Walter Owen on The Gaucho Of Argentina

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The gaucho is the national hero of Argentina, immortalized in a long epic poem, El Gaucho Martin Fierro. Most Argentines can recite a few verses of the poem in which the gaucho extols liberty, manhood, and justice. But Walter Owen, Martin Fierro’s English translator, took a clearer-eyed view of the gaucho in his introduction, one that could just as easily apply in many ways to the recent happenings in the Argentine.

He was, wrote Owen, a ‘strange mixture of virtues and vices, of culture and savagery. Arrogant and self-respecting, religious, punctilious within the limits of his own peculiar code, he was yet patient under injustice, easily led and impressed by authority, ferocious, callous, brutal, superstitious and improvident.’ He was as ‘pitiless as the savage Guaycurus (Indians) of his native plains, who as an old chronicler says, were “the most turbulent of heathen, who extract their eyelashes to better see the Christians and slay them.” … In no country and at no time, perhaps, has a race existed among which physical courage, intrepidity, indifference to suffering and endurance have been held in such high esteem.’ The gaucho’s law was his knife, or Caeon, a short sword with a double-edged curved blade. His poncho wrapped around his left arm and used as a shield, he fought, whirling his facon, waiting for an opportunity for a sweeping blow that would lay his opponent’s throat open. To the gaucho, throat-cutting was the only satisfactory way of killing an enemy. W. H. Hudson, the English naturalist and novelist who was born and grew up in Argentina in the middle of the 1800s recollected in his book Far Away and Long Ago listening as a child to groups of gauchos as they sat around and yarned at the close of day in the pulperia, the village store, bar, and general meeting place.

Inevitably, the talk turned sooner or later to the subject of cutting throats. Not to waste powder on prisoners was an unwritten law and the veteran gaucho clever with the knife took delight in obeying it. Remembered Hudson: ‘It always came as a relief, I heard them say, to have as a victim a young man with a good neck after an experience of tough, scraggy old throats: with a person of that sort they were in no hurry to finish the business; it was performed in a leisurely, loving way.

He did his business rather like a hellish creature reveling in his cruelty.

Tango: Astor Piazzolla Talks About the Bandoneón

The bandoneón was invented about 1846 by Heinrich Band, in Krefeld Germany under the name ‘bandonion’ – where it was intended to play church music. It is unknown exactly when it arrived in Buenos Aires (estimated at 1870), but it became very popular at about 1890 when it was found to be extremely conducive to the sounds of tango. Its name was changed from the German ‘bandonion’ to the Spanish ‘bandoneón’.