It is funny how sometimes things connect. A few days ago, in September, I suddenly remembered Les Luthiers because the group was also created in the spring, and long ago I had the chance to interview them on their anniversary. About the time I remembered it, I received a phone call from an Autoclub veteran colleague to ask if I could write this article. At first, I faintly resisted, but as in my opinion they were and are some of the best comedians of the world, I finally accepted. I knew that somewhere, sometime, the story of Les Luthiers was preserved as they themselves told it to me. I chose to reveal in this article the magic moment and the first years after the launching of the group.
The group first started as I Musicisti, also with an original jocular treatment, a portend of sorts of what would come, with ten members, five of which would soon become Les Luthiers.
The founder of the group was Gerardo Massana, leading the search for new musical sounds, through the informal instruments which in addition to a humorous focus of classical music defined the typical lutherian sense of humour which, from the first moment started to expand towards all genres. Joining Gerardo were Marcos Mundstock, Daniel Rabinovich, Carlos Nuñez Cortés and Jorge Maronna. This happened gradually during the 60’s amid a fertile cultural breeding ground.
The group was formed in the 60’s, Marcos remembers, during the very peak of university students choirs in Argentina, especially in Buenos Aires. We belonged to one of them, sponsored by the School of Engineering, even though it comprised students from all universities. In those choirs we were part of a gang who prepared jokes to play after rehearsals, in parties and in choral festivals that took place once a year, each time in a different city. One of those jokes brought up the issue of the informal instruments (everybody used to ask: “Let’s see, what have you brought this year?”) After that, we started getting calls from outside the university sphere”.
Nuñez Cortés recalls this image from those times: “I remember having been to a concert at the School of Engineering and, of course, I hooked up with a soprano. I liked the girl and with any excuse I went to a rehearsal. They offered me a chance to sing and gave me a short test. I was immediately accepted although I had no choir experience but in those days I knew enough music and played the piano very well. Then, every Thursdays and Saturdays I had to go to the School and sing with the choir. During the intermission, in the rehearsals, I played not only the piano but several other instruments and there was a circle of students around me asking for any song. One day, Gerardo Masana, the creator of Les Luthiers, asked me if I wanted to play in an operetta, Il figlio del pirata that he wanted to stage with members of the choir. I told him I would be very happy to do it. In a word, I got involved in what was brewing. When we started to prepare melodies for informal instruments, another of Gerardo’s ideas when he wrote the Cantata Laxatón, since I was a Chemistry student, I took a lot of sample tubes filled with different amounts of paraffin and made them sound like a baguette or a knife sharpener whistle. Gerardo told me that the instrument had a bright future. Thus, was born the “chromatic paraffinic tuba phone”.
Daniel Rabinovich continues recalling: “Some of the humorous actions were to play instruments invented by ourselves, but there were other funny manifestations: to sing, to recite, to make opera parodies, lots of ways. Let’s say that everything was based on humour applied to music, classical music. The motivation was simply to amuse ourselves, to put humour in one of the strict and serious aspects of music. Basically we gathered to sing in jest, to play music for fun, to invent games and operas, all these sorts of things...”
||>AN AUTHENTIC MASTROPIERO
“Mastropiero’s first trip to the United States preceded his movie experience mentioned before. His twin brother Harold, who bore a startling resemblance to Johann Sebastian, lived in New York from a tender age. The Mastropiero twins knew little about each other. Johann Sebastian had heard that his brother belonged to the Mafia, and in turn the latter knew about Johann Sebastian’s music: they were both outraged! Intent upon reconciliation, Johann Sebastian sailed for New York. Leaning against the railing, while the ship was reaching port, he told the captain: “I would never have pictured New York like this”. ‘You are right, Sir, said the captain –we are arriving in the Canary Islands–. Indeed, a few days later the ship arrived in the city of New York and the Mastropiero twins met. They recognized each other immediately. The resemblance was so amazing that during Johann Sebastian’s entire stay, Harold’s bodyguards did not know whom to protect; Harold’s butler did not know whom to serve and Harold’s wife… was called Margaret. Harold Mastropiero operated a seedy business that housed a clandestine cabaret, a forbidden games hall and an illegal betting center. In truth, these premises were only a shield hiding the true source of his fabulous income: a grocery store operating in the back”.
Jorge Maronna had recently arrived from Bahía Blanca and also ended in the School of Engineering choir; shortly, at Masana’s invitation, he joined I Musicisti: “Gerardo suggested including me in the group of performers of the Cantata, at that time Modatón and later becoming Laxatón, to play in September in the Tucumán Choir Festival. After the festival, we received several invitations to play, I am not sure if it was that same year, in Arts and Sciences, in a Lavalle Street basement. Later we performed in “Telecataplum”, the charming Uruguayan television program, and things started expanding”.
I Musicisti split up. Masana’s creative genius moved the focal point of his work to what would later become Les Luthiers and was first followed by Mundstock, Rabinovich and Maronna. This happened on September 4th, 1967, a date that was afterwards instituted as that of the founding of Les Luthiers. In the meantime, Núñez Cortés remained with the other group. But a short time later he returned to the fold where he belonged.
