Tuesday, March 09, 2010

'OA 1926', Alemán's Roots of Swing

When young Oscar was left alone as an urchin to his own survival in the streets of Santos, Brazil after his family had broken up - his father and mother had died following tragic circumstances and his siblings had rejected him as their equal for unknown reasons and were taken to an orphanage, - he had to find a way to survive from day to day like countless other homeless children at the time. He had odd jobs as a shoeshine or newspaper boy, took part in arranged street boxing contests and earned tips from cleaning windows of parked street cars, and from a street vendor he had a banana a day for free to keep from starvation. The money he earned were saved to have enough for his biggest wish: to buy a cavaquinho he had seen exhibited in a store window of an instrument maker. One day he was told that the instrument maker had died and that the store was closed down, young Oscar was out of his mind, the possibility of buying the cavaquinho now had vanished from one moment to the other,as he still had not saved enough money to buy it before it was too late. But the instrument maker had noticed Oscar every day glancing at the wanted item in front of the storewindow and in his will it was stated that this eager kid should have the cavaquinho for the amount he was able to pay. Thus, Oscar was handed over the wanted instrument by the widow of the instrument maker in exchange of the few coins he had saved. The small four stringed instrument, a Brasilian ukulele, was kept away during daytime at Oscar's shelter in a basement of a restaurant where he was allowed to sleep at night, and when returning to this place at night Oscar would start learning to play the instrument all by himself. After some time he had taught himself to play a selfcomposed tune and was noticed by the manager of the restaurant one night when he was in need for someone to entertain his guests. Oscar was encouraged to entertain the guests, which he did with success -: he had to play his tune several times and gained applause and tips enough to make a decision for his future destiny, he would become a musician and earn a living from entertaining people! The cavaquinho was not only the first instrument Oscar owned and played (- he kept it for all of his life), but it was also the tool that opened the ears of the world for his talents.

In 1924 Oscar was spotted in Santos by Brasilian guitarist Gastón Bueno Lobo while performing his selfcomposed tune on the cavaquinho and a partnership with Lobo was soon arranged, they formed the Les Loups duo and toured Brazil together, had success and then went to Buenos Aires where the duo performed at several venues, was featured in radio programs and later had a recording contract with Victor. In 1926 the duo was engaged by Harry Fleming's company as a novelty act of the show during the company's performance in Buenos Aires. Dressed in white suits and with flower leis the duo performed with success as a Hawaiian speciality act playing fox trots, waltzes and tangos on their stringed instruments as part of the company's show . It is not known, if Oscar had the chance to perform his self taught tune during these performances, but there is an anecdote from this time telling how the tune had its title, 'OA 1926'.

While the Fleming troupe had its performance in Buenos Aires, the members were staying at an ocean liner in the harbor of the city, and in leisure time at the ship there was arranged boxing contests between the men and the crew of the ship. One day Oscar participated in such a contest and won the fight, and to celebrate this event afterwards Oscar played his cavaquinho performing his self taught tune, which from then on was titled 'OA 1926'. The 'OA' had a double meaning, pointing to both the initials of his name and to the place, where the tune was christened -: on board a ship at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean (- Oceano Atlantico!).

It may seem somewhat strange that Alemán did not record the 'OA 1926' tune until late in life, but there exists a transcription disc recording from the 1950s or early 1960s documenting that he played the tune during live performance as a solo act in between tunes played with his orchestra de Jazz. Listening to this transcription disc that has been saved by keen collectors an explanation of the missing commercial recording of the tune during Alemán's hayday as an entertainer or earlier as part of the Les Loups duo could be connected with the fact that the music style resembles a two-part ragtime piece of the Tin Pan Aley period of the 1920s not suitable for the Latin market at the time, but no matter what Alemán had the chops to make it swing! When he finally recorded the tune in 1972 as part of the 'Alemán '72' album he played it at a slower tempo, but the feeling of swing is intact and supported by a rhythm gained by his stomping feet and further spelled out during his scat vocal chorus. - Enjoy the audio of the recording from the'Alemán '72' album in the uploaded video below to end this small entry on how the roots of swing was initiated in Alemán's playing right from the beginning of his career:

NB! The drawn illustrations above are copied from Gani Jakubi's marvellous artwork on Alemán's life and career in 'Le roi invisible' (2009).