Mano a mano Tango
Yira yira Tango
Pedro Jorge Vera

19. Gardel´s centennial

t is generally accepted that Carlos Gardel was born in France and that his maternal name was Gardés, but Montevideo keeps on contending with Buenos Aires for having been the place decisive in his formation, and my Encyclopedia informs us that he was born in 1903 while the 1984 Petit Larousse affirms that he was born in 1897. I had to turn to my good friend Miguel Unamuno, Argentine ambassador in Quito, so that he would confirm that the year of his birth was 1890 and that, in fact, this year we commemorate his centennial.

Cleared out this item, let us previously say something about the song that conquered the world and of which Gardel became its supreme interpreter.

For its being dogmatic, every absolute definition is unreliable for me, especially in the artistic field, and even more if it has to do with an authentically popular art like tango.

In any case, if we have to define it, I prefer poets rather than treatise writers. Jorge Luis Borges, who restricts himself to call it «that gust, that devil wonder»; Waldo Frank when he states that it is the most profound popular dance in the world; Ezequiel Martínez Estrada, who called it an unparalleled music for daydreaming; Ulyses Petit de Murat, for whom "popular dogma as for tango, is established with no written definition", and even myself, that on a story I said: «Ah, but tango... Maybe in its lassitudes I found a nostalgia of vague romanticisms, perhaps its merger of naïve protests, vulgar laments and base sequences, was a reflection of my parasitary existence, or that the solemn sensuality of its music proved a substitute to calm down my aroused lasciviousness...»

A popular music, dance and song, tango first makes itself secure in the two big River Plate cities, is institutionalized and is refined in Buenos Aires. An eminently urban song (although tango lyrics with rural subject matter can be found), is forged alongside the transformation into a metropolis of the capital of Argentina, with the drive of immigration that arrives from all the corners of the planet in the early years of the XX century.

A Buenos Aires that has 150.000 inhabitants in 1865, in 1914 it assembles a million and a half. While the opulence grew favored by the cattle and wheat exports, displaced from the country by the new modalities of rural work, foreign immigrants join native immigrants in the suburbs. And here is where tango is born, a singular blend of Spanish and African tunes and rhythms. It's still on debate which is the immediate forerunner of Buenos Aires tango: if the Andalusian tango, if the habanera, if the candombe, if the milonga... But what turns out evident is that “La canción de Buenos Aires” has something of all these rhythms, but the product is different and unique.

Whorehouses will brand it, but they are not its only cradle. Also the tents, huts, corrals, tenement houses, all the places where the people of La Gran Aldea (the big village) meet to chat, to sing, to dance...

Firpo, Canaro, Betinotti and the singer who so greatly would contribute to its universalization, Gardel (firstly in duo with Razzano) are the first to bring it downtown. In 1912 it conquered the high-life saloons, without losing its popular essence, expressed in the first verse of the first tango-canción, Mi noche triste: Percanta que me amuraste... And also the first systematic lyricist of quality, Celedonio Flores will write in lunfardo (slang): Rechiflao en mi tristeza...

When tango is conquering Buenos Aires, el Morocho del Abasto appears, this Carlos Gardel that today, more than half a century after his death, «sings better each new day». He captivated us due to his round voice, to his extraordinary pleasantness, to the support he was given by cinema and phonograph, and even for the tragedy of his sudden death. Because of that he cast a spell on people's heart, while alive and even dead. As the great poet Raúl González Tuñón said, «now he is more Gardel, and so far away; beyond time, on a territory where the banished gods roam, between light and the fugitive air, with Carriego, on the cloud, hand in hand, distant and thoughtful like a tango».

A hundred years after his birth, and eighty years from the beginnings of his triumphant career, and fifty five since the accident which carried him away at the peak of his glory, Carlos Gardel is fortunately still alive, thanks to the electronics miracle. And we can celebrate his centennial listening to the tangos that no one else was able to sing like he did: “Yira yira”, “Mano a mano”, “Anclao en París”…

Pedro Jorge Vera: He was born in Guayaquil in 1914. Professor and journalist, he participated in the popular insurrection of May 28, 1944. Secretary of the Asamblea General Constituyente (organism in charge of reforming the Constitution) of 1945, for his literary work he has been given several awards among which these stand out: the Premio Nacional José de la Cuadra in 1972 and the Premio Nacional José Mejía Lecquerica, in 1978. Out of his poetic work we highlight, Nuevo itinerario and Túnel iluminado; and among his novels: El pueblo soy yo; La semilla estéril and Tiempos de muñecos besides his books of stories like Un ataúd abandonado, Jesús ha vuelto, and ¡Ah los militares!.