The estribillista is the singer of the orchesta típica of the 1920’s and 1930’s. It’s purpose is to perfom the estribillo (refrain) in such a way that the orchestra and the music remains at the center of attention. It differs from the cantor de orquesta (orchestra singer) of the golden age and solo tango singers.
In the early 1920’s, singing was reserved to soloists such as Carlos Gardel and Ignacio Corsini. These singers used to perform with guitars or small band which would accommodate their voice and were not concerned with delivering a steady beat for dancing. Orquestas típicas were performing instrumental pieces only.
Francisco Canaro was the first director to incorporate a singer to his orchestra. In his memoirs he says he felt something was missing and so he invited Roberto Diaz to perform the estribillo and began experimenting with duos.
The challenges to integrate a singer to an orchestra were many at a time were there were no microphones and amplifiers. The voice of the singer had to be powerful enough to accompany the instruments in noisy public places, cafes and nightclubs. Cone were used sometimes but not an ideal solution estetically. Also it didn’t seem to occurre to anyone to slow down the pace or do major efforts to accomodate the voice of the singer until Anibal Troilo began working with Francisco Fiorentino in 1937.
Besides all of this the contribution of the estribillista to the orchestra was rarely credited. Singers were not regarded as members of the band and their names often did not even appear on recordings.
However the estribillista became popular by the end of the 1920’s and some soloists such as Charlo were associated to an orchestras. Juan Carlos Thorry and Ernesto Famá worked with Osvaldo Fresedo, Félix Gutiérrez with Julio de Caro, Dante with D’arienzo, Teófilo Ibáñez with Roberto Firpo and Santiago Devin with Carlos Di Sarli.
The presence, status and recognition of the estribillistas continued to improve as electric technologies allowed for better performances and in the 1930’s all orchestra were working with singers. Some were associated to a particular orchestra like Roberto Ray to Osvaldo Fresedo and others like Luis Diaz and Francisco Fiorentino worked with many.
It’s not until 1937 that the orchestras finally begin to fully integrate the signer and to adapt the music to showcase the voice and poetry of tango. That all began with Anibal Troilo and the first cantor de orquesta Francisco Fiorentino.
García Blaya, Ricardo. El cantor del Tango: su evoluci’on en el tiempo – El estribillista. Todotango. Online. http://www.todotango.com/historias/cronica/69/El-Cantor-del-Tango:-Su-evolucion-en-el-tiempo-El-estribillista/