Roberto Selles

Don Juan - Story of the tango “Don Juan”

ack in 1898 Ernesto Ponzio, who was known as El Pibe (The Kid), was in fact a kid. He was not yet thirteen years old but he was already walking, violin in hand, playing and asking for money wherever he was able to: on streetcars —because the guards pretended not to see him—, in the taverns or in any dancehall that was at hand.

It was in one of these latter places where his most celebrated tango was born. However, oral tradition offers us two different versions of this birth.

In 1935 Asdrúbal Noble said that one night a pianist, called El Negro Sergio, was improvising some notes on the piano, at Mamita's place (Mamita: nickname of the owner of the local: Concepción Amaya) when Ponzio approached him and asked him: «Won't you go on?». And after the musician's negative, he himself sat down in front of the piano and he continued the melody. «Don Juan was born», Noble used to say.

However, time makes us mix reality with legend. And we no longer know if things happened like Noble told us or as the veteran violinist Francisco Mastrazzi told us more than a decade ago. According to this player, his brother —also a musician and much older than he was—, affirmed that he was present when Ponzio picked those notes, not from a pianist, but from a guitarist.

We can choose the version we find most convincing. In fact Ponzio used an anonymous air for his very popular composition. That same melodic theme was already present in “Qué polvo con tanto viento”, a very old tango by the guitarist Pedro Quijano that had been played since 1890, approximately. Later it would also reappear in the initial bar of Ángel Villoldo's “Soy tremendo”, in the third section of Enrique Saborido's “Felicia”, in the second of Augusto Berto's “El periodista”, in the first one of Prudencio Aragón's “El curioso” and similarly in Arturo Mathon's “El rana”.

And why “Don Juan?” In the first place, let us clarify that Ponzio —as they say— entitled it initially “El panzudo”, as homage to the fat owner of a venue that he used to frequent. The definitive name arose when the author met a certain Juan Cabello, a man of the night of Buenos Aires, the same one alluded by the lyric that Ricardo Podestá wrote:

I live near San Cristóbal
They call me Don Juan Cabello...

Some believe that El Pibe had acquainted Cabello in El Tambito, others prefer to think that the encounter was at Hansen's. In fact the popularity of the tango was, precisely, in the latter place, back in 1900.

In 1912 Alfredo Eusebio Gobbi wrote a new lyric that he recorded for Columbia with the title changed into —“Don Juan (Mozos guapos)”—. And it was even said that a third text —we ignore it— written by Francisco Bianco exists.

It is the first tango committed to record by an orchestra, the one led by Vicente Greco. Also it is played in the first sound movie of the Argentine cinema: Tango, under the musical direction co-led by the composer and Juan Carlos Bazán.

Alberto Gómez, Charlo, Sofía Bozán are three of the interpreters of the initial lyric by Podestá. But, although sung, “Don Juan (El taita del barrio)” has lasted as an instrumental regarded as one of the great classics of the genre.

Renderings of “Don Juan”
Orchestra Alfredo Eusebio Gobbi, sings Alfredo Eusebio Gobbi, 1911
Trio Odeon, 1928
Orchestra Francisco Canaro, 1929
Orchestra Típica Victor, sings Alberto Gómez, 1932
Orchestra Juan D'Arienzo, 1936
Orchestra Roberto Zerrillo, 1937
Orchestra Carlos Di Sarli, 1941
Orchestra Osmar Maderna, 1946
Quartet Juan Cambareri, 1948
Orchestra Juan D'Arienzo, 1948
Orchestra Carlos Demaría, 1950
Orchestra Juan D'Arienzo, 1950
Quartet Roberto Firpo, 1951
Orchestra Carlos Di Sarli, 1951
Quartet Enrique Mora, 1952
Orchestra Aníbal Troilo, 1954
Orchestra Charlo, canta Charlo, 1954
Orchestra Héctor Varela, 1954
Orchestra Carlos Di Sarli, 1955
Orchestra José Basso, 1955
Orchestra Florindo Sassone, 1957
Quintet Pirincho Dir: Francisco Canaro, 1959
Quintet Astor Piazzolla, 1961
Trio Fernando Tell, 1963
Quartet San Telmo, Federico-Grela, 1965
Orchestra Alfredo De Angelis, 1965
Orchestra Florindo Sassone, 1965
Orchestra Aníbal Troilo, 1967
Orchestra Domingo Federico, 1968
Orchestra José Basso, 1970
Conjunto Felipe Antonio, 1971
Conjunto Panchito Cao y sus muchachos de antes, 1975
Quartet Del Centenario, sings Walter Yonsky, 1975
Quartet Rovira-Nichele, 1975
Orchestra Carlos García, 1980
Quinteto Añoranzas, 1981
Cuarteto de la Ochava, 1983
New York Tango Trío, 1995
Orchestra Alberto Di Paulo, 1997
Duo Vat-Macri, 1998
Quinteto «Francisco Canaro» - Dir: Antonio D'Alessandro, 1999
Trío Hombres De Tango, 2001
Trío Tangueros De Ley, 2003
Guitar solo by Fernando Javier González, 2004
Quartet Los Solistas de D'Arienzo, Instrumental
Cuarteto Guardia Vieja, Instrumental
Quartet José Basso «Pepe y su Cuarteto Loco», Instrumental
Quartet Oscar Bozzarelli, Instrumental
Cuarteto Palais de Glace, Instrumental
Las Guitarras de Oro, Instrumental
Orchestra Argentina Victor, Instrumental
Orchestra Del Tango De Buenos Aires Dir: Carlos García
Orchestra Donato Racciatti
Orchestra Lorenzo Barbero
Orchestra Lucio Milena
Orchestra Mario Canaro
Orchestra Miguel Villasboas - Orquesta Típica Montevideo
Orchestra Reynaldo Nichele
Quinteto Juan Polito - Quinteto Buenos Aires
Sextet Norberto Ramos
Piano solo by Juancito Díaz
Piano solo by Osvaldo Tarantino