José María Otero

e was born in Elba, the Italian Mediterranean island located between Corsica and Tuscany where Napoleon was confined in 1814. Precisely in its capital, Portoferraio, where the Bigeschis Della Serra boasted war and church coat-of-arms and still keep a museum-house, an elegant country house with pictures of their ancestors with noble titles, piccolo (little) Alfredito paradoxically was raised in a proletarian house, round the corner of the palace.

When he was only 12 his parents embarked to America with thin trunks tied with straps and many illusions. They arrived on April 27, 1920. When he was already an adult time and again he longed for those stairs made of paving stones he used to climb with his gang, and lastly, his dream came true when in 1960 the Crítica newspaper sent him to cover the Olympic games in Rome. Once more he smelled the scent of boiled cuttlefish in tin cans near the harbor, he climbed again the old stairs next to his house and recalled his childhood lost in the faraway Mediterranean which he would not haunt again.

His introduction into the New World started on the Isla Maciel alongside immigrants, adventurers, port workers and masons, «la runfla calavera» (the patrons who stayed until the wee small hours of the morning) of El Farol Colorado or the underworld members who boasted their dancing steps at the El Pasatiempo resort. Those were hard brave years, especially for a kid who hardly spoke the language and who suddenly had to face his father’s blindness. Because of that he had to work to get his daily loaf of bread.

Even though he quit school, he never gave up reading until his last days and that helped him to have a command of the language, the Buenos Aires idioms and the precocious discovery of early tango, the sainete and the local habits. When he was an altar boy in Elba, the parish realized his devotion for writing and advised him to read a lot. He followed this suggestion at any cost and it soon allowed him to be a contributor in humble publications and later he got an identification document issued by El Poder de la Isla Maciel as social reporter, becoming then a porteño definitively.

Two years after their arrival his family moved to La Boca (1000 Olavarría Street) and he became a fan of the local soccer team. Time later he would acquaint figures like Cherro, Sarlanga, Valussi or Lazzatti. His beginning as poet is close to Manzi or García Jiménez who walked along the same road: a lyricist of the famous costumed groups of that time in La Boca, the neighborhood where carnival was born. At that festivity of the poor he was polishing his destiny of simple, romantic popular poet.

At age 16 thanks to a Calabrian, friend of his father’s, he met the famous Juan Maglio and contributed some lines to which Pacho added music and so “Tango argentino” was born. It was dedicated to the city mayor José Luis Cantilo and was premiered by Ignacio Corsini in the early 1929. Gardel recorded it on December 11 in that year. Along with Pacho he would write other 7 numbers, among them, “Guarany” and “Siete palabras”.

Gardel invited the authors to travel with him to Rosario and Casilda, and Bigeschi told me that one evening, dining at the Chanta Cuatro, some friends asked Gardel to sing something. When he saw the young lyricist seated at a nearby table he sang “Tango argentino” without accompaniment for the latter’s joy.

In 1933, with the bandoneonist Miguel Bonano, he wrote another hit: “La novena”. It was sung by many artists and Rodolfo Biagi would consecrate it in 1939 with the lines recited by Teófilo Ibáñez. Simultaneously he went on in his occupation as journalist, standing out in La Canción Moderna, El Alma que Canta and directing El Canta Claro for several years until he was succeeded by Alberto Cosentino, the author of “Quemá esas cartas”. Since his first piece “Tenorios de mi barrio” up to the last one “Aquí parado en la esquina” his output is of 260 titles filed in the record and many others unpublished.

He collaborated with musicians like Enrique Rodríguez in “Te quiero ver escopeta”, “Contigo pan y cebolla”, “Viva el carnaval” and “Mi muñequita”. With Eusebio Giorno “Ay Catalina” and “Se va Pirulo”. With Bonano, besides “La novena” (with an impressive recording by Oscar Alonso with Héctor Artola Orchestra and the Fanny Day Choir), he also wrote “La canción de la ribera” and “Tardes porteñas”. He released pieces with the D'Alesandro brothers, Agustín Irusta, Domingo Conte, José Otero, Vicente Salerno, the Donato brothers (Edgardo, Osvaldo and Ascanio), Alberto Soifer, the Servidio brothers, Rafael Rossi, Scolati Almeyda, Graciano Gómez, Juan Martí, Virgilio San Clemente and Abel Olmedo, among others.

Curiously he dedicated a tango to the great rival soccer team: “River Plate” with Francisco Rofrano; “Campeón”, to Boca Juniors his beloved team, AFA champion in 1931. For those pieces he wrote the lyrics and composed the music.

I was his fellow worker for 12 years at the La Razón newspaper, in spite of our difference in age. He approached me warmly and I managed to delve into his oeuvre and his vicissitudes. The evening he married Carmen D'Angelo, a girl born in Buenos Aires to a family of parents from Sorrento, in August 1933 Edgardo Donato premiered his “La novena”. In their house in Barracas, on General Hornos Street, they had two children, Dina —a schoolteacher— and Alfredo —a physician— and also a grandson.

I used to tell him that among his tangos I loved “Que podrán decir”, with a great rendition by Castillo with Tanturi and “Caricias” recorded by Vargas with D'Agostino. The latter would be a hit in New York by the orchestra led by Enrique Méndez with Blas Hernández on vocals. He very much liked Mercedes Simone's rendering. She also recorded his piece “Fotogénico”.

But Bigeschi's labor went far beyond tango. He wrote boleros such as “Nuestro fracaso” which he wrote for Leo Marini. He as well put together the group Tradición Nacional by which he was warmly congratulated on Radio del Pueblo. He also devised a serial with tangos as a theater play under the name Motivos populares which was another boom. From that he jumped to soap operas on radio, with such acclaim that they were simultaneously aired by the broadcastings Belgrano, Municipal and Mitre. In 8 years he filed in the record 36 titles in Argentores. He founded the Radiocine magazine and published the book Motivos populares.

He worked for La Razón until a hemiplegia signaled his time to withdraw. The demise of some friends, the loss of his beloved house in Barracas and, finally, another stroke in Mar del Plata, the city which so much reminded him of his hometown in Elba, was the last and final blow. When he left his house on General Hornos he wrote the waltz “Adiós a la casa vieja” that the singer Pedro Ortiz musicalized and recorded. In it we see the drawing of his style of simple poet, romantic and nostalgic. The style of a 17-year-old immigrant kid to whom Gardel sang the lines: «He won the hearts of all the boys in the gang and one day on the dead end street it became the gang of his heart...»