To a novice like me, hearing the word ‘Tango’ evokes images of a slick, sultry couple sweeping passionately across a stage in some dark, smoky den of Buenos Aires.
But what many might not know is the worldwide fame of many of the songs that accompany this well-known spectacle can be attributed to one man – Carlos Gardel, who was actually Uruguayan.
Perhaps…but we’ll get to that later.
And a visit to the cool confines of the tiny Carlos Gardel Museum in the middle of the Uruguayan countryside is sure to drum this fact into you so much that you’ll probably end up dreaming fitfully about it.
Señor Gardel’s vocal, songwriting and acting talents, good looks and tragic untimely death in a plane crash in Colombia in 1935 instantly made him a Latin American hero, who for many embodied the very spirit of Tango.
The iconic image of his handsome face and washing powder-white-teeth is these days plastered around many a bar, restaurant, postcard and street wall across the continent.
Good friend Charlie Chaplin once paid tribute to his “superior presence of voice and figure” and “enormous personal sympathy that would gain him the immediate affection of everyone.”
He’s known affectionately by a host of nicknames including El Zorzal (The Song Thrush), El Mago (The Magician) and, weirdly, El Mudo (The Mute) and there’s even a section dedicated to him at the former prison way down in Ushuaia, where folk believe he may have served a stint in his younger, wayward years.
This sort of mystery surrounding Gardel’s life can be traced back all the way to his very nationality. To this day a war wages between Argentina, Uruguay and…erm…France about the King of Tango’s true roots.
The story goes that upon the star’s death, Gardel’s solicitor produced a handwritten will claiming he had been born as Charles Romuald Gardès in Toulouse, France and naming a Berthe Gardès as his sole heir.
This version of his birth is to this day supported on web encyclopaedia Wikipedia.
What muddies the waters is that he had often referred in press interviews to his Uruguayan heritage and Tacuarembó as his birthplace, though he later acquired Argentinian citizenship in 1923.
These titbit newspaper cuttings are blown up to giant proportions and emblazoned across the walls of the museum, along with a birth certificate, circled childhood photographs and other memorabilia that purportedly disprove Berthe’s claims.
One even has an expert compare the head shapes and features of a photo of young Gardel with another Berthe had presented as the singer.
Some sources suggest the French version is the real one and Gardel’s Uruguayan passport stating his South American birthplace were falsified, potentially to avoid the French military draft.
But wherever he came from, what is indisputable is Gardel’s lasting effect on the music world.
The Magician’s magic lives on.
*A few months before his death Gardel filmed the movie Tango Bar. Watch him singing the famous “Por Una Cabeza”, here: