Uruguayan composer Francisco Canaro is considered one of the tango world’s most popular artists. His recordings, both traditional tango and milongas, are noted as beautiful and melodic.
Canaro was born on November 26, 1888 into extreme poverty, with seven other siblings. His parents were Italian immigrants. Canaro was given the nickname “Pirincho” when the midwife noticed that his hair has a fuzz and curl like the head feathers of the South American bird of the same name.
The Canaro family moved from River Plate when Francisco was less than 10 years old and settled in the densely populated “conventillos,” an urban tenement in Buenos Aires. Unable to attend school, Canaro instead started working as a newspaper boy, a shoe shiner, a painter, and then as an apprentice at a can factory.
Despite his bitter upbringing, the young Canaro was enthusiastic about music at an early age. His neighbor, a cobbler, was his first teacher, showing him how to play the guitar and mandolin. While working at the factory, he built a violin out of a wooden fingerboard and the remains of an oil can. He taught himself to play this creation. According to Canaro himself, the first tango he played from heart was ‘El Llorón.’
At 18, Canaro made his professional debut as part of a trio in a town called Ranchos, a hundred kilometres outside of Buenos Aires. He started devoting himself to tango when he was introduced to bandoneonist and tango orchestra director Vicente Greco in 1908. Canaro went on to join Greco on several successful tours and produced records.
By 1915, at the age of 26, Canaro began conducting orchestras. His first headline was the first Baile del Internado, which was a comedy ball organized by the hospital interns to make fun of their doctors. The gala was held at the Palais de Glace and here, Canaro premiered ‘El Alacran’ and ‘Matasano.’ In 1916, he was the headliner once again, but for Bailes de Carnival, where he was met with such adoration that he was invited again and again. In 1921, for the Bailes de Carnival, he reunited a 32-piece orchestra, an orchestral mass unknown in tango until then.
Canaro’s music is considered to have reshaped the way society perceived tango at the time. Back then, high society did not entertain tango, at least not until Canaro’s orchestra.
Canaro pioneered the incorporation of a singer in the tango orchestra in 1924, but only for the main part of the tango or the ‘estribillo.’ The first estribillo used by Canaro was Roberto Díaz. This ushered in the ‘estribillistas era’ from the mid-1920s to the late 1930s.
By 1925, Canaro toured the world, beginning in Paris, where tango was now in fashion. He also traveled to the United States. By 1926, his contracts expired and he was free from commitments. Canaro visited Italy to meet his grandmother.
After his absence, Canaro returned to Argentina. He also dabbled in musical theatre and film. He founded Rio de la Plata productions, although none of his projects proved to be commercial hits.
In 1956, he published his memoirs, ‘Mis 50 Años Con El Tango” (My 50 Years with Tango).’ Canaro was forced into retirement after being diagnosed with Paget’s Disease. He eventually passed in 1964 at the age of 76.