Matos Rodríguez, a young student at the time, composed the song on an old, humble piano. At first it was a carnival march, the reason its name alludes to the colorful groups of carnival revelers called comparsas.
The composer liked to say that his masterpiece was born of “a magic moment.” And making magic would be its destiny.
“I later composed more tangos and other kinds of songs,” he said. “Some were better than the first, but ‘La Cumparsita’ embodies a world of illusions and sadness, dreams and nostalgia that we only experience when we are twenty years old.”
The Argentine songwriting duo of Pascual Contursi and Enrique Maroni composed the most famous lines of “La Cumparista”: Desde el día que te fuiste siento angustias en mi pecho. Decí percanta ¿qué has hecho de mi pobre corazón? (“Since the day you left I’ve felt anguish in my chest. Tell me, you tramp, what have you done to my poor heart?”)
Carlos Gardel’s voice and unique performance gave the song its mythic status. It’s said that for contemporary composer Astor Piazzolla, “La Cumparsita” was not the most creative of tangos, but still, he recorded it several times and performed it frequently. Experts say that the best version is by the legendary orchestra led by Juan D’Arienzo (known as the “King of Rhythm”), but versions by Gardel and Julio Sosa are equally beloved.
Can you be a part of the world of tango without being touched by this song? Probably not. And while Uruguay is officially honoring the 100th birthday of “La Cumparsita” this year, its passion for the composition is shared around the world.
We took to the streets of Buenos Aires, where we found that “La Cumparsita” is an invisible thread that unites everyone whose livelihood -and life- is tango.
Here are some of their stories.
Laguzzi was a dancer, and she uses all of her know-how in the clothing she designs for her Mimí Pinzón line: fabrics with the right weight and just the right amount of shine, colors that complement skin and hair, and dresses that will never expose too much of a woman’s body. “Tango is suggestion but nothing can ever be seen,” she syas. And when she designs she considers all of the possible ways that the tango can be danced. “Classic, romantic, nostalgic, passionate, aggressive.”
Wardrobe and shoe designer
She trained as a ballet dancer at Teatro Colón, Argentina’s most prestigious theater. But tango seduced her early on. She traveled the world for 20 years, first with maestro Mariano Mores’ orchestra, and then with tango group Sexteto Mayor. “We went to places where tango had not yet arrived,” she recalls. “Like China, Turkey and Finland.”
Her most intense memory links “La Cumparsita” and Colombia. “They love Carlos Gardel and are real tango fanatics there,” she explains. “We finished dancing to the beautiful version that maestro Mores and his musicians would perform, and the people stood up and applauded. And they wouldn’t stop, they wouldn’t stop applauding. So I looked at the maestro out of the corner of my eye, he nodded, and the orchestra played the first notes of “La Cumparsita” again. It was the only time I ever experienced anything like that. We had to dance it again. And the public exploded.”
For the past 22 years, “La Cumparsita” has signaled the last dance of the night at La Viruta, one of the best-known milongas, or tango dance parties, in Buenos Aires. “It’s our hymn,” says Troncoso, a dancer and tango expert who organizes the dances with fellow tango connoisseur Horacio “Pebete” Godoy. Interestingly, the milonga has become hugely popular among local young people and tourists from around the world, a testament to tango’s current popularity.
“The golden age was in the 1940s, then interest in tango started to die down,” Troncoso says. “It was at its lowest point in the 70s and 80s, but there was a comeback in the 90s. When we started La Viruta, we understood that it was almost an obligation for us to maintain the relationship between young people and tango; that’s how it survives.”
“Today it’s incredible how many young orchestras, dancers and musicians there are in the circuit,” she adds.
The crowd may be young, but everyone respects the old-school code of tango. The dance floor is located in the center of the hall and is surrounded by tables. The best couples dance counterclockwise on the outside of the floor, almost touching the tables. “Our goal is for more and more people to know and love the tango,” says Troncoso. “But also for them to be able to dance it.”
When Domingo “Mingo” Agnese decided to take up the bandoneon, he did it with a vengeance. His teacher was Juan Carlos Caviello, who played the instrument with tango innovator Roberto Firpo. Caviello was a living legend who created various teaching methods and was the director of the Buenos Aires Musical Conservatory. He died two years ago. Agnese remembers him as a “Beautiful old guy. He was from a generation that had no formal training. They played almost since they were kids, with soul, and they transmitted an incredible passion when they played.”
Agnese had the privilege of playing “La Cumparsita” together with Caviello hundreds of times. And he keeps on performing it as the bandoneon player in a unique corner of Buenos Aires: the Centro Cultural de los Artistas in the La Boca neighborhood, the must-visit destination for tango-lovers. “I play ’La Cumparsita’ 300 times a day,” he says with a big smile. “But I still like it, I enjoy it. I don’t know what it is, but it’s a song that shakes you up, that goes direct to the heart; it’s always there right in your chest,” Agnese explains. “Astor Piazzolla said that [with the bandoneon] there’s a whole keyboard within reach of your fingers. It’s what lets you go from a high note to a low note in an instant, and gives it a special kind of nuance.
“When I started studying, I didn’t have an instrument and maestro Caviello lent me his,” Agnese recalls. “At home I practiced on a piece of paper that I had drawn a keyboard on.”
Eventually, he was able to buy his own bandoneon. It’s the one he still plays today.
They are the current winners in (in the dance floor category) of the World Tango Championship, which took place in Buenos Aires in August 2016. This year, the title will take them on tour to Europe, the United States, Canada, Mexico and Costa Rica. Like many other couples, Cristian and Melisa met at a milonga. And after just one dance, they knew they had the chemistry to dance tango together. “In that intimate embrace, cheek to cheek, you feel the other person breathing, their heatbeat, their perfume, their energy,” Melisa says.
Cristian Palomo y Melisa Sacchi
After dancing together for five years, they’ve lost track of how many times they’ve performed “La Cumparsita.” “I think as dancers it’s a part of us,” says Palomo. While she has been dancing almost since she can remember, he left the family business to risk everything for this dream.
Their secret, says Sacchi, is being perceptive.
“By widening our perception as much as possible we can understand the different steps of our partner,” she explains. And the man “should be very respectful, patient, genuine and a gentleman,” adds Palomo. “The role of the man, or leader, as it’s also called, is to dance and to make your partner dance. Either you both shine or no one does.”