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article imageIt takes two to tango: ‘Rioplatenses’ quarrel over La Cumparsita Special

By Igor I. Solar     Apr 6, 2011 in Travel
Buenos Aires - A little march composed by a young student around 1916 for a carnival troupe taking part in the festivities organized by the Student Federation of Uruguay became the most popular exponent of the tango and a subject of controversy for two countries.
Gerardo Matos was born in Montevideo in 1897. At the age of 18, when he wrote the music of "La Cumparsita" (Spanish for “The Little Parade” or “The Little Marching Band”) he was a student of Architecture at the University of Montevideo and a piano aficionado. Once the student’s carnival was over he thought about the possibility of arranging the tune into a tango. Through a friend, he asked for help from Roberto Firpo, a celebrated orchestra leader, who was at the time performing at a renowned tango bar in Montevideo. Firpo recognized the potential of the piece and decided to arrange it, adding a few compasses extracted from two of his previous little- known compositions. On that basis, Firpo suggested to share authorship of the piece, offer which Gerardo rejected.
Gerardo Matos  Uruguayan composer  created the music of tango La Cumparsita.
Gerardo Matos, Uruguayan composer, created the music of tango La Cumparsita.
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History tells that Firpo, through and agent, purchased the music from Matos for “20 gold pesos” which the boy lost the following day at the racetrack. When the purchasing agreement was voided because Matos was under-age, he had to come up with the money to reimburse the purchaser. This saved his right to the music that later on became the best known and most successful tango of all times.
Gerardo never graduated from Architecture school. He left school attracted by the fascination of music and the exciting nightlife of Montevideo. He later composed several pieces of technical merit however, with the exception of a few that became somewhat popular, none reached the extraordinary success of La Cumparsita.
Gerardo Matos did not stay in Uruguay very long. He travelled to Buenos Aires and Paris. He spent some time in Germany where he was consul of Uruguay. While in Paris, he worked occasionally as a journalist and tango composer, collaborating in the musical score for the movie “Luces de Buenos Aires” (“Lights of Buenos Aires”) starring famous tango singer Carlos Gardel.
While he was in Paris and because of the visit of Francisco Canaro and his Argentine tango orchestra, he found out that La Cumparsita had become a big success in Argentina after two tango lyricists, Pascual Contursi and Enrique Maroni, had written words for the tango and renamed it “Si supieras” (“If you knew”). Soon after, the famous tango became popular in France and all Europe. As a result of the popularity of “La Cumparsita/Si Supieras”, tango as a musical gender benefited greatly and became better known worldwide (mostly in Finland and in Japan).
Francisco Canaro and his orchestra visited Paris and told Matos about the great success of  La Cumpa...
Francisco Canaro and his orchestra visited Paris and told Matos about the great success of "La Cumparsita" in Argentina. Canaro was also instrumental in the settlement of the court cases in 1948.
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Matos angrily rejected the changes made to his tango and the words added by Contursi and Maroni. He spent the next twenty years of his life fighting for the rights to his original tango by launching
Carlos Gardel was the first singer to record  La Cumparsita . He was sued by Gerardo Matos to stop t...
Carlos Gardel was the first singer to record "La Cumparsita". He was sued by Gerardo Matos to stop the sale of the recording with new lirycs.
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three successive lawsuits. The first, against the Publishing House that purchased the work in Montevideo; the second, opposing the Argentine lyricists for adding words to his tango without his consent; and the third, to stop Carlos Gardel from recording and selling his tango with the new lyrics. Finally, he was sued for damages by Maroni and Contursi’s widow. Matos died from an unspecified illness at the age of 51, before the court case was settled in 1948.
The controversy over the ownership of the tango masterpiece did not end with the legal settlements of the court cases. Both countries, Uruguay and Argentina, consider La Cumparsita as their own; Uruguay because of the music composed by Matos and Argentina in view of the fact that Argentine nationals added the lyrics and made it famous.
In 1997, as a way to resolve the impasse, a joint session of the Senate and House of Representatives of Uruguay, declared the famous tango a Cultural and Popular Hymn (Law N° 16,905, translated from Spanish):
DECREE:
Article 1. It is hereby declared that "La Cumparsita", created by Uruguayan Gerardo Hernán Matos Rodriguez, premiered in Montevideo on April 19, 1917, is the Cultural and Popular Hymn of the Republic of Uruguay;
Article 2. The declaration provided in the preceding article includes only the music, not reaching the lyrics that may have been added to the aforementioned musical composition.
Nonetheless, at the opening ceremony of the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney the Argentine team marched to the sound of "La Cumparsita”. The Uruguayan Olympic Committee submitted an irate protest to the International Olympic Committee. It was not the first time Uruguay had a reason for complaint. They had protested twice before about the use of their Cultural and Popular Hymn by their neighbours from across the Río de La Plata. Argentina had used La Cumparsita as the official music for their stand in Seville Expo’92 and again in 1996 at the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games in Atlanta.
Controversies aside, the fact is that Tango music and dance in general, and “La Cumparsita” in particular, as the world’s most famous and recognized of all tangos, have a place in the hearts of Uruguayan, Argentines and every citizen of the world that cherishes music and cultural expressions.
Tango dancers - Buenos Aires
Tango dancers - Buenos Aires
In a recent visit to the Argentine capital, this reporter had the opportunity to attend a Tango Show where La Cumparsita, the most celebrated tango in history, was magnificently performed by Argentine, Uruguayan and Brazilian dancers (my video below).
Tango dancers - Buenos Aires
Tango dancers - Buenos Aires
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