Javier Barreiro

Spanish tango singers

t was 1903 when Miss Blanca del Carmen, that frequented several music genres, for the Gramófono label and under the series number 63221 made the first recording of a tango in Spain, “La bicicleta”, which, as everybody knows, is closer to a cuplé than any other thing. In March the following year, 1904, the great Aragonese baritone singer Marino Aineto recorded an old zarzuela tango, “Entre mi mujer y el negro” which, despite having been premiered a long time since, in 1859, would succeed in having other renditions.

But it was not until 1911 when Linda Thelma appeared that there is evidence of tango sung in Spain. The date coincides with the first period tango was in vogue in Spain and in other European places. Soon thereafter, the cuplé singers enroll in the new fashion and start recording tangos. Among them, Resurrección Quijano, Teresita Maravall (La Zazá), Paquita Escribano, Jesusilla Unamuno and La Goya who would make popular “Maldito tango” composed by the Chilean Osmán Pérez Freire.

Towards the end of the second decade of the twentieth century, tango with vocals was going strong and from that time a large number of cuplé singers would cut recordings throughout their careers. Among them Raquel Meller has to be mentioned especially who, after her arrival in Buenos Aires in 1920, released her famous rendition of “Milonguita” and other three tangos: “Una más”, “Aquel maldito tango”, and “Rosa de fuego”.

Others, among the artists that performed them onstage and committed them to disc, were Ofelia de Aragón, Mercedes Serós, La Goyita, Elvira de Amaya, Inesita Pena, Nena Rubens, Luisita Esteso, Encarnita Marzal, La Bella Dorita and Ramoncita Rovira. The latter premiered the quite famous “Fumando espero” but scarcely made other hits. This tango, in fact, was written for a theater play: the revue La nueva España which was premiered in the early December 1923 at the Victoria theater of Barcelona but it was not successful. «The music produces the same effect of a dead thing that is dug up» wrote Bustillo, the commentarist of La Vanguardia which in its chronicle (12-Nov-1923) thought that it had a scarce background of “tango cañí”. Ramoncita recorded it in 1926 and in the sheet music it appears, precisely, as “tango-cuplé”.

Tania introduced it to Argentina but the one who recorded it was Rosita Quiroga for the Victor label (August 1927) and, soon thereafter, Ignacio Corsini cut it in December that same year. Immediately after there were numerous renderings which have still continued up to now. Among the most renowned we can mention the ones by Argentino Ledesma with Héctor Varela (Columbia) in 1955 and with Di Sarli (Victor) in December 1956; by Libertad Lamarque with Víctor Buchino in 1956, also for the Victor house, and the one by Carlos Dante with Alfredo de Angelis (Odeon) in April 1956.

Extremely well-known was the morbid interpretation by Sara Montiel in the movie “El último cuplé” (Juan de Orduña, 1957). Among many others, there were also renditions by the orchestras led by Alexandre and Eduardo Gadea, the latter in a mambo beat, Carlos Acuña, Imperio Argentina, La Bella Dorita, Corita Viamonte and even there were comic versions like the parody that for many years Mary Santpere staged on the Spanish venues.

The lyrics, published in Argentina by the magazine El alma que canta in February 1928, belongs to Félix Garzo and the cigarette that so warmly tastes its protagonist is, evidently, made of some narcotic. Then the text reaches a complete meaning. Another of the compositions by Juan Viladomat had a direct connection with drugs, at that time quite common among wealthy night-birds: “El tango de la cocaína” is the title song of a short play (“one-act guignol”) by Amichatis, premiered more successfully than the one above at the Teatro Español in Barcelona (October 1926). There were over five-hundred performances and its creator was Lolita Arellano.

In Spain the golden age of vocal tango was after 1923 when Francisco Spaventa made his debut in Madrid at the Teatro de la Comedia on October 11. And, especially, with the appearance of Carlos Gardel who, contrarily to what is generally thought, with Razzano made his debut at the Teatro Apolo only two months after (December 10) Spaventa had made it. The performance was preceded by an important publicity campaign.

Soon thereafter the Argentinians, later as Spaniards, Celia Gámez and Imperio Argentina would contend with the Spanish figures, no longer cuplé singers but especialized in tango, that were then appearing, like Celia Deza or the first of the tango singers born in Spain, Mario Visconti. Most of them would continue singing in the thirties along with the large number of orchestras and singers that arrived from the other side of the Atlantic. Also a widely popular figure appeared: Carmencita Aubert.

