We all associate tango with passion and sensuality, but its also a genre full of emotions that only one man was able to elevate to international status. That man was the one and only Carlos Gardel.
The first time I heard “Por una cabeza,” probably one of the most famous tango songs in history, I was about six years old. I was at my grandfather’s house, and I saw how that strong and brave man I adored crumbled emotionally to the rhythm of the music. That was the only time I ever saw him cry. Confused, I looked at him with an inquiring expression, but he only said: “not now.” Years later, I found out that the song reminded him of my grandmother, who had passed away many years before, and every time he listened to it he would get emotional. The same thing happens to me now whenever I hear that unique voice and those powerful violin notes. The song became even more touching and relevant when he passed away, so I got really interested in knowing the story behind it and the voice that made my unbreakable grandfather crumble. This is the story of Carlos Gardel, the man who revolutionized tango music forever and put it on the map.
The life of this iconic Argentinian artist is as epic as his own music. Allegedly born in Toulouse, France, in 1890 (there are many theories about his place of birth), Charles Romuald Gardès was the son of a young, unmarried laundress and a married man. At the time, as you can imagine, being born out of wedlock wasn’t the best case scenario, so with his birth certificate listing an “unknown” father, he was marginalized by society. It’s believed that this was the reason why his mother decided to move to Buenos Aires and start over. There, she told the immigration authorities that she was a widower, and decided to raise her son as best she could. Much later, when Gardel was 28, his father traveled to Buenos Aires to meet him, but for Gardel, he was just a stranger that didn’t deserve to meet him.
From a very early age, he was a very active boy who loved to break the rules and wanted to be famous. He grew up in a working-class neighborhood, where he fell in love with tango, a hybrid music genre born in the slums of Buenos Aires and Montevideo. This genre merged mestizo traditions from colonial times and Afro-Argentine and Afro-Uruguayan musical rhythms. By the nineteenth century, the genre had become very popular one among the poor, and for that reason, it wasn’t considered important or even to have any musical value at all. When he was just 16, he decided to drop out of school and pursue his dream to be an artist. Mentored by an important folk singer, Gardel started a career that didn't last very long but left a mark in the world.
He started out by singing at bars, private parties, and cafés. It was at this time that the young Charles Gardés decided to change his name to something more local and relatable for the audience. He chose Carlos Gardel, a name that changed music history forever. At this point, he focused on singing folk songs that audiences from all social classes loved. This made him very popular and got him a regular gig at an important café. There, he met José Razzano, an Uruguayan singer with whom he would record his first album and who would eventually become really popular in various Latin American countries like Brazil and Uruguay. Things were looking up for this man who was determined to make a name for himself, something that was denied to him when he was born. However, as the title says, Gardel's story is epic, and there's no epic without some serious setbacks.
In 1915, just when his career was going somewhere, he was shot in the chest in a bar fight. The bullet became lodged in his lung (and remained there for the rest of his life), so he was in pretty bad shape, but he didn't let it stop him from making music. From that moment on, he decided to seize every moment and opportunity to achieve his goal of becoming one of the most important artists in the world. At this time, tango had no vocals and was considered a low-class genre, but as he had reinvented himself throughout life, he saw this genre as the best opportunity to shine and make of it his signature.
Besides bars and cafés, he performed in movies, where he captivated the hearts of millions. His dapper style and charming personality made him an iconic character that soon became a national symbol in Argentina. With his movies and long tours throughout Latin America, as well as his very emotional, almost mournful, voice, he left a huge mark in a community that would take his songs as inspiration and life anthems. However, nothing lasts forever, and in 1935, when he was forty-five years old, Gardel died in a plane crash in Colombia. His death was mourned by all of his followers, who saw him as an idol and a symbol of their culture. He was physically gone, but his spirit remains in every beat of his emotional and sensual tangos.
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