caro, starting point of all attempts to enrich the instrumental tango, the orchestra of Osvaldo Pugliese added a very original way of interpreting, where the perfect adaptation to the dance became united with a harmonic structure that was worked out technically advanced. Using renewed propositions he brought about the definition of his orchestra. And on the developed force of a rhythmic accented marking – which is his most striking characteristic  – rest the whole complex of scaffolding of a unique accumulation of sound images. Pugliese weaves a very fine polyrhythmic network in which the various instrumental sections mark according to different time formats, in the middle of an inexhaustible wealth of tools and effects of as large a subtlety, that sometimes they almost seem to get stuck in an almost unnoticeable intention (suggestion). And from those seemingly seemingly random connections of the found

rhythms, different melodies emerge – because with Pugliese the melody never loses her predominant expressive influence – voiced by the soloists of the ensemble in their unique way of “speaking” (…) “.

“Nervously aggressive but measured in the passages of rhythmic fit, infallibility inprented with spirited and smart stealing of time and sudden contrasts, with a perfect and elegant control of tempo rubato and of the síncopa (possibly the two most interesting musical figures of the instrumental tango).

All of these things belong to the power of these disciplined formation, with orchestra leader. (…) And something that is fundamental, with the respect in terms of interpretation that the piece and the composer deserve. (…)

Therefore, the instrumental versions of the orchestra of Osvaldo Pugliese express the best musical quality, of a pure style of execution and really tanguïstische

authenticity, destined to continue living as examples of how much has been aesthetically achieved as regards orchestration in the tango “.


Two years ago Leo Vervelde and I proposed maestro Pugliese as artistic director of the department of Argentine tango to be set up within the department of World music at the Rotterdam Conservatory. When the maestro enthusiastically accepted this offer, we felt this w as a great honor; but with his usual modesty he turned the table. In response to the invitation he wrote us on May 19, 1993:

“With deep emotion I received the message of the founding of the tango Chair at the Rotterdam Conservatory. Being named for this chair is a great honor for me, I’m simply a musician from the people, I have given 73 years – the best of my life – in dedication to this music, a music which is born among the people, and which is so rich and representative of the folklore of my country”.

On 6 September ’93 Don Osvaldo was guest of honor at the official opening of the department of Argentine Tango in the Willem Pijper Hall of the Rotterdam Conservatory; It would be the last time that we would play La Yumba with him. Our last meeting took place in December of that year, at his home, in his apartment in Corrientes in Buenos Aires.

The last years were difficult for the maestro: he had to learn to live with the loss of his beloved grandson Osvaldito, and also of his bosom friend Osvaldo Ruggiero and his young singer Adrián Guida.

He once told me that his impaired vision and his hardness of hearing didn’t hurt him, much  worse is to have to survive all his friends; he could still get tears in the eyes

of the death of Pedro Maffia, a name that I only knew in from legends, books and records. This always good-tempered old man, with whom I had a grandfather-grandson relationship, did not allow me  to call him maestro: “Maestro, no! Soy un atorrante… ” (“Maestro? No I’m a scam … “).


In an interview for the magazine of World music with Hein Calis Don Osvaldo showed his optimism about the future of the tango in the hands of youth: “things are going well. It is excellent … the only thing that is still missing is that I can go home and lie down in my own nest and listen to and play rock ‘n’ roll “.

Oh, if only I could  once more watch Zorro with him in his kitchen and see him roar about that fat sergeant Garcia who keeps on tipping over. If I only could I only once more hear him calling for his chocolates from his Louis XV-four-poster bed and hear Lydia calling back to him , pretending to be angry,  that he must now  go to sleep, while she looks at me with a  conspiratorial smile …

Gracias, Maestro, por todo. Un abrazo grandote y hasta siempre.

© Carel Kraayenhof


The above article was published in September 1995 in La Cadena and in the program booklet of Recuerdo III, the homage to Antonio Todaro, Osvaldo Pugliese and Pepito Avellaneda, dated 19 October 1997 in the Roode Hoed, Amsterdam.