21 June 2009
Por una cabeza—the song version
(My first attempt to sing Carlos Gardel's all-time classic 'Por una cabeza' with two students from the Graduate Institute of Musicology, NTU, Madan on the piano and Jingting playing the harmonica.)
'Por una cabeza' and 'La cumparsita' are probably the two most famous and recognisable tango pieces of all time. While the latter was just a song written by the Uruguayan musician Gerardo Matos Rodríguez in 1917, the former was originally a song recorded for the 1935 film Tango Bar with its music by Carlos Gardel and lyrics by Alfredo Le Pera.
Most people came to know 'La cumparsita' through numerous small ensemble or larger orchestral rearrangements on various occasions and 'Por una cabeza' particularly from film scenes such as those from Scent of a Woman and True Lies. Wherever we encounter these two pieces, they are usually, if not always, rendered by instruments and seldom performed with their original lyrics.
I have found the original historical score, with lyrics, of 'Por una cabeza' on the fantastic TodoTango for about ten years since the site launched, but never had the opportunity to sing it to some instrumental accompaniment. Last week I presented the song at the welcome reception of the Graduate Institute of Musicology, NTU.
It was my first-ever attempt to show the original song version of this all-time classic. I found it so difficult to interpret the song in the way Carlos Gardel did, singing behind the beat, to allow an expressive quickening or slacking without altering the overall pace. This style can also be heard in many recordings of famous crooners such as Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole, who mastered the art of the rubato to phrase a melodic line while telling a lyrical story.
I don't think I've got the talent to sing like Nat King Cole. However, we should try more times in the future and see how we can hold the voice and instruments together in the way we hear in Gardel's historical recordings. After all, a lot of tango pieces are actually songs which should be crooned out rather than just played on the instruments.