Evaristo Barrios

Real name: Barrios, Evaristo
Lyricist, poet, guitarist, composer and singer
(1889 - n/d)
Place of birth:
Héctor Ángel Benedetti

he novelties of Buenos Aires as seen by a payador

A challenge between two people by means of singing or playing musical instruments is something as old as man himself. He have information that in ancient Greece cutting or carving contests were held; also in Rome and in the Oriental countries; later, among the troubadours of Provence; as well they existed in the medieval Spain; and centuries later, through the conquistadors, it would reach the American lands, later spreading throughout the continent.

In the regions of the River Plate the art of improvisation and challenging contests acquired an extraordinary importance. The criollo, singer and guitar player, made this habit his own; he enriched and shaped it with special characteristics, including it in his folk music. During the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth century the payadores (itinerant singers) reached their highest peak of popularity but after 1910 their period of decline began. It was noticeable, for example, that a new generation to replace them had not appeared. The payadores were dying (Betinotti in 1915, Nemesio Trejo and Gabino Ezeiza one year later, Curlando in 1917) without leaving direct disciples.

However, by this time a payador was beginning to be known and even though we can regard him as a late one, he would become a strong continuer of tradition. His name was Evaristo Barrios.

Like an old memory, among the mist of a cold-storage plant in Ensenada and the intermingled voices of a socialist committee, this boy, who was then just over twenty, had appeared and already had something to say in his songs. What Barrios liked most was to improvise stanzas, even though he was perfectly aware that the golden age of the payador seemed to be gone. On one side, tango had already conquered either the city or the rural areas of Buenos Aires, occupying the niche that the old payadores were leaving vacant; and on the other side, the audiences were no longer listening to the same music or the poetic styles of yore. Surely Barrios wondered about this many times until he found the answer; and this answer was enlightening: he would devote himself to describe the novelties of Buenos Aires, but in the way a gaucho would tell another gaucho. An influence that was taken from the book Fausto by Estanislao del Campo.

The idea was efficient. Buenos Aires, as a cosmopolitan city, quite big and advanced, offered almost daily some technological innovation —we are talking of a century that was vertiginous in inventions—; but in the rest of the country these novelties might take years before being adopted. While in the capital daily life was transformed with modernity, for small towns and the countryside it was totally uncommon. For example: a moving stairway. In Buenos Aires in the twenties they were something quite common, of daily use; but for a rural worker visiting the capital for the first time, to step on a moving stairway was quite an event.

Barrios focused on this kind of facts; of course he exaggerated them and made them funny. His success was immediate. In the twenties and the thirties he often appeared on radio and also published several books with his gauchesque poems with many pages of this kind; he as well recorded a great number of discs.

Let us see an example of a classic of his, a number entitled “La victrola” (1928). Here he narrates his reaction before a machine capable of playing the enclosed song (recording) on a wound up little ditch (the groove) of a shiny wheel (a disc). Another Barrios’ composition is “El aeroplano”, which was recorded by Virginia Vera. It tells us how a country peasant is completely astonished at the sight of a tin little bird that makes his boss fly. All the peasants are astonished and fearful seeing him among the clouds.

We also have "El comedero amaestrao" (The tamed diner)(1930), which tells us of a fashion in Buenos Aires for automatic bars in which you put a coin in a machine and it gave you meals, drinks, coffee, or ice cream of your choice. This song by Barrios is very funny: to describe a hamburger he says it is a piece of bread biting a hot steak. In "El cine conversador" (The talking movies)(1931) a gaucho goes to the movies and he finds that they are no longer silent, but are sound motion pictures now. He sees the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's lion and gets scared; later he is astonished by all the noise and the dialogues, and when on the screen a country life scene appears he shouts at the actor on the screen starred as an herdsman to give him his own instructions.

Another example: "En el Banco de Bostón" (At the Bank of Boston)(1930), in which he describes one of the most modern buildings of that time. Another: "La rayotelefonía" ("Raytelephony")(sic)(1923 and 1926), in which he says that capturing sounds of the air is a "devilish affair" even though for learned people they are but Hertzian waves.

Barrios was interested in commenting a soccer match, a boxing fight, horse races, a trip on a public bus, Florida Street, a big barbershop, an elevator, the majestic view of Retiro railway station, lunfardo, a political meeting and an operation for appendicitis with all the new advances in medicine, although he insists on saying that he was «operated on his pending sites». In "De Callao a Chacarita" (1931) he tells us about a journey on subway, and in "Pobrecito el Umbelisco" (1938) he describes the emblematic Buenos Aires monument.

He died in Uruguay and he was, as we can see, one of the most outstanding figures of popular music. He developed a personal, entertaining style which was, long ago, delicious fun for our old folks.