Let’s Tango

I have always been fascinated with the tango. The rhythms of this energetic and artistic, yet at the same time sensuous dance that originated in the steamy lower class barrios of Buenos Aires, has always stirred some inner emotion every time I hear its distinctive notes, or see it performed with passion on the dance floor. At one time, it even inspired my wife and I to take some ballroom dancing classes to try and learn some of its intricate steps, with visions of recreating the famous tango scene done by Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez in the movie Shall We Dance.

The dance and its characteristic musical form originated in Argentina as a fusion of African and Spanish musical forms and traditions somewhere in the 1890’s and quickly spread to Europe and North America. By the 1920’s it had become popular in Eastern Europe, including Poland as well.

It is here where it intersected with a rapidly growing musical movement in the Ukrainian city of Lviv, then under Polish rule. In the early part of the twentieth century, the era of swing and big band music that swept the U.S., rapidly penetrated the European music scene which enthusiastically adopted this free-wheeling musical revolution. Lviv was no exception and during the 1920’s and 1930’s there was no shortage of cabarets, jazz and nightclubs in this lively and cosmopolitan City of Lions. Initially this type of music was mostly played by Polish bands, but starting in the early 1930’s some talented Ukrainian musicians began adopting this new musical genre.

Prominent among these were two talented musician/composers by the name of Anatoly Kos-Anatolsky and Leonid Yablonsky. They formed a band called Yabtso, which soon became famous on the Lviv musical scene, playing a repertoire of jazz, swing and big band music with distinctive Ukrainian overtones and themes. In the mid-thirties, they were joined by yet another talented musician/composer by the name of Bohdan Vesolovsky, better known by the nickname Bondy, who had a particular love for and flair for composing tangos. Together, they became the leading force of what we can term Western Ukraine’s version of vaudeville and the golden age of Ukrainian cabaret music.

Sadly, it was not to last. The outbreak of the Second World War brought a quick end to this rich musical age. Kos-Anatolsky stayed in Lviv throughout the war and subsequently adapted to the Soviet occupation, and managed to continue his musical career though in a much more constrained and muted form. Yablonsky fled after the war, first to Czechoslovakia, and then ironically on to Buenos Aires, the original home of the tango. He eventually moved to Toronto where he died in 1966. Vesolovsky spent the war years in Vienna, continuing his musical studies, and after the war moved to Montreal, where he continued to compose and record while working for the Ukraine Service of Radio Canada International, eventually becoming its head. He died in 1971.

Vesolovsky was by far the most prolific of this talented trio. He was born on May 30, 1891 in Vienna, though he lived most of his early life in the Western Ukrainian town of Striy, before moving to Lviv to study music at Lysenko Higher Institute of Music. Over the course of his life, he composed some 130 songs and is credited with over 30 recordings, the most well-known of which is “Lety Tuzhlyva Pisnia” (Fly, Sorrowful Song). As mentioned earlier, he was particularly enamored of the tango and is often labeled as the father of the Ukrainian tango, though he also wrote many waltzes, foxtrots, rhumbas, charlestons and other dance tunes.

Aside from spending the latter part of his life in Canada, there is another interesting Canadian connection to Vesolovsky. There has recently been a revived interest in Vesolovsky’s music in Ukraine and Lviv specifically. This culminated a week ago in a grand gala titled The International Festival of Retro Music honouring Vesolovsky in particular, at Lviv’s Opera and Ballet Theatre. The chief organizer of this event was former diplomat Ihor Ostash, who not that long ago was Ukraine’s Ambassador to Canada. Ihor has been a great fan of Vesolovsky’s music and has been very active in recent years in promoting his musical legacy.

It was somehow fitting, that on the 100th anniversary of his birth, Vesolovsky’s music once again reverberated in the city that he loved so much and where he was inspired to write some truly memorable works.