Carlos Iraldi, who for many years had been Les Luthiers’ own lute player, had already joined the group. These are his recollections of those initial times: “I was part of the School of Engineering choir, where I met the boys who later became I Musicisti, and later some of them, Les Luthiers. With Víctor Maraños as a director we learned great things. There was a small group that left together every Friday afternoon. After inquiring, I found out that they were going to build an organ between four people.
After that, we started building instruments with Masana, who later became the creator of Les Luthiers, with Eduardo López, and Carlitos Núñez. I was already a psychoanalyst and this was a sort of hobby for me. But later I did psychoanalysis three times a week and I worked with the guys another three days in the shop-medical office.”
In 1969, the quintet became a sextet with the arrival into the group of a La Plata orchestral conduction student: Carlos López Puccio. “I knew the group from being in the audience and had some sporadic contact with some of them. When they needed more people, I cannot recall exactly why…. Ah, yes, somebody had quit working. Work with Les Luthiers was not very profitable (it could be fun if you saw the funny part), and when I showed up, it turned out that I was a music student, that I knew music, that I played the instrument they needed. Finally, I think Carlos Núñez thought I should join them; they were looking for somebody that played the violin, they were in a hurry, and our wives were friends.
And I was there. It was, as they say in these cases, the right person at the right time”. Around that time, a little before the inclusion of Pucho (he was always known by his nickname, just as Daniel was known as Neneco), around 1968, the television incursion of Les Luthiers in the pioneering Channel 7 program “Todos somos mala gente” (We are all bad people), in which the group contributed its musical with (Canción de la mala gente, words and music by Masana and Maronna).
It was also the time of its performances at the Di Tella Institute, which had been sponsoring a revolutionary artistic movement in every discipline.
“We got to the Di Tella –tells Daniel– after some incursions in what was the Arts and Sciences Center, where we started performing. In 1965 we did some isolated recitals with the short works composed by Gerardo and with some other material we found, and in ‘66 we were invited to take part in a variety show at the Di Tella Institute. We did IMYLOH (I Musicisti y las óperas históricas).
From left to right, a luxury group:
Carlos López Puccio (author and composer, choir director and orchestra conductor)
Jorge Maronna (author, composer and writer)
Marcos Mundstock (author of texts, creator of Mastropiero and writer)
Daniel Rabinovich (great improviser and creative force)
Carlos Núñez Cortés (author and composer, director and arranger)
In ‘67, when I Musicisti split up, we remained at the Di Tella doing Les Luthiers tell about opera, and the next year, at the end of 1968, Carlos Núñez came back to us and we did “Snow White and the seven deadly sins” , our last show at the Di Tella. In the meantime we worked at café-concert, at La Cebolla, essentially in the premises at Bartolomé Mitre next to Callao, and the next jump was to perform in a theatre. We were invited to work at the Margarita Xirgu and we had a season there in 1972. From then on, it was always or almost always in theatres”.
At the beginning of the 70’s the group saw success arriving, but it also experienced a great loss, the death of Gerardo Masana. In 1971 he had been diagnosed with a type of leukemia that left him little hope of survival. A new member joined the group that year: Ernesto Acher, who entered as a temporary replacement for Marcos Mundstock, who was taking a leave of absence. Despite his illness, Masana continued working
and somehow heading the group until 1973. He was able to enjoy the first sweet smell of a success that would eventually become resounding. He took part in the recording of the first three albums and the first tours to Uruguay and Venezuela. And finally, he passed away on November 23, 1973. Many years later, his son Sebastián published a book, Gerardo Masana, founder of Les Luthiers, and brought out a new record by the group in 2003, simply called Les Luthiers (CD Sebastián Masana), with hitherto unknown subjects, a beautiful homage to his father.
Masana opens and closes the formative stage of the group and, as all great teachers, marks for his students the road to follow. And they continue on, becoming a sextet again, they keep growing, conquering new audiences, jumping to bigger and bigger theatres in Buenos Aires. They had started at the Margarita Xirgu, then they moved on to the Lavalle and after that the Coliseo, where their show went on for over thirty years.
And finally from there to the Gran Rex, the largest hall, with over three thousand seats. Seen from a distance now, it seems amazing and even unbelievable, but in those years it was routine to have a sold out house for every performance in a three thousand five hundred seat theatre. Twice they performed in Teatro Colón: on August 11, 1986, in what was Ernesto Acher’s farewell performance with the group, which from then on was permanently consolidated as a quintet, and when they performed accompanied by the theatre’s symphonic orchestra; and on August 21, 2000, with the Camerata Bariloche.
After that, everything had a multiplying effect. The growth of Les Luthiers seemed unstoppable. Upon their fortieth anniversary, they received all kind of tributes: a month-long show in Centro Cultural Recoleta that attracted thousands of visitors who were able to closely appreciate the incredible collection of informal instruments, listen to music and watch videos. They received the title of Illustrious Citizens of Buenos Aires, and Spain granted them the medal “Encomienda de Número de la Orden de Isabel la Católica”, the most important decoration awarded by the Kingdom to citizens of other countries. And they ended the year 2007 with a free open air recital which attracted and delighted thousands of fans.
¿What else can I add? For a grown man like me, just listening to them is almost a suicide: it is impossible not to die laughing.