Notas de bandoneón (Notes of a bandoneon)

Music about heartbreak, sadness and longing is something we see across cultures and around the world, and the genre of tango is no exception: often, the lyrics talk about these realities of life in their different forms, but without any particular (historical) context and without anything thematic that would set it apart from other genres. However, tango music and lyrics do have their distinctive character as, like I always say, the folklore of Buenos Aires as a city and culture. That means you also have lyrics that are quite specifically about certain traditions or characteristics of the city, about places or types of characters dwelling the streets, and also often about the bohemian lifestyle of nightclubs and tango dance halls.

The orchestra of Ángel D’Agostino, usually referred to as D’Agostino-Vargas because the orchestra and singer are so uniquely inseparable, is one of the richest orchestras in terms of the different ”landscapes” of that exciting Buenos Aires from the past. In general, the orchestra sound is deeply nostalgic and always transports me not only to the typical streets and corners of the city but particularly to how I imagine they were in the era this music was recorded. And less metaphysically, perhaps, it’s quite possibly (just guessing here) the orchestra with the most lyrics about life in Buenos Aires and other concrete historical, cultural phenomena connected to it. It’s important to realize that a sizeable amount of these stories and anecdotes refer to even older times that were looked at with nostalgia and a sense of loss by the musicians and lyricists of the Golden Age of tango music and even earlier.

The lyric below is a reflection of not only the more universal themes of lost love or sorrow about life in tango but also some of the cultural themes that I mentioned above. First, it refers to an extremely important topic in tango lyrics, namely the distant neighborhoods, usually poor, on the outskirts of the city, that are often looked at with nostalgia (like a type of ‘innocent’ life from the past) or a current longing to return to said areas. These ‘suburbs’ (sometimes literally called ‘suburbio’) tend to be called ‘arrabal’ in the lyrics and host a number of archetypal figures, such as the tough guys who dominated the streets or the virtuous local girls who ended up as a prostitute in the city center. And the second ‘trope’ we see in this lyric is the bohemian lifestyle of the tango world in Buenos Aires: the main character has returned to his poor neighborhood and is now lonely because of the life he chose to live in that bohemian environment. I think this lyric, and the way the orchestra brings it to life in the recording (notice how the bandoneons complement the singing!), are a beautiful representation of the melancholy of tango through its typical scenes and ‘landscapes’ and how the protagonist experiences them.

Notas de bandoneón (Notes of a bandoneon)
Composition: Orestes Cúfaro and/or Francisco de Lorenzo
Lyrics: Enrique Cadícamo

Tengo en un barrio apartado
una casita chiquita
refugio para mis cuitas
de calavera olvidado.
Solo, sin nadie a mi lado
sin un cariño quedé.
Porque de tanto que amé
sin un amor me he quedado.

In a distant neighbourhood
I have a little house,
a shelter for my sorrows,
for having been a womaniser.
Alone, with no one by my side,
I am left without affection.
For as much as I have loved,
I have been left without a love.

Llegan notas de bandoneón
en la noche de mi arrabal
son las notas de un corazón
que al pasar, el viento trae…
Llegan notas de bandoneón
y es más negra mi soledad.
Llueve en mi alma su triste son
y hace florecer mi honda emoción.

Notes of a bandoneon sound
in the night of my barrio.
They are notes of a heart,
carried by the wind.
Notes of a bandoneon sound
and my loneliness becomes darker still.
The sad sound raining in my soul
makes my deep emotion flourish.

(Por eso en mi noche triste
sólo… más viejo y cansado,
recuerdo muy apenado
lo mucho que me quisiste.
Sabiendo que te perdiste
yo vivo evocándote,
y sueño esperándote
aquí, en mi barrio apartado.)

(And so, in my sad night,
alone, now old and tired,
I remember sadly
how much you loved me.
Knowing that I lost you,
I live remembering you,
while I dream of your return
here, in this distant neighborhood.)

Isla de Capri (version by Alberto Gómez)

“Alberto Gómez? Who….??”
Many tango dancers are not necessarily familiar with some of the most important singers in tango history. Whether it’s Charlo, Ignacio Corsini, Ada Falcón or even pretty much the first ever tango singer, Carlos Gardel, these are all names that escape most people’s attention nowadays. However, that’s not strange considering how little they are connected to the actual music we dance to – maybe apart from some older orchestra tunes that are cherished particularly by certain DJs, collectors and crowds of dancers. In these older tunes, we can hear some of these famous singers, like Charlo and Alberto Gómez, sing a refrain within a song meant for dancing, yes, just a refrain and nothing else. However, many others who sang these refrains for the orchestras never reached the same level of status. And we also have to realize that in most of the more sophisticated music of the Golden Age, even those famous names are all absent, and their ‘place’ is taken by mostly a new generation instead.

