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Carlos Gardel's Tango-Cowboy Legacy Is 'Reborn And Remastered'


This is FRESH AIR. In Argentina, tango singer Carlos Gardel remains the country's most famous pop-star, even though he died young in a plane crash 80 years ago. Music critic Milo Miles reviews a new collection of Gardel's recordings, which Milo says will introduce the singer to a new worldwide audience.


CARLOS GARDEL: (Singing in Spanish).

MILO MILES, BYLINE: Many music fans could name at least one famous tango instrumentalist, Astor Piazzolla. Far fewer, I suspect, would be able to name even one tango singer. But if you are a tango enthusiast, there is far and away one vocalist, the timeless Carlos Gardel. Tango was arguably the first international music craze with its potent combination of dance and dramatic tunes. And Gardel became its voice, celebrated in New York and Paris. After all, he was born in France, in 1890, before emigrating with a single mother to Buenos Aires when he was 3. But the tragic end of his life eclipses all other events. In 1935, at the peak of his fame, the 44-year-old Gardel perished in a plane crash in Colombia along with his most renowned lyric writer, Alfredo Le Pera. Gardel does have a large recorded legacy, some 750 titles, including a definitive vocal rendition of the most famous tango.


GARDEL: (Singing in Spanish).

MILES: But there are technical problems with Gardel's original recordings. The importance of his new anthology on "Rough Guide" is revealed through the title, "Carlos Gardel: Reborn And Remastered."

A little history of sound fidelity on records is needed here. Back in the 1970s, I returned the first blues recordings from the 1920s I bought because they were so scratchy and muffled, I thought they must be defective. I was informed that one mark of a true aficionado was being able to pick out the music from the noise on LPs. Remastering has advanced mightily from that era. Listeners aren't going to pick through noise anymore. And as the liner notes to "Reborn And Remastered" correctly put it, (reading) some of the original songs sound small, tinny and fragile as if played by miniature musicians at the bottom of a gramophone funnel.

Gardel debuted with a hit in 1917, the year the initial jazz records were made. This reissue finally fixes that crude sound. By the 1930s, recordings were better and full orchestras were considered properly modern and big-time for a star like Gardel. Before now though, re-issues reduced these performances to Gardel's voice smothering clusters of strings behind him. "The Rough Guide's" much more nuanced remastering is evident on the presentation of the beloved ballad, "The Day That You Love Me."


GARDEL: (Singing in Spanish).

MILES: Popular singers from Gardel's time tend to sound like a heap of mannerisms slathered in sentimentality. Gardel conquers this in true tango cowboy fashion by being a bit of a rogue. Yes, he specializes in heartbreak, but he always throws in a smile and a wink to let you know that although he's sad, he's not feeling sorry for himself. This magnetism is already in place in his earliest recording, the bold and hungry lament, "My Sad Night," which has never sounded so vibrant.


GARDEL: (Singing in Spanish).

MILES: The final curious quality of Gardel's recordings is that he seems to have several voices - some lighter, some louder, some hearty, some almost airy. Is this the result of the studio set-up, or Gardel's skill at varying his persona? I would say projecting his persona, which he did in his 11 films as well. I would recommend the lighthearted movies, like, "Tango Bar" or "Tango On Broadway." The camera confirms Gardel was a superstar with a radiant, one-of-a-kind smile and as sexy as a guy with a quart of grease in his hair could be.

BIANCULLI: (Laughter) Milo Miles reviewed "Carlos Gardel: Reborn And Remastered" on the World Music Network label. Coming up, journalist Jessica Grose has some very personal thoughts about being the parent of a child about to go to school for the first time. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Milo Miles is Fresh Air's world-music and American-roots music critic. He is a former music editor of The Boston Phoenix.
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