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Zitarrosa: The most Uruguayan singer of them all

When he became famous in the 1960s Alfredo Zitarrosa’s record sales rivalled The Beatles’ in Montevideo. He took Uruguayan folklore music and made it cool.

Alfredo Zitarrosa (March 10, 1936 – January 17, 1989) is one of Uruguay’s most emblematic singer-songwriters. When he became famous in the 1960s his record sales rivalled The Beatles’ in Montevideo. His commanding voice, heart-wrenchingly poetic lyrics accompanied by a traditional four-piece guitar quartet and his sharp suits and Brylcreemed hair were instantly recognisable. He took Uruguayan folklore music and made it cool. “He showed that […] you didn’t need to dress up as a gaucho to play those styles,” said one of his contemporaries.

His most well-known compositions include Adagio en mi país, Qué pena, El violín de Becho and the musical poem, Guitarra negra.

A poet whose lyrics depicted social injustice and a lifelong member of the Communist Party he was exiled from Uruguay during the dictatorship between 1976 and 1984. On his return a multitude turned out to welcome him. However he died as many world class musicians do here in Uruguay. Admired but struggling to pay the bills. I’m reminded of the unjust fate of blues musicians in Mississippi.

His popularity remains today. In 2016 to mark the 80th anniversary of his date of birth, a massive concert was attended by tens of thousands.

Despite the fact that he’s one of the most influential singer-songwriters in Latin America, there’s virtually nothing written about Zitarrosa in English. His Wikipedia entry in English is surprisingly lengthy but a very poor translation on Wikipedia. However it translates  some of his lyrics and is worth looking at that for that alone.

I was moved (to tears actually) to read a very personal story by one of my favourite guitarists Ney Peraza on Facebook. So I called him up and asked him if I could do a translation. Learn and share.

ALFREDO by Ney Peraza

The only time I ever heard my old man sing was on Uncle Ruben’s birthday in Paso del Borracho. The whole family was sitting in the shade of a huge vine playing cards. My dad lost and he had to sing a song. So he sang El Taipero by Zitarrosa. He actually looked like Zitarrosa and when he began to sing, it was Alfredo’s voice that I heard coming out of his mouth. He sounded exactly like him, or at least that’s what my childish ears recall, probably enhanced by the admiration I felt towards the two men who were both short in stature, hair slicked back, and whose voices inspired immediate respect.

When I was a kid, I used to say that I was a Wilson supporter like my father, but in reality I was much more attracted to the Frente [Editor’s note: the Frente Amplio, the political coalition currently in government in Uruguay]. The mystique, the rebellion, youth, and most of all, the songs. Those songs that played all day long on speakers placed on the sidewalk outside the committee offices of the local branch of the Frente. They were heroic songs. They moved me and I did not know why. The Olimareños, Viglietti, Numa and the immense, powerful, compassionate voice of Zitarrosa.

I remember my excitement as I heard the crackle of the loudspeakers in Plaza de los Olímpicos and that voice of thunder that drew applause after each sentence. The whole neighborhood was streaming to the plaza. They were going to get to hear Zitarrosa sing! As I think about it now I am reminded of the red circles drawn around each bullet hole on the walls of the committee and the word ‘bullet’ written next to each circle. At first, my father did not want us to go because it was a political event organised by the Frente, but Zitarrosa’s being there was too much. My father’s admiration won over the political differences and we went too. The plaza where I played every day had was swarming. Zitarrosa was a hero to everyone present. This was a rite. With the masses of mates and thermos flasks [classic drink carried around by 99% of Uruguayans], Peruvian ponchos, beards, berets, banners, fliers, stickers and the looks of hope on people’s faces, it was as if Artigas had come to sing [Jose Gervasio Artigas, the father of Uruguayan independence].

Then came the time of silences, secrets, fears, unanswered questions, books and records hidden away, despair, people you knew who disappeared, gunshots, sirens, chanchitas, roperos and camellos [all three are types of vehicle used by dictatorship to round up dissidents and others], death, neighbours and uncles and aunts who had been locked up, visiting days, military marches on the radio and communiques by the dictators. All my musical heroes left the country and disappeared from the radio.

It wasn’t till years later that I heard Zitarrosa again–on a cassette at a friend’s house. The excitement of listening to that voice again was compounded by the adrenaline of doing something dangerous. Listening to banned singers was a coming-together and an act of resistance.

There were many years of waiting, clandestine struggle and darkness, until the No vote of 1980 [voters rejected the military’s proposed new constitution in a plebiscite] opened a crack of light. That November 30, I voted for the first time. We wanted to go out and celebrate but it wasn’t allowed. Still, crowds gathered on 18, as if we were just window-shopping. We all wore knowing smiles while we gazed at the shop windows, as if it were just another day.

New singers and massive music festivals—part of “canto popular” as it was known—appeared. Political acts were still banned and as it was impossible to protest any other way, they were also camouflaged gatherings of the left. I remember the applause after any word which alluded to the political situation and had managed to elude the censors. “When I start singing I don’t ask anyone’s permission,” sang Larbanois & Carrero, but the truth was different. All song lyrics had to go through the capricious censorship of those still dark years. But little by little more light was breaking through.

Then came the heady times of the return to democracy, and although it came in dribs and drabs, eventually it was an unstoppable wave. We took to the streets in spite of the batons, the raids and the banning of the left, and the heroic singers began to return from exile. And so Alfredo too returned one day, at the head of an endless human caravan, surrounded by a sea of people in tears, flooding the rambla. Zitarrosa was again part of the national soundscape.

I met him in person several years later when we were both judges at the Festival de La Paz [a major folk music festival in Uruguay from which emerged a number of major artists]. I felt a weird mix of emotions. On the one hand the logical excitement of meeting an icon. On the other hand, beside me was a short chap, sans hair cream, wearing sneakers and awful shiny tracksuit bottoms. I wasn’t a kid any longer, but Zitarrosa ‘out of uniform’ was inconceivable. My Alfredo slept and showered in a suit and impeccable coiffeur. This was the common man behind the hero.

A few years after, I receive a call from one of his guitarists. A member of the quartet had left and they were looking for a replacement. My name was among those being considered and a few days later the guitarist came to my home to audition me. I was in luck. I already knew all the pieces I was asked to play. The guitarist was impressed and his last words as we shook hands were, “we’ll be calling you when rehearsals begin”. I closed the front door and sat down for a while to catch my breath and process what was happening.

Several days passed and the call didn’t come. Finally the phone rang and after the standard greetings, the voice at the other end of the line uttered five words that left me paralysed for a good while after: “the old guitarist came back”.

On January 17, 1989, I was at my little house on the beach, in Las Malvinas de Valizas, when a neighbour arrived with the news. Once again I was paralysed. I didn’t know what to do or feel. I headed off blindly and walked along the shore until, by the time I’d reached the first shacks of Aguas Dulces, tears began to well. I tried to sing a bit of one of his songs of his, any song, and I could not even begin. The pain I was carrying was bigger than my soul.

“Alfredo” was written by Ney Peraza and translated and annotated for an international audience by Guru’Guay.

Cover photo: El Observador. Other photos linked by URL.

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