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Francisco Canaro

Birth Name: Francisco Canaro
Artistry: violinist, director, composer
Lived: 26 November 1888 - 14 December 1964
Alias: Pirincho

Francisco Canaro

Canaro is one of the most popular tango artists: his recordings, both traditional tango and milongas, are noted as singly beautiful and melodic.

A Star is Born

The year is 1888, and the place is San José de Mayo, Republica Oriental del Uruguay. Our magnificent musician is born to parents Francisco Canaro and Rafaela Gatto, both Italian immigrants. As a baby, it is noticed that his hair has a fuzz and curl like the head feathers of the South American bird related to the cuckoo called the pirincho - the nickname sticks for his entire life.

His is a large family: 8 children. In 1898 they migrate over the River Plate and head to Argentina, where they settle in the densely populated Buenos Aires leasehold houses called conventillos. Canaro's early life is one of bitter poverty; the family is so poor that he is unable even to attend school, and starts working by the age of 10 as a newspaper boy, a shoe shiner, and then as a painter. He later becomes an apprentice at a can factory.

In adolescence, even under crushing poverty, his musicality yearns to burst through the clouds: he first learns the guitar and mandolin under the direction of a neighbor; then at the factory, he builds a violin out of wood and the remains of an oil can. Canaro proceeds to teach himself to play this bizarre instrument. He says:
The first tango I played by heart was El llorón of an unknown composer. The case was made by my mom; it was simply a cloth bag, and so I went out to get some money at dancings in the vicinity.
When he is 18, in 1906, Canaro buys a real violin - a cheap and limited one it is - but nevertheless his dream of owning one is realized. His professional debut is made in a town called Ranchos, on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, with a trio consisting of the violin, guitar and a mandolin. This trio has some success, and earns a pittance playing for parties and social gatherings.

First Foray into Tango

Aged 20, Canaro is introduced to tango in a meeting with a neighbor, the bandeonist and tango orchestra director Vicente Greco in 1908. Canaro begins to devote himself to tango, where he performs at the La Boca neighborhood. He also joins Greco in a number of tours, which are commercial successes. Incidentally, the term Orchestra Típica is attributed to Greco who wanted his orchestra to be differentiated from those with different rhythms.

Vicente Greco
Vicente Greco

Francisco Canaro aged 20
Francisco Canaro aged 20

Four years later in 1912 - at the tender age of 24 - Canaro composes his first tango, Pinta Brava.

Pinta Brava

Canaro and Greco are very successful: they amass crowds all from over Buenos Aires, particularly in the main street called Calle Corrientes, and also at such famous places as Salon La Argentina. During this time, they produce their first records under the label Casa Tagini.

Baile del Internado

1915 is a momentous year for our 26-year-old Canaro: it is the year he begins to conduct orchestras for the very first time. The setting is quite an unusual one, as Canaro is asked to headline the first Baile del Internado, which is a comedy ball organized by the hospital interns, whose express purpose is to make fun at their doctors. The gala is held at the famous Palais de Glace and includes some notable names, including Roberto Firpo. That year Canaro premiers with El Alacran and Matasano; and the following year he includes his quintessential El Internado.

El Internado


Cover of Matasano - note the Francisco canaro inscription bottom left

Musical Success

The success of Canaro's career can be singly pinpointed to 1915. His tangos are now so popular that he is hired to headline the Bailes de Carnaval for the following year; his act is embraced by the audience with such adoration that he is invited back to the Carnaval in subsequent years. It should be noted that in a sense Canaro reshaped the entire way tango was perceived by society; his orchestra was the first to be admitted to aristocratic circles, as before then tango was never entertained in high society. Suddenly it became the in-thing for the fashionistas!

Canaro forms a new trio with bandoneon Pedro Polito and pianist José Martínez, which becomes the basis of the first Orchestra Pirincho. This is expanded to add Rafael Rinaldi as second violinist and Leopoldo Thompson on double bass. In fact in 1917 Canaro was the pioneer who added the double bass to tango orchestras.

His career goes from strength to strength, and in 1918 the Canaro Orchestra plays at the Royal Pigall and the Armenonville. After this point, Canaro starts making tango a commercial business, and goes as far as managing three orchestras at once: he plays in one orchestra; his brother Juan leads another; and another brother Humberto leads yet another. This trio of orchestras expands even further, with his brother Rafael.

Now it is 1921: Canaro is 33. He is requested to present at the prestigious Carnival Ball at the Teatro Opera of Buenos Aires. For this he does the unthinkable: he creates a 32-piece orchestra, the size of which has never been applied to tango till then.

The Affair, The Gun and the Convent

In the late 1920s Canaro starts his affair with the 24 year old strikingly beautiful Argentine actress and tango vocalist, renown for her lovely large green eyes, Ada Falcón. Ada Falcón wants to marry Canaro, however he is already married to Martha Gessaume. Canaro considers divorce, but realizes that financially this would be a disaster, so he continues to see Falcón as his lover.

This affair is to endure for many years but its ending would eventually become the talk of the entire town: many years later, in 1938, Canaro's wife would enter a recording studio and find Ada Falcón on Canaro's knees. Martha Gessaume can take no more! At the betrayal which undoubtedly she has been tortured over for years, she exposes a gun from her bag, and points it at Falcón's head. Falcón has a breakdown: not only does she run away and informs her lover that "I no longer sing for you", but also beginms to deserts her magnificent career. She withdraws from public life and shuns publicity, and gets increasingly erratic and eccentric. When recording, she makes it a condition that the orchestra should not see her, which she imposes by a curtain held between herself and the orchestra. To avoid her fans, she leaves the building disguised as an old woman, with a white wig and stick.

