That a bullet was found lodged in one of his lungs during his autopsy was proof to many that Carlos Gardel had bravely struggled with a gunman on the plane shortly before it careered into another aircraft during take-off at Mendellín in Colombia on 24 June 1935. It was one of many fanciful stories which circulated following his untimely and tragic death. Only a heroic end befitted the loss of this great man who was at the height of his powers, a man who had transcended his humble immigrant origins to become a much loved national figure, captivating a whole generation with his ineffable style and graceful music, the man who brought tango to a worldwide audience.
For a grieving nation, some refused to believe that he had died and in the months and years that followed, other stories circulated. One claimed that he had not died at all but had miraculously escaped the conflagration, cruelly disfigured. After all, why was his body not publically displayed during the long journey back to Buenos Aires? And then there was the legend of a hooded singer who crooned with the same mellifluous voice but never showed his face.
However it was his charred Argentinian passport, recovered from the plane wreckage, which gave rise to the most enduring controversy for it stated that he was born 1887 in Tacuarembó, Uruguay to Uruguayan parents. But everyone knew that he had been brought to Buenos Aires as a young child in 1893 from Toulouse by Berthe Gardes, an unmarried woman. Many began to ask the question who he really was – a French immigrant or a Uruguayan foster child? His hand-written will stated he was born in France but other official documents declared he was born in Uruguay. Needless to say, the controversy rumbled on long after his death.
Carlos Gardel (1890 – 1935) grew up in the slum tenements of the San Nicolás district of Buenos Aires. Dubbed El Francesito, it seems the young Gardel associated with the local street gangs and petty criminality but importantly he lived close to the theatre district where he imbibed the musical culture and found work as a stagehand as well as a professional applauder at performances. On leaving school in 1906, he devoted himself to singing in local cafes and restaurants with other musicians. For the first ten years of his career, he mostly performed traditional country and minstrel songs (payada) as well as Neopolitan music. With his beautiful voice, cultivated elegance and impeccable style, his growing fame earned him the nickname El Zorzal Criollo (the Creole song thrush).
His master stroke came in 1917 when he created the tango-canción with his recording of Mi Noche Triste. Tango had originated in the low class areas of Buenos Aires in the nineteenth century as a stylised way of dancing to imported rhythms such as the habañera and it had lost none of its sleazy associations. However with Gardel’s magical style and polished adaptations, the tango became a sensual dance of exquisite refinement which the public adored. Mi Noche Triste was an instant success: it made Gardel famous internationally and the tango moved from the bordellos into the ballrooms.
Between 1920 – 1935, Gardel toured extensively in Latin America, the US and Europe where he won universal acclaim for his music. With his dashing good looks, he also made several successful films for the silver screen in which he came to represent the idealised Latin lover, elegantly dressed in a suit and wearing a fedora.
Always careful to cultivate his image, it does seem that Gardel was himself responsible for the mystery of birth. Prior to taking the oath of Argentine citizenship in 1923, he had applied for Uruguayan citizenship in 1920 and was issued with an Argentinian identity card with the details which later found their way onto his Argentinian passport.
One plausible reason for his actions is that he wanted to avoid any problems with the authorities on his European travels as he had not registered as an overseas French national during the First World War.
Another more fanciful reason is that he concocted the deception to cover up his rather insalubrious past (including a prison sentence) before he became famous. After all, he had once been hit by a stray bullet in an altercation between street thugs, although the story that the shooter was the uncle of Che Guevara was a fabrication.
Nevertheless, he maintained his story publically thereafter, once affirming “My heart is Argentinian, but my soul is Uruguayan, because that is where I was born”. The authenticity of the French birth certificate (in which his name given as Charles Romuald Gardes) would seem to close the issue but some researchers still maintain that he is not the person on the certificate. Gardel summed up the thoughts of many when he said simply, “I was born in Buenos Aires, aged two and a half”.
Gardel remains an iconic figure in Argentina through his films and his yearning, romantic music which seems to embody the soul of tango. He is buried in the Chacarita Cemetery in Buenos Aires, a place of pilgrimage for his many fans who often place a cigarette in the hands of his bronze statue out of reverence.
Gardel has entered the language too. One favourite exclamation ¡Anda cantarle has Gardel! (literally “Go sing it to Gardel!”) is an exclamation of disbelief. With the many fantastical stories told of his life, he would no doubt have approved.
Published 28 July 2016 on primephonic.