Why you should care
Uruguay is still sparring with its larger neighbor over bragging rights to tango’s greatest song and singer.
An 18-year-old architecture student composed a melody that would change the world. But Gerardo Hernán “Becho” Matos Rodríguez, whose father owned a Moulin Rouge–style cabaret in the quiet heart of Montevideo, Uruguay, had a problem. Although blessed with perfect pitch, he wasn’t classically trained and had trouble transcribing his work of art into musical notation.
He enlisted the help of an Argentinian orchestra leader, Robert Firpo, to add a third section and turn his composition into a tango. The result, titled “La Cumparsita,” or “The Little Parade,” was a runaway hit … so much so that Matos Rodríguez sold the rights to it two years later to the Argentinian brother duo Breyer Hermanos. Taking the 50 pesos he earned, a little fortune in 1918, he went straight to the race track and lost it all betting on a horse.
To claim Gardel is to claim the soul of tango, which is partly why his birthplace has been so disputed.
His composition easily could have ended up as a minor footnote on history’s staff sheet if not for the fact that it led to a feud that lingered over the next century. Even today, in museums and academies, Uruguay and Argentina spar over who can claim ownership of tango’s genesis. It starts with “La Cumparsita,” which emerged from infamy as a dirty ditty for unsavory individuals to adulation as one of the world’s most beloved songs, with more than 2,000 versions showcased in 300 movies, says Florencia Pereira, a tour guide at the Museo del Tango in Montevideo.
And the spat extends to the disputed birthright of Carlos Gardel, who became the king of tango in no small part due to his rendition of “La Cumparsita” — Uruguay, Argentina and France all claim him as a native son. The animosity, as well as the controversy, remains heated. “Argentinians are like the British, always about ‘me, me, me,’ ” complains Uruguayan D.J. Francesco Rodriguez when discussing the feud.
It wasn’t always so clear that Matos Rodríguez had written a song that launched a thousand squabbles. As far as pianist Domingo Alonso was concerned, the initial score was “overwhelmed with defects,” including a violin part that didn’t make it into Firpo’s final cut. The piece was recorded for the first time across the Rio de la Plata in Buenos Aires, in Max Glücksmann’s studio in November 1916.
Although the song saw some early success in Montevideo, its composer assumed that over the years it had been largely forgotten. Then, in the mid-1920s, Matos Rodríguez was in a Paris café talking to Francisco Canaro, a violinist, tango orchestra leader and fellow Uruguayan. He told Matos Rodríguez his song was being played with lyrics at Paris engagements as “Si Susperas,” a version that had become extremely popular.
And so, while living in Europe and composing film scores, Matos Rodríguez spent the next two decades fighting long-distance in South American courts to regain his copyright. Finally, in 1948, it was determined that his family would receive 80 percent of the royalties from future recordings and movies.
“Si Susperas” was even more crucial to the growing popularity of tango, because it attracted the considerable talent of Carlos Gardel, who recorded his own version in January 1928. “And now, everyone joined tango,” says Pereira, who adds that club owners had to create separate “tango saloons” in the early ’30s, since up to that point the dance had been confined mostly to brothels and cabarets — places respectable women didn’t frequent.
It’s difficult to overestimate the role Gardel played in the popularization of tango. Known as the “Creole Thrush,” he penned hundreds of three-minute tangos, and both his good looks and dramatic phrasing romanced audiences in the Old World and New. It’s common for Uruguayan locals to rave not just about his music but to say he “sings better every day.” The 44-year-old’s reputation as a tragic hero was sealed when he died in a plane crash in 1935 at the height of his career. To claim Gardel is to claim the soul of tango, which is partly why his birthplace has been so disputed.
For decades, Gardel was said to have been born in 1890 in Toulouse, France, although he spent much of his life with his single mother, who fled to Buenos Aires. But in October 1920, when the almost 30-year-old Gardel applied for Uruguayan citizenship, he claimed he was born in 1887 in Tacuarembó, Uruguay. Some scholars insist this was a false trail, perhaps to avoid scrutiny from French authorities ahead of a concert tour.
But from 1967 to 1990, authors began publishing books with biographical details solidifying the musician’s Uruguayan origins. The most popular story is that a Uruguayan landowner, Carlos Escayola, had an affair with his sister-in-law, Maria Lelia Olivia, who gave the unwanted boy to Bertha Gardès, who raised him in Buenos Aires.
In case this seems like ancient history, consider that in June 2015, the National Academy of Tango in Uruguay commissioned a book by Argentine researcher Martina Iniquez, who once again confirmed the Uruguayan claims. The response from the public? An increasing demand that the Argentine government dig up Gardel’s body in La Chacarita Cemetery in Buenos Aires and conduct a DNA test, which authorities have refused to do so far. But Pereira believes the “mystery will never be solved,” she says. “Because that’s what gives Carlos Gardel that mystic air.”