Simon Collier

Carlos Gardel, his encounter with tango

wo things mark Carlos Gardel’s childhood and adolescence. One is personal and the other is historical. As for the personal one, he was a naturally-born musician, natural and with instinct, with a very special talent, and blessed with the ideal instrument to express it, his magnificent voice. The historical fact is that he spent his childhood and adolescence in Buenos Aires exactly at the time of the tango splendor.

Born in 1890, and residing in the Argentine capital as an immigrant kid, completely “Argentinized” since 1893, his early years coincided with the appearance of tango as a popular dance and, of course, with the development of the music that accompanied the dance, which soon became one of the richest traditions of the twentieth century. There are testimonies that the young boy, “El Francesito”, later “El Morocho del Abasto” —as his buddies used to call him—, learnt to dance tango and he danced it very well. However, dancing is one thing but music is a different matter. The intimate connection between Gardel and tango was established only years later, and due to several reasons.

Chronologically, as it is known, the origins of tango date back to around 1880, when its dance crystallized, probably, in the outskirts south of the brand-new Capital. The fusion of milonga, mazurka and habanera, the role of the compadritos, the choreographic influences of candombe, the poor and marginal social environment. We can affirm that the 1880s is a fundamental decade, and that in the 1890s (that is to say the years of Carlos Gardel’s childhood in the tenement houses) the beginnings of a musical tradition were outlined, with the composition of the early authentic “tangos”, the appearance of small instrumental groups that played in the dancehalls and the publication of the first sheet-music copies.

While he was in his school days, tango experimented its definitive launching. The key decade was the 1900s. The music groups began to achieve a great local reputation. The bandoneon and the piano were definitively included in the instrumental line. The first “stars” appeared and the first recordings were made. As from 1903 the tango groups played every evening at the cafés of La Boca, an episode admirably evoked in Francisco Canaro’s autobiography.

Very little or really nothing we know of the runs in Buenos Aires of the teen-ager Carlos Gardel, but it would be very unlikely that that he had not heard the musicians of La Boca if we take into account his rising passion for music. If he went to the theater (working as a grip boy) to listen to Titta Ruffo and other giants of operatic song, it is difficult to think he had not visited the cheap cafés of the waterfront to hear Canaro, Greco or Firpo. Their melodies were aired everywhere by the barrel organs. Tango was already breathed in the Buenos Aires atmosphere. Gardel, surely, was totally conscious of this new music. Tango surrounded him.

But not tango-song. For a boy aspiring to be a popular singer another genre offered him a fairly more promising future: folk music. The most dynamic process for the Buenos Aires theater in the first two decades of the twentieth century was the inclusion of folk music into vaudeville. Folk songs had already achieved a warm acclaim in circuses and political committees of the period, especially those of the Partido Autonomista Nacional (frequented by Gardel in his teen years). When Gardel teamed up with the Uruguayan José Razzano to form a duo, in the late 1911, he already had an excellent reputation as folk singer in his neighborhood of El Abasto and, surely in other neighborhoods too.

It is noteworthy that the Columbia Company had summoned him in 1912 for recording a number of songs. In the early 1914 the brand-new Gardel-Razzano duo appeared for the first time on the Buenos Aires stages with a songbook that included only folk songs. For the following ten years Gardel and Razzano would be among the best-paid artists of the Argentine vaudeville. Their success was a sign of a wider cultural trend: folk music which then seemed that was going to become the dominant popular music in Buenos Aires was to be greatly displaced by tango, and quite soon. But that was not so obvious in the 1910s. No prophet guessed that the dazzling Golden Era of tango was already coming.

Tango, then, offered nothing or very little to a successful singer like Gardel. Even though the previous work of Ángel Villoldo and others was very important, a true tradition of tango to be sung had not yet been established. Lyricists and lyrics with complete plots and an appropriate subject matter were needed. There is no shadow of a doubt that the man who made the fundamental contribution to the creation of a tango to be sung was Pascual Contursi. As José Gobello says: the history of tango is mainly divided in two stages: the pre-Contursian period and the post-Contursian period. It was Contursi, in fact, who began to write complete lyrics to accompany certain instrumental tangos already existing.

