Have you been to Bar Los Laureles?
Deep in Barracas, southern barrio of Buenos Aires, there is a cafe. It dates back to 1893 when it was a hotbed of socialism and tango. Later in 1940 Jose Lomio, the famous tango singer known popularly as ‘Angel Vargas’ started to sing at the bar, and since then singers have come from across the southern barrios of Buenos Aires to sing here.
It is Friday night - open mic night one might call it in London or New York. But the very term seems to steal the true-tango-authenticity of Fridays at Los Laureles. The songs are tango - of the Golden Age singers Carlos Gardel, Alberto Moran, Angel Vargas, Armando Laborde, Virginia Luque, Pepita Avellaneda. They are tango at its very best, some of the resident and visiting singers having sung for a lifetime, as professionals and enormously talented social singers.
We meet with Moneypenny and Damian to board colectivo 24 to Herrera, then on foot to Av Gral Iriarte 2290 Barracas. Stephanie and Moneypenny sit towards the front of the bus, whilst Damian and I stand by the wide open window that allows in cooling air. Green traffic lights are in our favour, and number 24 careers through the intersections, the windows of closing shops and opening cafés flashing past in a blur.
Av Gral Iriarte is a suburban boulevard which we recognise, in contrast to the rest of Barracas, by the long slim garden that divides the road. Just before the railway bridge on the left is ‘Los Laureles’. Tables have been gathered close below the street windows, and already locals sit there with copas de vino, beers and empanadas. Nearby, a mechanic and its owner appear to dismantle a car’s carburetor and momentarily Los Laureles is lit blue by the flashing lights of a passing police car.
The bar’s owner takes us to our table by the dance floor. Finding that we were tangueros, this place was reserved specially for us. To our left shellac resin and vinyl spins on the turntable of the analogue radiogram. Its Pugliese, his plump face peering out at the room from an old crumpled photograph on the album’s cover. We have come early for Yuyu Herrera’s tango class, but we need not have rushed - here in Barracas we are definitely on ‘Argentine time’.
With the change of mood to Osvaldo Fresedo, Moneypenny accepts my cabeceo and we take to the pista. Odd tables are now occupied, yet we dance alone. ‘Los Laureles’ is not a place for show. Here, in the traditions of the barrio, tango is totally grounded, feet barely leave the floor, movement is unhurried, continuous and seamless. We dance in close embrace, receiving approving smiles from faces by the floor and beyond the windows in the street. Shortly, we are joined on the floor by Stephanie and Damian and the evening has started.
Within three tandas a small, fiery woman bearing a shock of curly black hair appears in the room. In a place that has seen no sudden movement since the 1950’s, her arrival amounts almost to consternation. The music switches to a Canaro beat, and she corralsher students into groups of ‘beginners’ - and ‘the rest’. Yuyu darts to a window to repel staring chicos with the sweep of her arm; then as if by magic, she sets the beginners to walk - the most important skill of the tanguero - and we (the rest) are invited to embrace. Argentine tango is a dance that requires contact, a proximity so close that the follower can understand the lead from the partner’s breath and torso.
Stephanie and I hold each other in the perfect embrace before moving to the next partner and a new embrace. Here in Buenos Aires, it is often visitors that have an issue with the embrace; Portenos simply relax into it. After all, it is part of the culture. If one wants to learn Argentine tango and become truly integrated as a tanguero here, you simply have to release any aversion to hugs and rotation of partners.
Before Yuyu takes us all onto the giro (the tango turn) she admonishes a couple for talking and lines up her students in a column, as if for a Greek Sirtos; but these steps are those of the turning giro. Within seconds we are all proficient - including the new beginners. Then it is the moment for timing...one, two, three-four, five. Yes, we have got it. And the class finishes with applause.
I need not take you, my reader, through the menu, the taste of the Malbec, nor the finale of fabulous budin de pan with dulce de leche and cream. In truth, one does not visit ‘Los Laureles’ for gastronomic delight. We are here for tango. And so it is now that a small, compact man in a black pinstripe suit and shiny shoes seizes the microphone.
You must understand that everything about ‘Los Laureles’ appears in time-lapse, so even the microphone dates to the 1950’s, it’s platted cord extending from the radiogram plug. In his hand is a single sheet of paper bearing names in a neat hand - those who are to be called to perform. At this moment, we are transported back to the 1930’s and 40’s as one-by-one traditional silver tango singers, and young handsome men with slicked back jet-black ponytails arrive to sing their favourite songs. A lone guitar player sits to one side, the warmth of his accompaniment visceral in quick moving fingers on the fret.
Just like the projected images of old film that flicker on one wall, the evening turns sepia; time slows to walking pace; a little shudder of a breeze moves dropped blossom from branches in the boulevard; yet another police car sales past - quietly as if not wishing to break the spell. Small groups of local men and women occupy outside tables to enjoy both song and night air. I feel that time is rolled back, and with it, I sway like a seaweed frond in a moonlit swell. Time now has no significance or meaning.
We dance, just the odd couple of dancers to accompany the singers, our movement directed by their orchestration; we express in dance what they sing. I feel a touch to my arm and turn. A young man stands before me and speaks in Castillano. Will I dance a tango with his mother? She has not danced since his father died, and apparently I remind her of him. She is tiny, but in tango this matters not. As we dance she comes alive with memories, fitting for a night at Bar Los Laureles. Her face is wreathed in smiles as I take her back to her seat and give her son a hug. The pinstripe man reaches the end of his list, and we feel a sense of loss. It is as if another century is stealing back its place.
Outside, a taxi waits, it's meter ticking. We board and speed through Barracas streets, now deserted and in shadow from the moon. Then there is the moment that we cross 9 de Julio, the road that divides the city. This tells that we are nearly home. Bar Los Laureles seems a distant dream, but most definitely one we shall remember.