Julio Ardiles Gray

Castillo - Cátulo Castillo tells us about his life

hen my father was 20 years old he stole my mother and married her. He took her out of the surroundings of La Plata where my grandfather had a job as a horse keeper in a stable. It was in the early 1905.

«They went to Buenos Aires to live in a small house located on 947 Castro Street. I was born on August 6, 1906 at five pm. It was an awful rainy day and terribly cold. My father had a job in the courts and a friend of his named Edmundo Montagne, also a poet, told him: «Pepe, your son Cátulo is just born». That friend had already in mind my name. My father hurried home, took me from my mother’s side, removed my diapers, went out to the backyard, placed me in the rain and exclaimed: «Son, may the Heaven waters bless you!».

«Because of so much lyricism and anarchist rituals, I caught a pneumonia that placed me for three or four months at the verge of death. Two days later, accompanied by his friends, he went to the Registry to file my name in the record. «What name are you going to give to the child?» —asked the clerk—. «Descanso Dominical (Sunday Rest) González Castillo» —said my father—. The clerk said no, then my father was furious and they nearly ended up in a fist fight. Fortunately the guys that were with him advised him to be reasonable and my named then was Ovidio Cátulo Castillo. That idea was because a law had been recently passed and it prohibited working on Sundays. An old cherished desire of the freedom lovers.

«In 1910 his ideas made him to be exiled in Chile. With all his family he relocated in Valparaíso. For several years I spent my time looking at the Pacific Ocean. When his sainete (one-act farce) La serenata was premiered in Buenos Aires at the Teatro Nacional the danger was over and we returned. We moved to 3957 San Juan Avenue. It was 1918.

«With the plays I wrote and were premiered our household level improved. We moved several times until we had our own house. It was on 1060 Boedo Street. That street, later a neighborhood, was a strange republic with which my father had much to do. There, an old Italian musician, Juan Cianciarulo, taught me the principles of violin playing and thereafter I attended the Conservatorio Bonaerense.

«Quite soon I began to compose and also to write and then I was deeply influenced by Rubén Darío. My father taught me very much, thanks to him I had a thorough training. It’s a paradox: my father that adored the classics was a great author of lunfardo sainetes. Everything he knew was turned into a porteña expression.

«In one of his trips to Buenos Aires, one day I arrived home and I find Rubén Darío there. My father had invited him to lunch. I saw him as if he were a sort of giant, with long hair, somewhat curly and always in a mess. He had features like a Chinese and used to smoke endless cigars whose ashes fell on his lapels. He was correspondent for the La Nación paper in Europe. That day my father bought champagne and he stirred it with a cigar that he later lit. Then he switched between drinking from the glass and sucking his cigar. His voice was bass and when he spoke he used to include French words.

«Days after his visit I wrote: «The princess sleeps and dreams/ on her bed of roses./ Her Highness sweet head/ peacefully rests». My father read it and said: «Did you write it? It sounds like Darío». He and Carriego were the influences of my childhood. I met Carriego only once, he was bringing a book. I realized that he wore Mey neck and cuffs, the cheapest ones. They were made of cardboard, with a front that hid the lack of shirt. At that time artists and poets were very poor.

«My house was also a reunion place for payadores (itinerant singers). All of them visited us. I remember José Betinotti, skinny, sort of fair haired, with an incipient bald head. It seemed to me, maybe because of my age, that he was boastful, he behaved in an obvious way. He used to come to my place with his writings so that my father would approve them or correct them. Another one was Luis Acosta García who suggested me accompanying him on piano or violin, which by then I was playing fairly well, on his tours appearing on squares and theaters. It only happened a few times, I on piano, Gerónimo Sureda on bandoneon and a boy named Furloni.

«In Boedo my father founded the popular university, In it he taught English, which he scarcely knew, but anyway he did it. He was also founder and master of ceremonies of the Pacha Camac coterie, which began on the top floors of a tearoom named Biarritz. From there important actors sprang up, theater people, sculptors like Riganelli. Personnel of the Crítica newspaper, where he had worked, used to come. He was at the beginning of the Boedo group, opponent to the Florida group. Both were quite similar but the latter had less radical ideas. The group was born in the Munner bookstore, on Boedo 833. Munner was a restless German who gathered his boys at the back room of his shop. Then the street which was not a neighborhood yet began to have a cultural life of its own that spread to the neighboring areas. Its best period was in the twenties and the thirties.