By the mid-1910s Contursi was living in Montevideo, working as singer-guitarist. From time to time (after 1915) Gardel and Razzano appeared regularly there and met Contursi, surely at some night venue. On some occasion, by January-February 1917, Contursi showed to Gardel the lyric he had written for the tango “Lita” composed by Samuel Castriota, introducing one of the main subjects for the tangos in the future: the forsaken lover. Gardel liked the song and premiered it in Buenos Aires a few months later under the title “Mi noche triste”. Traditionally it was said that the premiere was at the Teatro Esmeralda, one of the venues for the Gardel-Razzano duo. But between January 1917 and April 1918 the duo was not appearing at that theater. According to the chronology carefully established by Miguel Ángel Morena, it seems quite likely that Gardel sang it for the first time at the Teatro Empire, another venue for the duo, during a series of appearances from late July to the beginning of September 1917. We shall never know the exact date, but Gardel must have recorded that song soon later because, by the end of September, the duo left Buenos Aires to make a short tour of Chile. The record was released in January 1918 and was a smash hit. Another clear indication of the popularity of the song is that, by the late 1917, the tango orchestra fronted by Roberto Firpo had recorded an instrumental of “Lita” under the title “Mi noche triste”.

But although the launching of “Mi noche triste” was important as the birth of tango-canción, the triumph of the new genre was not at all immediate. Gardel went on being, essentially, a folk singer. Folk music still was in full vogue in the theater.

The appearances and recordings of the Gardel-Razzano duo meant to Gardel a much more than acceptable income, securing a style of life that was not to greatly change for the rest of his life: happy evenings with his friends at the cafés of Buenos Aires, Sunday excursions to the Hipódromo Argentino (racetrack) of Palermo.

Razzano’s voice did not fit well for tango. The duo’s repertoire had not made fundamental changes. But little by little the folk vein was declining while tango was reaching popular acclaim. It had achieved a new impulse with its boom in Europe and the United States in 1913-14. A process of musical development had already started, evidenced especially with the formation of the classic tango orchestras of the “Guardia Nueva” —a brilliant musical appearance that made inevitable the consolidation of a sung form of tango as an essential complement to the instrumental form. Gardel was gradually adjusting himself to this new cultural reality. It was part of his genius knowing that he had to adapt himself.

At the beginning, the repertory of tangos with lyrics was quite limited. It was absolutely necessary to increase it. As it was expected, Pascual Contursi contributed his share. His “Flor de fango” was the second tango that Gardel recorded (1919) and he added another important issue to the growing tradition, the subject of the poor girl that is doomed in the life of the cabarets, champagne and rich, unscrupulous men. In 1920-21 other important lyricists appeared, among them Celedonio Flores and Francisco García Jiménez. The talented Enrique Delfino, in the meantime, established the formal pattern of tango-canción (two stanzas of sixteen bars, repeated in the sequence A-B-A-B) in his collaboration with the lyricist Samuel Linnig for the unforgettable song “Milonguita”. It is among the recordings of Gardel in 1920. Regarding the primitive quality of the recording it is a real tragedy that Gardel never made a second rendering after the advent of the microphone in 1925.

At the beginning of the 1920s, also, other singers joined tango. Ignacio Corsini, already a well-known leading figure in the Buenos Aires venues, started with “Patotero” in May 1922 at the Teatro Apolo. The following year, at the Teatro Nacional, Azucena Maizani premiered “Padre nuestro”. Gardel was no longer alone. His definitive change of direction towards tango is evidenced in the figures of his recordings. Between 1917 and 1921 Gardel only recorded 17 tangos (of a total of 41 recordings, excluding those he cut with Razzano). In 1922, 20 tangos (among 29 recordings) and in 1923, 33 tangos (among 44 recordings). There is no doubt he was answering a growing demand by the public. Tango had already won the hearts of the porteños.

When he became a tango singer, Gardel was the proper man at the right place and at the right time. When the duo split in 1925 the route was completely open. Gardel was on his way to his definitive destination. The rest is history. We may guess that in 1925 Gardel did not imagine the dimensions of his later fame. He did not know that his encounter with tango would make him a legend. But so it was.