Carlos Gardel

March 4, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

Carlos Gardel: Argentina’s beloved tango crooner

Carlos Gardel is by far Argentina’s most famous Tango singer and is a nationally adored figure. They say that if you’re itching to get into a fight with an Argentine, just insult any one of their holy trinity of heroes: Diego Maradona, Evita, or Carlos Gardel.

Carlos Gardel Argentina Icon tango

[Photo credit: Alfredo Davies’ Flickr/ /CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

Carlos Gardel was born Charles Gardes to single mother Berthe Gardes in Toulouse, France in 1890.  To escape the social stigma of having a child out of wedlock, Berthe migrated to Argentina, claiming to be a widow.  While we take these facts for granted today, Gardel’s origins were something of a mystery for many years: speculators argued over whether he was born in Uruguay, France, or Argentina.  This uncertainty only added to the mystique of the tango legend; similarly foggy are details of his love life and of his death.

Ms. Gardes and son, nicknamed Carlos, settled into the barrio (neighborhood) of Abasto.  As as a child, Carlitos worked in opera houses (Buenos Aires had five at the time, of which the Teatro Colon is the surviving example) organizing props, lifting curtains, and even rousing audiences as a professional applauder.  Inspired by the most important singers of the time, Gardel built his name singing in bars, horse races, and for private parties across Buenos Aires.  He was ultimately launched to fame by the fates of tango when he performed one of the first tango songs known to have lyrics, Mi Noche Triste (My sad night) in 1917.  The recording exploded across the Americas and established Gardel as tango’s original singer.

Gardel toured the world, and began filming movies with Paramount Pictures in Paris.  Fellow Argentine Alfredo Le Pera wrote tango lyrics understandable to a diverse Spanish-speaking audience for the films, breaking with the tradition of writing tangos in lunfardo (the slang dialect of Buenos Aires).  This duo is memorialized in multiple recordings of some of Gardel’s most famous songs, such as Mi Buenos Aires Querido (My dear Buenos Aires). Listen below:

Gardel’s tragic death and memorial

Gardel grave Chacarita

In 1935, Gardel and Le Pera were promoting their newest film, El día que me quieras, when their plane crashed during take-off in Medellín, Colombia.  Neither artist survived.  Gardel’s body was carried across Colombia, by steamboat to New York, Rio de Janeiro, Montevideo, and back to Buenos Aires. Huge street processions met the coffin in each city to mourn the loss of “Carlitos”.

Gardel is buried with his mother, in the Cemetery of Chacarita.  His grave, declared a National Monument by the late President Néstor Kirchner, boasts plaques of memorial from admirers around the world.  Taxi drivers are known pull up next to his grave, play a tango at full blast, and light a cigarette.  When the song is over, the driver places what’s left of the cigarette in the statue’s hand.   Fans also tuck a rose into the statue’s lapel, so Gardel remains ever debonair.  Since his death, Gardel’s memory persists such that there’s even a common saying, “cada día canta mejor”: he sings better every day.  It must be true, since in 2003, UNESCO declared Gardel’s voice to be Patrimony of Mankind.

Abasto: Gardel’s neighborhood

Gardel lyrics Pasaje Zelaya

Carlos Gardel was a true man of the arrabal, meaning a working-class neighborhood on the outskirts of the city.  In his time, Abasto marked the edge of the city, populated mainly by Italian immigrants, and life revolved around a market fair which brought produce from the country to the city.  Eventually, the Mercado del Abasto, a beautiful Art Deco building, was built to house the fair.  Though the building now contains a shopping mall, it’s a stunning jewel in Buenos Aires’s architectural pantheon.  Today, almost everything here is named after Gardel, from streets to cafes, and even newspaper stands boast the name of “El morocho del Abasto” (“The dark one from Abasto”).

Tango fans will find this part of town worth visiting.  Take a stroll down the Pasaje de Zelaya, a short pedestrian walk full of images of Gardel, and song lyrics on the walls and sidewalks.  Two of Buenos Aire’s best alternative theatre spaces are also on this walk: El Cubo and Teatro Ciego, the blind theatre company!  While shows at either of these venues are entirely in Spanish, they sometimes show dance productions or musical (and other sensory) works.

