Unbeknownst to many, tango is not just a form of dance. Tango is also a type of music, music that accompanies the soulful dance. The most popular among all tango songs is La Cumparsita, written by Uruguayan Gerardo Hernan Matos Rodriquez.
Who was Rodriquez?
Rodríguez was born in Uruguay on March 28, 1897, in the city of Montevideo. To people close to him, Rodríguez went by the nickname Becho. He was not only an Uruguayan musician and composer, Rodriquez was also a journalist.
Rodríguez’ father, Emilio Matos, was the owner of the local cabaret, the popular Moulin Rouge. In college, he took up architecture but was not able to finish his course. At a young age, some sources said he was 17 while others said he was 20, he began composing music. His exposure to the music in his father’s cabaret must have had an influence in the young Becho. Rodríguez’ first recognized work is said to have been his best, a piece he called La Cumparsita. He wrote this piano piece while at Uruguay’s Federación de Estudiantes.
He eventually ventured out into the world and reached Europe where he spent time in Paris as well as Germany. Rodríguez served as the consular representative of the country of Uruguay to Germany. It was in 1931 that the Uruguayan native collaborated on the musical score for the film Luces de Buenos Aires. The movie, which that starred Carlos Gardel, one of the most renowned tango vocalists at that time, was filmed in Joinville-le-Pont, France.
For a time, Rodríguez led a tango orchestra back in his native Montevideo. He also composed musical pieces for stage plays in Buenos Aires. Some of the lyricists he worked with during his time were Juan B.A. Reyes, Enrique Cadícamo, Fernán Silva Valdés, Victor Soliño, and Manuel Romero.
Some of Rodriquez’ other tango compositions are:
• Che papusa, oí
• La muchacha del circo
• Pobre corazón
• San Telmo
• Son grupos
Rodríguez passed away on April 25, 1948 at the age of 51 in Montevideo.
La Cumparsita’s History
La Cumparsita means “the little cumparsa.” “Cumparsa” is a Lunfardo (dialect of the lower classes developed towards the end of the 19th century in Argentina, specifically in Buenos Aires) that refers to a set of people attending carnivals wearing similar fashion or outfits.
When Rodríguez wrote La Cumparsita, he had a carnival band in mind. The musical score landed in the hands of Roberto Firpo, an orchestra leader. Some say Rodríguez’ friends gave it to Firpo when he was at the La Giralda café in Montevideo. Others have said that Rodríguez himself sold it to Firpo for a mere 20 pesos. Whatever the truth is, La Cumparsita fell into the masterful hands of Firpo who tweaked the music by adding parts of his own tango compositions into Rodríguez’ work. By 1924, lyrics were added by Pascual Contursi and Enrique Maroni, both Argentines.
In the years to come, so much controversy surrounded La Cumparsita. Rodríguez heard the music while he was in Paris. He was told that the song was called “Si Supieras.” Francisco Canaro, the man playing “Si Supieras” at that time, told Rodríguez that the song was very popular with orchestras.
This discovery of Rodríguez led to legal battles left and right. Controversy enveloped La Cumparsita for many years. In fact, in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, the Olympic team from Argentina marched to La Cumparsita during the opening ceremonies. This resulted in a protest submitted by the Uruguayan Olympic Committee to the International Olympic Committee.
In the early 90’s, specifically during the Seville Expo ’92, La Cumparsita played at the Argentine stand. During the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, Argentina also used the popular tango during the games’ opening ceremonies.
Argentina and Uruguay both claim ownership of La Cumparsita. According to the government of Uruguay, Rodriquez, the original composer was Uruguayan. But the Argentine government argued that the lyrics that made the music famous were written by two Argentines. The Uruguayans and the Argentines have always been at odds when it came to tango, both dance and music. It is important to note though that it shared credit for the music and the dance when they petitioned UNESCO to include tango in the list of “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.” The Argentine and Uruguayan tango made it to the 2009 list.
All the controversies that surrounded La Cumparsita do not matter. Even if La Cumparsita went through a number of reworks and changes here and there, it remains as the song/music most associated to the sultry dance of tango. La Cumparsita’s popularity and its ability to tug at the hearts and souls of tango dancers worldwide will never wane. Uruguayan Gerardo Hernan Matos Rodriquez’s place in tango history has been cemented for eternity.