Shoeshine boy (Se lustra, señor)

ImageI have been translating a lot of lyrics lately that are more than anything about love and poetic misery related to it. However, another common theme is the arrabal, the (poor) neighbourhood of origin. We can recognize a lot of mixed feelings about love and women in tango, and that is also true for the arrabal.

The following song tells us about the fate of children from poor families, most likely immigrant families. Many barrios (neighbourhoods) of Buenos Aires, like La Boca, Barracas, Nueva Pompeya and San Telmo used to be full of poor European immigrants who struggled to survive in a harsh environment. If you want to understand the essence of Argentine culture, small stories of hope and tragedy in songs like Se lustra, señor are key.

In case you do not get the ending of this story: it is likely that the kid is suffering from tubercolosis, a common problem at the time and quite easy to catch for children who were working on the streets.

Let us listen to two famous singers, Ángel Vargas and Alberto Castillo.

Shoeshine boy (Se lustra, señor)

The boy with his old clothes, with a skin damaged by the sun…
life has treated him with all its toughness.
On the same corner, he always shouts:
“Sir, I shine your shoes better than those guys in the salon*!”
I know this brave** boy’s story.
One day, his father did not return home
and he, without a word, made his own box
and ever since, there has never been a lack of food (lit: bread).

“Sir, let me shine your shoes!”
“Shoe shine, sir?”
While he is looking for hope,
life amasses trouble and pain.
Each and every day, even when
the sun burns us
or when the winter cold
makes our hearts freeze.

And one of these mornings,
the wind of the arrabal
left a strange silence
over there, on the threshold.
For a few days, we have not heard his call:
“Sir, I shine your shoes better than those guys in the salon!”
Yesterday we went to see him, and I just have got to tell you this…
He looks at us, sits up and starts talking:
“Mommy, come over here quickly
and bring me my shoe shine box,
because sir, I shine your shoes better than those guys in the salon…”

And like that, just like in this story that I have just told you,
the humble soul of the arrabal accumulates itself.

*This probably does not refer to salon as in milonga. Here, it is most likely some kind of store where locals would go to have their shoes polished.
**The literal translation would be ´I know of his value´. But valor can also mean courage, and is this context the boy is courageous enough to help his family survive against all odds. So, his courage can be his personal value, too.



I am sure every tango dancer has seen pictures and videos of Carlos Gardel, but I do not think that there is widely shared knowledge about this man. Fortunately, I have never heard a DJ say something like, “This evening shall reach its climax as soon as my carefully prepared Gardel tanda starts” or an elegant tanguera ”It is only when I dance to Carlos Gardel and his fan-tastic guitars, that I reach tango heaven”…

This is something all of us should be grateful for, because you just don’t dance to this kind of dominant classic tango singers. Further worsened by the inability of many people to understand Spanish, that means talented men like Carlos Gardel, Ignacio Corsini and Agustin Magaldi do not get a lot of attention nowadays.

However, they have created countless great songs that may help us understand tango culture much better. I have got to begin somewhere, and the following typical Gardel tango is one that has been covered many times. The fine language used here can serve as an introduction to a lot of tango poetry and that is why I am surprised I am (supposedly) the first person to translate Confesión. For me the content of this classic poem is Tango 101.


Confession (Enrique Santos Discepolo)

I lost your love and
it was a conscious decision,
just to save you!
Now, you hate me and I am happy,
withdrawing myself from the world
to bewail you.
The memories you will have of me
shall be horrible,
you will always see me beating you,
like a villain.
If you only knew
how generous it was of me
to pay like that for your good love…

Sunshine of my life!
I was a complete failure
and while falling I tried to
push you aside, because
I loved you so much… so much,
that, while tumbling, I could only
save you by making you hate me.
Recently, after a dreadful year,
I saw you passing by.
I bit myself so that I could not call you.
You were pretty as a picture
and men would stop just to stare at you!
I am not sure if he who has now got you (as a girlfriend)
deserves something like this.
All I know is that the cruel misery I caused you
is justified by the sight of
you, like a queen.
Live a better life,
far away from me!

Sunshine of my life!
I was a complete failure
and while falling I tried to
push you aside, because
I loved you so much… so much,
that, while tumbling, I could only
save you by making you hate me.

I just stood there, staring at her (Me quedé mirándola) [Troilo]

alberto marino

During the last few months the Troilo-Marino combination has slowly conquered a major amount of territory in my heart. I do not know why, but I guess I had to acquire a certain taste and maturity for this particular music first. I began to study the immensely strong lyrics of these songs and that way I have also become a much bigger fan of Aníbal Troilo in general, at the expense of other orchestras I used to prefer over this one. I have started to appreciate Marino more than Fiorentino now. I think his voice is much more expressive and the lyrics he chose are, in my opinion, some of the most profound and melancholic I have ever heard. The tango I am presenting to you today has also been done by Biagi, Demare and a few soloists, but I think those versions are rather weak in comparison.