In 1942 she sings her last two pieces, ironically both Canaros: Encadenado Corazón and the waltz Viviré Con Tu Recuerdo. After this, she takes refuge with her mother in a convent of the Congregation of the Franciscan Third Order, where she lives out the rest of her life.

Francisco Canaro says this about his lover:
Ada Falcón was one of the most beautiful singers of our age. A woman with a warm voice and exceptional interpretive skills, she felt the tango and sang with a singular intonation and good taste, arousing public admiration and sympathy. As a young woman she withdrew from artistic life and was confined to a convent with religious devotion.
When two filmmakers go to film a documentary on the life of Ada Falcón in the convent, she makes this confession:
I was locked in here because I have to expiate a sin.
Presumably the sin was to have an affair with a married man.

As an aside, Canaro had yet another clandestine love called Irma Gay (sister of tango singer Elizabeth Grana); they had two daughters, Emma and Argentina Irma Rafaela Canaro.

Francisco Canaro with wife Martha Gessaume
Francisco Canaro with wife Martha Gessaume

Ada Falcón
Ada Falcón

Ada Falcón singing Te quiero by Francisco Canaro

Ada Falcon singing Yo No Se Que Han Hecho Tus Ojos by Francisco Canaro (the title is of the love Canaro had for for Falcon)

The Estribillista (Vocalist)

Apart from very rare exceptions, orquestas típicas were exclusively instrumental affairs. It was Francisco Canaro who in 1924 pioneered the method of introducing a vocal arrangement into the orchestra to sing the estribillo, which is the main component of the tango piece. This is seen as so fundamental to the genre that the period between the mid 1920s to the late 30s is actually called the estribillistas era, and in fact many of the orchestras of the day began including estribillistas. The first such estribillo used by Canaro was Roberto Díaz.

Canaro - Estribillista Roberto Díaz
Estribillista / Robert Diaz

Canaro says in his autobiography that:
Always severe with myself, I was not fully satisfied and it seemed to me that my records and my orchestra were missing something: it was the vocal part, but not to fill the record but to make more interesting the musical performance. So, it came to my mind to make the refrain be sung, I did it and I liked it. The first recorded experience was a tango by my brother Mario: Así es el mundo with a young singer, Roberto Díaz.
Of significance here is that microphones were not available in the estribillistas era. Hence it was extremely difficult at times for the vocalists to be heard, such that some resorted to the megaphone!


It is now 1925. Canaro, aged 37, travels to Paris where tango is all the rage. With him are his estribillistas Agustín Irusta and Roberto Fugazot, as well as the pianist Lucio Demare. They are a fabulous hit in Paris! Teresa Asprella, already settled in France, is introduced into the group - and when they tour the United States, Linda Telma is further added.


In 1926 all of Canaro's contracts had expired. Free from work commitments, he decides to travel to Italy to meet his grandmother Campana and visit his city of origin, on the province of Rovigo. He travels the country and falls madly in love with it, and finally meet his grandmother, an 86 year old woman. On his return, Canaro tells an interesting anecdote related to Milan: he discovers a beautiful restaurant in the old town, sits at a table, and laughing, orders the young waiter to bring him an authentic "Milanesa", which was not on the menu. The waiter returns with the dish: crumbed chops. Canaro is amazed; however whilst he is contemplating how the dish was so easily approved the owner's daughter hands him paper and pencil for an autograph. It turns out that the waiter had worked in Paris in a place where Francisco Canaro was a celebrity. Canaro invites the waiter to his table but the waiter is unable to sit. Instead he remains standing and says "Master, your music is beautiful, very moving". Canaro is overwhelmed; he stands up from his chair and hugs him.

The rights of Others

Canaro is renowned for fighting for the rights - both ownership and authorship - of composers, and ultimately for the creation of the Copyright laws. This idea was unheard of at the time. The culmination of this effort occurred in 1940 when he founded SADAIC (Sociedad Argentina de Autores y Compositores de Música - Argentine Society of Authors and Composers). Canaro not only started this enterprise, but also bought the estate for its building.


Francisco Canaro's discography is almost super-human in nature: at last count, there were 3792 recordings! The most exhaustive list is found in Christoph Lanner's Discography of Francisco Canaro, which lists the works in both chronological order by year, or by name.


Canaro was an immensely successful businessman and extraordinarily wealthy, more so than even Gardel. The notable exception to this is with regards to film. He founded the Río de la Plata productions company, but almost all of the ventures were a loss, and eventually he sold it. Canaro would say later that:
Sound movies were a complete failure for me, and they left me silent.
Canaro produced the following films:
  • Ídolos De La Radio (1934)
  • Por Buen Camino (1935)
  • Carlos Gardel's Funeral Rites (1936)
  • Ya Tiene Comisario El Pueblo (1936)
  • La Muchacha Del Circo (1937)
  • Dos Amigos Y Un Amor (1938)
  • Cantando Llegó El Amor (1938)
  • Turbión (1938)
  • Veinticuatro Horas En Libertad (1939)
  • El Diablo Andaba En Los Choclos (1946)
  • Con La Música En El Alma (1951)

The Decline

Canaro eventually developed a very unusual ailment called Paget's Disease, and was forced to retire. He died in Buenos Aires in 1964 aged 76.

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