Héctor Lorenzo Lucci

The phonograph in Buenos Aires and the early discs with criollo numbers

n Buenos Aires the news about the new invention were not unnoticed. It was said that it was a mechanism designed to perpetuate the human voice by recording the sounds onto a tinfoil sheet that, placed in a certain device, would play the sounds that had been engraved onto it at any time and with exactitude.

In 1878 the invention was presented in our city: «Everybody has to come to see such a show which consists in playing the human voice by means of a wonderful device. Admission fee: 20 pesos». The exhibition was where now is 347 Florida Street.

The devices with the Edison trademark only arrived in 1891 but they were only two. And two years later an important quantity for that epoch arrived. And also 400 cylinders to offer a varied program came. The prodigious invention allowed us to hear music excerpts and speeches of renowned singers and notable orators.

Firstly, it was exploited as a means of exhibition in the Capital and in the provinces. Eight people for one peso, each one for half an hour of program. But there were also people who bought the apparatus and cylinders for their personal entertainment.

After this a chase after the singers existing in our milieu began in order to engrave their voices onto the cylinders meant for playing. (see note “The phonograph and the gramophone”) In the United States, Berliner, before his enterprise disappeared in 1900, had recorded what would be the first Argentine number, the National Anthem by the Italian tenor Arturo Adamini accompanied on piano (disc Berliner-Gramophone year 1897). As from that year the gram-o-fone discs and the machines to play them were introduced. An ad in the Caras y Caretas magazine was published: «It is a very simple apparatus that plays the sounds with a natural voice and amazing volume».

Recordings are cut in a large number of cities in Europa and discs like: “Parlando con Tommaso Salvini” (Milano), “Canto de la verbena de la paloma” (Madrid), pieces by the “Paris Republican Band”, etc. are released

It is worthwhile to mention the publicity confrontation between two of the shops in charge of the sales. The house M. Repetto y Cía. (Cangallo 679) advertised them as «The most modern models that allow to speak and sing so loud and so clearly as the human voice. It can be heard at a 300 meter distance». While the Casa Cassels made reference to the 3000 discs received that were recorded in Milano with accompaniment by orchestra.

On July 24, 1902 the Casa Repetto got the Royal Record trademark with a fleur-de-lis as logotype. A few days later the “Discos Criollos” were announced. They were cut in Buenos Aires for Gram-o-fono or Zon-o-fono. But it was only the matrix which was sent to Europe to make the master and then a test copy was sent back to Buenos Aires for its approval. Only after that the order was made. It was not so simple.

The “criollos” were known in 1905. On the disc label Royal Record was written and between both words the fleur-de-lis logotype was included. An advertisement was: «“La carcajada del Negro Juan” by Navas arrived». And added: «One hundred discs sold on one day». Other discs offered were folk songs accompanied on guitar and performed by Arturo de Nava, his true name was Arturo Navas Sosa, son of the payador (itinerant singer) Juan De Nava. Both were Uruguayan.

His father had contended with Gabino Ezeiza who defeated him in Montevideo. Juan was author of numerous poems that his son committed to record. Among them was “El carretero” which later Gardel recorded (the sheet music attributes it to Arturo). We are talking about just one number but if only one record collector has about 200 discs of the singer, then we guess that in his lifetime he must have recorded twice that figure. And among the pieces he recorded for the first time we have the lines musicalized and sung by Alcides de María, Elías Regules and others, some of them are: “La tapera”, “Amor de madre”, “El usurero Paredes”, “Décimas”, “La Ñatita” and parts of plays like “Ensalada criolla” (by Enrique Buttaro and Eduardo García Lalanne) and “Los amores de Giacumina”.

Another voice that succeeded in recording was the one of Alfredo Munilla (do not mistake for Diego Munilla. There was found no familiar link between them). Firstly he cut 20 numbers for Zon-o-phone and years later he recorded recitations and songs teaming up as duo or trio for Columbia. Another one was Eugenio Gerardo López who recorded hundreds of records as soloist, in duos and trios. The most famous ones were historical scenes, imitation of political speeches, etc. And he was the first in recording, for the Edison label, commercial publicity: “El gaucho y el fonógrafo”.

There were names about whom we know nothing, such as Andrés Boga, Arnaldo Gómez, Amalia Colón or Eloísa Ceballos. We have also to mention José María Rizzuti (father of the tango pianist and composer) who was the conductor of the Police Band that recorded a dozen tracks.

Years later these numbers became rarities because tango pieces were now released. We must mention the Spaniard Francisco Payá (1879-1929). He published a fantasia of his own: “Ojos criollos”, along with mazurkas, polkas, waltzes, etc. He was not well-known and his discs are impossible to be found. His voice was never heard. But the large number of pieces he composed were indeed known.

There is no information about what happened with the Casa Repetto, whether they temporarily stopped working or ceased their activity around 1905. The following year 340 matrices-discs with the voices of payadores, duos and soloists were released as “Zonófono”. Payadores: José M. Madariaga, Gabino Ezeiza, Higinio Cazón. Duos: Lola Contreras and Ángel Villoldo, Lola García and Villoldo. Soloists: Villoldo himself (also under the sobriquet Gregorio Giménez), María Antonieta Garay, Rogelio Juárez, Arturo De Nava, Andrée Vivianne, Francisco Carbonel. Piano solo by Vicente Abad. Nearly all the tracks were played by Villoldo, as soloist or teaming up as duo with Arturo De Nava.

From then on, due to commercial and legal reasons, there were disassociations and new societies which would explain why Zonophone records disappeared from the Argentine market with criollo numbers. A new stage was beginning, at least, until the electric recordings began.

Director’s Note:
Our contributor Enrique Binda made two comments about this chronicle:

«As for the Royal Record discs that actually were the first ones that either were recorded in Buenos Aires or included local or "criollo" repertoire, the author suggests that even if they were cut in 1902 they were only released for sale in 1905. It was not so because they were released in 1902. As evidence of this there is an advertisement published in Caras y Caretas Nº 203 of 23/08/1902, which, among other data, indicates that they are «the first ones sold in Bs As». And, precisely, the ad mentioned by Lucci giving notice of the arrival of the Nº 11247 with "La carcajada del negro Juan" which sold a hundred copies in one day belongs to Caras y Caretas Nº 211 of 18/10/1902. Because of that we must not mistake these records, that even though they were Zonofono, were commercialized under the Royal Record label, for the genuine Zonofono with a new repertoire recorded later in 1905.

«The other mistake is to deny a kinship between the singers Diego and Alfredo Munilla. Although they almost generally recorded singly, the Victor catalogue details takes made in 1912 by the "Hermanos Munilla". To clear out doubts there is one number that has Alfredo as composer and there are three other pieces that were written by Diego.»