by Julio Nudler
Poet, lyricist, playwriter and amateur singer.
(November 18, 1888 - May 29, 1932)
e was the creator of the lyric for tango, and with it he turned tango into the sentimental song of Bs. As. He introduced human topics of universal value into it- sadness, melancholy, love disappointments, ambition, decadence and injustice -even though his specific universe was that of whorehouses' life with their pimps and harlots.
In those first decades of the 20th century, the inmigratory flood had brought hundreds of thousands of lonesome men who nourished a huge sex market.
Contursi, then settled in Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, by going beyond the shallow and jolly lyrics used in the early tango, set between 1914 and 1915 the new poetic parameters for the genre which included as peculiarity -in some cases- the narration of a complete plot displayed in a few verses. Such is the case of "De vuelta al bulín", which he wrote in 1914 over the musical notes composed by the pianist Jose Martinez.
Contursi used to add lyrics to instrumental tangos of the period, later known as "La Guardia Vieja".
It is a general opinion that this is the first tango canción (tango-song) although in fact it was not. However, because of its deep subject, its daring metaphors, and the perfect match between lyrics and music it had the virtue of heralding a new era for tango.
It was also meaningful that Gardel recorded it in 1917 and that one year later it turned into the main attraction in a play.
In general, his relation with Gardel was essential to Contursi so he found the ideal interpreter of his compositions.
He was born in Chivilcoy, a country town in the fertile Argentina plains, 170 km west from Buenos Aires, but his family moved to the Capital a few years later, settling in the old humble San Cristobal neighborhood.
In his youth he was interested in artistic life. He wrote poems and sang his own tunes while strumming his guitar. Precisely so, he made "Mi noche triste" to be known, singing it for the first time at the cabaret Moulin Rouge in Montevideo. This place was run by Emilio Matos, the father of Gerardo H. Matos Rodriguez who had composed "La cumparsita".
This piece, with an addition made by the pianist Roberto Firpo, would turn into the most famous of all tangos.
Also Pascual Contursi together with Enrique Pedro Maroni added a lyric to its so the tango "Si supieras" was born in 1924, what made Matos Rodriguez be very angry. The following years he wrote anyway another lyric naming it back with ts original title, which no one else would alter again.
In any case, the Contursi-Maroni´s lyric was the most sung, making the one written by Matos, be almost forgotten, although it had to be said that in those anodyne verses there is little Contursi.
Going back in time, the lyricist handed to Carlos Gardel and José Razzano the tango "Mi noche triste" when they were playing in Montevideo. Gardel sang it at the Urquiza Theatre in the Uruguayan capital, then premiered it in Buenos Aires in the Esmeralda Theatre.
But the success was not immediate, as it usually happens with revolutionary works.
The true success came when in 1918 it was included in "Los dientes del perro", a light play by José González Castillo and Alberto Weisbach, sung by Manolita Poli, a 19 year-old actress whose parents were zarzuela players.
The success of Contursi's tango made him go back to Buenos Aires where he devotes fully to playwriting in collaboration with other succesful writers of that time.
So he gave birth to a series of sainetes and attractive pieces for the public, but which would not last.
Within the plots of the plays he included tangos of his own writing.
Contursi traveled to Europe in 1927 to settle in Spain, and later in France. He would return to Buenos Aires in 1932, a few days before dying in a pathetic comeback with his mental health altered. Gardel was one of those in Paris who assumed the responsibility to bring him home. In that city he had written in 1928 with music by Juan Bautista Deambroggio "Bachicha", one of his most moving tangos: "Bandoneón arrabalero", which shows, maybe as no one else before, the deep emotional relationship between two forsaken ones: a man and a bandoneon.
It is also exceptional "Pobre paica" which in 1914 he conceived for the music of "El Motivo" by the pianist Juan Carlos Cobián. In it, Contursi is moved by the drama of a prostitute abated by age and illness.
A philosopher, critic and sarcastic teller in "Champagne tango" (music by Manuel Aróztegui), "Ivette" (Julio Roca) and "Flor de fango" (Augusto Gentile) all from 1924, Contursi would not always keep that level.
It is maybe worth mentioning, among the rest of his production, the ludicrous "La mina del Ford", from 1924 (with Fidel del Negro and Antonio Scatasso), but above all "Ventanita de arrabal" (with Scatasso), which he wrote in 1927 for his sainete "Caferata" (a slang term coined to name a pimp).