Malena

Music: Lucio Demare
Lyrics: Homero Manzi
First recorded in 1942 by Orquesta Aníbal Troilo, sung by Francisco Fiorentino; also recorded later that same month by Orquesta Lucio Demare, sung by Juan Carlos Miranda

If there exists folklore in the history of tango, none is so prominent, nor so legendary, as Malena, who “sings tango like none other.” Perhaps she was based on a real person, Elena Tortolero—whose stage name was Malena de Toledo—a woman of Brazilian, or perhaps Chilean, or perhaps Argentine birth. As outlined by this piece at TodoTango.com, we know that Homero Manzi, the poet who wrote the lyrics of “Malena,” saw Malena de Toledo sing in a cabaret in Porto Alegre, Brazil; and we know she later went on to sing in cabarets, and then for tango orchestras, in Montevideo.  Other versions of the story allege that “Malena” was based on other tango singers at the time, lovers of Manzi, or even Manzi’s wife’s seamstress. All the contradictory stories, of course, have only served to add to the weight of the legend, and “Malena,” now one of the archetypical Golden Age tangos, rather than painting a portrait of any specific woman, serves as an example of what it means to sing tango and what it means to be a tanguera, a woman in tango culture.
           Exceedingly melancholy, this tango describes the voice of singer Malena as a metonym for the genre itself. The repeated refrain in the song is that “Malena has the sorrow of the bandoneon,” drawing a direct parallel between her and the most iconic and distinct instrument of the tango. In addition, it cites the possible origin for the sorrow in her voice as the “dark tone of alleyways,” or perhaps some heartbreak in her past; both causes ring familiar with the origins of tango, not just the brothels where the dance was practiced in its beginnings, but the increasing urbanization and accompanying feeling of loss that formed part of the immigrant experience at the heart of tango.
           In the last verse, the song becomes a kind of “tango-does-blazon,” as, like the poetic device popular in the Elizabethan period, it names individual parts of Malena’s body and matches them to descriptive metaphors. Rather than cheeks like roses or eyes like a summer’s sky, however, Malena’s body is an image of loss, bitterness, and melancholy. Eyes like oblivion, lips like rancor, hands like two shivering doves, and, of course, in her veins is the blood of the bandoneon: Malena doesn’t just sing tango, she is tango.

 

Malena canta el tango como ninguna
y en cada verso pone su corazón.
A yuyo del suburbio su voz perfuma,
Malena tiene pena de bandoneón.
Tal vez allá en la infancia su voz de alondra
tomó ese tono oscuro de callejón,
o acaso aquel romance que sólo nombra
cuando se pone triste con el alcohol.
Malena canta el tango con voz de sombra,
Malena tiene pena de bandoneón.

Tu canción
tiene el frío del último encuentro.
Tu canción
se hace amarga en la sal del recuerdo.
Yo no sé
si tu voz es la flor de una pena,
só1o sé que al rumor de tus tangos, Malena,
te siento más buena,
más buena que yo.
Tus ojos son oscuros como el olvido,

tus labios apretados como el rencor,
tus manos dos palomas que sienten frío,
tus venas tienen sangre de bandoneón.
Tus tangos son criaturas abandonadas
que cruzan sobre el barro del callejón,
cuando todas las puertas están cerradas
y ladran los fantasmas de la canción.
Malena canta el tango con voz quebrada,
Malena tiene pena de bandoneón.

Malena sings tango like none other
and puts her heart into each verse.
Her voice is the scent of weeds in the outskirts;
Malena has the sorrow of the bandoneon.
Perhaps it was in her childhood that her lark’s voice
Took on the dark tone of the alleyways,
or maybe it was that romance that she only names
when she grows sad from drink;
Malena sings tango with a voice of shadow,
Malena has the sorrow of the bandoneon.

Your song
has the chill of the final goodbye.
Your song
grows bitter with the salt of memory.
I don’t know
if your voice is the fruit of some heartache,
I only know that at the murmur of your songs, Malena,
I can feel your goodness
and it is greater than my own.

Your eyes are dark like oblivion,
your lips stiff like rancor,
your hands two doves shivering with cold,
your veins run with the blood of the bandoneon.
Your songs are abandoned creatures
that pass by in the mud of the alleys,
when all the doors are barred
and the ghosts of song cry out.
Malena sings tango with a broken voice,
Malena has the sorrow of the bandoneon.

Questions? Comments? What do you think of the translation? Leave a comment below!

