Enrique Santos Discépolo

Real name: Discépolo, Enrique Santos
Poet, composer, actor and playwright.
(27 March 1901 - 23 December 1951)
Place of birth:
Buenos Aires Argentina
Sergio Pujol

hilosophy in small coins

Some years before, in his essay Les Assassins de la Mémoire —an acute study on the neo-nazi revisionism in contemporary Europe—, the French writer Pierre Vidal-Naquet transcribed lyrics of “Cambalache”, the seminal tango by Enrique Santos Discépolo. A far-fetched quotation? Maybe a feature of exotism by an intellectual in search of oxygen out of the European culture environment? According to the author´s confession, he was acquainted with Discépolo´s work by way of some Latin American friends. And he decided to include him in a book not at all connected with tango. The image of a cambalache (second-hand shop) as scenery for insolent random, of a confusion of values and desacralization seemed to him most adequate to seal his denouncing text.

That was not the first time which Discépolo´s work aroused interest in the field of thought. The Spaniard Camilo José Cela included him among his preferred popular poets and Ernesto Sábato had no doubt in identifying himself with the pessimistic philosophy of the one who wrote “Qué vachaché”: «True love got drowned in the soup». Several years before these recognitions, the lunfardo (slang) poets Dante Linyera and Carlos de la Púa defined Discépolo as an author with philosophy. Another writer from Buenos Aires, Julián Centeya, when reviewing one of his films, talked of «philosophy in small coins», and at the same time was risking an analogy —undoubtedly exaggerated— between Discépolo and... Charlie Chaplin.

Unlike other popular creators who displayed their talent in an instinctive and somewhat naïve way to be later recognized as future exegetes, Discépolo was always conscious of his contribution. It could also be stated that all his artistic renderings were articulated by common sense, a certain Discepolian air or spirit which people immediately recognizes with affection and admiration as if his work —more than once defined as prophetic— should express the common sense of the Argentines. Discépolo´s singularity keeps on disquieting either in the tango universe or outside it. While most of his contemporaries are today strange to new generations, the man who wrote and composed “Cambalache” persists, is in force. Or to say it with one of his most loved images: he keeps on biting.

Enrique grew up seeing theater guided by his brother Armando, the great playwright of the River Plate grotesque, and soon later he was attracted by popular arts. He arrived at tango after having tried with uneven success, play writing and acting. In 1917, he made his début as an actor, in the company of Roberto Casaux, a comic star of that time, and a year later he wrote together with a friend the play Los Duendes, mistreated by critics. He later improved his level with El Señor Cura (adaptation of a Maupassant´s story), Día Feriado, El Hombre Solo, Páselo Cabo and, especially, El Organito, fierce social painting sketched with his brother in the mid-20s. As an actor, Discépolo evolved from chorus member to a cast name, and his work in Mustafá, would be remembered, among many other renditions.

Although the worlds of tango and theater were not divorced in the Argentina of Yrigoyen and Gardel, Discépolo´s decision to be an author of popular songs was resisted by his elder brother —Armando had been responsible for Enrique´s education after the early death of their parents—, and it cannot be said that things had been easy for the feeble and shy Discepolín. A mild familiar influence (Santo, his father, was a noted Neapolitan musician settled in Buenos Aires) may have been the first evidence towards the combined art of sound organization and lyrics, but the revelation was not immediate. On the contrary, either the anodyne “Bizcochito”, his first composition commissioned by the playwright Saldías, or the remarkable and revulsive “Qué vachaché”, published by Julio Korn in 1926 and premiered at a theater in Montevideo where it was noisily whistled, were a bad start or, at least, that was what people in Buenos Aires, used to appraise Manuel Romero's, Celedonio Flores' and Pascual Contursi's tangos, thought.

The luck of the stubborn author changed in 1928 when, in a revue, the singer Azucena Maizani sang “Esta noche me emborracho”, a tango with Horatian touches (because of Horacio, author of Odes) and with an entirely River Plate subject: an old cabaret woman who was mercilessly treated by time. Days after its début, the lyrics of that tango were heard throughout the country. Argentine musicians on tour of Europe included it in their repertories, and in Alfonso XIII´s Spain, the composition achieved an enormous popularity. That was Discépolo birth in tango. That very year, the actress and singer Tita Merello returned to the previously critized “Qué vachaché” and drove it to the same stature of “Esta noche me emborracho”. Finally, 1928 would be the year of love for an intellectual full of uncertainties. Tania, a Spanish singer of cuplés settled in Buenos Aires, who would turn out to be an adequate interpreter of his tangos, was to accompany Discépolo until the end of his life.

