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Por Una Cabeza: the tragic story of the Tango Classic

Carlos Gardel, celebrated Tango composer
Carlos Gardel, celebrated Tango composer

Por Una Cabeza is the most celebrated tango by Argentine composer Carlos Gardel. Written in 1935 when Gardel was at the height of his composing powers and celebrity, it was even included in a film in which the composer himself starred. Though one of the most beloved examples of the tango form, however, the year of its composition would also prove to be one coloured by tragedy.

Early Life

Gardel was born in Toulouse, France in 1890 and taken to Argentina by his unmarried mother at the age of two. He began his professional life singing in bars and private parties in Buenos Aires, eventually shooting to stardom in 1917 with his cover of Pascual Contursi and Samuel Castriota's ‘Mi noche triste.’

Composer and movie star

A stellar career as a singer, songwriter and actor followed. Notably good looking, Gardel appeared in a number of films, including ‘The Lights of Buenos Aires’ (1931), ‘La Casa es Seria’ (1932), ‘Downward Slope’ (1934) and ‘El día que me quieras’ (1935). This last film, starring the composer, is named after one of his most famous songs and contains some of his best music, including El día que me quieras itself, 'Sus ojos se cerraron’, ‘Guitarra, guitarra mía’ and Volver. The film is also remarkable for featuring a cameo by a young Astor Piazzolla as a newspaper boy.

Gardel in the film 'El día que me quieres'


Gardel is particularly renowned for his tango compositions such as Volver and Por una cabeza. The form originated in immigrant populations in Argentina and Uruguayan the mid 19th century, fusing rhythmic aspects of African music with European instruments and forms such as flamenco and the minuet. It is in 2 or 4 in the bar and typically is based upon one of the following rhythms:

Typical Tango Rhythms

Tango may be played on a solo guitar or in a larger group known as an ‘orquesta tipica’ (‘typical orchestra’) consisting of strings, bandoneons (a type of accordion), piano and bass.

An Orquesta Tipica

Alfredo Le Pera and Por Una Cabeza

The songs in the film ‘El día que me quieras’ were written with Gardel’s most important collaborator, lyricist Alfredo Le Pera. In 1935 together they would write the tango song for which they would both be best remembered, ‘Por Una Cabeza.’ Literally meaning ‘By a Head’, it draws a parallel between losing at the racecourse and losing a beautiful woman. The song was used in the film ‘Tango Bar,’ directed by Francisco Defilippis Novoa, in 1935.

Tragedy Strikes

On 24th June 1935, shortly after the composition of his most revered work, Gardel was killed in a plane crash at Olaya Herrera Airfield, Medellín, Colombia. His collaborator Le Pera as well as several other musicians, friends and associates were also killed. The tragedy led to a huge outpouring of emotion in Latin America, with many turning out on to the streets as his body was brought home. His funeral procession in Buenos Aires was attended by many thousands of people.
Carlos Gardel's funeral procession in Buenos Aires


Gardel is still regarded as one of the most important composers of tango music, with 'Por Una Cabeza’ his most celebrated tango of all. Given his own career as a movie star it is perhaps appropriate that this work has so often appeared on the silver screen.

In 1992 it used used to accompany the tango scene in ‘Scent of a Woman,’ starring Al Pacino—

—whilst in 1993 it established the womanising character of Oscar Schindler in Schindler’s List:

A more humorous use of the song was made in James Cameron’s ‘True Lies’ (1993) starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis:

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