Jerzy Placzkiewicz

Callecita de mi barrio - A Polish evergreen

hen I finished my previous essay Tango in Poland 1913-1939 in which I tried to show the impact of Argentine factors on Polish pop music in that period, I began to be aware that the number of tangos from Buenos Aires which found their way to the country on the Vistula river was much higher and this fact impressed me very much. Polish versions had also tangos: “Piedad” (A Heart), “Mi caballo murió”(A moment before dusk), “Esta noche me emborracho”(A Drunkard’s Tango), “Caminito” (Spanish romance), “Poema” (Poemat), “Ya no cantas chingolo” (Now I’m Leaving Forever) and “Dorita” (title unchanged). Their “new” lyrics were focused mainly on a beauty of love which usually becomes —unrequited and tragic. The scenery of those stories was again located in some fictitious, Spanish country with all the typical requisites for such a place.

However, the tango “Saturnia” (I am singing the songs) was a bit more ambitious as it tried to present a sort of testament which an artist tries to leave at the end of his life.

An interesting piece came from Argentina to Poland in 1936: the tango “Nostalgias”. And soon, to this outstanding Argentine number, Polish lyrics of a pathetic character (“It’s Autumn”) were written by a young poet, Jerzy Jurandot.

Having discovered all those examples of Argentine-Polish tango amalgamations, I did not know that the most important, the most intriguing and the most amazing thing was yet to come.

One summer evening, this year, I was wandering through the files of Todotango and felt like listening to the less known items of Carlos Gardel recordings. I found a title which did not tell me anything: “Callecita de mi barrio”. I clicked the button “play” and the sound of guitars recorded in acoustic system emerged and soon they were followed by the charming voice of Carlitos. Within half a minute I was screaming and shouting: Gardel is singing a Polish song! A song which has been so popular in my country for the last 77 years! By the time the recording was over I realised that the sequence of events must have been completely different: this Argentine tango had arrived some day in Poland first. But I needed to be absolutely sure that that what I heard Gardel sing is this “Polish song” of such an utmost popularity.

Internet makes the world so small and the time passes in that medium so quickly: two copies of the original sheet music (two different keys!) of “Callecita de mi barrio” were found in... Buenos Aires and the original Victor with Rosita Quiroga’s rendition – in Montevideo.

Having all this material, I may say now with absolute certainty: “Callecita de mi barrio” —note by note— is the same song which has been so much beloved by the Polish public! And its Polish title is “Uliczka w Barcelonie” (A Little Street in Barcelona).

In 1929, Hanka Ordonówna, our great cabaret star and singer of between-the-wars period, was at the peak of her career. She was the first star of Qui Pro Quo theatre, she started to sing tangos and she... fell in love.

In the autumn of that year, a young man came to the theatre with lyrics that he had written to some “Spanish” tango-song and ventured to offer it together with the Pilar Arcos’ record to the famous soloist. She liked both, the text and the music, so much that she decided to include it in the program and sing it on the stage the very next night. The song, performed together with the Chor Dana vocal group, became an immediate success. And that unknown author of lyrics turned out to be a nobleman and a count – Michal Tyszkiewicz.

Michal and Hanka were both young, good-looking and they liked each other, and it was not later than one year when they got married.

Ordonówna recorded this song, in a Polish version, for a local company Syrena-Electro. As we can see on the label, under the Polish title “Uliczka w Barcelonie” (A Little Street in Barcelona) there is neither the name of a composer nor the name of the author. And in this way, the names of Argentine composers, Alberto Laporte / Otelo Gasparini, were lost for the first time.

The outbreak of World War II in the beginning of September 1939 turned everything upside down: Poland soon was the subject of two invaders: Germany and Russia (USSR).

