In the memory of a friend
can tell you the first time I saw him. It was at a conservative politic committee in Balvanera, located on Anchorena Street, between Celaya and Tucumán Streets. It was run by a famous caudillo, don Constancio Traversa, a man of Benito Villanueva, the latter a well-respected legislator even though he was not a statesman.
That committee was very common in the nineties, with all the features described by José Antonio Saldías, Alberto Vacarezza or Carlos Mauricio Pacheco in their sainetes (one-act farces), with something of that kind of mood that my brother-in-law Samuel Eichelbaum portrayed in Un guapo del 900.
I was not yet thirteen years old and I recall that I used to go to the committee wearing my white school garment. There was a boy, a fat one who was three or four years older than I and was singing with the guitar that the itinerant singer José Betinotti had once played at that committee. The fat boy was Gardel, and I also remember Betinotti: he used to dress in black with a crape tie, he looked like an undertaker.
As a friend, I met Gardel later in 1915. An intellectual and notorious drug addict, the baron Demarchi, financed a company to present theater plays in Brazil, a remarkable theater company, because it included Angelina Pagano, Enrique Muiño, Elías Alippi and, to close the show, the Gardel-Razzano duo. The prompter of the company was a great friend of mine and so I had the pleasure, before they left, of becoming friends with both them. Gardel was warm and unaffected but Razzano was distrustful. Furthermore, Carlos was more intelligent.
Coincidentally the evening paper Crítica appointed me, in 1927, correspondent in Europa, so I had to travel on the same ship with Gardel. We started to recall together the years we spent in El Abasto and the teachers we both had had even though we had attended different schools. But everything was familiar to us: the shop-keepers, the market, the smell of fruit and vegetables, the Ciccarellis, a family of actors that he knew and that were my classroom partners. Or Pepe Arias's father who sold beans and potatoes, but Pepe however said he had been an admiral because it seemed more elegant.
And the caudillos and bullies and Benito Villanueva's bodyguard, who lived in the same area like Carlitos. The latter loved so much that suburban Buenos Aires that he bought the house on Jean Jaurés Street for his mother, so that she could live in the neighborhood that both had much loved and so she could comfortably come back to the place where she had worked as ironer.
Gardel loved that house as much as he loved his friends and, because of that, he bought it five times. When he was on tour he sent the money to buy the house to some friend of his. By return mail he received a letter from his «trustworthy» friend. «I'm sorry, brother, but I had a sure winner and spent the money». The story was repeated four times and always Gardel smiled and paid. At the fifth he found someone really trustworthy and the house was finally bought.
When we were in Paris we behaved like night creatures that got up at noon. Once, around 10 in the morning, Gardel comes and wakes me up. «Get up —he told me— you´ve got to come to have lunch». It appeared to me strange because he was on a diet. «It is because don Jacinto Benavente is waiting for us».
And there we went to have lunch with the Spanish playwright. When the conversation began, Benavente said he had invited us because he was very interested in the language of tango. And he started to recall that of «como con bronca y junando» and other phrases of the sort. We explained to him the meaning and so we became more familiar, and don Jacinto felt like being more talkative, because he was rather discreet.
He nearly told us about the history of the Spanish semantics associated with that lunfardo language of ours that, according to him, had roots in Lope de Vega and in Góngora. He pointed out that our «talking backwards» is what they call jerigonza (jargon). It seems that Benavente had really studied thoroughly the language of the Spanish rogues, especially the prisoners at the Saladero jail, in Madrid. It is true that there are a series of words in common, especially the Andalusian ones. For example: guita, chamuyar or gayola, which is the place where the bull is confined before it is driven to the arena.
«But what I always knew, even before listening to your tangos —he told Gardel— is that descangayar is an old Spanish archaism that means to rob in the street. And see what happened to me in Buenos Aires —added Benavente laughing— I was robbed precisely on Cangallo Street. So that term never surprised me». When we were saying goodbye, Benavente very warmly reiterated to Gardel the idiomatic importance that his songs implied. You might imagine the satisfaction it produced in Carlos. He wasted no chance to tell me full of pride: «Hey, I thought that I was only a singer and now it appears that I am a linguist as well».
Published on the daily paper La Opinión, Buenos Aires, June 24, 1975.