It Took One to Tango

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Late at night, a ghostly presence haunts the narrow streets of El Abasto, once the working-class heart of Buenos Aires, where boatloads of European immigrants would come to seek work at the wholesale market that gave the area its name.

His face, always smiling, often half-hidden beneath his trademark fedora, peeps suddenly out at you on moonlit evenings from dozens of walls where it has been spray-painted; his voice can sometimes be heard wafting faintly through the warm summer air from old phonographs (or re-dubbed records) through open windows. But for those with ears to hear and minds to imagine with, it is ever-present, if only in their heads: a unique high-baritone that once held the Latin world in thrall with its sinuous, sentimental paeans to lost loves and the frustration of feminine wiles.

Argentina has a holy trinity of heroic figures: Eva Peron (“Evita”), the footballer Diego Maradona, and Carlos Gardel. Carlos who? For almost 20 years, he was South America’s biggest star, both as a singer and then a movie actor. Like many now-mythic idols — Elvis, Marilyn, James Dean — he died tragically, in a plane crash, at the relatively young age of 45. Yet all that was nearly eight decades ago and there can be hardly anyone alive today who actually saw him perform.

A taxi-driving Porteño (as born-and-bred Buenos Aires natives are known), who certainly didn’t, plays nothing but tinny old Gardel recordings on his cab radio, claiming that he never tires of listening to the man and that he gets “goosebumps just talking about him”.

Expatriate tango singer Osvaldo Macias, now living in Spain, still relies heavily on the Gardel repertoire. What is the enduring appeal? “Well, he had a superb voice, always immaculately in tune, with a two-octave range — Caruso told him he could have been a fine opera singer — but much more than that it is his uncanny ability to get ‘inside’ a song, to make you believe that he had really ‘lived’ it. And that is just on records — my dad used to tell me that there was no comparison between the recorded voice and the impact it had on you in the flesh.”

Historian Simon Collier talks about Gardel’s “extraordinary range of feeling — lyricism, melancholy, chirpiness, sarcasm, high spirits, wistfulness, nostalgia, even occasional ferocity. And a natural sense of rhythm particularly appropriate for tango singing.” But he thinks that above all, it was Gardel’s image that struck such a chord with his countrymen: “His grooming was impeccable. The smoothly plastered hair, the elegant three-piece suits, the carefully chosen ties, the perfectly polished shoes — he looked every inch the smart Porteño who had come out on top.”

Like the US, Argentina is a country of immigrants and they all yearned to emulate one of their number who had “made it” so spectacularly. As a fellow Argentinian composer remarked: “He was so cool. What a sense of style! There was always a classy feel to everything he did.”

The great Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset, who knew Gardel before he was famous, had a slightly different take: “This kid captured the quiet inner pain of his mother, who suffered with such suppressed emotion that she could truly move you.”

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His mother was an unmarried laundress who gave birth to him in Toulouse, France (father “unknown”) and emigrated when the boy was barely three years old by boat to the Argentinian capital, where she scraped a living pressing clothes. Much later, Gardel sought Uruguayan citizenship, claiming to have been born in the city of Tacuarembo, but this was probably a ploy to avoid being called up for French military service. There are museums dedicated to him today in both Toulouse and Tacuarembo!

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Tango was born in the brothels and sleazy dancehalls of Buenos Aires and Montevideo at around the same time that jazz was taking its infant steps in a similar environment in New Orleans. And just as it took Louis Armstrong to turn that music from a potpourri of imported African and European styles into a global art form, so Gardel revolutionised the tango — a wordless dance-music that combined local Creole and European immigrant influences.

In 1917 when 27-year-old Gardel, who had been working back-stage at local opera houses and singing part-time in Abasto’s clubs and pubs, heard an instrumental tango called Mi Noche Triste (My Sad Night) to which lyrics had been put, he was so intrigued that he persuaded a music company to let him record it. It sold an unprecedented 10,000 copies and became an instant hit throughout South America. The Gardel legend was up and running.

Overnight, the tango had been transformed from a low-class erotic dance that was not talked about in polite society into a wildly popular musical phenomenon that was to take the world by storm. With its raffish references to ladies of easy virtue and its judicious smattering of lunfardo slang (the language of Argentina’s criminal classes), it had an edginess that thrilled its middle-class audiences.

