By Oscar Zucchi
Violinist, leader and composer
(14 April 1897 - 15 February 1963)
The outstanding and recognized Uruguayan musician Héctor María Artola, with a sharp critical vision, said: «The city of Buenos Aires, is the only town in the world where tango is well played, including Montevideo».
Individually, among the Uruguayan artists devoted to tango in our country, those who stood out were numerous. It did not happen the same thing with the music groups. There were only exceptions: the case of the Alonso-Minotto quartet -but their work was exclusively discographic- and the team of the violinists Edgardo Donato and Roberto Zerrillo, but let us say that the former was Argentine, based on the city of Montevideo.
The story of many tango musicians is usually repeated. Donato was the son, like many other outstanding artists, of an Italian couple. Ernesto Donato, his father, was born in 1871 and played the mandolin. Later he switched to violoncello and until the end of his life music was his passion. He finally conducted a chamber orchestra in Montevideo.
His mother was, Egilda Cafagna, she had nine children, of which three were musicians. Ascanio, cellist and composer; Osvaldo, pianist and composer and Edgardo Felipe Valerio, violinist.
He was born in the Buenos Aires neighborhood of San Cristóbal, located to the south of the center of the city of Buenos Aires, where today we find this address: avenida Belgrano 1657. While still a child, with his family he moved to live in the city of Montevideo, capital of the República Oriental del Uruguay.
When he was ten he started to study music with his father and later he studied at a conservatory named Franz Liszt. When he was 21 he was ready to work as a professional. He began with his father in the opera music field, wearing stiff collar and with a much serious look, in spite of the fact that he was a stubborn humorist then and throughout his lifetime, even when he played the violin.
But, soon, he managed to free himself from that yoke and joined -always in Montevideo- the orchestra of the Negro Quevedo, an Argentine bandoneonist, with the peculiarity that the piano was in charge of Enrique Delfino.
In 1919 he lined-up in Carlos Warren orchestra, the first one in the country devoted to jazz. On some shows they alternated with the orchestra of Eduardo Arolas and, under those circumstances, he met the violinist Roberto Zerrillo.
On a personal conversation with the violinist Reynaldo Nichele, he told me laughing, how dark and ugly Julián was, in fact a drummer, a partner of his in cheap cabarets.
Donato tried to sell his tango for twenty pesos, later he tried for less but he failed either. Finally he published it on his own account. But, two years later he reached success, after the interpretation at the theater by the actress Iris Marga and the recording made by the popular female singer Rosita Quiroga, all this in Buenos Aires.
Soon thereafter, he composed what would be one of the tangos with most recordings in the world in the history of the genre: "A media luz", which together with "La cumparsita", "El choclo" and "Caminito" would become the paradigm of the River Plate music.
"I composed "A media luz" during a trip on streetcar.", its composer said, and it was premiered in Montevideo, on a musical revue named "Su majestad la revista", with the voice of the Chilean vedette Lucy Clory. Soon later was recorded by Firpo, Canaro and Gardel.
Thereafter he composed "Oiga" and "T.B.C.", a title inspired on a very special club of Montevideo.
In 1927 he put together an orchestra under the label Donato-Zerrillo, lined-up by Héctor María Artola, Juan Turturiello and Héctor Gentile, on bandoneons; on violins, the two leaders and Armando Julio Piovani (who sang as well), on piano Osvaldo Donato, his other brother Ascanio on cello and A. Bancalá on double bass.
They made their debut in Montevideo on July 14, 1927, where they were heard by the impressario of the Select Lavalle cinema theater of Buenos Aires -a scenery for the best groups- and he hired them to play for a season.
They were there until 1930, under the name of Orquesta Típica criolla Donato-Zerrillo and the advertisement announced them as "The 9 tango aces, the most striking native tango orchestra ever heard".
The singer Luis Díaz joined the orchestra as refrain singer, and they finally recorded for the Brunswick label. This vocalist appeared on twenty of the fifty numbers released.
In 1930, after a brief tour with the female singer Azucena Maizani, the team disbanded.
