Until a few years ago in my tango career, I mostly preferred listening to tangos about lost love and similar topics of sorrow. Even though the (rich) landscape of tango lyrics is quite varied in themes, I’d still say, based on no serious statistical research at all but just my experience as a DJ, that a majority of the lyrics are about heartbreak (predominantly) and a few other forms of grief. These feelings and experiences are universal and they are expressed in musical genres worldwide, so in a sense, a lot of tango music is far from unique, and at the same time, that also explains its broad appeal.

However, tango also offers us many lyrics that are, in a way, less universal and more firmly embedded in Buenos Aires and its culture – I always call tango “the folklore of Buenos Aires”, and I’m becoming increasingly enamored with all the signs in our music that you can find of that unique cultural world. That is not to say I wasn’t interested in that background before, but it feels like I am going through a transition toward those themes becoming even more important to me than the dominant heartache category mentioned earlier. It might be a maturation of taste leading me into a new direction, or possibly a sign that I am looking for even further depth in how I experience tango music and how it was embedded in a specific historical context during its Golden Age.

The song I chose to translate for you this time is called ‘Chirusa’, and it’s an excellent example of different elements of tango’s backdrop of an exciting city full of immigrants and the opportunities of their promised land. Even though the numbers of immigrants were so massive and overpowering that they changed that land and culture to a great extent, we also have to take into account that there were already ‘natives’ living there who inherited the traditions of colonial times and a young post-colonial, independent Argentina. Tango lyrics often refer to poor outskirts of the city, and it weren’t always only European immigrants living there, but also the already existing population (‘criollos’) of partly mixed descent, including not only descendants of Spanish settlers and Native Americans (I am referring to America as the American continent here, the Americas) but even descendants of African slaves, who have an interesting, somewhat mysterious history I unfortunately cannot elaborate on this time, considering the restraints of these short blogs.

Anyway, I left the title in this translation untranslated, but in fact ‘chirusa’ is a lunfardo word with a bunch of different connotations: it first of all refers to a poor woman, so someone of a low social class and with probably no education, and then, second, it’s connected with the interior of Argentina/the countryside, just like the word ‘china’ that is often referred to in lyrics about gauchos and life in rural areas. And third, there’s a connotation of ‘vulgar’ or a lack of morals, which to me sounds like an euphemism for prostitution. Certainly, the lyric below combines these three elements: a poor girl from the outskirts of Buenos Aires is seduced by a Casanova-like type and follows him to the city center, where he abandons her and she ends up in prostitution. This most likely refers to a type of higher-class prostitution in milongas where those women would work as taxi dancers and were also sexually available for rich men. I draw that conclusion because there are several lyrics alluding to that odd phenomenon – how some women could lead a ‘modern’ urban lifestyle but at the expense of paying for it with their bodies – and it’s likely also the ‘luxury’ that is referred to in the lyric below.

This type of lyrics is also a little weird, especially considering our modern-day standards about gender and sexuality, because they seem to morally condemn these women while also maybe praising them at the same time, for a lifestyle that is convenient for certain men but awful for these women themselves. However, this type of lyric is still representative of some dark aspects of the culture of Buenos Aires at the time, probably especially in the 1920s from what I can remember, and also combines other typical elements of tango culture, like the glorification of the ‘arrabal’, the poor neighborhood of origin. So, while I feel a bit ambiguous about the somewhat misogynist or at least awkward tone in its lyric, ‘Chirusa’ is still very helpful for us to imagine the ‘folklore’ of the Buenos Aires portrayed in tango lyrics, and certainly, the D’Arienzo version from 1940 is just an absolute banger and one of my favorite tracks ever.

I once made a long video about this exact song with more details about several themes discussed above and the D’Arienzo orchestra at the time. If you like the song and have too much free time, give it a watch.

Composition: Juan D’Arienzo
Lyrics: Nolo López

Chirusa, la más linda de las pebetas,
tejía sus amores con un Don Juan;
él, con palabras buenas y cariñosas,
le prometió quererla con mucho afán.
Confiada en sus promesas, una mañana
ató toda su ropa y se fugó;
cegada por el lujo siguió la caravana
y el alma del suburbio le gritó:

Chirusa, the prettiest of all the girls,
became infatuated with a real Don Juan.
With flattery and tender words
he promised to love her with mad desire.
Believing his promises, one morning
she gathered up her clothes and ran away.
Blinded by luxury, she followed him to the city
while the soul of her poor neighbourhood lamented:

‘¡No dejes a tus viejos!
Cuidado che, Chirusa;
el lujo es el demonio
que causa perdición,
y cuando estés muy sola
sin una mano amiga
has de llorar de pena
tirada en un rincón.’

‘Don’t leave your old folks behind!
Be careful, Chirusa,
luxury is a demon
that will ruin you.
And once you are all alone
without a helping hand,
you will cry with sorrow,
curled up in a corner.’

(Hastiada de la vida, sin un consuelo,
vencida para siempre por el dolor,
pensaba en sus viejitos que dejo un día
en la casita blanca donde nació.)
El viento le traía dulces recuerdos,
pasajes de su vida llenos de sol;
y el alma del suburbio, hasta su pieza,
como una voz lejana le recordó…

(Tired of a life without solace,
forever defeated by sorrow,
she thought of her parents that she had one day
left behind in the little white house where she was born.)
The wind carried back sweet memories,
scenes of life, full of sunshine,
and the soul of her neighbourhood, like a faint echo,
brought it all back to her room…:

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