“But Lucas! How did they become famous, then?”
That’s a good question. The key here is that tango singing and dance music always had a problematic relationship, because the ambitions of orchestras and singers often collided. From its inception until its decline, the tango genre attracted many people who wanted to shine as a soloist, following the original example of Gardel, and many became popular with their listeners this way. We have many recordings of singers who are simply accompanied by guitars or an entire orchestra for their voices to shine, and this subgenre is usually referred to as ‘tango canción’ (‘tango song’). Even in the middle of the Golden Age, singers routinely abandoned the best orchestras we know because they wanted to go solo and be in complete control of the music they created. For dancers nowadays, singing with Di Sarli or Troilo may seem like an immense honor, and to a large extent it was, but there was certainly more to be attained for a popular performer. Or at least it seemed, because while some of these men who became soloists did reach the prime of their career alone, others saw their career decline, and in some cases it’s not easy for us to determine what truly happened, because of a lack of recordings or historical sources.

(British accent) “But Lucas, you must be mad! Why on earth would you create an entire video just for a song not a single dancer ever cares about?”
Well, Alberto Gómez is one of the great, prolific solo singers, and I think it’s really nice sometimes to listen to dance classics from another angle and with voices that were popular and influential back in the day. These singers followed trends among the orchestras, but also the other way around, which means there are dance classics that were inspired by people outside of the orchestras. And in any case: because I understand Spanish, I can always listen to whatever renditions I want, but many of the visitors of my website have to rely on translations. While I generally think it’s more ‘useful’ to present translations of popular tracks, I also think it’s good to stimulate people to understand tango history a bit better and also get to explore the less obvious repertoire out there. Lastly, tango lyrics often have ‘unsung’ parts that are worth the attention but are easily overlooked, and the tango soloists tend to sing the entire lyric or at least a big part of it. All of these reasons are why I choose to present to you, in this case, a nice tango canción that may help you to appreciate the more famous Fresedo version in a different light.

Isla de Capri (Isle of Capri)sung by Alberto Gómez
Composition: Will Grosz
Lyrics: Miguel Ángel del Valle

Yo tuve un amor,
sueño embriagador,
en una isla de Capri.
Paisaje azul
rebosante de luz.
Mi canción de amor
dulce desgrané
en el perfume de Capri
y mi querer
en sus ojos canté.

I once had a love,
an intoxicating dream,
on the Isle of Capri.
A blue landscape,
of dazzling light.
I sweetly declared
my song of love
in fragrant Capri,
as I sang my adoration
to her eyes.

Labios de miel que besaron mis labios,
ojos de sol que me hicieron soñar
y en la emoción de sus besos tan sabios
desglosaba mi alma un cantar.
Y así, los dos por senderos de dicha,
bajo ese cielo radiante de amor
vivimos juntos un suave romance
que duró lo que dura una flor…
¿Y dónde estarás ahora
acordándote de mí?
Mientras mi querer te llora
vuela mi ilusión hacia ti.

Honey lips that kissed my lips,
sun bright eyes, making me dream…
and in the ardour of her knowing kisses
my soul broke into a song.
And so, together on pathways of bliss,
under a radiant sky of love,
we enjoyed a sweet romance
that only lasted as long as a flower.
And… where are you now,
thinking of me?
While my love cries for you,
my hope flies to your side.
my emotions fly to your side.

(Labios de miel que besaron mis labios,
ojos de sol que me hicieron soñar
y en la emoción de sus besos tan sabios
desglosaba mi alma un cantar.
No puedo olvidar
horas que viví
en una isla de Capri…
Cuánta emoción
desbordó mi canción,
ansias de vivir
dulce recordar
de gratas horas pasadas
y revivir
en un beso un cantar.)

(Honey lips that kissed my lips,
sun bright eyes, making me dream…
and in the ardour of her knowing kisses
my soul broke into a song.
I shall never forget
those days I spent
on the Isle of Capri.
My singing overflowed
with such strong emotion,
a yearning to live.
It’s sweet to remember
those pleasant times
and to relive
a song in a kiss.)

