Carlos Gardel: Biography, Tango & Songs

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Every nation has its cultural heroes. In this lesson, we're going to explore the life and career of Argentine popular hero Carlos Gardel and see exactly how he impacted Argentine culture.

Carlos Gardel

Frank Sinatra. James Dean. Groucho Marx. What do these men have in common? They embody an era of American popular culture, popularized through their talent as well as personalities, and they are idolized by many Americans to this day. Well, the United States is not the only nation to idolize its cultural heroes. In Argentina, one of the greatest heroes is Carlos Gardel, an actor and singer of the early 20th century. He's basically Sinatra, Dean, and Marx rolled into one, and he's celebrated in Argentina just as fervently.

Carlos Gardel

Early Life

Argentina's heartthrob was born in 1890, but there's actually a lot about his early life that is a mystery. While Gardel himself often cited his birthplace as Uruguay, many modern biographers now believe he was born to an unmarried woman in Toulouse, France, who likely emigrated to escape the social stigmas. We do know that he was primarily raised in Buenos Aires (arriving there sometime around age two) and from a young age worked in opera houses as a professional applauder-- rousing the crowds with enthusiastic applause. By the time he was a teenager, he was performing operettas and folk songs, and he became noted for his smooth singing voice and aptitude for music.

In 1906, Gardel dropped out of school and pursued music. Most of his early life was spent in the Italian-Argentine neighborhoods of Abasto, and he was originally tutored by a man named José Betinotti. Betinotti would later dub Gardel el zorzal criollo, the Creole Thrush, saying his voice was like a songbird. It was a nickname Gardel would carry throughout his career. A few years later, Gardel landed a job as a performer at the Nacional Corrientes Theatre, where he met Don José Razzano, with whom he would frequently perform throughout the years.

Gardel and Tango

Gardel became steadily more recognized for his distinctive voice, his skills as a performer, and of course, his handsome appearance. His real claim to fame, however, came in 1917. But first, let's take a minute to talk about Argentine music. In the regions between Argentina and Uruguay, a unique musical genre emerged combining African rhythms with Spanish melodies and instrumentations. The result was tango, a dramatic and rhythmic genre that became the national standard of Argentina and one of the nation's proudest cultural productions by the early 20th century.

Carlos Gardel

In 1917, Carlos Gardel recorded a tango song called 'Mi Noche Triste' (My Sad Night), a ballad of unrequited love. The song was an instant hit. It propelled Gardel into stardom, but it did something else as well. At the time, tango was almost exclusively an instrumental genre. You could listen to it, and you could definitely dance to it, but you couldn't sing to it. Gardel's hit, and the multitude of tango pieces he wrote and recorded throughout his life, would revolutionize tango music. The dramatic melodies and heavy rhythms of tango were perfectly complimented by the poetic and often tragic lyrics inspired by Gardel. This new style of tango, called the tango canción or sung tango, redefined the genre. In fact, to many Argentinians today, all modern tango is Gardeliano, or Gardel-style.

Later Life and Career

Throughout his career, Gardel would go on to write some of the classic masterpieces of Argentine tango, including the 1930s hit 'El Día Que Me Quieras' (The Day You Love Me), considered by many to be his greatest work. However, his influence spread beyond just the music itself. In the 1920s and 30s, Gardel became the embodiment of tango music. He was an immigrant who rose from a working-class neighborhood to national fame. He was handsome, talented, and yet dangerous and rebellious. He was famously shot in a street brawl and sang for the rest of his life with the bullet still lodged in his chest, inoperable due to its location.

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