On June 24th, 1935, at the tender age of 44, the world lost the man who came to represent not just the tango, but the heart and soul of Argentine culture around the world: Carlos Gardel.
“El Zorzal Criollo” (The Creole Thrush), “El Morocho del Abasto” (The Dark-Haired Boy from Abasto), and “El Mago” (The Wizard) are just a few of the epithets lovingly bestowed on this “Maestro among Maestros,” whom Argentines famously insist “cada día canta mejor” (sings better every day).
But how did one man capture the admiration of an entire nation, achieving saint-like status among a people known for their fickle attitudes toward even their most famous figures? If there were ever a place to get an answer to that question, surely it is within the walls he called home at 735 Jean Jaurés street in the bustling neighborhood of Abasto.
A Brief History
This week is rather significant in the history of the Gardel family. It marks both the 91st anniversary of the original purchase of the house by Gardel (on July 9th, 1926) and the 74th anniversary of the death of “La Doña Berta”— Carlos’ beloved mother (on July 7th, 1943). Thirty years after her passing, in 1973, the house was massively renovated into a dance space and operated for almost 10 years as a popular milonga under the name “La Casa de Carlos Gardel,” even hosting the inaugural performance of well-known orquesta El Sexteto Mayor.
Long after this milonga closed down, the house was purchased in a private sale and transferred to the care of the city of Buenos Aires in 2000. Operating as a museum since 2003, the city recently reopened its doors after a massive 8.5 month renovation effort to commemorate the 82nd anniversary of his death.
My first visit to the house was in 2011, and the changes that it has undergone since then are substantial. Replacing the collage-style jumble of mismatched picture frames, a few uniformly-mounted portraits now march in steady rows along the freshly painted walls. The hat stand, grandfather clock, and countless other folksy artifacts that once suggested a recently lived-in space have been abandoned in favor of a modern, minimalistic look. Open spaces that invite reflection now dominate where overstuffed memorabilia cases used to suffocate.
Clearly, cuts had to be made and walls removed to achieve this new artistic vision that seeks to retain the “spirit” of the house rather than the original contents.
Not all Argentines are happy with the changes. In fact, some are outright infuriated, calling the overhaul a “disappointment” at best and a “disaster” at worst. For a man whose graveside statue is constantly supplied with a lit cigarette by one devoted Argentine or another, this reaction was predictable. When it comes to their dear Carlitos, porteños would prefer to stop time— to bask in what is left of his afterglow in their insistence that his embers never burn out.
The Museum Today
For the newcomers to this space, however, there’s no denying that it has much to offer the Gardel enthusiast. Starting with the very first “sala,” the singer comes alive through photos of his youth and adolescence in room #1, followed by an impressive presentation of his complete discography and collected recordings in room #2. Continuing on, a somber room #3 is dedicated to his tragic demise, capped off by a final permanent exhibit room featuring a live screening area and his full filmography.
To the left of room #4, a temporary exhibit hall currently shows imagery from the Abasto neighborhood as Gardel would have seen it near the turn of the century.
Fair warning: none of the signage is in English, so bring a translator if you really want to appreciate every last detail. Although there are no free informational handouts available, the museum offers a beautifully-produced booklet at the front desk for 70 pesos (about $4 USD as of the time of this writing, also in Spanish).
Some highlights from each exhibit include:
- Room 1: Family photos of both his mother and estranged father; a restored Sonora gramophone; a rare photo of couples dancing the tango as early as 1905
- Room 2: An oversized glass plaque inscribed with every recording Gardel ever made in chronological order; listening stations where you can enjoy every song in his repertoire (893 in total!)
- Room 3: Haunting video footage of a smiling Gardel waving to the crowd before boarding the plane that would take his life; the memorial poncho that draped his casket for his funeral
- Room 4: An original score for his hit song “Mi Buenos Aires Querido”; an oversized portrait of Carlitos looking his most dapper in a tuxedo and top hat
… with so many more gems to be discovered!
Answering The Question
After wandering around for almost 3 hours and soaking up every picture and placard, the reasons for Gardel’s superstar status began to emerge. First and foremost, his reputation for having a truly magical voice is well-deserved— he made vocal perfection look effortless. He was also irrefutably handsome, and devilishly well-dressed— but then, Argentina has never suffered a shortage of good-looking, stylish gents!
No, the real reason for his iconic status had to do with something far deeper than his suave suits or soothing voice. Namely, Carlitos was exceptional at straddling the line between the world of the wealthy celebrity and the working man. Quite simply, Gardel became a hero because, in every way, he chose moderation in the face of excess.
While he claimed an overabundance of money, he elected to live in a modest Abasto flat with his mother. Though women threw themselves at him, he never chased them and was quite devoted in his affections. While he could have easily wasted away the hours as an idle playboy, he chose to work and constantly improve his craft as a singer. And when he did finally relax, his pastime of choice aligned with that of the typical Argentine of his day: gambling at the horse races (always with a cigar or a drink in hand).
With a warm smile and a kind word for everyone he met, Gardel stole more hearts for his good manners than his good looks. The son of a French immigrant, he fully adopted the Argentine culture as his own— and, in return, they made him their Favorite Son.
PREPARE FOR YOUR VISIT
Address: Jean Jaurés 735
Nearest subte stop: Line H @ Corrientes
Entrance fee: 10 pesos (Wednesday free)
Hours: M, W, Th, & F 11:00a-6:00p; Sat, Sun, & holidays 10:00a-7:00p
Email: [email protected]
Website: Museo Casa Carlos Gardel
Telephone: +54 011 4964-2015/2071
Facebook: Museo Casa Carlos Gardel