Every year on this date, June 24th, I’m haunted by the image of the freak airplane crash that took the lives of Carlos Gardel and Alfredo Lepera in 1935.
For most folks born outside South America, it is nearly impossible to understand what it meant for the nation of Argentina, and many other South American countries, to wake up on the morning of June 25, 1935 to the chilling news shaped in bold letters headlines that, except for minor variations in copy, were saying the same unthinkable fact: GARDEL IS DEAD.
Gardel and Lepera had become very successful partners in the tango-for-films department. Under contract with Paramount, Carlos Gardel was becoming a box office attraction in South America because of his personal appeal, his baritone voice, and his successful tours around Western Europe. Yet, the underlying attraction of Gardel, the music and lyrics of his tangos, had presented a public relations problem for the Hollywood suits. There was something about the language and jargon embedded in the lyrics of the tangos Gardel sang that didn’t fly very well outside Buenos Aires.
So they brought Alfredo Lepera, a Brazilian born writer and poet then living in Buenos Aires. His mission was to write new lyrics in a more palatable Castillian language that would be universally understood and appreciated in all of South America and Spanish speaking Europe.
The resulting body of work represents the most popular and celebrated songs that are easily recognized by people all over the world, even when many may not realize that they were all written for films starring Carlos Gardel.
Can you remember hearing any of these titles: Cuesta abajo, Volver, Melodia de arrabal, El dia que me quieras, Por una cabeza…? It was during a promotional tour for his latest film, El dia que quieras, that Gardel and Lepera met their untimely deaths. First Puerto Rico, then Cuba and finally Colombia were visits that attracted large crowds eager to see, touch and listen to Carlos Gardel.
Towards the end of the tour, Gardel and his entourage boarded a plane at Medellin airport for a short flight to Cali, where he would make his final appearance on a radio program before returning to New York, in time to board a ship to Buenos Aires to fulfill a promise he had made to his mother, that is, spending more time with her. The aircraft never got completely airborne as it suddenly veered of course and slammed into another aircraft waiting to enter the runway. Among a twisted pile of melting metal and an infernal blaze, Gardel ended his mortal existence.
Almost instantly he became immortal, and his image, his legacy and his works eternally became the subject of a religious adoration and veneration for a large majority of people spanning many generations.
When his remains arrived in Buenos Aires almost a year later, the city came to a grinding halt. He laid in wake for a day at the Luna Park arena, located where Corrientes Avenue begins to grow up into the heart of the city. Dignitaries, musicians, singers, artists, and plain people all shed tears of sorrow and mourning before his casket began its final journey along Corrientes Avenue to the cemetery of Chacarita where he was laid to rest. The slow pace of the funeral march was accentuated by a shower of flowers and tears being cast from every balcony and every door along the way.
Carlos Gardel began singing at a very young age. Raised in poverty and with limited means of survival, he managed to get singing gigs at weddings, birthdays and other family receptions. His repertoire was mostly made out of Creole compositions, a genre that included folk songs and rural milongas typically accompanied by one or more guitars. Gradually he began to hang out at some seedy cantinas surrounding the old Mercado de Abasto, a sort of central wholesale market. Visitors today may have noticed a subway station under Corrientes Avenue named after Gardel. A super modern mega shopping center stands above on the grounds of the old Mercado de Abasto. It was in one of those cantinas that he faced Uruguayan folk singer Jose Razzano in what was supposed to be a duel for supremacy and ended up becoming a sensational duo that started performing at theaters, clubs, and cabarets around the country and in neighboring Uruguay.
The story goes that sometime in 1917 Gardel was approached in Montevideo by a street poet who had a penchant for writing risky lyrics to existing tango music. Gardel loved what Pascual Contursi had written for a tango named Lita composed by Samuel Castriota. In private gatherings he was amused at Contursi’s clever use of lunfardo expressions to describe the sappy tale of a pimp in love who laid awake at night hoping for the return of his former whore.
It began with, “Percanta que me amuraste, en lo mejor de mi vida…” (Woman who left me at the best moment of my life) and ended with,
“Porque tu luz no ha querido, mi noche triste alumbrar…” (Because your light (talking to a lamp in the room) has not wanted to illuminate my sad night.” And those three last words, MI NOCHE TRISTE, became the title of the first and foremost tango lyrics, setting the stage for a rich chapter in the glorious book of tango history.
Going against the advice of his friends, Gardel decided to take a chance singing “Mi noche triste” at a theater performance. Razzano bailed out, and Carlos Gardel made history by singing his first tango in public, sending the audience into a frenzy and receiving a standing ovation.
What followed was a body of work touching on tales of love, hate, infidelity, and crimes of passion depicting the fictional relationships between pimps and their whores. Record companies couldn’t press enough vinyl to keep up with the demand, and many popular bards followed Contursi’s suit and inundated the market with one of the most prolific productions of lyrics in tango history.
Gradually, Gardel began to incorporate tangos in his recordings, and by the early nineteen twenties the popular demand and the pressure from the record companies made him become a full time tango singer.
Soon he traveled to Spain and was met with great success. Then he ventured into Paris where he became the darling of a decadent aristocracy who catapulted him into international fame. He kept returning to Buenos Aires in what became trips “to enjoy the city as a visitor, rather than as a resident.”
The Radio Broadcasting Company brought him to New York from where he made history by broadcasting a program via telephone lines to Buenos Aires. Paramount saw in Gardel their golden opportunity to enter the Latin American film market. At the time of his death, he had become an idol among fans from all over Latin America.
So, if shouldn’t come as a surprise that this June 24th, as it has been happening since 1935, men and women in Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia, Uruguay, Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Mexico will listen to Gardel with a very special purpose, to continue paying respect to his memory, to continue admiring a singer that sings better every day.
When Gardel died, so did the hopes of any aspiring singer to ever reach universal acceptance. Agustin Magaldi and Ignacio Corsini were great popular singers contemporaries of Gardel but withered under his shadow. Horacio Deval’s register was identical to Gardel’s so he was chastised for that, and in spite of a short success with the Horacio Salgan orchestra, he never achieved popular recognition. People have found Horacio Deval and heard him sing the Gardel repertoire at one of the many Argentine restaurants and tanguerias in the city of Miami, where he had been residing for many years until his recent death.
Uruguayan born Julio Sosa came very close to reach the pinnacle but his life was cut short in a car accident. Roberto ‘El Polaco’ Goyeneche reached cult-like following and respect, but he managed to age and deteriorate in the eyes of the public. They say that it will snow again in Buenos Aires the day a replacement for Gardel is born.
Perhaps what it is most important to understand about Gardel, the man, the myth, the icon, is the identification that the common people of Buenos Aires have with his rise to fame from humble beginnings. With his unmatched fame and success, and his eternal smile, he has been shining a ray of hope over the tribulations of those who face life challenges from a less than ideal social standing. Gardel is the epitome of the socially challenged immigrant who made it out of the tenement and into the royal palaces of Europe all the while retaining the modesty, humility, loyalty and generosity of those who never forget the friends they make on their way up because they know that they’ll still be there when it’s time to come down. The eternal smile reminds us of that.