I just stood there, staring at her

After an awful year of solitude
we ran into each other again, by accident.
And suddenly… memories of those days,
when we would sing and laugh,
came to me en masse.
My lips stuttered of fear,
my eyes told her about my pain,
and running into her caused me so much anguish
that, with my throat overwhelmed,
I just stood there, staring at her.

Those were all pointless paths,
beaten tracks, without life,
paths lined by doubts and sorrow
and heartaches that only increase my suffering.
I do not expect anything of my life anymore
and now that I see her again it could be that,
like her distracted eyes are telling me,
I have killed her love forever…

(That broken dream of the past
cannot flourish anymore.
I have got her in front of my eyes this afternoon
and now I understand that there is no-one
in my sad nightfall.)
She, the person I waited for,
has returned but not arrived.
I meet her again and she already leaves,
and knowing that her farewell is my downfall
she walked off, and on the corner
I just stood, staring at her.

As I saw her pass by (Al verla pasar) [Laurenz]

martin podestaFor me the great thing about Pedro Laurenz (no, not the guy on the picture, this is the singer, as usual) is that his music always complements his singers in such a particularly sensitive way. Not just a nice dance beat and a redundant guy behind a microphone, but a very real interaction. This is, of course, the case for a lot of tango music, especially as far as Caló is concerned, but I find the effect especially notable in Laurenz songs of this specific period.

So, when you have listened to the following song and understood the meaning of the words, I advise you to listen again: try to pay attention to what the instruments are attempting to add to the story, how they complement the very sad character of what the singer is bringing accross. For me this is just a typical early example of the somehow more sophisticated nature of Golden Age music. I shall now stop harassing you with my philosophy, but do not abandon this browser tab before having drooled over Laurenzes bandoneon greatness starting at 3:00 in this video.

This channel may not work for some people, there are a few alternative videos on YT.

As I saw her pass by (Al verla pasar, singer Martin Podesta)

Yesterday, as I saw her pass by,
I came to the conclusion that I cannot return,
and I understood that everything has ended,
that we are but shadows of that past.
With so much sadness I watched that what I
thought would be my rescue …poor me!
And in the terrible doubt between
talking to her or not,
I stepped back.

Poor little thing….
she looked so old and pale!
Her black eyes looked at me
without sparkle…
Life wanted to cause her pain and enjoy it….
The thought… that she used to be so beautiful
and now, the world has forgotten about her.
If she only knew
that I have changed too
that my spirit has been destroyed
and that I sometimes even
thought of killing myself
and, well… that for me, everything, everything,
everything has already perished.

(Then, I left that place, trembling and
yearning to cry heavily….
Driven crazy by sadness,
cold in my soul,
ice in my veins.
And I left.. without knowing where to go
together with taunts and laughter.
And now, knowing that I am lost,
without strength, defeated…
I cannot live.)

I adore you, bandoneón! [Canaro]

There is still a lot of great stuff from the Guardia Vieja waiting for us to be discovered. This song combines sophisticated poetry about the bandoneón with an awe-inspiring musical story – listen closely, you will hear conversations going on especially around 1:00. The singer serves as estribillista and appears only for a limited amount of time, but I guess you should read the whole poem, because you may recognize your own relationship with tango music in these descriptions. Towards the end of the song, there is a powerful musical variation that might just be the bandoneóns answer to our tribute!

Recited: Sentimental bandoneón, soul of our arrabal, with your melancholic accent.. sing, sing, bandoneón!

I adore you, bandoneón!
Because you imitate my grief with your sound,
because you take root in my existence
and beat inside my tender heart.
In your sensitive music
there are caresses, sweet kisses from women,
there are reproaches of passion
and motherly affection…
bandoneón, from our musical arrabal.  

(Bandoneón, when I was sunk in sorrow,
faced with the collapse of a beautiful illusion,
when wandering, without love…. lost…
it was you who consoled my heart!
When my loving mother gave me
that last kiss before passing away
you, bandoneón, with your
sweet-sounding chords,
you relieved my sadness.

Thanks to you I could forget the bitterness
of an odious and vile betrayal,
and you encourage me to sing
even when my afflicted heart cries.
In your sensitive music
there are caresses, sweet kisses from women,
there are reproaches of passion
and motherly affection…
bandoneón, from our musical arrabal.)