Julián Centeya

Real name: Vergiati, Amleto Enrique
Nicknames: Julián Centeya y Enrique Alvarado
Poet and lyricist
(15 October 1910 - 26 July 1974)
Place of birth:
Borgataro (Parma) Italy
Nicolás Foti

hen my friend García Blaya suggested that I write Julián Centeya´s biography for the Todo Tango web page, I was struck by a double sensation: anguish and happiness.

It was happiness because it meant to recover a great figure from an undeserved oblivion, he was a great individual, for whom I feel a deep admiration and respect, and he is, undoubtedly, one of those responsible for my vocation and fanaticism towards tango. It was anguish because of its importance and the poor information that, unfortunately, we can find about it. And furthermore because I think that a biographical portrait must be written with accurate objectivity and passionlessly. Something that does not occur in this case and I apologize in advance for that.

In my opinion Centeya is one of those «rare birds» that only appear in what is known as their natural habitat: Buenos Aires. Like Carlos de la Púa, Celedonio Flores, Aníbal Troilo, Enrique Cadícamo, Homero Manzi and some few more others, including Discépolo.

In the first decade of the twentieth century his father, Don Carlos Vergiati, was a journalist in the "Avanti" newspaper, which was edited in Borgataro, province of Parma (Italy). With anarchist ideas and activities, he was forced to run from the fascist regime so he moved with his family to Genoa. That family was composed by his wife Amalia, two girls, little Amleto and a small dog called Cri-Cri. Julián remembers them in the stanzas of “Mi viejo”, a piercing story narrating the parental decision of leaving Italy on April 14, 1912.

Vino en el Comte Rosso: fue un espiro
tres hijos, la mujer a más un perro
Como un tungo tenaz la fue de tiro
todo se lo aguantó: ¡hasta el destierro!

Little Amleto was only a little over one year old, but his memory of that «escape» always remained alive. As fresh as the memory of his father who settled in San Francisco (province of Córdoba), where don Carlos worked as carpenter since his lack of knowledge of the language did not allow him to work in his profession of journalist.

In September 1923 they moved to Buenos Aires, they tried various tenement houses until settling in Parque Patricios. Amleto went to elementary school at Colegio Abraham Luppi, in Pompeya neighborhood. He shared his desk at school with Francisco Rabanal, the same one that much later would be Mayor of the city of Buenos Aires.

At the Colegio Nacional Rivadavia (at the corner of Chile and Entre Ríos Streets), he tried to follow his high school studies, but while in the third year he was expelled due to misconduct. Then he enrolled at the «street school» and spent a time living near Chiclana and Boedo Streets.

Since then, another story begins; the one of his condition of inhabitant of his affections and disappointments: BOEDO.

He becomes an essential parishioner of those sidewalks and those gone-by paving stones. Like his brothers-in-love, Homero, Cátulo, Cesar Tiempo and other greats like him were as well.- That Boedo that for Julian does not start on Rivadavia Avenue as the municipal maps indicate; but on Independencia Ave., it crosses San Juan and ends at Puente Alsina after crossing Chiclana.- That was his true «Appian Way» which finally modeled his incipient condition of Buenos Aires (porteño) inhabitant «but of Boedo».

That he was not born in Boedo little or nothing matters; Julian lived («breathing» tense of the verb to live) in Boedo and the adventure of walking the landscapes, that Homero Manzi gave us back in “Sur”, was his. And so, he created rhymes for his beloved neighborhood, that one with the wide shared sky that one day would become a song:

Enumero una ordenación de esquinas contra el cielo,
desando lonjas de calles con memorias,
me instalo en patios familiares, íntimos,
procuro una sucesión de horas,
me detengo en una desangrada tarde,
de antiguas imágenes me renuevo,
reconstruyo albas,
fijo noches habitadas de árboles en silencio,
de retazos de lunas caminadoras,
de almacenes brumosos como puertos
y un viento sin donde me pone entre las manos
la voz gemidora
de una guitarra goteándome un tiempo
de ochavas y de hembras
Entonces me nace el compadre de adentro
y bato esta sed que me crece de carne
pa' ver si se enteran que yo soy de Boedo.

Later he walked through a thousand familiar places, but his heart («cuore») always beat faster in the neighborhood of his adventures and misfortunes, of cockpits and other gambling dens, and where Celina belonged, the blonde he loved so much.

For Amleto, the little Italian that in 1912, when he was not yet two years old, arrived on board the Comte Rosso, coming to Boedo was equivalent to seeing the lights for the first time. And it is the environment of that city, within the great city, where he devises his first milonga and where he adopted for himself the name of the character who, according to many, would make him immortal: “Julián Centeya”, with music by José Canet (1938).

Me llamo Julián Centeya
por más datos soy cantor
nací en la vieja Pompeya
tuve un amor con Mireya
me llamo Julián Centeya
su seguro servidor.

