Víctor Benítez Boned

Metaphors in tango 1 - Cien barrios porteños…

he city of Buenos Aires with its neighborhoods, its streets, its street corners, has been and will continue being, in its own right, inspiration, scenery and main protagonist of tango poetry. Most of our great poets were born or grew up in this city, were certainly influenced by its social environment and its landscapes and shared griefs and joys with its characters, its habits and its traditions.

For the sake of plain poetical justice they had to give back in tangos all that love and affection which it gave them in their childhood and in their youth. Beautiful metaphors which highlight and embellish the reality of the Buenos Aires neighborhoods can be found, of course, in the best tango lyrics that deal with this subject matter. The iconography of the neighborhood and its profiles or features offers for us plenty of material to increase the poetical reference and adorn the literary depiction of its compositions with beautiful and precise images.

Barrio pobre (Poor neighborhood)
In the personal vision of his neighborhood given by the tango poet, there are plenty of brush-strokes with colors and beautiful nuances to compensate for the aching reality: «The neighborhood might be poor but it is my neighborhood, and so I see it» –he seems to say-; and from the point of view of his affection and his love, the author shares with us the values he perceives, regardless of the poverty of its houses and its people, and of the realities that those, who do not know how to watch with their soul eyes, think they see…

It is the case of Alfredo Le Pera and Mario Battistella in the poetry of their tango of 1932 “Melodía de arrabal”, with music by Carlos Gardel. In it, an ordinary place of Buenos Aires forever becomes a…

Barrio plateado por la luna,
rumores de milonga es toda tu fortuna…

(Neighborhood, silver-colored by the moon, all your fortune is gathered in milonga rumors…)

It does not matter that, in fact, it is a poor, faded location. A simple pair of metaphors has allowed the authors to present a neighborhood completely different: pictorially silver-colored by the moon and musically rich with milonga rumors.

Armando Tagini, with nostalgic feeling, also tells us about a poor house in a poor neighborhood, in which he perceived an «…unknown soft charm…» because he regarded it with his vision as a poet; and when he says «…the humble beauty of the colonial courtyard…» that is evidenced…

…cubierto en el verano por el florido manto
que hilaban las glicinas, la parra y el rosal

(Covered in summer by the mantle full of flowers which was spun by wisterias, a grapevine and a rosebush)

It is “Marioneta”, a beautiful tango of 1928 with music by Juan José Guichandut. In it, the poet Tagini makes us see the modest flowers of the courtyard by spinning, together with the grapevine, a fabulous canopy to protect the modest inhabitants of the house from summer rigors in Buenos Aires.

Barrio reo (Sassy neighborhood)
Besides being poor, the archetypal neighborhood of the tango subject proudly holds the fact of being coarse. This adjective, which may seem disqualifying, it is not from the point of view of our poets, as far as the stories staged in their neighborhoods depict sceneries of the Buenos Aires of the first half of the twentieth century, with low houses, dirt or badly paved roads, working families, boys dreaming of becoming a singer or a soccer player, girls working at factories, cheap cafes and poor places for romantic trysts, all those venues which may be thought as conducive to juvenile deviations towards different ways of crime for the boys and to temptations of an easy life at any cost for the girls; but which had not been like that at all, at least as far as my personal experience is concerned because I lived from 1945 to 1971 in the poorest area of Barracas and La Boca.

The most successful period of poetry output in tango that began shortly before the 20s goes until well into the 60s in the last century –and right up to that time, save for few exceptions. In Buenos Aires you could live in sassy neighborhoods and neither be a delinquent nor have to live mostly with them.

The curse of drug traffic was not no widespread, there were jobs for everybody, free public education favored the expectations for social advancement, neighborhood clubs and the Sociedades de Fomento (associations for development) worked as a restraining wall to prevent the young from falling into crime. Our neighborhoods might be poor and even sassy… but they were neither shanty towns nor cradles for thugs.

Homero Expósito brings us a very beautiful metaphor which thoroughly defines the main feature of one of those neighborhoods of which we are talking about. It is in the tango “Te llaman malevo” which he co-wrote with Aníbal Troilo in 1957. In it he tells us that the protagonist…

nació en un barrio con malvón y luna…
por donde el hambre suele hacer gambetas…

(was born in a neighborhood with geraniums and moon where hunger used to dribble)

Hunger, as the worst and most painful significant of poverty… eluding, dribbling the intentions of the poor who try to escape from poverty, sometimes aborting their permanent attempts of remaining poor but honest. The tough guy of tango, finally: «…quit his job and got into the track».

We, the porteños, so much love our neighborhoods that we have always been hurt by the changes that have been taking place due to the inevitable progress. There are many tangos which tell us about situations of unrest and even of open disagreement with these advances. The metaphors, with which we try to disguise our complaints, do not prevent that we evidence the displeasure and even the anger they cause:

borró el asfaltado de una manotada la vieja barriada que me vio nacer.
(With a brutal swipe the asphalt erased the old neighborhood where I was born.)

