That most famous tune, La Cumparsita was written around 1915 or 1916 by a seventeen year old student named Gerardo Matos Rodriguez.
In 1917, it was played for the first time in La Giralda, a cafe at what is now the ground floor of the mythical Palacio Salvo in downtown Montevideo. Matos Rodriguez’s score had arrived in the hands of the well-known Argentine conductor Roberto Firpo whose orchestra was performing that night.
La Cumparsita was not performed again until 1924.
When tango lyricists Enrique Maroni and Pascual Contursi were putting together a Buenos Aires musical, they plucked La Cumparsita out of obscurity to provide the musical basis for part of their show.
While the show –which was apparently pretty lamentable– folded shortly after its debut, La Cumparsita with lyrics by Contursi, was a hit.
The story goes that Matos Rodriguez was living in Paris in 1924 having sold his rights to the tango several years earlier for just 20 pesos.
This was the Paris of the Roaring 20s. Imagine how the young Uruguayan must have felt when an Argentine orchestra arrived in Paris performing HIS tango – and that for years after when Parisians dancers requested a tango, orchestras would strike up La Cumparsita.
[Note from The Guru: So don’t feel bad, dear reader, if this is the first time you’ve realised that 1. there are tango songs OTHER than the Cumparsita and 2. tangos have lyrics!]
Matos Rodriguez managed to sue for royalties on the basis that he was under-age when he practically gave away his rights.
And the rest is history.
In 1998 La Cumparsita was designated Uruguay’s national Tango Hymn.
In honour of the world’s most famous tango song, every April, Montevideo hosts a Cumparsita Week (Semana de La Cumparsita).
This year, the festival starts April 19. Tickets should be available online from Tickantel.
The world’s most famous tango song – La Cumparsita in film and music
La Cumparsita is one of the most recorded melodies in the world with 2,500 versions registered in numerous languages and music styles.
It’s also been featured in multiple films including “Some Like it Hot” starring Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe, “Alice” by Woody Allen, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” – and it was also in an episode of “Tom and Jerry”!
Tango is a heritage shared by Argentina and Uruguay
As tango is a quintessential part of music and dance from both Argentina and Uruguay, it’s actually more accurate to refer to tango as rioplatense* – meaning that it is from the Rio de la Plata or River Plate region.
The River Plate region includes the cities that lie on the banks of the river – the Argentine cities of Buenos Aires, Rosario, Santa Fe, La Plata and Mar del Plata to the west and Montevideo to the east.
*You pronounce it, ree-oh pla-TEN-say.
Photo courtesy of Jimmy Baikovicius (Note: The bandoneon player depicted is Martin Pugin – Pugin, who I had the pleasure of playing with in 2009 when my band was presenting our first album, is a perfect example of the Rioplatense nature of tango, he’s an Argentine musician living and playing in Uruguay)
[Article updated: February 21 2017]
We are retired expats living in. Cuenca, Ecuador. We are wanting to find another place to tango on our vacation besides Buenos Aires. Please send me the link with information on the Tango celebration in April 2020. We have taken lessons in Cuenca for several years, but there are very few places to dance tango in Cuenca. Thank you for your time.
Judy y Bill Collins
Hi Judy, Montevideo is a fantastic place for tango dancers as it is much more friendly than Buenos Aires! If you check our information about dancing tango in Montevideo you’ll find a link to a website where you’ll see there are at least two milongas in Montevideo every evening and often more. Uruguayans don’t plan ahead much so the dates for the April 2020 celebration are likely to be available shortly before. best, Karen PS, our new Guru’Guay Guide to Montevideo is just out
I have always loved La Cumparsita even when I didn’t know what it was called, just thought it was the tango, that that particular song was THE tango. (Well some would argue that it actually is THE tango, it’s certainly the most recognized worldwide). When we were kids there was a song called Fernando’s Hideaway which shares a lot of La Cumparsita’s music so the first time I heard the real thing I rather kept expecting someone to sing ‘Hernando’s hideaway, ole.’
And by the way, thanks for sharing that little slide show of old Montevideo which was created for YouTube by my Uruguayan husband and I quite a few years back as a way to show people La Cumparsita and this city’s beautiful history.
Wow, Lynn! I was so happy when I came across that wonderful little slideshow of Old Montevideo when I was researching the article, so I can’t believe that the creator is your husband!!! Uruguay is a SMALL world!