Malena Tango
Rodolfo Ghezzi

Malena’s hands

he singer Roberto Palmer, who was for over thirty years the lead voice of the folk group Los Cantores de Quilla Huasi, lived with his wife Elsa at the apartment that Elena Tortolero (not Torterolo as I have read in a book) owned on Maipú 746, ground floor, apartment “A”, in Buenos Aires. The one who had been singer and, according to most people, inspirer of the tango “Malena”, already widow of the late Genaro Salinas and with two children, Concepción and Genarito, was forced to rent part of her house in order to survive.

Palmer was then member of the Trío Azul, and Elena (Roberto thinks that her name was María Elena) was their agent. When the room was vacant the singer and his wife moved to the building on Maipú Street.

About this subject I have talked on several occasions to him and due to the articles I recently read in Todo Tango, I suggested its director, Ricardo García Blaya, to publish this testimony on these pages. Based in Spain for several years —his days are spent between Madrid and Jaén—, he goes on singing and composing. I can assure you that his voice keeps the strength and freshness as its main features. A folk singer and also a truly tango man —he has composed several tangos— he treasures pleasant memories of that period of his life.

We are talking about the late fifties. Roberto recalls that in 1959 he used to sing as soloist at Le Mans, a venue owned by the speaker Jorge Ruanova, where the main attraction was the pianist Lucio Demare. The composer of “Malena” confirmed to him that Elena Tortolero was the woman who inspired Homero Manzi to write that lyric. When Palmer told Elena that Demare was playing at that venue, she asked him to take her there to say hello to the maestro. And so it was. The encounter was very touching. Surely some photographer might have immortalized that moment.

Elena Tortolero died in Montevideo and then Elsa, Roberto’s wife, and Genarito went to the neighboring country to bring back the remains of the female singer and bury her near her husband at the Artists’ Pantheon. Palmer told me that by that time he was performing in Chile. One day in Córdoba he told this story to the poet Néstor César Miguens. «Something that impressed him was when I made a comment about the charm of Malena’s hands». And out of that encounter a beautiful number entitled “Las manos de Malena” was born. Miguens wrote the poem and Palmer added the music. Let’s remember it.

Malena’s hands

I remember you at a time of street-lights on the corner of the street,
a time that reunited livery stables and grocery stores
and the neighborhood boasted a wisteria scent
and autumn lit its moon with kerosene.

Later came your teen years, dark haired Porto Alegre,
the hallucinating samba and the stubborn tango there,
the school yard in a Buenos Aires not yet old
and that ardent Brazil with tobacco and alcohol.

I learned your story through your speaking hands,
on your hands born to make love warm,
your hands that laughed, your hands that wept
with a white message like a dove and a flower

I learned that life hurts because of your hands,
your hands that used to sing deeper than your voice.
I learned that dreams hurt like a thorn
when you waved your white handkerchief to say goodbye.