Isla de Capri (Isle of Capri)

I remember once stumbling upon this [see the photo above] aptly-named ice cream café on the streets of – you guessed it – Buenos Aires, and thinking to myself, “These people must be big fans of Fresedo!”. However, it is probably only in my autistic little inner world where such connections are indeed logical. After a short, but sobering inquiry on the internet, I recently found out there are a lot more “Isla de Capri” and Capri-referring ice cream parlors in the world, and I bet only few (read: none) of those have anything to do with Osvaldo Fresedo. Even in Buenos Aires, the awareness of what tango music really entails is much less widespread than it should be, based on how major it once indeed was as a kind of amazing and sophisticated folklore of a fascinating city.

OK guys, Capri, Italy, ice cream, Naples, pizza, blah blah, I get it. But I am a so much more noble tango snob, who thinks of different things when I see the title “Isla de Capri”! My personal theory is that it’s the song of a nostalgic Italian immigrant who praised the beauty of his native region in music and lyrics and …. WRONG! ….they sometimes say even an old dog can learn new tricks. Aware as I actually am (in contrast with the general population of Buenos Aires) of the grand heritage of tango music, this genre is full of unknown territory for me too. A while ago, I was listening to another version of this song and I noticed that especially the violins, but also the piano particularly reminded me of the typical melancholic style of European tangos. And that’s how I found out that in reality, “Isla de Capri” has a much different origin than I was expecting!

In fact, as some of you may actually already know, “Isle of Capri” is a European tango/popular song released in England in 1934 and composed by Wilhelm Grosz, an Austrian-Jewish refugee who had fled his homeland due to the looming threat of a Nazi takeover. Grosz worked together with an Irish/British lyricist to create an international hit that was then adapted by Fresedo as a dance tango in proper Argentine style. Interestingly enough, the lyrics of the English hit and its Argentine version are totally different – the Argentine version has its own poet listed and, as is often the case, it seems impossible to find any info about him (or a ‘her’ with a pseudonym, who knows…). This kind of adaptation of something foreign is not unique, considering there are other famous Fresedo, Canaro, Lomuto tracks that are actually European tangos or foxtrots, jazz or other genres. It’s good to realize that even though the world back then wasn’t as globalized as it is now, the world always has been a story of trends that move beyond borders.

And now some final words about “Isla de Capri”: even though its origin was foreign, I still like to think that, back then, the romantic, nostalgic lyricism of this song, combined with Fresedo’s magic and these Argentine lyrics, surely appealed to the masses of Italian immigrants living in Argentina. For them, and even for us nowadays, this song is a great chance to dream away, and I hope my translation below will help you to fully understand its charm.

Isla de Capri (Isle of Capri)
Composition: Will Grosz
Lyrics: Miguel Ángel del Valle

(Yo tuve un amor,
sueño embriagador,
en una isla de Capri.
Paisaje azul
rebosante de luz.
Mi canción de amor
dulce desgrané
en el perfume de Capri
y mi querer
en sus ojos canté.)

(I once had a love,
an intoxicating dream,
on the Isle of Capri.
A blue landscape,
of dazzling light.
I sweetly declared
my song of love
in fragrant Capri,
as I sang my adoration
to her eyes.)

Labios de miel que besaron mis labios,
ojos de sol que me hicieron soñar
y en la emoción de sus besos tan sabios
desglosaba mi alma un cantar.
Y así, los dos por senderos de dicha,
bajo ese cielo radiante de amor
vivimos juntos un suave romance
que duró lo que dura una flor…
¿Y dónde estarás ahora
acordándote de mí?
Mientras mi querer te llora
vuela mi ilusión hacia ti.

Honey lips that kissed my lips,
sun bright eyes, making me dream…
and in the ardour of her knowing kisses
my soul broke into a song.
And so, together on pathways of bliss,
under a radiant sky of love,
we enjoyed a sweet romance
that only lasted as long as a flower.
And… where are you now,
thinking of me?
While my love cries for you,
my hope flies to your side.
my emotions fly to your side.

(Labios de miel que besaron mis labios,
ojos de sol que me hicieron soñar
y en la emoción de sus besos tan sabios
desglosaba mi alma un cantar.
No puedo olvidar
horas que viví
en una isla de Capri…
Cuánta emoción
desbordó mi canción,
ansias de vivir
dulce recordar
de gratas horas pasadas
y revivir
en un beso un cantar.)

(Honey lips that kissed my lips,
sun bright eyes, making me dream…
and in the ardour of her knowing kisses
my soul broke into a song.
I shall never forget
those days I spent
on the Isle of Capri.
My singing overflowed
with such strong emotion,
a yearning to live.
It’s sweet to remember
those pleasant times
and to relive
a song in a kiss.)