With his lyricist Alfredo le Pera, a young Argentinian journalist he had met in Paris, Gardel went on to compose hundreds of tango hits, the most famous of which are probably El Dia Que Me Quieras (The Day You Fall In Love With Me), Mi Buenos Aires Querido (My Beloved Buenos Aires), Por Una Cabeza (By A Head — a horse-racing term, reflecting his love of the sport of kings), Caminito (Little Journey) and Volver (Return).

He sang them to adoring audiences all over Latin-America, Europe (Paris and Madrid were two of his fiefdoms), and in the US. Appearing in a show on Broadway in 1934 while shooting one of a string of Spanish-language movies Paramount had contracted him for, he did an NBC radio broadcast to which Nancy (“With The Laughing Face”) Barbato brought her thenboyfriend, 19-year-old Frank Sinatra. She persuaded him to go back-stage to meet Gardel and seek his advice about his own stumbling singing career. The tango titan advised him to enter a certain radio talent-show — which he did and duly won.

Nearly half-a-century later, Sinatra made his first appearance at Buenos Aires’s Luna Park, in front of 20,000 fans, and shed a tear as he explained how Gardel had “saved his life”. Later, he asked the US cultural attaché to take him to the great man’s grave in Chacarita Cemetery to pay a silent tribute — and place a lighted cigarette in the right hand of the life-size Gardel statue as ritual demanded.

On 24 Jun 1935 (a date still marked at many milongas, or tango sessions, around the world), during a tour of Colombia, his plane hit another one during take-off from Medellin — and the voice of El Zorzal (an indigenous song-bird) was stilled forever. A tango singer in Buenos Aires fainted mid-performance on hearing the news. A female fan in New York committed suicide.

The singer’s charred remains were taken on a bizarre odyssey of mass-homage — across the mountains of Colombia and then by steamboat to New York, Rio de Janeiro and Montevideo, with thousands lining the streets to watch the casket pass. It finally arrived in Buenos Aires eight months later, in February 1936, and the funeral procession took up 70 blocks of the Avenida Corrientes, hub of the tango world. An edict was issued that no tangos were to played or sung for 24 hours.

Rarely can the impact of a popular personality have been so enduring. Sayings such as Cada dia canta mejor (Every day he — meaning Gardel — sings better; in other words, something has aged like a fine wine) and Veinte años no es nada (TwentyYears is Nothing), both a reference to Gardel’s career and a quote from Volver, have entered the everyday language. Apart from inspiring dozens of biographies and documentaries, he has appeared as a fictionalised character in movies, novels and plays.

Perhaps Argentinian composer Gustavo Santaolalla, who has won two Academy Awards for Best Original Score, sums it up best: “He’s such an iconic figure and part of who we are as Argentinians.” On your next trip to Buenos Aires, make sure some of the magic rubs off on you.

Where to find traces in today’s Buenos Aires of the still-very-much-alive Gardel legend:

Café Tortoni The country’s oldest coffee-house (established 1858) and a hangout in its heyday for bohemian intellectuals like Jorge Luis Borges, Salvador Dalí, Federico
García Lorca – and Carlos Gardel.
Avenida de Mayo 825
Tel +54 11 4342 4328

Palais de Glace Legendary tango salon where Gardel is rumoured to have been shot by a relative of another Argentinian icon, Che Guevara (the bullet was lodged in his lung for the rest of his life). Now headquarters of the National Office of Fine Arts.
Posadas 1725
Opens 12-8pm,
Tue-Fri; 10am-8pm,
Sat-Sun; closed Mon
Tel +54 11 4804 1163

Luna Park Rock and pop concerts have now largely taken over this former tango hot-spot.
Avenida Madero
420, Ciudad
Tel +54 5279 5279

Palermo Hipodromo Gardel was a huge horse-racing fan and even owned a horse. The belle époque architecture at this home of the national Derby (built 1876) is outstanding.
Avenida del
Libertador 4101
Tel +54 11 4778 2800

Chacarita Cemetery Gardel’s burial place.
Avenida Guzmán 680

Gardel Family Home Now a museum, this is where he grew up. Jean Jaurès 735, Zelaya y Tucumán
Opens 11am-6pm.
Mon, Wed-Fri;
10am-7pm, Sat-
Sun; closed Tue.
Tel +54 11 4964 2015

Abasto Market The market has been converted into a stunning shopping and entertainment mall. There is a statue of Gardel here, too. And the nearest metro station is called Carlos Gardel, natch.
Corrientes 3247
Opens 10-12am, Sun-
Thu; 10-1am, Fri-Sat
Tel +54 11 4959 3400

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