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Now this is tango (“Así se baila el tango”)

Music: Elías Randal
Lyrics: Marvil (Martínez Vilas)
First recorded in 1942 by Orquesta Ricardo Tanturi, sung by Alberto Castillo

In this ode to tango itself, the speaker describes a night at the milonga—the event where people gather to socialize, listen to tango and, above all, dance. He opens by calling out the pitucos, lamidos and shushetas—all words (pituco and shusheta distinctly lunfardo) that essentially mean the young, snobbish, fashionable, idle rich—and disputes that they are the true tastemakers. “Qué saben?” (“What do they know?”) he asks, with a dismissive downward vocal slide, of what real tango is? In this realm, though he is not rich or fashionable, the speaker is the authority on aesthetic and style. The way he situates himself against the moneyed class reiterates that tango belongs to the people, that it is at its core a popular art—something necessary to remember when reading tango lyrics, despite the way tango has grown to occupy a position of prestige on the international stage.
            The contrast between the higher class and the popular is reinforced with imagery of nature and phsyicality. With the line “Así se baila el tango, un tango de mi flor”—a tango of the bloom of my youth or my salad days—the music changes from major to minor and the imagery turns less general and more personal. The speaker describes the moment the two dancers meet in an embrace. The pitucos no longer matter; now the physical takes center stage: blood rising; breath mingling; eyes closed. The embrace is instinctive, almost animalistic: the arm that holds his partner is “like a snake,” and later, he describes his partner as a reed, a wild beast, and a shadow.  Castillo’s voice in this section is less the dismissive staccato it was in the first section and more a sincere legato. When dancing, the speaker’s partner, even though not necessarily attractive (he describes her as “better than nothing”) drives him crazy, and their connection is instinctive; he uses the word “prenda” which in lunfardo slang means girlfriend or partner, but in standard Spanish means a piece of clothing, evoking the image of the woman being as much a part of him as his clothes or his own shadow; they are one extension of the same expression of tango. In the last verse, he says that she was born for the milonga, and “se muere, se muere por bailar!”—she burns or longs to dance, but literally, she “dies” to dance. From birth to death, now this is tango.
            As much as it is a lovesong to the dance, this song is a brag session. Even the title, Así se baila el tango, which I’ve translated in the context of the song as “Now this is tango,” actually has more of an implication of “This is how to dance tango,” or “This is how it’s done”—in the Spanish it carries the meaning of “I know better, let me show you what I’ve got” in addition to the aesthetic assertion of “now this is what tango really is.” The speaker deepens his claim to authority on the aesthetic of tango with ample use of the vocabulary of the dance: he mentions ochos, the classic tango figure-eight step backward or forward with a pivot in the middle; corrida, or a few beats of faster steps; vuelta, a turn or twist; sentada, a kind of half-dip in which the follower “sits” on the leg of the leader. He then places himself in the middle of the conversation that is tango culture by describing the metaphorical conversation between the violins and the bandoneon, the accordion-like instrument that gives tango music its characteristic sharp wheeze; at the same time, the dancers are participants in this exchange, closing their eyes to listen and physically interpret what the violins and bandoneon are saying; and of course, metatextually, the speaker himself or, more appropriately said, the singer, is part of the creation of tango. At the end of the verse, he makes an intercanonical reference to “Malena,” another tango from the period which describes the tango singer Malena whose “veins run with the blood of bandoneons.”  

¡Qué saben los pitucos, lamidos y shushetas!
¡Qué saben lo que es tango, qué saben de compás!
Aquí está la elegancia. ¡Qué pinta! ¡Qué silueta!
¡Qué porte! ¡Qué arrogancia! ¡Qué clase pa’bailar!
Así se baila el tango, mientras dibujo el ocho,
para estas filigranas yo soy como un pintor.
Ahora una corrida, una vuelta, una sentada…
¡Así se baila el tango, un tango de mi flor!

Así se baila el tango,
Sintiendo en la cara,
la sangre que sube
a cada compás,
mientras el brazo,
como una serpiente,
se enrosca en el talle
que se va a quebrar.
Así se baila el tango,
mezclando el aliento,
cerrando los ojos
pa’ escuchar mejor,
cómo los violines
le dicen al fueye
por qué desde esa noche
Malena no cantó.

¿Será mujer o junco, cuando hace una quebrada?
¿Tendrá resorte o cuerda para mover los pies?
Lo cierto es que mi prenda, que mi “peor es nada”,
bailando es una fiera que me hace enloquecer…
A veces me pregunto si no será mi sombra
que siempre me persigue, o un ser sin voluntad.
¡Pero es que ya ha nacido así, pa’ la milonga
y, como yo, se muere, se muere por bailar!

The dandies, the drips, the fops, what do they know!
What do they know of tango, what do they know of rhythm!
Now this is elegance. What a look! What a silhouette!
Such bearing, such haughtiness, such refinement on the floor!
Now this is tango, as I outline the ocho,
Like a painter tracing filigrees,
A quickstep here, now a turn, a dip,
Now this is tango, a tango of my golden days!

