Ricardo García Blaya

Gardel’s invention

t’s curious but I have never written about the subject. I said something about it once as a theory of my own but I never expressed it as a written statement.

I’m talking about a marvelous invention: the song. Not the one corresponding to a certain type or a genre, then song in general, every kind of song.

Before the second decade of the twentieth century, the music numbers with vocal parts had neither melodic order, nor a established duration or a predetermined lyric. They followed a logic closer to the singing of minstrels and troubadours, with improvisations and verses that changed according to the performer.

The venues for music were the theaters where the plays included varied genres, waltzes, polkas and zarzuela pieces, and time later, tangos with speeches and dialogues among the actors. What today we would call a “sketch”. Another vocal expression is found in the coming and going of the payadores (itinerant singers), with their eternal rhymed stories that was the entertainment of old coteries and local stores.

The recording industry generated a revolution in music and in the musical compositions. To such an extent that, for the first time, the human voice was recorded and the singer was able to hear himself. But it had a limitation, discs only contained a short, concise melody from three to four minutes long at the most.

As from “Mi noche triste (Lita)” in 1917, possibly unknowingly, Carlos Gardel revealed that a story may be told in three minutes or less and what is more important —generally omitted because it seems obvious—, he demonstrated that tangos can be sung (Odeon acoustic disc Nº 18010-B).

This way, tango-song was born to stay. Surely, Pascual Contursi, a poet and guitar strummer, in his effort to sing for a living, added lyrics to a music thought by its creator, Samuel Castriota, to be an instrumental, “Lita”.

But it is Gardel who intuitively realized that beyond the recording limits there was an expressive, poetic and lasting universe generated because of that unfavorable eventuality.

This new paradigm is the song such as we know it today. A piece with music and lyrics, always the same ones, and both recognizable, linked by a title, with a short duration, with the capacity to be repeated as such.

Bing Crosby, Maurice Chevallier, Charles Trenet, Jean Sablon, Frank Sinatra and so many great artists ought to have thanked the Magician for this invention. Because it was Gardel, and no other, who believed in those lines by Contursi, decided to sing them, recorded them and filled them with grace and the necessary dramatic character to turn what was ephimeral into something transcendental.

So he showed that it was not necessary the magnitude of an opera or the changing verses and songs of a zarzuela to communicate a tale with a beginning and an ending. Furthermore, it had all the ethic and aesthetic ingredients of a work of art.

El Zorzal (The Thrush) was who also contributed the technique to perform it well. So much so that he started a singing school that even today is valid. And, even though no teacher taught it to him, he devised the yeite, the fundamental feature that had to back that technique, in the specific case of tango. If somebody does not share this point of view, I invite him to listen to the recordings of the payadores Gabino Ezeiza, José Betinotti, Arturo De Nava, or the ones by the “Father of tango”, Ángel Villoldo and the recordings of his contemporaries Alfredo and Flora Gobbi. Yeite and tecnique are absent in all the cases.

My friend Héctor Lucci disagrees with me. He says that the Italian canzonetta is previous to tango and that Enrico Caruso, in 1916, recorded “O Sole mio”, a true song (Victrola acoustic disc Nº 87243, with red label).

As for the first item I agree with him and I state it in my chronicle about the origins of tango. The canzonetta is one of the antecedents of the genre. As for the recording made by Caruso, it was not the triggering of the song format because despite being a popular music the canzonetta remained in the confines of operatic singing. Its lyrics evoked places and emotions but not stories. It is Gardel, only one year later in 1917, and even more after 1920 with his touching rendition of “Milonguita” (Odeon acoustic disc 18028) the one who started the impressive series of recordings of his singing that established the modern and popular concept of song.

Undoubtedly, this made him the best associate of the recording industry because it opened a new market that brought jobs and wealth.

I recall when I was a child in the 60s that I watched Charles Aznavour on television saying that he had learnt to vocalize by listening to Carlos Gardel. It seemed to me that it was an exaggeration or the classic praise, intending to please, of the foreigner that visits Buenos Aires for the first time. We had grown accustomed to underestimate our things that, even though Gardel was involved, I didn’t believe him. Today I infer that it was not so, that he was talking with sincerity.

Thanks to the Morocho and his invention, tango, thought as music exclusively for orchestra in its beginnings, began to change towards tango-song, counting on the complicity of another great intuitive and stubborn innovator, Francisco Canaro, who introduced the refrain singer in his aggregation.

Another important derivation was the appearance of a great number of lyricist and poets, composers of music pieces, of musical comedies and sainetes (one-act farces). This way, the genre was growing strong with the lyrical subject-matter proposed by Celedonio Flores, Alfredo Le Pera, Enrique Santos Discépolo, Francisco García Jiménez, Enrique Cadícamo, Manuel Romero, Mario Battistella and many others that followed them until the arrival of the great Homero Manzi, Cátulo Castillo, José María Contursi and Homero Expósito.

No doubt, for his admirers Carlos Gardel was, is and will be the unsurpassable idol of tango, but also, following this thesis, the one who invented the song in tango, the one who showed the way to do it, the one who launched the song format worldwide and, finally, the one who promoted an industry that offered and is still offering professional work for performers and authors of all the genres.

Without boasting of what is patently obvious and turning to a rhetorical figure, we can conclude with a statement that matches with what is essential and definitive: Gardel is Gardel! There is no other way.