If we had to make a comparison between the orchestra Donato-Zerrillo with the later aggregation of Edgardo Donato, we would note that the former was an oufit musically more restricted, with a paused beat and with scarce passages for the showcasing of the solo instruments. Instead, the orchestra of Edgardo Donato had a phrasing wrapped up in wider dynamics, where the showcasing of bandoneons and Donato´s frequent interventions as soloist was evidenced. The leader was a true example of the style developed by "el pibe Ernesto", that is to say by Ernesto Ponzio. This description is completed with the musical gymnastics that Donato performed, together with his famous "pizzicati".
The new orchestra, already with only one leader, started to record for Brunswick and played at different cinemas and theaters; also, on LS9 Radio La voz del aire, where they were announced as "Los ocho ases del tango porteño, Edgardo Donato y su formidable típica criolla".
The members were: Juan Turturiello, Vicente Vilardi and Miguel Bonano, on bandoneons; Edgardo Donato, Armando Julio Piovani and Pascual Humberto Martínez, on violins; Osvaldo Donato on piano, Ascanio Donato on cello and José Campesi on string bass.
His singers were, the estribillistas (refrain singers), Luis Díaz, Antonio Rodríguez Lesende, Carlos Viván and Teófilo Ibáñez, and on an occasion he accompanied Agustín Magaldi at the tango "Vagabundo". For the Brunswick label he recorded over 130 numbers; on December 9, 1932 he switched to Victor and recorded "El Huracán", with his new vocalist Félix Gutiérrez. He worked with this recording company until the end, apart from a brief stay in the Pampa label, releasing over four hundred recordings.
The orchestra of Edgardo Donato was one of those which were included in the movie "Tango", from 1933, the first talkie with complete soundtrack in the history of Argentine cinema. The same year, it appeared as well, on the film "Los tres berretines", on which Luis Sandrini, Luis Arata and Luisa Vehil were starred. He composed themes for the movies and, among these, the scores for the films "Riachuelo", "Picaflor" and "Así es el tango" stand out.
His performances on radio were continuous, as those he made at cabarets and clubs.
His orchestra and his name are long since tango bulwarks.
In 1944, besides the shows with his orchestra he put together a quartet -Los caballeros del recuerdo-, with a repertory of the Guardia Vieja (Old Stream), it was lined-up by Francisco Pracánico, on piano, Anselmo Aieta, on bandoneon and the violins of Donato and Domingo Donnaruma.
In 1945, his brother Osvaldo put together his own orchestra taking with him a great number of his musicians. Because of that he had to reorganize the orchestra, hiring Ernesto "Titi" Rossi as first bandoneon and arranger and Julián Plaza, on bandoneon as well. The first violin was Rolando Curzel, and the pianist, Bernardo Blas.
He returned to cinema with a movie that was a symbol of a period, "Pelota de trapo". On this performance he accompanied the vocalist Oscar Fuentes.
His was a dance orchestra, with no great aspirations of style, according to his merry absent-minded temper. People said "he lived in the moon". Stories of his absent-mindedness were famous, some were true and some others were made up due to his fame. A very funny one told by his daughter is the following: Donato was traveling on a streetcar, he met a friend and they began to chat, after a time both get off the car. They walked for a while, thereafter he realized that his wife had been with him and that she evidently did not get off and was still on the streetcar.
Another funny story happened when he said that he would like to have the singer Adolfo Rivas in his orchestra, whom he was then listening to at a recording studio. He had forgotten that the vocalist was already in the orchestra, waiting for Donato to record.
He was composer of over two hundred numbers, some of them true classics of the tango repertory: "A media luz", "Julián", "Muchacho", "El huracán", "T.B.C." and others, also important, such as "Se va la vida", "Por mi viejita", "El acomodo", "Mi serenata", "Beba", "Volvé", "Cartón ligador", "Riachuelo", "Pobre soñador", "El lengue", "Bigotito", "Qué careta", "Se va la lancha", "Pensalo bien".
Besides the vocalists abovementioned, in his orchestra he also had the collaboration of Antonio Maida, Hugo del Carril (who made his record debut), Juan Alessio, Horacio Lagos, Lita Morales and the outstanding musician and Uruguayan singer Romeo Gavio (Romeo Gavioli).