Carlos Di Sarli – El señor del tango


Carlos Di Sarli was born in 1903 in Bahía Blanca. He was a pianist and played in several orchestras (including that of Osvaldo Fresedo) before forming his own orchestra in 1928. He was active in the recording studio from the early days of electrical recording in the late 20s, throughout the Golden Age and into the late 50s.

The standard of music-making was uniformly high, and while his distinctive style developed slowly over many years, he produced great music for dancing throughout his career.

Early Period

Carlos Di Sarli

Di Sarli was just twenty-five when he entered the recording studio for the first time for Víctor, cutting two sides in November 1928. Twenty-two songs followed in 1929, sixteen in 1930, eight more in 1931 – and then there was nothing until 1939.

The early recordings were all made with just six players and they sound very small-scale. The sound balance favours the violins. The bass is surprisingly clear, but the piano (Di Sarli, himself) sounds as though it was in the next room. Recording technology was very primitive and we have to live with restricted sound, but if you can find transfers that have been carefully made and turn up the volume a little, you may be surprised at how much musical vitality is coming out of your speakers.

Di Sarli (Instrumental) 1929-30
  • Pobre yo > Belén > No te aguanto más > No cantes victoria

Ernesto Famá

In September 1930, Di Sarli started recording with tenor, Ernesto Famá, five years Di Sarli’s junior, but already an old hand in the recording studio, having previously recorded dozens of songs with Osvaldo Fresedo and with Orquesta Típica Victor. At this time the singer’s rôle was limited usually to delivering just one chorus towards the end of the song. Famá’s time with the sextet was short-lived, but he was simultaneously making a name for himself singing with the much larger orchestra of Francisco Canaro.

Di Sarli (Famá) 1930-31
  • Maldita > Chau Pinela > Flora > La estancia 

The Forties

Carlos Di Sarli
Carlos Di Sarli

In the last days of 1939, Di Sarli was back with a new orchestra (initially of only eight musicians, but soon to grow to twelve) and a new recording contract with Víctor. With the impetus of the success of Juan D’Arienzo (from 1935) whose orchestra had been built on the foundation of rhythm, the late 30s had been a time of strong growth in the popularity of tango and the number of orchestras. Di Sarli’s answer was not to copy any other orchestra’s style but to introduce his own strong blend of underlying rhythmicity (led from the piano and underpinned by the bandoneons and bass) together with lyricism (led by the violins). The mix favoured rhythm for the first year or so, but as the pace of tango started to slow, generally, Di Sarli responded by moving more and more towards lyricism – stretching out the phrases. The transition was slow and steady and led, inevitably, to the glorious late instrumentals that are so well-loved.

The very first recording session, held on 11 December 1939, was his manifesto: with a marvellous instrumental, El retirao, which bubbles along with the strings almost laughing their way through the initial melody, played staccato. With the improved sound quality now available we also hear clearly the thing that sets Di Sarli’s orchestra apart from any other: the piano playing of Di Sarli, himself. It is usual to say that Di Sarli’s most distinctive feature is the way he uses the violins – the sound of the strings. It’s obviously true that they frequently take the lead in carrying the melody, but music is about much more than melody. Listen to El retirao a couple of times: once to get the general feel of the piece – its mood and vitality – and then again, for Di Sarli’s piano playing. So much of the colour and rhythm is led from the piano. No one else played this way and in my opinion, it is Di Sarli’s piano playing, not his fondness for the sound of violins, that makes Di Sarli unique.

Roberto Rufino
Roberto Rufino

The other song recorded at that first session was Corazón, with the young baritone, Roberto Rufino (not yet eighteen) on vocals. The limited rôle of the estribilista (chorus singer) was giving way to the singer taking a much more prominent position, delivering the lyric but with the voice fully integrated into the sound of the orchestra as though an additional instrument. Rufino’s voice was perfect for this rôle and Di Sarli’s early success was secured by the popularity of this orchestral/vocal partnership.

Di Sarli (Rufino) 1939-40
  • Corazón > Lo pasao pasó > Cosas olvidadas > En un beso la vida

Throughout his working life, Di Sarli recorded a significant number of instrumentals and they are wonderful for dancing. In this relatively early stage, the pace is still quite brisk. But by 1941 all the elements of Di Sarli’s mature style were present and over the following fifteen years he would steadily slow the pace and draw more and more from a growing body of string players. His own piano playing has a new confidence: just listen carefully to La cachila – it is almost a piano solo with orchestral accompaniment.

Di Sarli (Instrumental) 1940-41
  • El incendio > La trilla > La cachila > La morocha

Alberto Podestá, another young baritone, joined the Di Sarli orchestra in 1942 as 2nd singer. There was a considerable rivalry between the two singers, and Podestá left at the end of the year, before returning in 1944 following the departure of Rufino. He recorded twelve songs in 1942 and a further ten in 1944. There isn’t a dud among them and the output of the Di Sarli orchestra of the early 40s sits firmly at the centre of the lyrical tango repertoire.