«In 1928 I had already reached a name as a musician, I had led my small groups and had composed the music of a tango with lyrics written by my father, which he had entitled “Organito de la tarde”. «You’re going to enrol in a contest held at the Casa Max Glücksmman», he told me. The contestants were the greats of that time. The subject matter of my tango was strongly Carriegan. So I started in show business with a complaint of those already consecrated. The leading voice was Juan de Dios Filiberto’s who, rather impassioned, appeared before my father: «You’re spoiling that kid of yours because he’s about to contest with me in the finals. And if he beats me, Mr. Castillo, you’d better know that I’ve been raised killing cops». My father stood up and boastfully told him: «You’d better know that I was raised killing sergeants. I allowed them to stab me twice and then I kicked their ass for good». So I met Filiberto and so I got the third prize at the contest.

«The following year my father was theater director at the Teatro San Martín. The cast included Azucena Maizani that sang our tango to great acclaim and was widely broadcast. But I was not there because in 1928 I had traveled to Europe and in France I met Gardel whom I had acquainted before at the Glücksmman house. He admired Tita Ruffo and other Italian singers. He joined the claque at the Teatro Coliseo just to listen to the great artists, the way they emitted their voices with a full sound without hesitation or trembling and other techniques, and later he practiced at home. With the passing of time he recorded eight numbers of mine: “Organito de la tarde”, “Acuarelita de arrabal”, “Aquella cantina de la ribera”, “Caminito del taller”, “Corazón de papel”, “Juguete de placer”, “La violeta” and “Silbando”.

«On my comeback from Europe, in the thirties, I was admitted as professor in the Conservatorio Municipal de Música, despite the disdain by other professors and the director Enrique Fantoni himself. «How can a tango man dare to teach music reading!». In 1933 the school was intervened, Luis V. Ochoa was placed in the position of director and he commissioned me as teacher of pedagogy, history of music and musical acoustics. Thereafter I applied for higher positions and was appointed secretary, later vice-director and much later, in the 50s, director. With that position I retired. From the 30s to the 40s I studied hard: from Gregorian chant to the German Romantic composers.

«Now I want to talk about a friendship which was born nearly in our teen years and lasted until his death. It was the one I had with Homero Manzi. I came to know him when he still wore short pants. I lived on Loria 1449 and he, round the corner, on Garay 3259. He used to pass by my door whistling. I was 17 and he was one year younger. When he knew I was the songwriter of “Organito de la tarde” he approached me and told me: «Hey, Cátulo, I have a little lyrics. D’you know?, it’s entitled “El ciego del violín”. Won’t you like to write a music to it?». I said yes, that I wanted to see the lyrics. It was very good. We dedicated the tango to old Carriego and, finally, it was entitled “Viejo ciego”. With this number Manzi began as songwriter.

«Later I introduced him to a bald man who used to come home: «This is a boy that composes very well —I told him—, you two can achieve great things». The boy was Sebastián Piana. He was son of a barber who played guitar very well. The barbershop was on Castro Barros a half block from Rivadavia, where today the Boxing Federation is. When the last customer left the doors were closed and music was played at the back room.

«Payadores like Higinio Cazón or Ramón Vieytes, well known at that time, used to come to our place. My father admired him. Once he told me: «You don’t know who this drifter is!». One afternoon he turned up with a dirty look and his trousers torn. «Is Pepe at home?», he asked me. «What Pepe?» —I said. «... Pepe Castillo». I went in and told my father: «Hey, Dad, here’s a drifter looking for you, he wants to see you, but I think he’s a scoundrel. His name is Ramón Vieytes». My father jumped, opened the door and shouted: «Come in, brother! Why are you in this state?». My Dad gave him something to drink, gave him a suit and handed him ten pesos. When he left he told me: «This man has an enormous talent».

«Piana handed a note to Dad on which his father asked him if he was able to save him from the military service. And as he had connections he saved him. By then he was studying with the teacher Ernesto Drangosch. When he sat at the piano he evidenced the kind of musician he was. Then he said: «Mr. Castillo, there is a contest organizad by the Tango cigarette factory. I have a piece of music that I composed. Won’t you like to write the lyrics to it?». «¡Sobre el pucho!» (Right away), answered my father. And that phrase was the definitive title and the start of Sebastián’s career. The three of us were used to write with Manzi. Homero used to say, «don’t forget we are living in the gold age of tango». As if he had foreseen that some day it would be different».

La Opinión Cultural, April 13, 1975.