The "Estribillistas" (refrain vocalists)
by Néstor Pinsón and Ricardo García Blaya
ince the birth of the "orquestas típicas" (typical orchestras) until the middle 20s, the repertories were exclusively instrumental except for the sporadic voice or voices of some member of the orchestra, generally in a humorous manner. The adjective "típica" was an idea of the bandoneonist and leader Vicente Greco, when recording his early records, to become differentiated from the orchestras which played a book with different rhythms. So, his orchestra was named "Orquesta Típica Criolla Greco".
Orquesta Típica Criolla Greco (1912)
The "solo singer" was born usually accompanied with guitars or "typical trios", but not with an orchestra. They sang all the verses of the lyrics which, in general, had three sections, the first and the last one were musically the same but with a different text, and the second was the chorus, refrain or bridge. In their repertories there were tangos, waltzes, milongas and folk rhythms (estilos, zambas, tonadas, rancheras, among others), for that reason they were called "national singers".
Since the middle 20s until the end of the 30s, the "chansonnier" or "estribillista" can be found, he appeared in the middle of the piece singing only the bridge.
Obviously he had a secondary role within the musical group to which he belonged, to such an extent that on the record labels his name was not included ; it simply said "with sung refrain".
So, they were like an instrument of the orchestra which was assigned a solo. It was Francisco Canaro's idea to include a vocalist in a tango orchestra for the first time. In his autobiography he says : "Always severe with myself, I was not fully satisfied and it seemed to me that my records and my orchestra were missing something: it was the vocal part, but not to fill the record but to make more interesting the musical performance. So, it came to my mind to make the refrain be sung, I did it and I liked it. The first recorded experience was a tango by my brother Mario : "Así es el mundo" with a young singer, Roberto Díaz."
The favorable reception by the audience was granting a greater possibility of spotlighting the "estribillistas", adding other sections of the lyrics to their participation.
After this experience, all the orchestras included vocalists to sing the bridge. Once more, Canaro innovated hiring two vocalists for his orchestra -Roberto Fugazot and Agustín Irusta- who besides sang as duet.
The recording labels included "estribillistas" with a clause in the contract to be stable and exclusive singers because they took part in all the orchestras belonging to the record company. For example : Orquesta Típica Victor, Orquesta Típica Columbia, Orquesta Típica Odeón, Orquesta Típica Brunswick, etc.
The refrain vocalists succeeded in spite of the adverse conditions. In their public performances, the orchestra and the audience talking made them hardly heard, because the electrical microphone was not yet available. They had to turn, in some cases, to the megaphone to increase the sound volume (an antiesthetic conical horn made of cardboard or tin, about 50 cm long).
Among the most famous refrain vocalists are Carlos Dante, Roberto Díaz, Antonio Buglione, Carlos Lafuente, Fernando Díaz, Agustín Irusta, Luis Díaz, Teófilo Ibáñez, Carlos Varela, Charlo, Roberto Fugazot, Carlos Viván, Juan and Pedro Lauga, Roberto and Antonio Maida, Antonio Rodríguez Lesende, Alberto Gómez, Ernesto Fama and Francisco Fiorentino, among many others.