Di Sarli (Podestá) 1944
  • Tú el cielo y tú > Llueve otra vez > Lloran las campanas > Vamos 

Following the departure of Podestá, Di Sarli engaged another baritone, Jorge Durán, from the beginning of 1945. He stayed with the orchestra for two years (and it was his departure that allowed Podestá to return for his third and final period with the orchestra). Durán had a darker voice than his predecessors and while limitations in the sound quality of the mid-40s technology partly mask its tone, he was to return to the orchestra in 1956 and those recordings are among the highlights of Di Sarli’s late period (and of the 50s in general).

Di Sarli (Durán) 1945
  • Un tango y nada más > Hoy al recordarla > Que no sepan las estrellas > Yo


The Fifties

Transition – Music Hall

After working steadily since 1939, Di Sarli recorded just two sides in 1948 and then there was nothing until 1951 when he returned to the studio with a new record company, Music Hall. He worked with two singers: baritone, Mario Pomar and tenor, Oscar Serpa, although all but one of the 1951 sides are instrumentals.

The Music Hall recordings were some of the first to be released on vinyl (rather than shellac), but the sound quality is variable. Di Sarli was to return to Víctor in 1954. The tape-mastered recordings of his late recordings are of the highest quality but the early 50s material is valued for its musical qualities rather than the sound.

In these recordings we start to hear the characteristics of the late Di Sarli orchestra (post-54) – a greater feeling of space and a balance tipping in favour of the melody and a big string sound (but always with a steady and notably slower beat). The Music Hall recordings are the bridge from the sound of the 40s to the late 50s – although the transition was slow and steady – there is a coherence of fundamental style and many elements of the later style can be heard from the earliest days.

Di Sarli (Pomar) 1952
  • Tangueando te quiero > No me pregunten por qué > Se muere de amor > Domani 

Oscar Serpa had first sung with Di Sarli’s in 1948 and featured regularly in the orchestra’s recording schedule between 1952 and 1955. He had sung for several years with the orchestra of Osvaldo Fresedo, and his voice suited both orchestras very well. This tanda ends with the 1953 recording of Verdemar. Serpa recorded it again in September 1955 – his last recording with the orchestra. The comparison is interesting. The sound quality of the later recording is better, but some of the tenderness of the earlier interpretation is missing. Interestingly, the pace seems slower in the 1952 version too. Di Sarli re-recorded much of his popular repertoire with Víctor, but apart from the better sound, I rarely prefer the later versions.

Di Sarli (Serpa) 1953-54
  • Al compás del corazón > La canción más triste > Buenos Aires, yo te canto > Verdemar 

Late Period

Carlos Di Sarli
Carlos Di Sarli

It is the late instrumentals that many tango dancers particularly associate with Di Sarli’s music. They have a clear pulse, limpid texture and Di Sarli’s piano-playing sparkles with a bell-like clarity while an enlarged violin section carries the melody (and frequently points up the rhythm too). The following version of Milonguero viejo is mislabeled as his 3rd – there were four: 1940, 1944, 1951 and this, from 1955.

Di Sarli (Instrumental) 1955-56
  • Milonguero viejo > Germaine > Los treinta y tres orientales > El jagüel

BMG seems to have a mastering pitch/speed error in Milonguero viejo. The key is  E, and if you bring down the speed by 3% to arrive at the correct pitch the speed difference makes a surprising difference to the pace of the interpretation, as you can hear in this short clip:

Di Sarli recorded for Víctor between 1954 and 1958. The singers were tenors Argentino Ledesma and Roberto Florio and baritones, Rodolfo Galé and Jorge Durán. Here’s a tanda from Florio, stretching the compás to the limit. The violin section has grown to eight players.

Di Sarli recorded a final LP with Polygram in late 1958. He continued to perform, live, during 1959, but then illness forced his retirement. He died in January 1960 a few days after his 57th birthday.

Di Sarli (Florio) 1956-58
  • Derrotado > Soñemos > Nuestra noche > Adiós, corazón


Di Sarli’s recordings fall into four distinct periods and each produced work of the highest quality.

    • The early sextet recordings (1928-31).
    • The middle period (1939-48), with wonderful vocals, particularly from Rufino, but with fine contributions from Podestá and Durán. The early years featured a smaller orchestra and a more rhythmic style of playing. The later years laid the foundations of the slower, more lyrical style. The instrumentals are good too.
    • The transitional period (1951-54) with a fine blend of instrumentals (often in versions sounding fresher than the late period, but with inferior sound) and lovely vocals from Pomar and Serpa.
  • The late period (1954-58), fine instrumentals featuring an enlarged orchestra – eight violins – and a slow pace. Vocals not always as successful. Sound excellent.

More …

In this blog the music of Di Sarli featured regularly in The Tango Years series and also in the Tango 250 series.