Carlos Gardel: The Soul of Tango
Born in the year 1890, in France, Charles Romuald Gardes was the son of Berthe Gardes and an unidentified father. Oswaldo Barsky, a biographer claimed that there are actual documents that prove Gardel was from France. Moving to Buenos Aires when just a baby, he went on to become one of the foremost proponents of Tango around the world, and his specialized advocacy of the genre resulted in its almost unparalleled rise. His life also involved extensive journeying and a popular career as a movie star. He was much sought after in both Latin America and Western Europe before he passed away in a plane crash in the year 1935.
Gardel was well-endowed with a baritone voice and an expressive singing acumen. His talent for ballads of a melancholic tone established the meaningful and emotional side of tango. In addition, he had a flair for a stylish lifestyle, which reflected in his refined habits, etiquette, clothes and much more. He became the ideal example to follow for numerous men who came from humble roots. In all this, Gardel’s legend was made even more fantastic by the story that he allegedly got shot by one of Che Guevara’s men. He is said to have had the bullet lodged in his lung for the rest of his life as doctors deemed the required operatic procedure to be too risky.
There are also stories of his Uruguayan origin, with reports him having three separate passports for France, Uruguay, and Argentina. This was and still remains a matter of much debate and deliberation. Gardel sang in bars and markets and the place where he resided in with his mother, stands today as a museum with memorabilia such as the master’s instruments and sheet music, various newspaper cutouts depicting his tours, and also his movie posters. Gardel also had experience in working in opera houses from an early age, and his job there was to rouse audiences through applause. Gardel learned Spanish operettas, criolla music, and opera during his tenure there.
Gardel had a very modest education but that hardly caused him any hindrance in his musical career, when his academic efforts concluded in high school in 1906. He was fortunate to have received mentoring from José Betinotti, who, citing Gardel’s beautiful voice, nicknamed the young man as “El Zorzal Criollo”. Gardel didn’t receive much encouragement from his mother in his musical aspirations, as she thought this to be a lost cause. Despite this, the determined young man pushed his dream and started off by earning from singing serenades. He changed his name from Gardes to Gardel in the year 1910, as he gradually started to come to the forefront of wide public fame for his voice and charisma. He was nicknamed “El morocho del Abasto”, which translates to “the dark-haired guy from Abasto”.
It was next year, in 1911, he met José Razzano, who sang at El Pelado, a café in Balvanera. It was with this man that Gardel formed one of his most popular and long-lasting musical relationships, which initially went on to include Francisco Martino, a singer and guitarist, and also Saúl Salinas, another singer. Their initial tours were not of notable success, whereupon Salinas and Martino left the quartet. Amidst all these, in 1913, the duo of Gardel and Razzano performed at the Cabaret-Restaurant Armenonville, calling themselves “Dúo Nacional Gardel-Razzano”.
In 1914, the “Dúo Nacional Gardel-Razzano” performed at Teatro Nacional of Buenos Aires, and other well-known theatres all over Argentina. In 1915, they added Uruguay and Brazil to their tours and finally, in 1917, Gardel started to perform tango. According to director Horacio Torres of the Carlos Gardel Museum, Gardel represented modernism, not only in his songs but also in the way he led his life, which inevitably caused a sensation in the 1920s and '30s, as a middle-class immigrant who had changed tango forever. His journey as a singer continued when he started practicing tangos, with his Mi Noche Triste (1917) at the Teatro Empire being his debut hit.
Mi Noche Triste is a classic tale today about a man’s passionate pining for the love of his life, but one that ends in rejection. The nature of this piece is melancholic with melodramatic undertones, which captures the sentimental tone of Buenos Aires audiences perfectly. Preceding Gardel’s efforts, tango was looked down upon as a musical form for the lower classes with a purely instrumental identity. Gardel was responsible for tango to have experienced a tremendously rising popularity when in the 1930s, Gardel started to perform it globally. These tours included those in Argentina itself and branched out to other South American nations, the United States of America and France. He also started working in Spanish-language movies, further catapulting him to super-stardom.
The year 1928 saw Gardel make his Parisian debut at the Theatre Femina, which was for a benefit concert to much acclaim. Gardel eventually went on to have his personal production company and also distributed a total of 10 films with Paramount Pictures. This relationship of Gardel’s with Paramount Pictures also involved him touring the world, where a lot of filming took place in Paris. Alfredo Le Pera wrote the lyrics to cater to a Spanish or Latin audience for the films, which ended the traditional monopoly of the lunfardo dialect to write a tango. Le Pera and Gardel worked together on a number of projects, most notably on one of the latter’s most renowned songs, Mi Buenos Aires Querido.
He traveled to Spain, France, and Italy, and also shot his debut feature film “Luces de Buenos Aires” in 1931. He also performed in places such as London, Berlin, and Vienna, even acquainting himself with the great actor Charlie Chaplin. His films in 1933 include “Melodía de Arrabal”, “Espérame” and “La Casa es Seria”, with the singer returning to his homeland in Buenos Aires for his final work, the tango song, Madame Ivonne. After this, he left Argentina, never to return and performed on NBC Radio, one of America’s most popular radio channels of the time.
“Las Luces de Buenos Aires” in 1931, was the first film where he was able to talk, where Gardel played a gaucho. The movie star Gardel’s immortal image is as a Latin lover who embodies the virtues of panache and elegance, complete in a suit, tie, and a fedora. The following years are a testament to his flourishing film career with films like “El Tango en Broadway”, “Cazadores de Estrellas”, & “Cuesta Abajo” of 1934, and “El Día Que Me Quieras” & “Tango Bar”, also of 1935.
Gardel was smart and insightful enough to perform with the electric microphone, which was unusual for its time. Numerous labels have produced his music as the decades have passed and one of his finest, Por una Cabeza (1935), was so popular even after half a century, that it was present as a part of many 90’s movie soundtracks.
Gardel and Le Pera died in a plane crash while promoting their last film “El día que me quieras”. The incident happened during take-off in a Colombian airport in 1935. Gardel’s body was moved across New York, Colombia, Montevideo, Rio de Janeiro, and ultimately to Buenos Aires. Many people mourned the huge loss with street processions and he was buried in Chacarita, alongside his mother. Argentinian President Néstor Kirchner declared the gravesite as a National Monument, and admirers around the world send plaques of memorial as a token of their love and reverence.
Today, over 80 years later, Carlos Gardel is as present with us as he was before his untimely demise, in his work, in his tango. As an inspiration to the world, with his humble beginnings to rising to the pinnacle of musical stardom, he continues to be a beacon that dreams do come true if you are talented and determined. Fans continue to respect and love his work, with many often lighting a cigarette and putting it in between the fingers of Gardel’s bronze statue, along with a rose in his lapel.
- About Carlos Gardel on Argentina Excepcion
- About the tango master, Carlos Gardel on NPR
- About tango composer, Carlos Gardel on Very Tango Store
- About the life of Carlos Gardel in Buenos Aires on Buenos Tours
- About the composer, Carlos Gardel on All Music
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