Pregonera (Flower Seller) – live version

There are only a handful of movie scenes with performances from tango orchestras, but when you do come across one, it’s always a special feeling. As I was doing some research for my translation of “Pregonera” (click here for the original post with some context) I found a live version of this De Angelis classic from the 1948 movie “El cantor del pueblo” (“Singer of the people”), which also contains some D’Arienzo footage you might just enjoy as well. Let’s take a brief look at some interesting aspects of this movie performance of Pregonera.

Unfortunately, the original footage is a bit choppy and quite likely also too fast. I have not found any different versions of the movie, so I don’t know what causes the choppiness (you’ll notice that it often slightly jumps forward or skips) but I don’t think it can be fixed. The speed may still be tuned but I did not want to manipulate the original material too much. I’ve noticed there’s a lot of interest in correcting pitch in tango songs nowadays, so if you’re up for a challenge go ahead and slow it down a bit! 🙂

As you shall see below, the orchestra is playing on quite an interesting-looking stage with multiple levels, and a venue or at least a movie set that reminds me more of a church than anything else. It makes me wonder whether this was an actual venue and how the average real tango venue looked like in comparison. Other movie scenes and some photos I’ve seen show a somewhat more modest style, but I do not know enough for a truly satisfying conclusion. I also wonder whether the crowds you see in scenes like this were just a bunch of actors or walk-ons, or true fans of the orchestra who would normally come to dance or simply listen to the tunes of the moment. Just like in today’s popular entertainment, I’m not always sure what’s authentic and what isn’t, but in any case I always really enjoy philosophizing a bit about the many things in tango we don’t yet know or will never really find out about.

Likewise, when I look at the way De Angelis and his team are performing in this movie, I can’t help but wonder how ‘authentic’ this performance is (considering it was, to some extent at least, adapted for the big screen) and how it would have compared to their actual regular shows around town. The singers, Carlos Dante and Julio Martel, present themselves in a slightly extravagant way, but it does fit the music and the theme of the lyrics, and it’s of course possible they always behaved like this in their duets or even their solo performances. Also, we get a better view of piano man De Angelis at the final notes, and I find his body language and gestures slightly amusing. Are we looking at something natural and authentic here? But then again, this might be either something artificially fancy for a movie set, or maybe they were just being their normal Argentine selves, not exactly a people known for being all that ordinary or boring.

I guess we’ll never truly know. The best thing would be to ask the people who were involved, and ask them privately about the true and sometimes hidden ‘ways’ of the entertainment business of that time, but we’ve come quite a bit too late for that. I’m still waiting for someone to come up with a time machine, and when it arrives, I’ll be checking out some concerts and writing down a bunch of observations to tell you good people all about it. Well, I guess I’ll write it down but I’ll actually never come back to tell you, because I’ll probably be too busy in 1930s-1940s Argentina to ever come back to our current age. Farewell, suckers!

Pregonera (Flower Seller)
Lyrics: José Rótulo
Composition: Alfredo de Angelis

Princesita rubia de marfil
dueña de mi sueño juvenil,
la que pregonando flores
un día de abril,
recuerdo por las calles de París.
“Una rosa roja para usted,
roja como el ansia de querer,
rosas y claveles blancos,
blancos de ilusión”
y sigue la princesa su pregón.

Blonde princess of alabaster skin,
mistress of my youthful dreams…
she whom I remember, one April day,
selling flowers on the streets of Paris.
“A red rose for you,
red like the desire to love…
roses and white carnations,
white like a dream of hope…”
and so my princess, calling out, passes by.

“Un cariño y un clavel
para el ojal, para el querer.”
El clavel es de ilusión,
mi corazón rojo punzó.
Ay, la tarde va muriendo,
y el pregón me va siguiendo.
“Un cariñito y un clavel”
sólo el clavel, lo que quedó.

“A caress and a carnation,
for your jacket, for love.”
A carnation for hope,
for my yearning heart.
And as the evening fades,
her cry still follows me.
“A caress and a carnation!”
now, only the carnation remains.

Princesita rubia de marfil,
dónde fue tu risa tan sutil,
junto con tus flores muertas
muere mi ilusión.
Y escucho el eco tenue de tu voz.
Es como un susurro sin cesar,
que va despertando mi ansiedad,
es mi fantasía loca
que vuelve a soñar.
De nuevo soy feliz con tu cantar.

Blonde princess of alabaster skin,
what has become of your subtle laugh?
Along with your dead flowers
my hope dies too.
But as I hear the faint echo of your voice,
like a ceaseless whisper,
it awakens a feeble hope.
It’s my infatuation…
making me dream again.
Your song… making me happy again.

