I know the exact date this story takes place, September 30, 2008, because it says so in my iTunes.
I remember the process of learning “Uno” took a long time. I think it was interrupted by needing to focus on other things, so it wasn’t the usual 2-4 contiguous sessions of grinding out notes. It was something we had to come back to a few times. It was a long time before I had a full sense of the tune, and I was also probably not enthusiastic about learning it as I found it a bit intimidating and somehow esoteric.
Uno was the third tango Alfonso had taught me (following a monster of an arrangement of “La Cumparsita” which I hope to record one day and “Vieja Amiga”), and by then I had also learned an arrangement of “El Choclo” from a book.
I loved this tango music on guitar, but I found it to be a unique challenge. In most of the other styles I was playing there was more of an even rhythmic flow, wherein when playing melodic parts it’s easy to feel an underlying strum and play within the pocket. With tango there are all these spaces, starts and stops. The essential rhythm is so basic, but the music is all in the impression - a brusque harshness married to gentle romance. Tango requires a lot of hand strength, a deep sense of internal rhythm and healthy sense of drama. It took a long before I was comfortable with any of the tangos.
The lesson that day was at my place, sitting in the back room where my computer was set up. I expressed my frustration with “Uno,” that I just didn’t have a full sense of the song, maybe I had a hard time teasing out what were the main ideas to stress within the arrangement he was teaching me. This was often the case, as Alfonso would teach me the song’s ornamentations along with the central ideas, and, without any history or knowledge of the song, it could be tough to separate which was which. Sometimes I didn’t care, but with this tune I knew it was important to get the right balance.
With Alfonso there, I thought it would be a good idea to go on the iTunes store and review different recordings of “Uno”- maybe find the one the Alfonso related to the most. I had been disappointed in my own searching of tango music, for as much as I like playing it, it was hard to find recordings I could personally get into or even ones that featured guitar as an element (sometime around this time Alfonso introduced me to the music of Roberto Grela, the greatest tango guitarist).
Like a lot of styles that become globally popular, when you come into tango as a new listener it’s hard to know where to even start.
I don’t think Alfonso had seen the iTunes online store before, and this was definitely the first time we did such an exercise together (soon it would be all about YouTube). I knew there would be many versions of “Uno” available and sure enough there were dozens. Once Alfonso adjusted to the layout of the screen, I could see him reading through the artists, and it was clear he was looking for something. “Scroll down, scroll down” he said, squinting his eyes to the names. “Ah! This one! Play this one!”
The version he chose was by a Chilean singer named Lucho Gatica, attributed to one of his greatest hits compilations. Alfonso smiled broadly as it came on, and we listened to the opening strums of a guitar sextet. It’s Alfonso, of course:
In the 50s and 60s Lucho Gatica was gigantic star in Chile and across South America. You can only find this track on compilation albums, but it was part of an album he recorded with a guitar sextet (he actually recorded other versions of “Uno” with different instrumentations). If you are curious, you can also find a version of the songs “Yo Vendo Unos Ojos Negros” and “Una Pena y un Carino” by Lucho Gatica on iTunes that also features this sextet. Perhaps by now there are others, but I’ve never see the original album available.
As Alfonso listened he started playing along, remembering his part from what was somewhere between 45-50 years prior. As the song went on he gained his confidence in his part (2nd guitar) and as the song neared the end, without missing a beat, he looked up and said proudly “listen, here comes my first recorded guitar solo,” and at exactly the 3:33 mark he played along with a quick 3 note figure, the only second of the song you hear one string alone. That must have been his private joke about that record for years!
Needless to say, it was hours before the goosebumps settled.
Over time I gained my confidence with “Uno,” and it has become one of the most important tunes in my repertoire: a hugely famous and recognizable song that I’m confident enough to record myself playing on video and a staple of my demos.
It is also the deeply romantic tune in my repertoire. For some reason it’s something I find myself holding back until the end of the evening if I’m playing a 3 hour event – I keep waiting for some precisely amazing moment to break it out and will settle for it being a gentle time filler at the end of the night if that moment never comes. Really I look forward to playing this one at small dinner parties, in a private dining room, maybe just after guests have finished the main course and there’s a conversational pause for a glow.