And then the myth is born, the adoption of that striking nickname that is the death certificate of the Italian Amleto Enrique Vergiati.

That «love enticement that passes by Corrientes and Esmeralda» (how nice the wind on her blouse, how nice her colored lips) made him a downtown frequenter. But he was only a passenger of the bad lights downtown which did not succeed in misleading him... or did they..?

His stubborn inclination to bohemian life destroyed his marriage with Elena Gorizia Vattuone, and was the female singer Nelly Omar´s sister.

El recuerdo de la enfermería de Jaime (Memory of St. James Infirmary) was his first poetic work (1941), written under his other pseudonym: Enrique Alvarado. On this he includes the number “Sigo pensando en vos, negro” dedicated to Louis Armstrong, which later was recorded using the sound of the wonderful trumpet of Satchmo, to whom was dedicated the poem, as background for his voice.

In La musa mistonga (1964) he includes some stanzas that are a vivid portrait of himself:

Yo canto en lunfa mi tristeza de hombre
ando la vida con mi musa rante
ella es asi de maleva y yo atorrante
camina a mi costado y tiene un nombre
nació conmigo en Boedo y Chiclana
y se hizo mansa a juego de palmera
nunca una bronca, siempre cadenera
vivo con ella muy a lo banana.

His command of lunfardo, either when writing or when speaking, allows a comparison without any disadvantage with Celedonio, Carlos de la Púa, Daniel Giribaldi and others.

In 1969 he publishes his book La musa del barro, that includes his poems as homage to Aníbal Troilo, to Juan Bertana and to Barquina, that other fantastic character that together with «Old» Pepe Razzano never missed an evening rendezvous (from “A Homero” by Cátulo Castillo).

He recorded for RCA-Victor those poems and some others dedicated to Arolas, Celedonio, Discépolo and other greats and also includes “Atorro” in which he tells us about his gray loneliness, his sadness and the absence of his own self. In my opinion this is his best work. The prologue to the book, written by César Tiempo, is undoubtedly the most eloquent biography of Julián.

Due to its length it is beyond the scope of this work, but I emphatically recommend its reading. The final paragraph is the following:

«Saint Julián Centeya, all the bottles you threw into the sea, all the carrier pigeons you threw into darkness, all the voices that you raised in the desert, all the vulgar words with which you embellished the sacred things, the vulgar things, all, all them shall reach their destiny. May God hear us!».

As it inevitably had to be, he worked as author, on tango themes; his most well-known numbers are “Claudinette” with Enrique Delfino, “La vi llegar” and “Lluvia de abril” with Enrique Francini, “Lison” with Ranieri, “Más allá de mi rencor” with Lucio Demare, “Julián Centeya” with José Canet and “Felicita” with Hugo del Carril.

In his only novel, El vaciadero (1971), he portrayed the crude reality of the outcast, of the «quemeros», a living wound that still persists. He is coherent with his existential philosophy when he says «To write you need to have an experience in life; otherwise we are cradled in a literary pretentiousness».

Horacio Ferrer, besides the biographical data already mentioned, places him «within the stream of writers of Boedo in 1925, that transmuted the "sermo afanaris" of lunfardo into literature with a schooled dimension and he is, together with Cátulo Castillo, Juan Carlos La Madrid and Juan B. Devoto, the most far-reaching figure among his contemporaries».

Ferrer transcribes paragraphs that Centeya included in the prologue to La musa mistonga:

«Lunfardo expressions brought to me by the streets, neither read on tango lyrics nor memorized from one-act farce (sainete), escaped from prison cells, cozy apartments and tenement houses, delayed at barrooms, or at a friendly stay at a café...» and he continues stating that Julián «more than a connoisseur he is an expert, more than an inhabitant he is the body and soul of Buenos Aires».

He also tells us about his radio adventures on nearly all the Buenos Aires broadcastings, especially on Radio Colonia (with his program: En una esquina cualquiera) and on Radio Argentina (Desde una esquina sin tiempo) and also his articles for the Crítica, Noticias Gráficas and El Mundo newspapers and the Sábado and Prohibido weekly papers.

He passed away on a night we were not alert, on July 26, 1974... with a bitter smile but sweet at the same time, and to accurately portray it there is nothing better than his words to the doctor who helped him in his final days, holding his hand he told him: «Doc, to you whom I appreciate so much I give you the sad privilege of being the last one who held my hand, thank you and I am sorry.» and closed his eyes for good, surely thinking si me voy piola / en el finirla está la salvada / llevo conmigo mi alma cansada / que hace diez siglos / no quiere lola. («If I easily leave/ in the end of the story is my salvation/ I carry with me my tired soul/ that ten centuries before/ threw in the towel»).

He's gone but... did he leave us? Or are only his bones, his anguish and his wrinkles gone?...