Violinist, leader and composer
(November 26, 1888 December 14, 1964)
ruguayan from the city of San José de Mayo, his is a dense story, crowded with situations, full of anecdotes, some of which became mythical. A boy born in the deepest poverty, he had no studies, his only choice was work. When with his right instinct he found the path of music, he achieved what he aimed for: success and money. The selfishness and meanness he may have cherished like any other human being became of secondary importance. His labouriousness and his ideas were examples to be followed. He was the agglutinant of his colleagues, because since 1918 he fought for the composers'rights, not recognized at that time until it culminated with the birth of what is now SADAIC (Sociedad Argentina de Autores y Compositores de Música) (Argentine Society of Authors and Composers), founded in 1935 and whose building was erected on estate bought by Canaro.
His beginnings are muddled with those of tango history. So much so that a radio program of mid 50s had coined a phrase to refer to any extremely old event: «when Canaro already had his orchestra». His fortune gave birth to a common saying: «He's got more money than Canaro», in allusion to somebody's opulence. It is said that once when Canaro and Gardel met at the races, the latter asked him 500 pesos (an amount then enormous) to bet on a horse, but asking the former to forget about this debt: «I'm poor, and you've got all the money here.» Because compared with Canaro, even Gardel was poor.
Canaro was called Pirincho since birth. The midwife, while holding him in her arms, exclaimed when she saw so much hair and an upright tuft: «He looks like a "pirincho"!», alluding to a crested bird easily found in the River Plate area. His family soon moved to Buenos Aires, where they lived in leasehold houses (called "conventillos"), under conditions of extreme poverty. Before he was ten he was a newspaper vendor in the streets. Later he was a house painter and he also found a stint in the works when the National Congress was being built.
Music was an attraction for him. His first satisfaction were a few chords he managed to play on a guitar thanks to the teachings of a neighbor cobbler. But he was hypnotized by the violin. As he had no money to buy one, he made his 'Stradivarius' with an oil can and a wooden fingerboard. «The first tango I played by heart was "El llorón", of an unknown composer- he would remember several years later-. The case was made by my mom; it was simply a cloth bag, and so I went out to get some money at dancings in the vicinity.»
But his official debut took place in Ranchos, a lost town a hundred kilometers from Buenos Aires. There he played with a trio, but his gig on that location fell very short for two reasons. One was that the small stage for the artists had to be reinforced with iron sheets to protect them from gunshots exchanged by the customers. The other was that Canaro liked the girls at the local, but the owner of the place tried to dissuade him with a story in which the man in charge of the girls had killed some people.
Back home he met a new neighbor, the bandoneonist Vicente Greco the one who some time later would coin the term Orquesta Típica for tango groups-. Canaro would acknowledge much later Greco's influence. In the course of 1908 it was decided that Canaro's career would be in tango. He performed then at cafés in La Boca neighborhood and his name began to be known. Later he joined his friend Greco and with various tours they commenced to find the prosperity they sought after. In 1912 Canaro started his trascendental work as composer with the tangos "Pinta brava" and "Matasanos" (sarcasm for medical doctor). Along his life he piled such number of pieces that even today it is argued about how many were really born out of his inspiration and how many he made his own in exchange for favors or money. But as stated by the expert on the subject Bruno Cespi, «if only 5 per cent of all the songs Canaro signed, were composed by him, that would be enough to regard him as a great».
"Matasanos" was written on request of the medicine students nearing graduation, who on the first day of Spring organized the so called "Bailes del internado". At one of those balls, when hired to play with his line-up gathered for the occasion, he took the conductor's baton for the first time. His orchestra was the first to be admitted into aristocratic houses where tango was resisted. His line-ups did not have a definite musical style. Canaro preferred to adapt himself to every circumstance, always finding the way to keep his space without rivalling other stars of the genre. As for the bulky number of his recordings, there are no coinciding estimations: the figures vary between 3500 and 7000.
In 1924 he conceived the idea of incorporating a singer into the orchestra but only to sing the "estribillo" (bridge), the brief main section of each tango. So he started the "estribillistas" or "chansonniers" era, the first of these was Roberto Díaz. Several years later, Canaro was also pioneer in the introduction of the contrabass into the tango orchestra, choosing the dark colored Leopoldo Thompson for that mission. In 1921, in order to play at the carnival balls at the now disappeared teatro Opera of Buenos Aires, he reunited a 32-piece orchestra, an orchestral mass unknown in tango until then.
In 1925 he traveled to Paris, where tango was the new fashion. Manuel Pizarro and his brothers were there, each one with a different "Pizarro" orchestra, Canaro with his brothers did the same. He had taken with him the "estribillistas" Agustín Irusta and Roberto Fugazot, a duet he gathered with the pianist Lucio Demare. The resultant trio would succeed in Spain and other European countries for more than ten years. In Paris he also introduced a female singer, Teresa Asprella, already settled in France, and when he toured the United States he incorporated Linda Telma.
When he returned to our country after two years of absence, other good orchestras were popular. Skillfully, Canaro commenced a long tour across the country to make himself well known in every place. Afterwards, as soon as broadcasting was becoming in vogue, he took full advantage of it so as to reach the position of the major star on radio. Even though other musicians had improved and developed personal styles, the name Canaro was known by everybody.
Musical theatre was not his creation but all the musicals he produced were successful. He made use of simple scripts as an excuse to introduce his musicals. His vocalists were elegant fellows, and he modified some of his tangos with a "symphonic" treatment, using them as overtures or interludes when played by the orchestra in the pit. He brought forth old tangos, renamed them and changed their names again if lyrics were added to them. So, his symphonic tango "Pájaro azul" came from his previous "Nueve puntos"; "Halcón negro", of 1932, was "La llamada" before, and with lyrics became "Rosa de amor". He also tried to introduce a new beat, the tangón, but it did not work. Also he made an attempt with the milongón.
His only failure was within the film business. He founded Río de la Plata productions, but none of the movies in that label was profitable, so he had to get rid of the company. Some of his successful compositions were "El chamuyo", "El pollito", "Charamusca", "Mano brava", "Nobleza de arrabal", "La tablada", "Destellos", "El opio", "Sentimiento gaucho", "La última copa", "Déjame", "Envidia", "Se dice de mí", "La brisa", "Madreselva" (previously "La polla") and "El Tigre Millán".
In 1956 he published his memoirs with the title "Mis 50 años con el tango" (My 50 years with tango), crowded with hyperboles. A strange illness, Paget's disease, drove him to death. His fortune was apportioned in equal shares between his legal wife, "the French one", on one part, and the daughters born out of the love with the choir girl of one of his musicals, on the other. The city of Montevideo honored him with a name of a street. Until today no cinema, no theater, no street has been named in his honor in Buenos Aires.