Pregonera (Flower Seller)

Alfredo De Angelis generally has a bad reputation among international tango dancers, even though I know some who actually love him to death, especially the highly dramatic tracks from the 1950s with Oscar Larroca, for example. I do think this reputation is justified to a large extent, because De Angelis intentionally created a kind of accessible, simple, “popular” music that dancers nowadays usually refer to as “kitsch”. A case in point is that also in Argentina his music was often called ”merry-go-round music” due to its unpretentious nature, and an Argentine once told me that it also once literally was merry-go-round music played in… well, merry-go-rounds.

However, as an “ambassador” of tango’s Golden Age (1935 to approximately 1945), I do appreciate some of his early music quite a bit, especially while he had an amazing singer on board, Floreal Ruiz, who left to join Troilo instead. I enjoy sometimes playing De Angelis with Ruiz as a DJ early on in a milonga and I also, every once in a while, experiment with some of the other early repertoire as well. But why, Lucas, are you crazy? I am Theresa Faus and I refuse to even play the most famous 1940s valses because of because! This is outrageous! Well, because I think that this early period has a beautiful, romantic, warm quality to it that I find in no other orchestra, and if you can carefully pick a few decent songs, you can actually see that (opinion alert!) this orchestra probably had more promise and potential than it ultimately delivered… which I feel is not only true for De Angelis but for many orchestras that simply fell dramatically in quality after the Golden Age boom started to break down.

So, even though also a lot of the early material is not really to my taste, and frankly even annoying, my point is that the romantic idea of the orchestra’s sound can sometimes lead to a few pretty songs, and one of them definitely is Pregonera, which is actually also a composition by De Angelis himself. I love the lyrics of this song, especially the last and unsung part that I’ve naturally included in my translation below. And even though the music is, well, quite a bit kitschy, it simply works really well and creates a beautiful, romantic and nostalgic setting. The funny thing to me here is that, this being a composition by De Angelis himself, his often-criticized style (like the really high violins) are so ingrained in the music that even the recordings by other orchestras suddenly sound suspiciously Deangelisely.

Speaking of which, I will also upload a video for my favorite version (!!!) which is totally secret until further notice. Actually, I am such a nerd that I think my “Whatsapp Status” (otherwise I’d never even bother having one) has been two lines from the third part of the lyric for about two years now. That is quite some dedication to something that has an awful lot to do (albeit indirectly) with De Angelis, but as I always say, it’s never to late to come out of the closet! Which is even more poignant considering that I am not particularly known for being an admirer of this orchestra. I guess hypocrisy is my middle name, ”blah blah kitsch blah blah Larroca blah blah” but how about another nice song?

Pregonera (Flower Seller)
Lyrics: José Rótulo
Composition: Alfredo de Angelis

Princesita rubia de marfil
dueña de mi sueño juvenil,
la que pregonando flores
un día de abril,
recuerdo por las calles de París.
“Una rosa roja para usted,
roja como el ansia de querer,
rosas y claveles blancos,
blancos de ilusión”
y sigue la princesa su pregón.

Blonde princess of alabaster skin,
mistress of my youthful dreams…
she whom I remember, one April day,
selling flowers on the streets of Paris.
“A red rose for you,
red like the desire to love…
roses and white carnations,
white like a dream of hope…”
and so my princess, calling out, passes by.

“Un cariño y un clavel
para el ojal, para el querer.”
El clavel es de ilusión,
mi corazón rojo punzó.
Ay, la tarde va muriendo,
y el pregón me va siguiendo.
“Un cariñito y un clavel”
sólo el clavel, lo que quedó.

“A caress and a carnation,
for your jacket, for love.”
A carnation for hope,
for my yearning heart.
And as the evening fades,
her cry still follows me.
“A caress and a carnation!”
now, only the carnation remains.

Princesita rubia de marfil,
dónde fue tu risa tan sutil,
junto con tus flores muertas
muere mi ilusión.
Y escucho el eco tenue de tu voz.
Es como un susurro sin cesar,
que va despertando mi ansiedad,
es mi fantasía loca
que vuelve a soñar.
De nuevo soy feliz con tu cantar.

Blonde princess of alabaster skin,
what has become of your subtle laugh?
Along with your dead flowers
my hope dies too.
But as I hear the faint echo of your voice,
like a ceaseless whisper,
it awakens a feeble hope.
It’s my infatuation…
making me dream again.
Your song… making me happy again.