Osvaldo Pugliese

It is an irony that Osvaldo Pugliese, the last of the great tango composers and musicians, should have died during a Peronist government in Argentina. Passionate necrophiles, Peronists do death very well: the tributes poured in; the funeral wake at City Hall, on Plaza de Mayo, had the atmosphere of a state event; everybody in politics was there.

Yet Pugliese was thrown into prison several times during the first government (1946-1955) of General Juan Pern, and was always seen by Peronism as a dangerous River Plate Bolshevik.

And the military regime that overthrew Pern in 1955 also locked him up. He had joined the Communist Party in 1936, when he was 31, "to fight for a more democratic and just society where work is part of human dignity, and not a punishment". The obituaries hardly mentioned his political affiliation. They said he never mixed music and ideology. True, but he practised his politics as a working musician. Every man or woman who ever played with Pugliese will remember that the cash - which Pugliese was able to ask for in quite substantial figures - was always shared, co-operative-style, among all members of an orchestra. Thin as a rake and usually smiling through bottle- bottom glasses - except when playing, when he was deeply intense - it was his generosity that was recalled abundantly during his last weeks in hospital.

And when Pugliese could not play, because he was locked up, or banned, the band played on, with a single red carnation lain on the piano to symbolise the presence of the Maestro.

The 1960s government of the late General Juan Carlos Ongana, who had a deep fear of Peronists and Communists alike, simply banned Pugliese from radio broadcasts and public places. After all, Pugliese had played in the Soviet Union in 1959. He went to Tokyo. The Japanese loved him. There was a number of Japanese tourists queuing to pay their respects at the funeral on Wednesday.

But his politics were largely forgotten - except for the huge wreath from the Communist party at the wake, placed close to an equally large floral tribute from President Carlos Menem - in the interests of much vernacular mawkishness which sometimes passes for local colour whenever tango is the subject.

Pugliese will be remembered as a great, and his musicians will go down as the last orquesta tpica of a tango generation who made it to the Coln opera house with him in 1985.

Born in 1905, in Villa Crespo, then a north-western suburb of Buenos Aires, the son of a cobbler and a flautist, Pugliese left school aged 10 to become a printer's apprentice. He played the violin with his four brothers, and switched to the piano. At 14 he played professionally for the first time, in the cafe La Chancha ("The Sow"). He never looked back. He was part of what the tango world calls the "generation of 1925", then a group of fresh faces who were making their mark in the bands of a slightly older collection of great names.

Pugliese composed 150 themes, ranging from "waltzes" to rancheras and milongas, and even one shimie. But he was best known for his tango compositions. Among the best of them and the most played were "Negracha", "La Yumba" and "Malandraca" (three titles with references to the roughest sections of society) - although Pugliese rebuked Jorge Luis Borges for using the criminal classes in his literature, arguing that the stories were greatly exaggerated and unrealistic. Also among his leading compositions are "Recien" ("Just Now", with Homero Manzi), "Una vez" ("Once", with Ctulo Castillo), and "Igual que una sombra" ("Just like a shadow", with Enrique Cadcamo) - three more names in tango that will never be forgotten.

And he played with everybody who was anybody. In his lifetime he saw and was part of the classical days of tango. He watched it fall almost totally out of fashion, and then come back into favour, at home and world- wide. No, there will never again be any like Osvaldo Pugliese and his peers.

Andrew Graham-Yooll

Osvaldo Pugliese, composer, pianist: born Buenos Aires 2 December 1905; married 1970 Lidia Elma; died Buenos Aires 25 July 1995.

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