In this “Puente Alsina”, tango of 1926 with words and music by Benjamín Tagle Lara, we are identified, not only with the protagonist who is longing for his «hideout» where he sought refuge after his adventures as a rascal, but also with the other inhabitants of that dear neighborhood and with all the porteños. Because we were all able to say «¿dónde está mi barrio, mi cuna querida?» (Where’s my neighborhood, my beloved cradle?) and everybody has been hurt by some swipe of asphalt or with a secret pain we have whispered to the little street of our childhood: «…de un zarpazo la avenida te alcanzó…» (with a swipe, the avenue caught you...)

In “No aflojés”, brilliant tango of 1933 by Mario Battistella and music by Pedro Maffia and Sebastián Piana, dedicated to some unknown dweller of an unarguably sassy neighborhood, like its tough protagonist, to whom the autor says: «Vos que fuiste de todos el más púa, batí con qué ganzúa piantaron tus hazañas…» (You, who were the smartest of them all, inform us with what crowbar your great feats were ended), we find another metaphor about the disgust of the porteño regarding the progress which modifies his neighborhood’s profile:

Maula el tiempo te basureó de asalto al revocar de asfalto las calles de tu barrio...
(The coward time promptly treated you like dirt when it plastered with asphalt the streets of your neighborhood…)

The porteño inhabitant who watches how his beloved little streets, previously unpaved or with cobbled stones, are covered with asphalt, regards himself as a victim of a dirty robbery by the deceiving new times. The metaphor does not conceal the anger.

Barrio de tango (Tango neighborhood)
But above all, besides being poor and coarse, the porteño neighborhood is essentially a tango neighborhood. The inspiration of our best poets has translated into stanzas many daily brush-strokes of the brotherhood between neighborhood and tango: from the merry-go-round that weeps tangos or the moaning of a bandoneon in the backyard, to the old victrola playing Gardel’s records or «esos tangos de Arolas y de Greco / que yo he visto bailar en la vereda…» (those tangos by Arolas or by Greco which I have watched being danced on the sidewalk) as Borges used to say.

Don José González Castillo, poet, father and teacher of poets introduces us to a typical tango neighborhood in his early piece (1923) “Sobre el pucho”, with music by Sebastián Piana. The tough protagonist reminds us of «… la canción de su dolor» (the song about his pain), meditating about his poor life: «Tango querido, que ya pa’ siempre pasó / como pucho consumió las delicias de mi vida…» (Dear tango, forever gone, as a cigarette it burnt the delights of my life…).
And the author places the scene of this tango at a very precise location of Buenos Aires, while he embellishes it with a brilliant metaphor:

Un callejón en Pompeya y un farolito plateando el fango…
(An alley in Pompeya and a little streetlamp painting the mud with its silver beams...)

A dark unpaved street in a marginal neighborhood in the southern area of the great city (Pompeya in the 20s in the last century), but metaphorically lit with a silver gleam by a humble little streetlamp with a faint light…

And he rounds off the stanza by introducing to us the protagonist and the instrument in charge of the music background which will spice up the whole piece:

…y allí un malevo que fuma y un organito moliendo un tango
(and there’s a tough guy who is smoking and a street organ which is grinding a tango)

Thanks to the original metaphor, we imagine a street organ player as if he were «grinding» the music that comes from his instrument while he is spinning the crank, in the same way that at that time grains were ground with a portable grinder.

This same beautiful metaphor by González Castillo is used again many years later by one of his best disciples, Homero Manzi, in his tango of 1949 “El último organito”, when he tells us:

… y allí molerá tangos, para que llore el ciego…
(and there it will grind tangos to make the blind man weep…)

Once again the crank of the street music instrument grinding… spreading our music along the streets of the porteño outskirts, «para que bailen valses detrás de la hornacina / la pálida marquesa y el pálido marqués» to make the pale marchioness and the pale marquis dance waltzes behind the alcove), making reference to the chinaware figures which adorned the street barrel organ.

This beautiful poem by Manzi, turned into a tango with the music of his son Acho Manzi, is a deserved homage to the Evaristo Carriego’s oeuvre. In his poems he had forestalled the subjects of many of the best tango lyrics, like the ones Manzi picks up in this piece: «el último organito…» (the last street barrel organ), «la vecina que se cansó de amar…» (the female neighbor who became tired of loving) and, especially, «el ciego inconsolable del verso de Carriego / que fuma… fuma… y fuma, sentado en el umbral…» (the inconsolable blind man from the Carriego’s stanza who smokes, smokes and smokes, seated on the doorstep…)

© Víctor Benítez Boned / Madrid, Spain, 2017
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