Hanka Ordonówna escaped from Warsaw and found her home in Vilnius. There was a theatre which —with “opened arms”— welcomed the famous soloist. They obviously played only what Russian occupational authority censorship allowed them to play. In the group of artists, Ordonówna met a young woman of a striking beauty, who was beginning to act and sing publicly. They liked each other and the older woman handed over her two great songs to the younger one: “Mein Idishe Momme” and “A Little Street in Barcelona”. Hanna Skarzanka, that was the name of the young actress, listened to her lady-tutor attentively and received advice how to treat the musical material and how to interpret the words. And from that moment on, our “Callecita de mi barrio” gained the second tender Polish performer. Skarzanka recorded it not earlier than 1959 and that interpretation is —in my opinion— the best of all, despite of all side effects of the old 78 rpm record (listen recording ).

One of the most talented and mysterious Polish singers was Wiera Gran. Endowed with an unparalleled timbre of voice: a deep, warm, violoncello-like contralto as well as a suggestive style and a way of rendering the musical material. However, her life was tragic. She, being a Jew, was fortunate enough to escape from the Warsaw ghetto during WW II and was hiding in a small village for three years until the end of the war but after she resumed her singing in 1945 she was, unhappily, accused of collaboration with nazi authorities in the ghetto, which was never sufficiently proved. Maybe that lack of happiness was the reason that her interpretations became so mature and heartbreaking. She also included “A Little Street in Barcelona” in her repertoire and used to sing it on the radio from 1945 up to the the time of her emigration to France in 1950. On the existing radio tape she sings “Callecita...” with piano accompaniment only. And that performance lasts as long as 4 minutes and 40 seconds!

Polish interpretations began to loosen the character of a tango, it began to be a song with a very slight line of tempo; actually what mattered most was the melody itself and the context of words. The song lost also completely the names of the real composers. Instead, some unknown Mr Cosidos appeared on the records due to the oblivion of performers and to time which sometimes makes things misty.

In the meantime the first performer, Hanka Ordonówna, was becoming a legend of the Polish stage (she died in Beirut in 1950). Her records were re-recorded and the contemporary singing ladies began to use her pattern to create their own interpretations. In 1981 the film “Love will forgive you everything”, based on Oronówna’s biography, was released.

The actress who was recreating our legendary star of years-gone-by on the screen, was Dorota Stalinska. She included later “A little Street in Barcelona” in her own repertoire and used to sing it in a pastiche-like manner.

Also in the eighties, a lovable young singer, Hanna Banaszak, did not miss the chance to have a flirt with our song and finally recorded it on her latest CD record, just published in Poland. This interpretation was designed —in a very brilliant way— as a link between past and present: the young voice of the soloist was connected with the confession of an old man (Wojciech Dzieduszycki, a former singer, aged 94) and in the end —with the surface noise of an old, broken record (listen recording ).

It is also worth mentioning that only two years ago a one-woman show was put up on the stage of Chorzow Theatre (close to Katowice). Maria Meyer, known as an interpreter of Jacques Brel’s songs and the performer of the main role in the musical “Evita”, focused her interest also on the interpretation of Hanka Ordonówna’s legacy: she prepared a recital of 22 songs, which means - 22 roles and characters , “A Little Street in Barcelona” – included (listen recording).

The song reached such a level of popularity that one day it was used also as a special element of publicity for our football team appearing in the 1982 World Cup in Barcelona, Spain. It was then constantly played on the radio and sung by all faithful football fans, with a special text for that occasion, however, "I know a little street in Barcelona" in the first line of the lyrics, was maintained.

But I think that it was the mixture of a beautiful original music and the stirring air of Polish lyrics that made this song so deeply moving and demanding, of course with some “help” from all those nice ladies who tried to sing it:

I know a little street in Barcelona,
smelling of apple-tree blossom
and I like so much to have a walk there,
whenever I feel tired of a city clamour.

Oh God, how long ago it was
when I was coming here every day
to meet - somewhere around the corner -
with the first master of my dreams…
And I had loved the way I never loved later,
with all my soul and all strength of my heart,
with a springtime joy and youthful inspiration
but… unhappily, everything has its end.

Today I return to meet my memories,
to this apple-tree that whispers and says
that I had experienced in its shade
the moments of such a beauty,
that I should not regret my present tears.

However, until this moment, nobody anywhere and ever knew that «Barcelona», referred to in the «Polish» song, is actually a «barrio» (neighborhood) of some much more distant and much more exotic town – Buenos Aires!