Now this is tango—
The feeling of blood rising
To your face
with each beat,
As your arm,
Snake-like,
Coils around the waist
that arches to meet it.
Now this is tango—
Breath mingling,
Eyes closed
to better hear
how the violins
tell the bandoneon
why from that night on
Malena didn’t sing.

(Added in some later versions)
Is she a woman or a reed, the way she bends into a pose?
Is it elastic or a spring that moves her feet?
All I know is that when she’s dancing,
my partner—my “better than nothing”—
is a wild thing that drives me crazy
Sometimes I wonder if she’s my shadow
Always hot on my heels
Or a being with no will of her own
But it’s just that she was born for this, for the milonga
And, like me, she burns, burns to dance!

Questions? Comments? What do you think of the translation? Leave a comment below!

Nothing (“Nada”)

Music: José Dames
Lyrics: Horacio Sanguinetti
First recorded in 1944 by Orquesta Carlos Di Sarli, sung by Alberto Podestá

Imagery of loss, regret and nostalgia, with overtones of religion, saturate this tango. The lyrics open with the speaker’s arrival at his former lover’s home, to find it abandoned; people had already told him she had left, making his trip to her house a kind of pilgrimage or masochistic ritual. Themes of ritual continue: he tells her he has returned, “repentant,” and in the final verse (which is usually spoken, and was not recorded in the Orquesta Di Sarli version): her doorstep becomes his altar, and at the “cross” that is the padlock of her door, he leaves an offering, a tear. In this way the speaker mourns for his lost love like someone mourning a dead loved one.
            Beyond mourning lost love, the song reads as an allegory of the immigrant experience in Argentina in the late 19th and early 20th century. At the time, with few reliable communication methods, it would have been easy to lose track of someone simply by virtue of them moving away and not telling you. But in addition, people venturing to the New World were leaving their Old World behind them, along with family and community, usually never to be seen again. At least in this case, the speaker has physical objects over which to manifest his grief: the cobwebs, the weeds, her actual doorstep. The life he or his parents left behind, on the other hand, is across a wide ocean, practically inaccessible. Even if one regretted leaving that world behind, it is too late, as the speaker is with his lover: “Where could you be, to tell you/ That today I’ve returned, repentant, to seek your love?”   
            Alberto Podestá’s voice enhances the lyrics with expressive vibrato, melisma, and crescendo. When he reaches the chorus—the climax—he almost drowns out the orchestra as the melodic line peaks, and all you can hear is the words “Nada, nada” (Nothing, nothing). After this melancholic peak in the first line of the chorus, the melody declines—then the next line starts even lower and continues to decline, reflecting the decline in his spirits. Then the melody abandons this clear downward linear path and jumps around in pitch erratically, almost like someone confused, lost, stumbling from grief.

He llegado hasta tu casa…
¡Yo no sé cómo he podido!
Si me han dicho que no estás,
que ya nunca volverás…
¡Si me han dicho que te has ido!
¡Cuánta nieve hay en mi alma!
¡Qué silencio hay en tu puerta!
Al llegar hasta el umbral,
un candado de dolor
me detuvo el corazón.

Nada, nada queda en tu casa natal…
Sólo telarañas que teje el yuyal.
El rosal tampoco existe
y es seguro que se ha muerto al irte tú…
¡Todo es una cruz!
Nada, nada más que tristeza y quietud.
Nadie que me diga si vives aún…
¿Dónde estás, para decirte
que hoy he vuelto arrepentido a buscar tu amor?
 
Ya me alejo de tu casa
y me voy ya ni sé donde…
Sin querer te digo adiós
y hasta el eco de tu voz
de la nada me responde.
En la cruz de tu candado
por tu pena yo he rezado
y ha rodado en tu portón
una lágrima hecha flor
de mi pobre corazón.

I’ve arrived at your door
I don’t know how I could
When they’ve told me you aren’t here,
That never shall you return;
When they’ve told me you’ve gone for good
Snow weighs heavy on my soul
Silence sits heavy on your door
Upon reaching the threshold,
A padlock of pain
Stopped my heart.

Nothing, nothing left in the house where you were born
Only cobwebs lacing the weeds
And the rosebush, too, is gone
Surely it died when you went away…
Oh, all is torment!
Nothing, nothing left but sorrow and stillness
No one to tell me if you still live…
Where could you be, to tell you
That today I’ve returned, repentant, to seek your love?

(Spoken in some versions)
With your house at my back
I’m going, I don’t know where…
Against my will, I must say farewell
And even the echo of your voice
From the nothingness answers me.
At the cross of your locked door
I said a prayer for your pain
And upon your doorstep left
A flower—a teardrop—
From my poor heart.

Questions? Comments? What do you think of the translation? Leave a comment below!