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Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Stories from the barrio

A while ago, some rousing music by Anibal Troilo was playing at a milonga, when an argentine fellow asked if I knew what the tango was about. He'd grown up with tangos playing at home, so he knew all the words. This piece was called Una Carta (a letter). At that stage my Spanish was not good enough to understand the lyrics, so he enlightened me: A man is writing to his mother from prison, asking if it's true that his wife has found another man. Only then did I understand the energy in the music. It reflected his frustration, pain and anger. Since then, dancing to this tango has been a totally different experience for me.

And so it is with other tangos, valses and milongas. Fundamentally, most are stories set in a working class background. Often the poetry of the letras (lyrics) is exquisite and multi-layered. On top of that, the emotional impact of their universal themes is amplified by superb singers and the music played by great tango orchestras. So nowadays I make a point of finding out the meaning of my favourites. To help with this, there are even a few websites with some translations in English.

Here are a few gems to read, listen to and view:

In Al Compas de un tango the singer wisely advises us to go dancing in the milonga in order to forget the painful demise of a relationship (Note how the two singers evoke somewhat different feelings), while El encopao seeks solace in the bottle. Some pitfalls of machismo feature in Gloria and Patotero sentimental (I found a stunning video of this one, too). Suerte loca deals with gambling, while Volver and Adios arrabal remind us of the powerful influence of one's past.

Do you listen to the lyrics? What are your favourites?



  1. Oh, yes, it's very important to understand the words, what is the tango saying, to achieve the highest satisfaction of the tango dance.
    As you say, there're so many and it's imposible to describe them all, but what do you think of these: La vida es corta Tanturi Castillo; DiSarli's - Rufino's En un beso la vida, Lo pasao paso or Necesito olvidar or with the same orchestra Jorge Duran's Otra vez carnaval; O. Fresedo's Vida mia; Malerba's & Medina's Embrujamiento; Troilo-Fiorentino's Barrio de tango or the waltz Pedacito de cielo & Romance de barrio by Floreal Ruiz; Pugliese & Chanel's Rondando tu esquina; Un tropezon D'Agostino-Vargas,......not forgetting D'Arienzo-Echagüe's Pensalo bien, or the famous Cambalache.
    Ohhhhh....I wouldn't finish this list. I don't know whether the english language is rich enough to express all the tango's lyrics as a latin language as Spanish is.
    Pat.....a wonderful post you wrote.....I agree with every single word. Congratulations

  2. Thanks for your comment, Constantino.
    Yes, I love listening and dancing to all those tangos and valses, and so many more ...
    It is interesting that many of these working class stories were penned not by uneducated compadritos, but by great poets. Hence their timeless appeal.
    Best wishes from Australia!

  3. lyrics often come after the music. I find i'm attracted to the beat or rhythm first and then realise the lyrics. This can sometimes lead me to enjoy "music" without understanding the lyrics for example a song by Sting is about a stalker but i didn't know that until recently. I have since learned that this song has sometimes been used at weddings!

  4. That's been my experience, too, Annie. The music which first appealed to me on one level, takes on different qualities for me as I learn more about it. The lyrics have a huge influence, as well as the social context. An example of that is "Cambalache", mentioned by Constantino in his post. That tango was a scathing criticism of Argentine society. If you're interested, take a look at the commentary on the Planet tango website.


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