BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA – Bernabé “Gardelito” Ferreyra dances several colorful tango steps on an old sidewalk in Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina. He dances alone, with his hands hugging the waist of an invisble partner.
“The tango for me is a passion,” the 78-year-old says in Spanish. “A reason for living.”
The wall behind him displays his story as a street artist painted in lime. The images detail a career that has taken him to Colombia, England and even Japan.
Despite his age, Ferreyra still dances with ease. Soon, he leaves his imaginary partner and picks up his guitar.
Standing on a plastic crate, he begins to sing as he plays. He belts out the song smoothly, hardly moving his lips. His sky-blue eyes reveal the tenderness of this local legend, dressed in a fitted suit that has lost its blue color. He loses his gaze among the people who pass by on the street, some depositing bills through the slot of a tin can.
Ferreyra say that when he sings, he feels like Carlos Gardel, the famous Argentine tango singer and composer from the 1920s and 1930s. Gardel died in an accident in 1935 but remains the emblem of tango here.
The lyrics of tango music and Gardel’s songs in particular tell stories of hopelessness and despair, of women loved and lost and of love for one’s childhood home. The rhythm of tango is melancholy and sensual. It’s sung with a sullen expression and danced with romantic insinuations.
“I am a street artist,” Ferreyra says. “I don’t receive anything for singing, only the collaboration with those who listen.”
Ferreyra was just 8 years old when he began to sing in his native city, Mar del Plata, located 250 miles south of Buenos Aires. He says that Gardel used to appear to him in his dreams and named him as his artistic successor, passing along his lyrics to him.
Ferreyra then traveled to Buenos Aires to fulfill his legacy. He says a woman who knew Gardel personally even gave him some of his clothing.
“I save everything,” he says. “I have the tie and an overcoat from Gardel.”
Ferreyra lives alone. He doesn’t have any family. He travels an hour from his house in the suburbs to perform several times a week in the neighborhood of San Telmo, the oldest neighborhood in Buenos Aires.
He starts performing at 10 a.m. after unpacking his things from a small, black bag: a speaker, a microphone, a music player and pages from magazines featuring his name. He performs until 6 p.m., usually earning about 600 pesos ($130) throughout the day.
Ferreyra shares the stage with several other street artists. Only three meters away from his improvised stage, a puppeteer gives life to a marionette depicting a drunk man dancing the tango beneath a streetlamp. Farther in the distance, a living statue of Gardel tips his hat every time someone gives him a few coins. For all of them, Ferreyra is a