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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

We're about to learn about the legendary life and legendary voice of Carlos Gardel. The Argentine singer introduced tango to the world and became a movie star in the 1930s.

NPR's Mandalit Del Barco traveled to Argentina's capital for our series 50 Great Voices.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)

MANDALIT DEL BARCO: Here on the streets of Buenos Aires, Carlos Gardel's image is everywhere, especially here in his old neighborhood, Abasto.

MIGUEL ANGEL GODINHO: (Foreign language spoken)

DEL BARCO: Gardel is the greatest ever, repeats taxi driver Miguel Angel Godinho. Look, I have goose bumps, he says. Like many Portenos, as the people of Buenos Aires are known, Godinho can't forget Gardel, even though the singer has been dead for 75 years.

CARLOS GARDEL: (Singing in foreign language)

DEL BARCO: Godinho blasts old Gardel recordings while driving through what was once a neighborhood of Italian immigrants, where Carlos Gardel grew up singing in local bars, restaurants and markets.

The house where Gardel lived with his mother is now a museum. Horacio Torres is its director.

HORACIO TORRES: (Through Translator) Gardel represents the immigrant who triumphs, a boy from the neighborhood who captivated the world.

DEL BARCO: Scholars continue to argue over Gardel's origins; Uruguay also claims him as its own. But biographer Osvaldo Barsky says documents prove Gardel was born Charles Romauld Gardes in Toulouse, France, to a single mother. They immigrated to Argentina's capitol when he was three years old.

OSVALDO BARSKY: (Foreign language spoken)

DEL BARCO: Barsky says as a young boy, Gardel worked at opera houses - Buenos Aires had five at the time. That's where he learned to sing operas and Spanish operettas or Zarzuelas. He also sang Criolla music, a folkloric style from the Argentine countryside. Then Gardel went one step further, when he began singing tangos. He recorded his first in 1917.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MI NOCHE TRISTE")

GARDEL: (Singing in foreign language)

DEL BARCO: "Mi Noche Triste" - "My Sad Night" - is a now-classic tango, the story of a man pining for the woman who rejected him.

GARDEL: (Singing in foreign language)

DEL BARCO: Gardel aficionado Juan Carlos Apicella says until "Mi Noche Triste," almost all tangos were purely instrumental.

JUAN CARLOS APICELLA: (Through Translator) One of the greatest revolutions of tango is that recording of "Mi Noche Triste." That's when singing tango was born. After that, everyone began writing poetry for tangos.

DEL BARCO: Gardel helped popularize the style as it moved from the underground dance salons to the upper classes. Then, in the 1930s, he introduced tango to the rest of the world. With his ensemble of Argentina's best guitarists, he toured South America, France and the United States. His celebrity grew when he began starring in Spanish language movies, co-produced by his own company.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LOS LUCES DE BUENOS AIRES")

DEL BARCO: His first speaking role was in the 1931 film "Los Luces de Buenos Aires," "The Lights of Buenos Aires." Gardel portrayed an Argentine cowboy, a gaucho. In other films, he embodied the elegant Latin Lover with a fedora, a tux and silk scarves.

GUSTAVO SANTOALALLA: How cool he was. You know? I mean what a sense of style, as an artist and as a gentleman. He always had that classy feel to whatever he did. You know?

DEL BARCO: Academy Award-winning composer and producer Gustavo Santoalalla says his countryman's music, his very essence, became part of the genetic makeup of every tango musician since.

SANTOALALLA: He has written some incredible music, just plain beautiful songs like "El Dia Que Me Quieras." You know?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EL DIA QUE ME QUIERAS")

GARDEL: (Singing in foreign language)

SANTOALALLA: It's a masterpiece, you know. It's "The Day that You Love Me," "El Dia Que Me Quieras." That day, that you love me, all these incredible, wonderful, magical things are going to happen. You know?

DEL BARCO: Twenty years before he recorded this song for a film, Gardel was shot in the chest during a street brawl. The story is part of his legend, as recounted by street musician Juan Carlos Ivanhoff.

JUAN CARLOS IVANHOFF: (Through Translator) The doctors decided it was too dangerous to operate. So the bullet stayed in his lung the rest of his life. You could hear him singing with that bullet still in his lungs. It never bothered him.

DEL BARCO: Biographers swear that's true, though they say another legend, that the gunman was related to Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara is a myth. But Gardel did die dramatically, in 1935, when he was just 45 years old. He was killed, along with his entourage, in a plane crash in Colombia.

Oscar Del Priore is founder of Argentina's National Tango Academy.

OSCAR DEL PRIORE: (Through Translator) Gardel's death was a classic tragedy: A movie star at the height of his career who dies in a plane crash. It was fantastical, like his life had been.

DEL BARCO: Gardel's casket was paraded through the streets of Colombia, shipped to New York, Rio De Janeiro, Uruguay and finally, Buenos Aires; each stop, inspiring massive street memorials. Even today, Buenos Aires radio station Sensaciones broadcasts an hour long show devoted to Gardel every Sunday.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

GARDEL: (Singing in foreign language)

DEL BARCO: There's a popular Latin American saying about Carlos Gardel's enduring spirit, which Gustavo Santoalalla recites.

SANTOALALLA: (Foreign language spoken) Each day he sings better.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SANTOALALLA: Like good wine.

DEL BARCO: Carlos Gardel was buried here at Cancharita Cemetery. His plot is marked with an elegant bronze statue. His fans still come here to pay their respects, often lighting a cigarette that they put in his hand and placing a rose in his lapel.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News, Buenos Aires.

GARDEL: (Singing in foreign language)

INSKEEP: You can find more music from Carlos Gardel. And you can explore our 50 Great Voices Series by visiting NPRMusic.org.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, Host:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

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