Gardel Abasto Fileteado

Turn the corner onto Jean Juares and enjoy houses decked out in fileteado artwork, the popular decorative art found on shop windows, buses, and sign posts around BA.  After one block you’ll find the Carlos Gardel Museum, which was the singer’s (and his mother’s) home.  The museum shows relics of Carlos’s life, and often hold events and shows.  If you’re lucky, you may stumble upon a tango lesson or music performance!  Then check out the Carlos Gardel pedestrian street, where you’ll find a statue of Gardel, posing under the Abasto’s arches, plus a tourist shop called “Regionales del Abasto”, worth visiting if only for the extraordinary fileteado artwork on the walls, as pictured here.

Note that even the subway stop for this part of the city is named Carlos Gardel.  Luca Prodan, another late Argentine music legend,  also lived in Abasto, and in the song Mañana en el Abasto, he sings about waking up in this ‘hood, sleeping in the abandoned Abasto building in the late 1980’s, then taking the subway from the Carlos Gardel station.

For more information on Gardel, listen to this piece on NPR or read on Rhythm Planet about a chance meeting between Carlos and Frank Sinatra!

Location and hours of Gardel attractions

Chacarita Cemetery:
Avenida Guzman 680 (between Elcano and Federico Lacroze), Chacarita
Sunday – Sunday: 8am to 6pm

Pasaje Zalaya:
Zelaya between Aguero and Jean Juares, Abasto

Carlos Gardel House Museum:
Jean Jaurés 735, between Zelaya and Tucuman, Abasto
Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday: 11am to 6om
Saturday, Sunday, Holidays: 10am to 7pm
Tuesdays: closed
Entrance fee: $1, Wednesday free

Carlos Gardel Pedestrian Street
Carlos Gardel between Jean Juares and Anchorena, Abasto

Abasto Shopping:
Corrientes 3247, between Aguero & Anchorena, Abasto
Open 10am to 10pm daily

Finding Borges

February 19, 2013 by · 10 Comments 

“A man sets out to draw the world. As the years go by, he peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses, and individuals. A short time before he dies, he discovers that the patient labyrinth of lines traces the lineaments of his own face.” – Jorge Luis Borges

Centro Cultural Borges

Several of Argentina’s icons and leaders have permanent places here in Buenos Aires. The country’s liberator, Don Jose de San Martin, lies in a tomb at the national cathedral, guarded every day by soldiers in historical uniform. The Evita museum pays respect to the life of Argentina’s most famous female figure. Xul Solar, an abstract painter, has 100 of his paintings on display at his former townhouse, now a museum.

The list goes until Jorge Luis Borges, the literary giant who mused about labyrinths, eternity and felines. His short stories and poetry will undoubtedly be read, analyzed and admired for decades. When I flipped through tourist books, nothing notable is mentioned about a Borges museum, or a place dedicated to his legacy. Channeling my inner literary nerd, I sought out to find an homage to Borges.

Borges’ San Telmo Office

A helpful New York Times article on Borges gave me a general outline of places to visit (some places mentioned – like the Confiteria Richmond – unfortunately no longer exist). I first ventured to San Telmo to the former National Library, now the National Center of Music, where Borges served as its director in 1955. Located at Mexico 564, the old National Library seems out of place. The building appears too grand and too big for such a quiet street. When I walked in, the magnificent architecture immediately struck me. A place worthy of Borges!

National LIbrary

My hopes to see Borges’ old office and the library were dashed when the front desk informed me the museum was under renovation until February for a new exhibit. Borges is still very much a part of the building today. From October to December, French artist Christian Boltanski paid tribute to Borges at the library with his “Flying Books,” exhibit, where he suspended hundreds of opened books from the ceiling. Although I didn’t attend, the exhibit gave the building a surreal image.

National Library Inside

Next to the National Library is El Historico, an upscale Argentine restaurant housed in the former building of the Argentine Society of Writers. The restaurant was practically empty for lunch hour in January, which allowed me to look around. Walking through the first doorway on the right, I saw an old plaque of the Society’s board of directors, 1942-1944. A Sr. Jorges Luis Borges is listed a few names down.

Borges Plaque

I walked back to Avenida de Mayo and took the A Line, the oldest subway line in the Southern Hemisphere, which connects to the C line going to Retiro. I got off at Plaza San Martin, which is a short block from one of Borges’ old apartments where he lived intermittently for 40 years. Located at Maipu 994, and closed off to the public, I was only able to take pictures of the outside. The doorman informed me that Borges lived on the sixth floor. I asked if he knew of any places where I could find a good collection of Borges work, and he suggested the Centro Cultural Borges in the Galerias Pacifico mall. I was certain he was fooling me. A Borges center in a shopping mall? With too much time on my hands, I went with low expectations.

