Poets of Darkness: Enrique Santos Discépolo and Tyrone “Canserbero” Gonzáles

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They were born almost ninety years apart. One dressed immaculately in three-piece suits and glistening leather shoes. The other wore baseball caps, hoodies, and sneakers, and had the words “All You Need is Love” tattooed on his left shoulder. And yet, the legendary tango composer Enrique Santos Discépolo and the underground rapping sensation Tyrone González, better known as “Canserbero”, were kindred spirits: brilliant yet deeply tormented, immensely talented yet full of self doubt, despised by many but beloved by many more. In their lyrics they both eloquently put forth a dark vision of life and the world: as a place were dishonesty and selfishness rule, a place devoid of hope or justice, a placed where the bad will always outweigh the good.

They both faced hardships in childhood and found early success, though one did it as a dandy, the other as a rebel. And both died young, fatally betrayed by their brains. Discépolo was felled by a stroke on Christmas Eve 1951, in the apartment he shared with his beloved wife Tania. Canserbero, the victim of life-long mental illness, apparently took his own life and that of a friend on a terrible night in January 2015. They each enjoyed a morsel of fame and fortune in their lifetimes, but nothing compared to their posthumous reputations. They were politically engaged, yet disillusioned by the hypocrisy and corruption of their country’s leaders. They offered few alternatives to their bleak, brooding despair.

Discépolo, the son of Italian immigrants, was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1901. His father died when he was five years old, and his mother followed just four years later. Discépolo’s older brother Armando became de facto head of the household, and decided that little Enrique would go live with his well-to-do aunt and uncle. His years there were very difficult. The relatives proved to be eccentric in the extreme, forcing the child to dress up in clown costumes or custom-made tuxedos for their amusement. Discépolo would later remember himself as a sad and solitary child who never played games or made friends with others his age. When Armando married and was able to establish a household he finally brought his brother to live with him.

Tyrone González Oramas was born in Caracas, Venezuela in 1988. He was raised among his father’s family after the untimely death of his mother. He built his musical chops on the streets, where from age eleven he made for himself a name improvising lyrics inspired by American hip-hop and Dominican reggaeton. From the beginning he showed a somber side, calling himself Canserbero, after the hound that guards the gates of Hell, but it was after the 2003 murder of his half-brother Carlos, apparently in a planned mob hit, that the darkness that came to characterize most of his work truly began to take form. Although he and his family were always very private about his personal life, after his death several Venezuelan media outlets reported that Canserbero had been diagnosed with dissociative disorder, schizophrenia, and depression but refused all treatment.

Neither one thought to be a musician at first. Following his brother Armando, who became a famous playwright, Discépolo tried his hand at the theater as a writer and actor, and even landed some memorable film roles. Canserbero studied at university and for a while worked as a quality inspector for a packaging company in Maraca. Both, however, used music to express their frustrations about the world. One of Discépolo’s first tangos, “Que Vachaché”, already showed both his predilection for the popular slang of Buenos Aires streets and his cynical attitude towards life: “Throw away you decency”, it suggests. “True love drowned in soup. Your belly rules and money is God”. Canserbero’s first album “Can + Zoo Indigos”, released when he was just twenty, includes such titles as “Wake Up”, in which he already accuses all around him of the greatest sin in his eyes, hypocrisy: “Not everyone is what they seem. The devil tempts you and your conscience dies”.

That shared frustration led them to be vocal about the political realities they saw around them. In “Cambalache”, his most famous tango, Discépolo rails against the corruption of the Argentine, which he recognizes in all social classes and walks of life. “Nobody cares if you were born honest”, he laments. “It’s the same to be straight as to betray, ignorant or wise, thief, generous, swindler. It’s all the same”. This candor cost him, as successive military governments in the 1930s and 40s banned his music as vulgar and immoral. Canserbero, who was ten years old when Hugo Chávez became Venezuela’s president and declared the start of a Bolivarian Revolution, was equally unimpressed with his political leaders. “It’s a joke to think that there’s an honest ruler”, he declares in “Un Día de Barrio”. “Capitalism, socialism, communism are all practiced, but the outcome is the same”. Not surprisingly, he was showered with opprobrium from the cultural mainstream. “You’ve called me a Nazi”, he retorts defiantly in his song “De Venezuela”, “a racist, a Christian, a Buddhist, a murderer, a madman”.

It would be inaccurate, though, to suggest that either of their careers focused on politics. Discépolo wrote dozens of lovely, nostalgia-infused songs such as “Sueño de Juventud” and “Cafetín de Buenos Aires”, as well as comic numbers for films, including “Justo el 31” and “Chorra”. As is common in his genre, Canserbero spoke less of love and more of sex, and got involved in his share of feuds with other artists. But the older man’s music has endured, and the younger shows every sign that it will also, because they both articulated, in the language of the streets, some of the fatalism that pervades among those who have seen the world as it truly is. Discépolo did it in the self-mocking, ironic tone preferred by Argentines to this day, while Canserbero spoke in the furious, unfiltered cadences of the Millennial generation.

Make no mistake about it, both of these guys saw the world through ashen-colored glasses. Discépolo’s gloomy worldview is probably best articulated in “Yira Yira”: “You’ll see that everything’s a lie. You’ll see there is no love. That the world doesn’t care […] Never expect help. Never hope for a hand, for a favor”. In “Jeremías”, Canserbero expresses an eerily analogous sentiment: “I’ve found out that truth is relative, and reality is all a lie. Damned be the man who trusts another”.

Luck and circumstance made the last stages of their lives diverge. Discépolo met Juan Domingo Perón, who was minister of war during the military government of the 1930s and would soon rally the Argentine masses around him in a populist rebellion that presaged that of Chávez six decades later. Most infamously, Discépolo starred in a television show in which he, in essence, became a propaganda mouthpiece for Perón, and was credited for helping Peronism win reelection in the 1940s. This cost the artist many friendships and earned him the hatred of many Argentines, but as the years have passed, these things have been forgotten, and only his songs, in their dreary comic brilliance, matter to anyone anymore.

Would Canserbero have found a political home among the leaders of the anti-Bolivarian opposition in Venezuela? With Leopoldo López, the imprisoned rabble rouser who these days is called by some the Venezuelan Nelson Mandela, perhaps? We will never know. Nor are we likely to ever find out what really happened that warm January night at the home of the talented reggae bassists Carlos Molnar. The official story is that Canserbero stabbed Molnar to death in a fit of rage, and then jumped off a ten-story window. Such was the tragic, senseless end for the young musical prodigy. And yet, one also fitting for a man who struggled throughout his life to find the light.

 

 

 

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