Cuesta abajo Tango
Volver Tango
Jorge Alberto Sabato

Carlos Gardel´s undefeated voice

t happened to me forty years ago in Rojas (province of Buenos Aires), my home town: I was going to the place of a boy, a friend of mine "to do my homework" when a newsboy coming from the station crossed running across the square and was shouting: "Read «Crítica» about Gardel’s death".

It happened to me fifteen years ago in Mayagüez, a small town in the interior of Puerto Rico: I was attending a Symposium on Nuclear Energy, when I heard one of the waiters bringing us coffee humming "Volver". I asked him why and he answered me that he was a Gardel fan and that in Mayagüez everybody was, because there "he had sung for the last time, before going to die in Medellín". Furthermore: he invited me to go to visit the theater where he had sung.
So we went, and not only did he show me the theater but also the hotel, from whose balcony, at midnight, Gardel sang for the public gathered at the square.

What was most amazing is that the waiter was only 25 years old but he "knew everything because my father, that was on that evening at the square, told me about it". And a final detail: the local radio in Mayagüez, in 1960 daily broadcast an hour program with Gardel’s recordings.

This happened to me nine years ago, at a cinema theater on 42nd Street in New York: I entered to see "Cuesta abajo" and I found a theater full of Spanish-spoken people (Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Dominicans, Colombians, Spaniards, Peruvians, Mexicans and even Argentines) who, as if they were in a church, attentively followed the movements of El Morocho on the screen and they were shaken when they heard his tangos.

It happened to me only five weeks ago in Caracas (Venezuela): one of the important morning papers published, on the first page of the second section, in two columns and with photographs, a detailed chronicle of what had been the successful debut of Gardel at that city, an episode that had taken place several decades before and which was described with the enthusiasm of something that was still alive.

Of course, they are four unimportant episodes, but they are also four significant expressions of a myth that does not die. Surely many people can tell us similar stories, because we already know that Gardel is a daily presence, something that is part of the natural order of things. But, why in Buenos Aires and at Chivilcoy, in Tucumán and in Bariloche, in Quito and at La Habana, in Medellín and in Santiago de Chile, at Lima and in Los Angeles? And above all, why still, when only we have blurred copies of those so elementary films and records taken from jaded matrixes that were never technically good not even at the time of their birth?

I am not qualifying to explain an enigma so complex, that has summoned essayists and anthropologists, historians and sociologists, poets and prose writers, connoisseurs and charlatans. From the point of view of an old Gardelian devotion I only want to bring to this discussion a couple of guesses and also to assert a certain conviction.

I guess, first, that his success in the rest of Latin America, then and now, has much to do with the fact that Gardel was the first Latin American that conquered the world, thanks to those three magic inventions -the wireless radio, the Victrola and the movies "sound, talkies and musicals"- which carried him to all latitudes.

I soon guess that his success among us, then and now, is connected to the fact that he is the Man of Buenos Aires, then the citizen of our city searching for his authentic self, inevitably finds Gardel, the central protagonist of tango, that is the most authentic popular expression of the loneliness of the man of the city.

After these guesses, the certainty, that of course is a triviality, although forgotten by many in their wise sociopolitical-economic analyses: that his success, here, there and everywhere, is mainly based in his voice. And I am not talking of his strictly musical characteristics, a condition necessary but not sufficient, but of the way in which Gardel handles an instrument so admirable. As he is the one who brought a voice to tango, he is one of its most legitimate parents, and then he really recreates it, at a level many times superior to the one of those who wrote the lyrics and the music.

This is evidenced very clearly, not in the great tangos -they do not need a counsel for the defense-, but in those whose flashiness and vulgarity would hopelessly condemn them to the most definitive oblivion had it not been for Gardel that, hypnotizing his audience, made them believe they are good when they strictly are not more than trash.

The examples abound, but here we have two that Gardel admirably interprets even though they are awful:

Arrésteme, sargento
y póngame cadenas,
si soy un delincuente
que me perdone Dios.

(Arrest me, sargeant and fasten me with chains,
if I am a delinquent may God forgive me.)


Cómo tose la obrerita,
por las noches tose y sufre
por el cruel presentimiento.

(How badly the little girl worker coughs all night long
and suffers because of a cruel premonition.)

In the strictest sense, tangos such as these only exist when Gardel sings them.

Because of that, before such mastery, Enrico Caruso, who knew something about this issue, told him once: "You have a tear in your throat".

It is that voice, that undefeated voice, which legitimately nourishes his everlasting triumph.

Published in La Opinión, Buenos Aires, June 24,1975.