We have to listen to Gardel on the Victrola
ntil a few days ago the only Argentine memory that my window looking towards the rue de Gentilly brought to me was the sight of some sparrow identical to ours, as gay, as unworried and lazy as those that bathe in our fountains or boiled in the dust of the squares.
Now some friends have brought me a victrola and some Gardel’s records. Soon one understands that you have to listen to Gardel on a victrola, with all the imaginable distortion and loss; his voice then is heard like the people knew it because they were unable to hear him in person, like it was heard in porches and ballrooms in 1924 or 1925. Gardel-Razzano, then: “La cordobesa”, “El sapo y la comadreja”, “De mi tierra”. And also his voice alone, high and full of turns, with the metallic guitars twanging from the deep of the green-and-pink horns: “Mi noche triste”, “La copa del olvido”, “El taita del arrabal”.
To listen to him it even seems necessary a previous ritual, winding up the victrola, fixing the stylus. The Gardel of the electrical pickups coincides with his glory, with the movies, with a fame that demanded on him resignations and betrayals. It is a long time before, in the backyards at the time of drinking mate, in summer nights, in the old non-electric radios or those with the early valves, where he is with his truth, singing the tangos that portray him and place him in our memories.
Young people prefer the Gardel of “El día que me quieras”, the beautiful voice backed by an orchestra that incites him to sound like an opera singer. We that grew up with the friendship of the early records know how much was lost from “Flor de fango” to “Mi Buenos Aires querido”, from “Mi noche triste” to “Sus ojos se cerraron”. A twist of our moral history is reflected in that change like in many other changes.
The Gardel of the twenties contains and expresses the porteño closed up in his small satisfactory world; heartache, betrayal, misery are not yet the weapons to be used by the porteño and the man from the province in his resentment and frustration as from the following decade. A last precarious pureness still preserves the over-sentimentalism akin to boleros and radio soap operas.
Gardel does not cause, when living, the story that has already become evident with his death. He inspires love and admiration, like Legui or Justo Suárez; gives and gets back friendship, without the dark erotic reasons that back the fame of the tropical singers that visit us, or the mere enjoyment of bad taste or the resented manhood that explain the triumph of a guy like Alberto Castillo.
When Gardel sings a tango, his style expresses the feeling of the people who loved him. The pain or the anger when a woman left a man are concrete pain and anger, pointing out to Juana or to Pepa, but not that totally aggressive excuse that is easy to discover in the voice of the hysterical singer of this time, so well in tune with the hysteria of his listeners. The difference of moral tonality which goes from singing «Lejano Buenos Aires, que lindo que has de estar!» like Gardel used to sing it to the wailing «¡Adiós, pampa mía!» by Castillo maybe gives an idea of that change I am talking about. Not only the fine arts reflect the process of a society.
Once more I listen to “Mano a mano” which I prefer to any other tango and to all of Gardel’s recordings. The lyrics, implacable in examining the life of a woman who is a whore, contains in a few stanzas "the sum of her acts" and the infallible presage of the final decline. Leaning on that destiny, that for a time he lived, the singer neither expresses anger nor despise. Mad at his sadness, he reminisces her and sees that she has been just a good woman in his poor life of pariah. Until the end, despite what it seems to be, he will defend the essential honor of her former girlfriend. And he will wish the best for her insisting on his qualification.
Que el bacán que te acamala
tenga pesos duraderos,
que te abrás en las paradas
con cafishos milongueros,
y que digan los muchachos:
"Es una buena mujer".
Maybe I prefer this tango because it rightly shows what Carlos Gardel represents. If his songs touched all the strings of popular sentimentality, from the indelible scorn to the joy of singing for the sake of singing, from the celebration of turf glories to the narration of police events, his everlasting art is exactly inscribed in this almost contemplative tango of a serenity that, we could say, we have lost forever.
If this balance was precarious, and demanded the overflow of low sensuality and sad humor that today is oozing from the loudspeakers and popular records, it is no less true that it was Gardel who marked its most beautiful time, for many of us, definitive and unrecoverable. In his voice of compadre porteño is reflected, like in a sound mirror, an Argentina that is no longer easy to evoke.
I want to leave this page with two stories that I think are pretty and appropriate. The first is intended for -and I hope as an admonition to- the starchy musicologists. In a restaurant of the rue Montmartre, between portion and portion of fried mussels, I happened to talk to Jane Bathori of my love for Gardel. I came to know then that fate had made them meet once on a flight. «And what was Gardel like?», I asked her. Bathori's voice -that voice through which at its time passed the quintessence of Debussy, Fauré and Ravel- answered me touched: «Il était charmant, tout à fait charmant. C'était un plaisir de causer avec lui». And later, sincerely: «Et quelle voix!»
I owe the other anecdote to Alberto Girri, and it seems to me it's the perfect summary of the admiration of our people for their singer. At a cinema theater in the southern neighborhood, where "Cuesta abajo" is shown, a porteño with neckerchief is waiting for the time to enter. An acquaintance of his asks him from the street: «Are you entering the biograph? What are they playing?» And the other one, calmly says: «They show one of El Mudo's...»
This text by Julio Cortázar was published in the magazine Sur nº 223 July/ August 1953.