José Libertella

Real name: Libertella, Giuseppe
Nicknames: José D'Ariño
Bandoneonist, arranger, leader and composer
(9 July 1933 - 8 December 2004)
Place of birth:
Calvera (Potenza) Italy
Miguel Frías

t the resigned hour of comfort we will have to say that an ending according to his life was waiting for him: in an autumnal Paris during one of the many tours of the Sexteto Mayor, a few hours before a concert (which finally was played by his fellow players to pay homage to him), after a sudden heart attack death came without long prologues. He was 71 and for thirty-one years he had been leading the outfit he had put together with Luis Stazo. In Buenos Aires he had just been awarded a prize for his musical career by the Fondo Nacional de las Artes (National Fund for the Arts). He was staging the show Tango Pasión, two words that summarize his fate.

The previous day when he got off the bus at the city he had visited for over two dozen times he did not feel well. There he was happy even though he was worried that in Argentina people would forget him. In April 2003, on the 30th anniversary of the sextet, he confessed: «Even though we’re always on tour, we appear in Buenos Aires as often as possible because we know that there is nothing worse than oblivion. When we appear at the Champs Elysées, after the performance we always go to the same restaurant. When we get in there’s an applause from every corner of the place. But it happens in Paris, if our family don’t see it it’s not the same».

He was born in Calvera, Italy. His father Juan made roof tiles and worked the land. He was the first to emigrate to Argentina. José followed him on June 7, 1934. He was only eleven months old, he traveled in his mother’s arms on the ship Principessa Maria. «My childhood in Villa Lugano was peaceful until I saw a guy playing bandoneon near home. That was magic: I played my uncle’s small accordion a little, but that was a different thing. My first bandoneon was half broken. It had belonged to the Los Viudos, a group that used to play in different towns and as a joke they let the people kick the bandoneon. I bought it for 170 pesos and my Dad paid one part in zinc sheets. I began to study it with several teachers, later polishing my technique with Francisco Requena and with Marcos Madrigal. But one day Humberto Canaro heard me and told me: "Come downtown or else you’ll get stacked among the weeds"».

So he started an extraordinary career not only as bandoneon player but also as orchestra leader, arranger and composer with numbers like “Rapsodia de arrabal”, “París otoñal”, “Universo”, “Bajo romántico”, “Y a pesar de todo” and “Organito arrabalero”, among others.

In 1948, he joined the short lived orchestra led by Alberto Suárez Villanueva. In 1950 he played in the Osmar Maderna Orchestra in which he came to know Luis Stazo. When Maderna died he continued until 1955 in the Orquesta Símbolo conducted by Aquiles Roggero. Later Carlos Di Sarli summoned him and his partners in the bandoneon section were Alfredo Marcucci and Julián Plaza. He was member of the Ángel Vargas’ backup group —when the latter shortly split with D'Agostino—, later he put together his own group that he led and arranged for seven years (1959-1966) and accompanied Miguel Montero. With the latter he cut six long-playing records.

In 1967 he formed the Cuarteto Gloria: Jorge Dragone (piano), Claudio González (violin), Rafael Ferro (double bass) and Pepe(bandoneon) to back up Edmundo Rivero in his tour of Japan. In that country Libertella published eleven records which emphasizes the admiration he has always aroused there. By that time he appeared at a venue on Corrientes Avenue in Patio de Tango. He also played some concerts at the disappeared Teatro Apolo. He succeeded in recording with those players for the Odeon label. Among others, they were Raúl Volinier (piano), Eduardo Walczak (violin), Alberto Celenza (string bass), Adriano Fanelli (cello), Andrés Rivas (viola) and himself as leader.

April 23, 1973 was an important date in his career, the Sexteto Mayor was formed and its premiere was at La Casa de Gardel. He said about it: «At the beginning we thought it would only last fifteen days because, among other things, our violinists had a lot of engagements in other genres, they recorded daily and were exhausted. Fernando Suárez Paz even fell asleep playing his solo on “Otoño porteño”». The tours throughout the country and Latin America began, but the first standing ovation and later acclaim was when in 1981 they appeared in Paris at the opening of the Trottoirs de Buenos Aires. Then among the audience were found Julio Cortázar, Ives Montand and Paloma Picasso, among others.

It was the beginning of the conquest of Europe and the rest of the world. The final consecration with the well-remembered show Tango Argentino soon followed. He said: «We play traditional things and others that are not, but they are very much listenable». In 1992, he created another show: Tango Pasión, which did not stop —for Pepe— until his last day, when he began to realize that he would never be forgotten.

Published in the Clarín newspaper on Decemeber 9, 2004.