Charlo: not just a singer, also a musician and composer

Few modern-day dancers and even DJs truly realise how important tango canción has been in tango music as a whole. Tango canción can be explained as a recording of a tango lyric fully sung by a singer, who is totally in the spotlights, while the music is mere accompaniment. We can summarize its origins in an easy, slightly simplistic way: Carlos Gardel was the “original” tango singer, and everybody else wanted to become as famous as him. Most international tango people barely even know who Gardel is, but they have all heard, let’s say, Roberto Rufino a thousand times, and it’s not hard to see why. Yet, if we want to understand tango music history better, we need to sometimes go out of our dance music comfort zone to discover less obvious aspects of the music, such as that tango canción and dance music were more intertwined than we’d like to think.

So, I just stated slightly bluntly that everyone wanted to be like Gardel, and more concretely, that means a lot of singers wanted to become famous soloists. This usually meant that singers who were succesful in dance orchestras would tend to abandon them and pursue a career as a soloist. And the other way around, some singers who are adored by a lot of current-day dancers, spent many years singing tango canción before they joined a dance orchestra and are famous to us simply for doing so. Either way, a lot of potential dancing material was never recorded. Back in the day and even until the 80’s, most of the audience also seemed to prefer tango canción and a lot of publicity material was geared towards such singers. Eventually, I will explain you more about this topic with various examples, but today, let’s focus on one of the greatest soloist singers, Charlo, who actually deserves more credit than just the denomination of “soloist singer” and can even be considered some kind of homo universalis of tango music.

Have you ever heard someone sing extremely sentimentally about demolished, old homes? Well, welcome to tango, the anthem of the world’s capital of faded glory:

Charlo was the artist name of Carlos José Pérez, who was born in a family of rich pampa landowners from the deep Argentine countryside. As a boy, he was musically gifted and the wealth of his parents allowed him to get a good musical education early on. Later, Charlo was sent to a renowned university in La Plata, a city near Buenos Aires, and eventually the whole family moved to Buenos Aires, where Charlo spent time studying at an excellent conservatory and where he would find his destiny as a tango singer. Proud of his origins, he would always retain some kind of “dandy”, elitist presentation and at some point even added the pretentious-sounding name “de la Riestra” to his own, dime-a-dozen Spanish surname. Like many others, Charlo initially copied Gardel’s style, but he was strategic, intelligent and musically skilled enough to move on and create his own. A fun fact: he at some point declared he never listened to Gardel, not because of envy, but because he was afraid of subconsciously imitating that style – they were friends, and both stars in this relatively early era of tango singing.

Even though Charlo can almost be called the quintessential tango canción singer, with an incredibly long career that greatly outlasted Gardel’s (who died young, in an airplane crash, which surely contributed to the myths around his persona), he is also present as a refrain singer in a lot of “guardia vieja” music. Collaborating with big names such as Francisco Canaro, Francisco Lomuto, Roberto Firpo (no records!) and Adolfo Carabelli, his singing is far from unappreciated among people who love these older tunes. Maybe understandably so, Charlo wasn’t too happy with this very limited, somewhat thankless role and his singing does not always really, let’s say, shine in recordings like this. Fortunately for him, he was an important figure and therefore managed to also record tango canción music with Canaro and Carabelli. And unfortunately for us, there isn’t anything in between: there is simply no Golden Age dance music with this singer, and it was only during the Golden Age when the best balance was found between dance music and more present, but not dominant singing.

I feel like this lack of significant presence in dance music is a great shame, because Charlo is a musically masterful singer who I think deserves all his fame as a soloist singer – even though I’m not sure how much I personally like his voice. The problem is, that as someone who is a great fan of tango (dance) music, most tango canción material is musically uninteresting and the overpresent singing just feels like “too much” for me. So, even though I generally enjoy Charlo’s refined voice, I do not necessarily enjoy listening to all of his soloist material, a problem I also have with other, similar singers such as Gardel, Alberto Gómez, Ada Falcón, etcetera. But, hey, instead of wallowing in the injustices of history, let’s remind ourselves of the point of today’s article: Charlo was way more than just a singer, and it requires a closer look to see exactly how.

charlo músico

As mentioned earlier, Charlo had been blessed with a good musical education, and he was skilled with the piano, the guitar and, as we can see above, the accordion. He also used his piano to compose music, and there are some great tango classics by his hand, something you wouldn’t typically expect from a singer in those days. Just because I love these songs so much, and because I am a DJ, I invite you to listen to them in their most famous dance music versions: Rondando tu esquina, Fueye, Horizontes, Tormento, Sin lágrimas, El viejo vals and the milonga No hay tierra como la mía. A special case is Ave de paso, a very melodic, almost non-tango like song about a “tropical” romance, with lyrics written by famous tango poet Enrique Cadícamo, during a stay in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It’s worth noting that all these classics have lyrics by the best poets, so Charlo wasn’t exactly a random hobbyist writing down some notes, but a gifted composer with an eye for profound, lyrical storytelling. There’s even a video with a live performance by an old Charlo where he sings and plays the piano at the same time – and as if that wasn’t enough, both the music and the lyrics of the song are of his own creation.

We can definitely conclude that Charlo was some kind of universal man of tango music, being not just one of its most famous singers, with a staggering 1,100 recordings, but also a skilled musician and a successful composer. It’s even said some other tango musicians, who were less skilled in a technical sense, asked him to help write out their ideas or requested other types of musical assistance. Charlo was also an international icon, famous both in Latin American countries and Europe thanks to his many international tours – a topic little understood by the general public (yes! that means I will write about it!), but a lot of tango singers gained international fame the same way. And like I said before, Charlo cultivated an image of dandiness. He actually became an icon of style and refinement, and was also known as a ladies’ man, tending to get involved in intense love affairs. And lastly, he was also a sports person, taking great care of his physical health with exercise, swimming and boxing (omg, that’s me? Wait, I’m not a womanizing dandy, though), getting involved in fencing and even playing as a keeper in football matches between other men from the tango scene. No, these stories are not a joke, this is everything a tango singer was apparently capable of. And yet, he was not capable of recording some Golden Age dance music? Go figure.

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2 Responses to Charlo: not just a singer, also a musician and composer

  1. Petra says:

    Again, great story, thank you 🙏.

    Liked by 1 person

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