Gaby Ubilla

Real name: Ubilla Fernández, Sara Julia Gabriela
Singer, dancer and actress
(11 March 1913 - 16 January 2001)
Place of birth:
Santiago Chile
Ubaldo Tuqui Rodríguez

hen one goes around the tango universe it is nice to discover that in the Pacific Ocean there was once a pearl like Gabriela Ubilla, or Gaby as she was known in the show business milieu. She was an excellent tango singer and, according to what I have read in several Chilean books about music and theater, she was «the most complete artist in Chile». Unfortunately there is no existing biography about her and so we try to write this portrayal.

She was born in Santiago de Chile. She descended from a family of artists. Her father was the tenor singer Miguel Ubilla, a vocalist with great abilities for the zarzuela genre, with a very good voice. Her mother was the actress Palmira Fernández with a long career in theater and silent movies. Her two sisters were connected to show business: Marta was a folk singer with a long career and recognition, and Totó was actress and, with her impersonations, used to appear at night clubs and on the Chilean radio.

The Chilean musicologist Juan Pablo González, to whom I asked information, told me about Gaby: «Gabriela Ubilla, the primer of an important clan of Chilean vedettes, in the early 1920s was presented as a great juvenile tonadillera that sang cuplés and tonadillas as part of the numbers offered by the variety show of the company led by the magician Cav Calvety. Furthermore, she sang songs and tangos by Armando Carrera, and stood out with the song in waltz time “Linda princesita”. In the 1930s Gabriela turned out into an artist of burlesque shows, a destiny for many of the cupletistas of the period. She will be known as a vedette female singer».

Gabrielita was only eight when she started to appear and sing at variety shows as cuplé singer and dancer. At age fifteen she made a tour of the countries in the Pacific area. She worked as comedian in the theater company led by Alejandro Flores and toured throughout her country and abroad between 1927 and 1928. She also sang jazz tunes in Chile towards 1930. She recorded, “La chica de Paris (foxtrot)” and “Don José (foxtrot)” with the Orquesta Victor Chilena, numbers that appear in the virtual page Discoteca Otoñal.

Her debut as tango singer took place in the play Se dobla pero no se rompe along with 14 female dancers, according to an article that appeared in the El Mercurio journal on November 1, 1935. This was written in the publication of : El teatro cómico de los años treinta y las representaciones de Topaze y Juan Verdejo en los escenarios de Chile. She appeared at the Teatro Balmaceda, a well-known venue in Chile that staged university theater plays and, mainly, revue shows.

She came to Argentina and appeared in several programs on Radio Belgrano and Radio La Nación and soon became exclusive artist of those radio stations. In Montevideo she appeared on Radio Carve and gave a recital at the Teatro Artigas on request of the people who wanted to know her and it turned out a boom.

In 1939 she was member of the company Circuitos Carcellé that presented a program of selected variety shows and toured different towns of Spain where her art was soon acclaimed. In different publications of different times we can read: «A wonderful artist!», «The great entertainer of show business», «The art of Gaby Ubilla», «The popular stylist of song Gaby Ubilla», «The South American star of dancing and song», «Gaby Ubilla, renowned for her tangos», «The indisputable South American star».

She had her own undertaking: La Compañía Hispano-Sudamericana de la gran estrella internacional Gaby Ubilla. In 1940 with two of her shows: the musical De Broadway a España and her play ¡Música Maestro! she won the hearts of the demanding Spanish audiences.

Fortunately she recorded several numbers and, especially, it is important that the tango “Nostalgia” with which she received the greatest acclaim in Spain is kept. “Nostalgia”, in fact, is “Nostalgias” in plural. She achieved a personal and heartfelt rendition.

She was a complete artist, crafty, with an excellent handling of her voice, good phrasing and feeling that reached the audience effortlessly. She picked up a good songbook that, not only included tangos but also Chilean tunes, Brazilian music, marchinhas, jazz, foxtrot and shimmies. She sang everything with much confidence.

She made the press critics appreciate the difference between singing and interpreting a song. As female tango singer, due to her personal characteristics, she is within the style of ours. By means of her voice and her body a variety of characters appears: dressed as a man with jacket, tie and hat she was a tough guy, a repentant thief or a trash collector, or a quite feminine woman with a carefully polished image, with makeup, lipstick and varnished nails.

In 1942 she recorded for Columbia records, violet label. Among those numbers we can mention: the tangos “Nostalgias”, “Cómo te quiero”, “Hacelo por la vieja”, “Rumbo a Siberia”, “Qué le importa al mundo”, “El botellero”; the tango-fox “Sueño azul”; marches and marchinhas “Ali Babá”, “Lig, lig, lig, lé”, “El gallinero”; the tonada “El rodeo”. She was accompanied by two different orchestras: the one led by Nicasio Tejada and the one of Sigfredo Ribera.

The Spanish researcher Javier Barreiro found in Madrid Gaby Ubilla’s Songbook (Cancionero) Nº 1, in its index —besides the above— there appear: the tangos: “Curda filosófica”, “No quiero verte llorar”, “Vieja amiga”; the tangón “El porteño”; the cuecas “Los sesenta granaderos” and “Caracolito”; the waltz “Noche de ronda” and the Brazilian songs “Coração camarada”, “Meu amor chorou” and “Vou me emborrachar”.

She appeared in several theaters and venues in Spain: the Teatro de la Zarzuela, the Circo Barcelonés, at the Cómico, the Calderón, the Maravillas, the Fuencarral, the Cervantes and the San Fernando.

In October 1943 at the Teatro Fuencarral her name appeared among great Spanish figures of variety show like Pastora Imperio and Reyes Castizo at the show Luces Españolas. The last information about her appearances in Spain was in January 1946 at the Teatro Cómico in a variety show along with Mary Begoña, Marga and Francis Stela, El Carbonerillo de Jerez and twenty-five more artists.

Listening to Gaby Ubilla is a unique experience. What she sings is something close to you. Her passion for tango is felt. She was a genuine artist that knew how to touch the heart and soul of people. On my mind sound these lines in her voice: «…quiero por los dos mi copa alzar, para olvidar mi obstinación y más la vuelvo a recordar», that immediately come to my lips and make me feel that nostalgia.

Acknowledgements: To Javier Barreiro for providing me with recordings and photographic material, to Carlos Picchio, Josep Pons, to the Library of the National Congress of Chile, to the Newspaper library of the Biblioteca Nacional of Spain, to Juan Pablo González and to Discoteca Otoñal.