At a time when lyric writing and musical composition were clearly differentiated within the frame of cultural industries, Discépolo wrote lyrics and music, even though the latter was conceived with just two fingers on the piano keyboard, to be later committed to staff sheet by some friend musicians (generally Lalo Scalise). This twofold capacity allowed Discépolo to develop each tango as a perfect unit of lyrics and music. With an extremely sharp sense of rhythm and dramatic progression, with an impeccable melodic sense (Carlos de la Púa defined him as a Philharmonic Tom Thumb), Discépolo managed to make of his short and, most times, violent stories, an authentic River Plate human comedy. He set aside a big portion of the modernist influence which viciated other lyricists (Rubén Darío was the literary hero for hundred of Argentine poets, for many years) and translated to the minor format of song, certain predominant ideas of the age: theatrical grotesque, Croce´s idealism, Pirandellian estrangement...

The profusion of ideas in each lyric found in the witty humor and in the lyricism of music, a certain balance, a sensory compensation, a way to tell things in and through tango. No other author would go so far.

Of course, the fact that Carlos Gardel had recorded almost all his early tangos greatly helped to divulge and legitimate Discépolo as author and composer in a genre plenty of authors and composers. In this sense, Gardel´s rendition of “Yira yira” in October 1930 stands amongst the great numbers of Argentine music. The intensity of the recording, where there were not special theatrical resources and the singer avoided all unnecessary emphasis, is given by the immediacy of Gardel´s expression. There are no instrumental preambles to make the listener familiar with the material beyond a brief introduction by the guitarists who present the bridge with tremolos and phrasings in the low strings so typical of the period. The melodic line, with deceptive simplicity suddenly breaks in, with a force which excludes complaint.

Yira yira” was listened to and interpreted as a claim loaded with skepticism. The ridiculed militant in “Qué vachaché” comes back to assault, but this time he is backed by a profound material crisis. Now the conceited one, who resisted to believe that «true love got drowned in the soup», is taking the place of a cynical voice. The principles have been changed by reality. This is the triumph of disbelief but now without the cynicism —and even less the grotesque— of some years before. The character of “Yira yira” trusted the world but the world failed him. Such as in other Discépolo´s tangos, the lyrics tell us of a fall, a cruel sunrise: there is no more space for deceipt and fraud. (From this perspective, those who saw in Discépolo a moralist disappointed by modernity are not completely mistaken, but perhaps he is much more than that).

The trend that begins with “Qué vachaché” and ripens in “Yira yira” is continued in the tangos “Qué sapa señor” and, in 1935, “Cambalache”. But this is not the only style of the compositional art of Discépolo. He was romantic in the waltz “Sueño de juventud”, mocking in comic tangos such as “Justo el 31” and “Chorra”, expressionist in “Soy un arlequín” and “Quién más quién menos”, passionate in “Confesión” and “Canción desesperada” and somewhat nostalgic and elegiac in “Uno” and “Cafetín de Buenos Aires”, both written together with Mariano Mores. He was not as prolific as Enrique Cadícamo, and a portion of his work lacks in interest. Undoubtedly, Discépolo's musical variety had to do with his interest in theater and cinema. His staging of Wunder Bar and his most known movies —Cuatro Corazones,En la Luz de una Estrella— made known several songs —some almost forgotten— which the director and actor wrote with his programmatic sense.

Enrique Santos Discépolo was born in the neighborhood of Once, Buenos Aires, and died at his downtown apartment which he shared with Tania. His commitment with Peronism, made public through his brief and shocking participation in a controverted radio program, caused a troublesome distance between him and his old friends. Two years after his death, when the political trenches no longer needed him but several of his tangos kept on striking on the collective consciousness, Discépolo was remembered by the writer Nicolás Olivari on a remarkable article. There Olivari asserted that “Yira yira”'s author had been the bolt of Buenos Aires humorism, smeared with grease for anguish. In a way, that was a Discepolian definition.

Sergio A. Pujol is historian and music critic. Among other books, he published Discépolo. Una Biografía Argentina (An Argentine biography) (Emecé, 1997).