Centro Cultural Borges—A Pleasant Surprise

Upon arriving at Galerias Pacifico, bustling shoppers surrounded me on their way to the next high-end clothing store. Ugh. I asked an information desk about this “Centro Borges,” and the receptionist told me to go to the top floor. I continued on, certain I was wasting my Borges afternoon in a packed mall.

Evita

Opened in 2003, the Centro Cultural Borges is an incredibly pleasant surprise. It is the closest place Buenos Aires has to a museum for him. On the top floor of the Galerias Pacifico, which is in a beautiful, French-style building, is the Centro. It’s so quiet I quickly forgot I was in a mall. There’s a room dedicated to the life and work of Borges, and several other rooms that host paintings of famous artists and photographers. Painter Diego Torres currently has a collection of his brilliantly colored paintings of famous women on display (above, Evita). An impressive exhibit of photographs by Tina Modotti occupies another gallery room.

The room dedicated to Borges has a few original pages of the transcript from “The Aleph,” arguably his most famous work. Several of his famous quotes adorn the white plaster walls too. The front page of La Nacion, a respected newspaper, from the day Borges died is framed. He covered nearly the entire page. One wall lists many important Borges places in Buenos Aires – old apartments, offices, cafes he frequented – along with interesting facts. For instance, at his apartment Anchorena 1672, where Borges lived from 1938-43, he wrote the short story “Las Ruinas Circulares.” Although born in an apartment at Tucuman 838, Borges spent his childhood at his grandparents house in Palermo at Serrano 2135, a street that is now named in his honor.

Sitting at Borges’ desk

Jorge Luis Borges

[*Update April 2016 – Unfortunately the bookstore La Ciudad mentioned below has now closed. We are adding this note to save people from a wasted journey, but are leaving the original text below so as not to take away from the article*]

For my last stop, I went back to Calle Maipu to check out La Ciudad bookstore, a place Borges was a regular at, according to the New York Times article. Tucked into a small shopping gallery (the Galeria del Este at Maipu 971), La Ciudad maintains its antique atmosphere very well. A desk covered with old editions of Borges’ work welcomes visitors.

When I walked in, a bookstore clerk suggested I sit at the desk. Worried he thought I was buying a very expensive Borges book, I made it clear I only came to look. The clerk waved off my concern, pulled the chair out and asked me to sit. The old wooden chair wobbled and creaked as I lowered into it. I thought it might break. The clerk pointed to the picture frame on the desk. I looked closely and sure enough, it was an old, frail Borges sitting in the exact same chair. I smiled from ear to ear, completely ecstatic. However small, I felt some connection with him, sitting in his old chair.

Borges Apartment

I began my trek to find an homage to Borges with a simple narrative: there’s got to be one place out there where I can spend the afternoon admiring his work. The architect of literary labyrinths and infinite time probably shook his head at me from his heavenly library. Borges was known for aimlessly strolling around Buenos Aires. With a little imagination, it’s not difficult to picture him walking out of the National Library, La Ciudad or his apartment on Maipu.

In “The Aleph,” he describes an anonymous house on a random corner in the neighborhood of Constitucion where the Aleph resides as, “the only place on earth where all places are.” Such symbolism seems to have carried over from his fiction to his legacy. Infinity, and Borges, can exist anywhere.

Borges’ cosmic literary concepts cannot be held in a museum. Yes, the Centro Cultural Borges does a good job of commemorating his life, but it’s also a platform for other artists. To find Borges, I needed to weave my way through my own labyrinth, not only visiting scheduled places, but asking around, getting lost and discovering the city he loved.

Other places to visit on the Borges trail

  • Cafe Tortoni: oldest cafe in the city. It has a wax statue of Borges sitting in a chair. Located on Avenida de Mayo near the corner of Suipacha.
  • El Preferido: opened in the 1950s, Borges mentions it in one of his poems. Located on the corner of Jorge Luis Borges and Guatemala, it’s become a famous restaurant because of its ties to Borges. The place remains much like it did during Borges time (minus the English menu). It’s the pink building, which dates back to the 19th century.
  • Jorge Luis Borges International Foundation: Run by Borges’ widow, Maria Kodama, the foundation has several of Borges first edition books in several languages. But, you can only visit the foundation by appointment and its hours are 9:30am-2pm daily. Located at Anchorena 1660 in Recoleta.

Map with some Borges locations mentioned in this blog post

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