José Luis Roncallo

Real name: Roncallo, José Luis
Pianist, leader and composer
(5 October 1875 - 11 June 1954)
Place of birth:
Buenos Aires Argentina
Juan Silbido

e was born on October 5, 1875 in the Buenos Aires neighborhood of Monserrat. His father, born in Genoa was a musician; he played piano and contrabass. José Luis was the second and only son of three children. One of his sisters composed and wrote several tangos.

Since an early age he evidenced a musical vocation and played piano, contrabass and harmonium; helping his father, partner of the firm Rinaldi-Roncallo -manufacturers of handle-operated pianos, pianolas and barrel organs. Both tuned the bronze cylinders whose mechanism kept the beat of waltzes, mazurkas and lately, tangos. Such a task demanded a thorough musical knowledge.

Let us add that handle-operated pianos played the background music at the small movie theaters of that time, and were also used at dancehalls, sometimes wrapped up in a mattress that muffled its echoes somewhat shrill. The said cylinders were distributed by José Luis, either in our city as in the interior.

The young Roncallo was godson and disciple of Santo Discépolo, father of Armando and Enrique Santos Discépolo.

José Luis carried put his early stints at zarzuela and sainete theaters. At age 17 he presented his first classical orchestra, and appeared at the Paris and Español hotels, Royal Keller restaurant and Jockey Club tearoom; he also performed at the milieus that played tango music.

At the turn of the century José Luis Roncallo married Ernesta Sarcone and settled for a couple of years on 100 Ensenada Street in the neighborhood of La Floresta. There his daughter Florinda Argentina was born, she was the first of seven children to come.

In 1904 he was hired as orchestrator for a zarzuela cast. That meant a trip to Rosario, a city in which he was based for fifty years. There he committed to music notation the tango “Nueve de julio”, according to the circumstances described below. At a venue, today disappeared, called Varieté Casino a trio comprised of piano, violin and bandoneon led by José Luis Padula was playing. They played by ear, they were unable to read music. On an occasion they premiered the above mentioned Padula’s tango; as it got a wide acclaim he decided to publish it and asked his friend Roncallo to transcribe it and add a counter melody to the first section. The subsequent issues achieved a remarkable diffusion, and “Nueve de julio” became an unforgettable classic.

Some time before he had written the original sheetmusic of “El choclo” because Ángel Villoldo was an intuitive artist, he did not read or write music. Furthermore, he was the one who premiered it on November 3, 1903 at the Restaurant El Americano of Buenos Aires.

Around 1926 Roncallo led, at the Savoy Hotel of Rosario, a classical ensemble lined up by women. They were about ten players. That was one of his last appearances, because in 1929 he was seized by an almost total paralysis; he was able to move only his right hand. Unable to walk but mentally lucid, he spent nearly twenty-five years of his life. His remains were buried at the cemetery of La Piedad in the city of Rosario.

José Luis Roncallo had a thorough musical instruction; he was a truly maestro who always was worried about adding more wisdom to his knowledge. Two of his sons have inherited part of that vocation. One, Eulogio, as drummer accompanied his father in gigs in the interior of the country; José is still a clarinet player in the city of Rosario.

In August 1955 Francisco Canaro dedicated a program on El Mundo radio station as a homage to remember and evoke Roncallo’s personality. He told told stories about him and his orchestra played to illustrate them.

We shall end this biography mentioning some titles of his compositions. Tangos: “El purrete [b]” (1901), “El rosarino” (1904), “La cachiporra”, “El americano”, “La pavada”, “Revista”, “Guido”, “Paradas”, “El porteño”, “Ni fósforos”, “No crea rubio”, “Te pasaste”, “Che, sacámele el molde”, “La cuerda floja” and “Cuá cuá”.

There are three unreleased tangos that his granddaughter Susana Matilde Roncallo, after arranging them and adding lyrics to them, promised to publish.

Published in the book: Evocación del tango, Buenos Aires, 1964.