Cuesta abajo Tango
Volver Tango
Abdón Ubidia

17. What a tango!

ardel came to Quito in the fifties. Then the city, nearly reduced to the historical center, appeared very «Franciscan-like and conventual» —according to the in retreat pride of its inhabitants—. Stone-paved squares, churches and bell towers, immemorial tile roofs, perrons, hair-raising slopes, eucalyptus poles with a lonely waning light bulb and a tangle of twisted black wires, besides hillocks and cracks, conferred a tortuous and twitched image on it. Neither the modern north, nor the new south, somewhat wide and somewhat flat, still existed. So Quito was not this Quito. That Gardel was not Gardel either. That was an itinerant copy, diminished and lonesome, who arrived at our Andean village —at that time somewhat avoided by travelers—, dressed, combed and singing like the Maestro. The imitation was perfect. Radio days, finally, he appeared at the then auditoriums: fifty chairs displayed around a small stage with an enormous microphone in the middle. But that was not all. The man had also written a script: a biography of Gardel, of course. So, during months, the Quito radio listeners could revive, between tango and tango, the adventures, searchings and passions of the Zorzal Criollo, precisely performed by who had devoted his life to the task of looking like him, better saying: of being like him; or rather: to reincarnate him.

One day «Gardel's emulator», left town and never again we knew about him.

I don't remember his name and I even doubt he were an Argentine. That is to say that, at least in my memory, the destiny of an artist, who merely wanted for himself the complete fusion with the Maestro, was consummated in a perfect manner. Then I was a child and had neither read Borges nor imagined his dear games with the ideas of the double and of the other. I could not know, then, I had another Gardel very close to me, but without fortune and without glory, the perfect image of an anonymous Gardel. I could not either know that that man was scarcely repeating the destiny of so many other dreamers stubbornly insisting on reaching a dream that had already ended.

Anyway the «emulator» gave meaning to many mysteries that aimlessly roamed in the sea of my confused and scattered mind: the word tango, the songs my mom sang, on the quiet, before dad arrived at lunchtime; the vivid nostalgia experienced by grandma and our grand-aunt (who in their youth had played the guitar and the mandolin) and the unmarried aunt as well, when they recalled old movies. And, nothing else was missing: the adventuresome, geometric dances of the donjuanesque uncle with the occasional girlfriend, or the songs by the singer uncle, who besides living in the jungle, left in the family the incurable stigma of being a Mason and an atheist.

That was my early introduction into the world of tango and, especially, of Gardel. “Volver”, “Cuesta abajo”, “Adiós muchachos” how many thousands of times hadn't I tried to sing them with my successive voices, to successive girlfriends, real or imagined, throughout the successive years? The mystery is great: what did those lyrics have to do with my intimate anxieties, lyrics that spoke of returning to a Buenos Aires from which I had never departed, or of missing it from a remote Paris, or, even more, which sang to pebetas (chicks) sunk in mud? Nothing. Nothing? Maybe they have. Perhaps tango helps us precisely for that: to achieve a mood appropriate for the oversentimental and necessary heart outbursts, to goad it with the nostalgia of what never was possessed, of what was not lived, to get, by direct reflection, a virtual image, enlarged and atrocious, which shows us better, once and for all, all the nostalgia we are capable of feeling. Because if it is a question of feeling nothing will be more suitable than a tango.

Otherwise, if tango would be of no use to evoke that what we did not have (even the sentimental risks of a marginal and quarrelsome life, although not only that), then it should only be enjoyed by the Buenos Aires people, and even more, by the porteños of certain lost neighborhoods.

It's not a question of expropriating Buenos Aires of its dearest song. Not at all. But this means that the non-porteña legion of tango lovers is huge. And it's worth adding that maybe because tango brings us the same as poetry, literature and art in general: the temporary possibility of being somebody else, to live other lives, to steal something else out of the vast world which surrounds us and is scarcely ours.

But it should be added that tango imposes, besides what was said, what is specifically its own: a heroic way of assuming failure, betrayals, or the simple suffering for having lost what once was ours.

Because if thanks to it we long for what was not ours, we also long for —due to a kind of parallel and complementary induction— what was truly ours: but no longer is.
That applies not only to Gardel's tango but also to the one which came later. And it's inevitable for me to recall the Troilo lush orchestra accompanying Edmundo Rivero, or Susana Rinaldi´s voice singing Cátulo Castillo or Homero Manzi, or the perfect timbre of Julio Sosa and as well the style games by Alberto Castillo and Roberto Goyeneche, let alone the one who brought a present new face to tango: Piazzolla. Through them and through many more, but especially through them who are my preferred ones, the tango language, the tango passion, the tango feeling, are expressed in a full and complete way. They create —as Sabato says— "a profound being who meditates the passing of time", and who does it by fits and starts of a disdainful pain, made of good-byes and old injuries.

The passing of time. Why shouldn't we cry over him when we remember all that was and is not any longer: that old town, that family, those girlfriends, we ourselves when we chased —like the anonymous singer previously recalled— some big dream already dead. Yes: it's as if to tell ourselves: «What a tango, God, what a tango!». And with something of Gardel's style.

Abdón Ubidia: Essayist and writer, born in Quito in 1944, he won the Premio Nacional de Literatura (Literature National Prize) in 1979 with his book of stories Bajo el mismo extraño cielo. In 1986 he achieved the same award with his novel Sueño de lobos, a consecrated work, besides, as «The best book of the year» by the magazine Vistazo. Among his published works are worth mentioning La poesía popular ecuatoriana (1982) and Divertimentos o Libro de fantasías y utopías (1989). He is director of the cultural magazine Palabra suelta and soon he will publish his Antología del cuento ecuatoriano contemporáneo, —40 authors born after 1940—.