1890 – 1935

Carlos Gardel or Charles Gardés?

Although tango is so peculiarly porteño, Carlos Gardel was not born in Argentina. His place of birth and early year’s history are kept behind a mist of doubt and uncertainty insofar, and probably will be forever. There's a real flame war in Argentina and Uruguay between those who believe Gardel to be Uruguayan, and those who pledge that he was in fact natural from France, both sides having "truthful" and "reliable" evidences that the other side's documents are forged. Gardel spent his entire life supporting that he was Uruguayan, born in a small coastal city named Tacarembó but, three months after his death, a hand-written testament was found in which he indicated clearly that he was if fact the French citizen Charles Romuald Gardes, born at Toulouse, France, on December 11, 1890. In this document he says that he is son to Bertha Gardes, solely to whom he left his heritage. There is a supposition stating that such testament was faked by Gardel's manager Armando Defino, in order to avoid Gardel's heritage from falling into the hands of the Argentinean government. The supporters of the French Gardel thesis show also a birth document from the Toulouse County Registry, which indicates the birth of a Charles Gardés, son to Bertha and of an "unknown father".

What is a fact is that Carlos Gardel had his reasons to hold his birthplace as a secret. He would not want to divulge his French nationality, because if he did so, possibly the French Government would have called him to fight in the World War I. In Argentina, he would like to pose as an Uruguayan, basically because he has had some problems with Argentine's police (precisely related to his nationality).

The official record (that is, the only one sustained with official documents) tells us about the French Gardel, which went along with his mother Bertha from Toulouse to Buenos Aires in 1883. Shortly after that, they moved to Montevideo, where they lived for two or three years. When back to Buenos Aires Gardel and his mother settled in El Abasto, a working class district packed with immigrants from all over Europe and also with “Orientales” (as the Argentineans call the Uruguayans, because they live at the oriental bank of the Rio de la Plata), where they lived thereafter. After completing his intermediate level studies, the young Gardel performed various jobs at small factories and stores in the area, assisting on the weak domestic budget his mother earned as a worker at a clothes repairing shop.

Gardel never attended to any music class, but since his early youth he demonstrated an impressive innate talent as a singer, and later as a composer as well. His friends used to say that he composed while whistling and, when there were no other musicians close to him, he annoted down the melody on paper, using a scheme of signs that he made-up himself and that no one else could ever comprehend.

When Gardel was 14 years old, in 1904, he escaped alone to Montevideo. Little information is kept from such ‘tour’, but most likely he returned to Buenos Aires in 1910, when he started to perform shows as a singer in bars and night clubs in El Abasto, having adopted the nickname of "El Morocho" (The "Browned"). By this time, he used to sing only self-adapted variations of Argentinean folkloric themes. In 1913, Gardel made his debut as a professional singer, performing a show in the sumptuous cabaret “Armenonville”, accompanied with José Razzano, a Uruguayan singer with whom Gardel maintained a partnership up to 1925. Although tango was becoming increasingly popular in Buenos Aires, it was not until 1917 that Gardel started embraced it with the song Mí Noche Triste. From then on he eventually recorded a huge number of tangos, ‘canciones camperas’ (country) and, perhaps a bit surprisingly, a couple of rumbas and even foxtrots.

In 1924, Gardel and his partner Razzano started a tour by Europe, mostly France and Spain, that endured until 1929, having reached an enormous success in both countries. During this period Gardel and Alfredo de La Pera, an Argentinean journalist, composed the classic tangos "Volver", "El día que me quieras", "Por una Cabeza" and "Cuando tú no Estás.

Apart of being a singer and composer, Carlos Gardel also protagonized various films produced by Paramount Pictures both in France and in the USA, like “Flor de Durazno” (1917), “Lights of Buenos Aires” (1930), Cuesta abajo (1934), El tango en Broadway (1934), El día que me quieras (1935), Tango bar (1935), amid others.

In the late 1934, Carlos Gardel started a tour by South America. His success was only increasing, until that, in June 24, 1935, the small airplane that would transport he and the staff that accompanied him from the Olaya Herrera Airport in Medellín, Colombia, to Buenos Aires, crashed with another aircraft that was wrongly stationed on the lane, setting both planes in fire. Fifteen passengers from both planes died, including Carlos Gardel.

The tragic circumstances of Gardel’s death did only contribute to the making of the myth. He died at the very peak of his career, while he was famous not only in Argentina, but also in France, Spain and among the Hispanic population in the United States, besides, of course, of the entire Latin America. The speculations on his nationality, which managed to produce the most imaginative theories about his history and his mothers’, helped creating the atmosphere of enchantment around him. Carlos Gardel helped to define the cultural identity, to so speak, of the Argentinean people.

Carlos Gardel is unanimously recognized as the most important tango singer of history. He was the responsible, back in 1917 or '18, for bringing the tango from the ‘sinful’ nightspots of the Buenos Aires low classes vicinities, to the ‘respectable’ high status cabarets and theaters of ‘la city porteña’. Such passage transformed tango lyrics and melodies permanently, from being a kind of intensely provocative and non formal (sometimes even incomprehensible to those not well acquainted to the lunfardo) cultural manifestation of the Buenos Aires working class (lumpenproletariat included) into a more regular and in a sense more sophisticated musical expression, in which Argentina's cultural elite, frequently educated in French of English Universities, had his voice first as spectator, then also as creator. It’s not that tango had lost its characteristics because of that turn, it just gained others: the swelling of tango to the upper classes added a little more of well behaved romances and melodramatic loving to the lyrics and a bit of influence of jazz and classic music (not always well accepted amongst tango purists) and other genres that are considered elitist around there. One of the most rich and beautiful examples of this kind of fusion is Astor Piazzola's music.




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