Nelly Omar passed away when she was 102 years old, on 20th December, 2013. Her death will eventually make her a legend. However, it is difficult to think about Nelly as someone from the past, taking into account that she was always so full of life, a woman full of present and future.
At the age of 100, she opened her own concert at Luna Park reciting these lines from Martín Fierro:
“Singing I will die, singing I will be buried, and singing I will arrive at the Eternal Father’s feet. Out of my mother’s womb I came into this world to sing”
Nelly’s life story begins in the countryside. She was born Nilda Vattuone, in 1911, in the little town of Bonifacio. Bonifacio lies within Guaminí; a small region in the Buenos Aires province that nowadays holds about 3,000 inhabitants.
1.1 – A young Nelly Omar. Date unknown.
Her childhood was shared between the town and the countryside, where she saw her brothers fly a single engine plane and also where, through her father, she met Carlos Gardel himself.
Both of these facts, and her country-style beginnings, would mark her life and repertoire forever.
Nelly Omar is known as “Cantora Nacional” or “National Singer”, because, in Argentina, this is the way we call singers who include both tango and folklore in their repertoire.
At the age of 13, following her father’s death, Nelly moved to Buenos Aires with her family. Due to the poor economic situation the family was undergoing at that time, everyone had to find a job. It was through her sisters, who worked for the state telephone company, that she met Carola Lorenzini, a woman who pioneered airplane piloting in Argentina.
Nelly completed her baptism flight with Carola, falling in love with light aircraft. At the same time, her brother enrolled her to sing in a festival at Colegiales Club. The owner was so impressed with her performance that he hired her that very same day. Her mother very happily authorized her to sing, as she had already stated that Nelly was born to sing and not to fly.
On the day of her first concert, Ignacio Corsini saw her. He was a well-known “criollo” singer at the time and was so impressed after hearing Nelly’s voice that he offered to be her guitarist. This event was the beginning of what later became a successful career. From this moment, Nelly started singing on different radio stations, such as Rivadavia, Splendid and Mayo Radio.
1.2 – Singing live on the radio with her guitars, 1952.
Between 1932 and 1933 she sang together with her sister. Articles about Nelly and Nilda, the Omar sisters’ duet, were published in Caras y Caretas, a famous and well-known magazine at the time.
1.3 – A young Nelly Omar with her guitar. Date unknown.
By the year 1937, Nelly met Homero Manzi, who fell in love with her. They were both married and while Nelly got divorced, Homero did not. This is why they never ended up together. However, Homero dedicated several of his compositions to Nelly, one particularly famous piece being the tango “Malena”.
In 1940, Nelly met Eva Duarte at the aviation club in Quilmes. They immediately became friends as they both shared a deep passion for light aircraft and also for art.
Eva was on Belgrano radio doing a radio drama at that time, but later on they worked together. Eva Duarte married Juan Domingo Perón, becoming the most important woman of all time in Argentina.
Because of their deep and lasting friendship, Nelly recorded “La Descamisada” in 1951, a “milonga” composed to foster votes for Perón. See the original recording of “La Descamisada”
In 1955, after the “Revolución Libertadora” (“Liberation Revolution”), president Perón was ousted. The consequential censorship on politics and arts, silenced Nelly for over 15 years. Not being able to sing or act, and as she did not work in any other field, Nelly soon had to start selling personals to survive. Finally, Nelly moved to live with her sister. It was not until 1969 that she returned to her music career, recording together with Roberto Grela’s guitars.
1.4 – After years of silence, Nelly returns to the music and starts using her characteristc “poncho”. Date unknown.
In 1972, together with the well known guitarist José Canet, Nelly returned to the stage wearing a “poncho”. The idea was suggested to her by her sister due to a lack of proper clothing for the occasion. The “poncho” became her personal signature. She herself described it as..
“the one which killed my hunger”
As from her return to the stage, she kept on singing and recording.
In 1996, Nelly was honored with the award “Illustrious Citizen of Buenos Aires”. In 2010 she was declared “National Tango Ambassador” by the National Culture Secretary of Argentina.
1.5 – Nelly Omar at Luna Park Stadium, 2009.
Nelly recorded “La Criolla”, her last album, in 1996 together with Gustavo Santaolalla. The album took a journey back to the rhythms rooted in the “criollo” style.
In the year 2011, Nelly appears in public for the last time in a sold-out and overcrowded Luna Park Stadium (a typical mega-concert stadium in Buenos Aires). See Nelly’s moving performance at Luna Park 2009 at age 98 years.
Nelly’s death not only implied a last reference to the Golden Age of Argentine Tango but also for one of the last folklore and popular culture standard-bearers.
My own story of Nelly Omar
Nelly Omar was my great aunt. I learned many things from her, about tango as well as about Argentinean history and general culture.
My family has never been very close; there have been several misunderstandings and ill feelings. That is why, for many years, I only knew that Nelly was a singer and that when she was young she had performed in a duet with my Grandma. There was a picture of them on the wall at my Grandma’s home, a cutting from the “Caras y Caretas” magazine.
1.6 – Nelly (101 years old) with her great great nephew Jano (5 years old), 2013.
I never met Nelly until I myself decided to call her. I was 25 at the time and thought it was unbelievable to know that we had a great artist in the family that we never talked to. This is how our relationship began. We drank tea, went to concerts together, met some celebrities from our culture and, we became friends.
When my own grandmother passed away, Nelly became my granny.
Something that is always called to my attention is that Nelly never stopped singing. Not even when censored. She never looked for any other job in order to survive. She plucked up courage and kept on going, always through her singing. During her last days she got up every morning thinking of the last Luna Park concert, her farewell concert, because she belonged to her audience. She was nothing without her audience. She wanted to make her 102-year-old-concert at Luna Park.
Nelly and I decided together to make her documentary film, thinking that it is not necessary to wait until artists have passed away to shoot their biography. Unfortunately, the film could not be finished before the end of Nelly’s life.
It is my granny’s portrait, that also happens to be the legendary Nelly Omar.