Mario Visconti, stage name of Mariano Royo, was born in Zaragoza (1908) and started singing tangos in Barcelona in the late twenties to great popular acclaim. He soon began to make recordings for the Parlophon house and later switched to Odeon. He was heard by Gardel who encouraged him to go on. He toured Europe with different musicians, among them were the guitarist Rafael Iriarte, the pianist Cruz Mateo and the bandleader José Melin. His duos with Carmencita Aubert were very successful and were often committed to record. He also toured Egypt, Turkey and Iran where he was appearing for two years.

When the world war broke out he was in Hamburg appearing with Eduardo Bianco. He moved later to Italy where he recorded several discs with the Canaro orchestra for the Cetra label. In 1943 he returned to Spain again with Bianco. Soon thereafter he put together his own orchestra and signed a contract with Odeon which meant spectacular record sales for that time. Lola Membrives offered him the chance to appear in Buenos Aires where he was hired by Radio El Mundo. He stayed several years in Argentina and appeared in other countries of the southern hemisphere. He came back to Spain in 1948 where he went on singing, especially boleros and tangos. In the fifties his career began to decline and he retired in 1954 but he came back shortly in 1960 to record four tangos. He died in an old people’s home in Barcelona in 2000.

As for Carmencita or Carmelita Aubert (1912), that was the sobriquet of the female singer born in Barcelona, Carmen Recasens Aubert. She was the daughter of a vaudeville actress known as La Guayabita who introduced her to an academy of artists in which she was discovered by the famous Catalonian comic actor Alady. With him she made her debut around 1930 and soon she teamed up with the renowned Mario Visconti in a duo mainly devoted to performing tangos. Along with the Argentine singer Héctor Morel she was starred in Mercedes (José María, Castellví, 1932), a film that included several tangos such as “Abajo los hombres” (José María Castellví, 1935).

In the thirties she was one of the most popular tango singers in Spain and made a large number of recordings for the Odeon label such as “El penado catorce”, “Silencio”, “Danza maligna”, “María Esther”, “Un compadrito fue” and “El pañuelo marcado”. During the war her involvement with the Republican side forced her to continue her career as vedette in Portugal where she would become a first level star.

In the forties there appeared new singers like Roberto Luna, that later would go to Buenos Aires to sing under the name of Roberto Gallardo, or El Gran Kiky, especialized in parodic tangos, and also other melodic singers that frequently included tangos in their songbooks. Among them it is worthwhile to mention Jorge Sepúlveda, García Guirao and Rafael Medina. Meanwhile the dance orchestras, so much in vogue at that time, included tangos sung by vocalists in their appearances.

In the fifties tango would decline but the success of “Fumando espero” sung by Sarita Montiel in the Spanish movie that was a box-office hit for a long time, El último cuplé (Juan de Orduña, 1957), would make her include it in her songbook and also record several tens of tangos. Everybody knows that Sara Montiel had never before sung in the movies but the reluctance of other singers to dub her voice made it necessary for the female artist from La Mancha to make it with the help of maestro Solano. It resulted in an unexpected hit despite the ever sarcastic Raquel Meller had said: «My cuplés cannot be sung with the voice of a drunken night watchman».

Martirio" align="right"/>Other melodic singers, like Lolita Garrido, include them in their appearances and discography. Also Pepe Blanco, who was widely successful in the regional song, used to sing them with a very personal style. Los Cinco Latinos, a melodic group from Argentina, recorded several ones in their so popular recordings.

The sixties were the period of greatest decline for tango. Only Carlos Acuña —the main stronghold of tango singing in Spain for a long time— would continue his supply for nostalgic listeners. In the seventies there was a certain rebirth in Barcelona where the Argentinian Elba Picó recorded. Singer-songwriters coming from the Catalonian nova cançó, like Guillermina Motta and Enric Barbat, recorded tangos in Catalonian with a satirical character while in Madrid Carlos Montero kept the tango flame.

In the eighties Spain is visited by figures like Susana Rinaldi, Nacha Guevara or Rubén Juárez. The latter appeared in Madrid for several seasons. But then there were no Spanish tango singers outside very local milieus. The situation changed with the appearance of the group Malevaje. Its members, headed by Antonio Bartrina, come from rock but are especialized in tangos and have a large following. Soon thereafter figures of popular song like Julio Iglesias and Juan Manuel Serrat, as well as the universally known tenor singer Plácido Domingo, would release recordings with box-office success but not well regarded by the aficionados. In the latter years great flamenco artists like Maite Martín, Martirio, El Cigala and El Cabrero have recorded tango discs. The latter’s releases were highly regarded by the connoisseurs.