San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Lyrical Lunfardo: The Language of the Tango

The tango emerged from the Argentine arrabal (the Buenos Aires slums on the outskirts of the city) sometime back in the 1880s. In Argentina today, groups of young musicians are giving a new voice to the tango. Meanwhile, all over the world, there are tango clubs, tango contests, tango shows – not to mention the dazzling tango sequence in the movie “Moulin Rouge.”

What makes the tango so special? Why has its charisma endured throughout the world until today?

We are talking about a mystique, so the answer is not simple. Perhaps it is because, as tango composer Enrique Santos once said, “El tango es un sentimiento triste que baila” (“The tango is a sad feeling that dances”).

Certainly, in part, it is because tango touches us deeply on three levels: its music, its dance and its lyrics.

As music, the tango, with its languid and caressing notes, its anguished cry of the bandoneón accordion and its halting counter rhythms and florid melodic passages, is mystery and desire.

The dance is simply two slow steps and three fast ones, but these are magically transformed into a great variety of long, graceful steps and frequent posturing that communicate fire and ice, brutality and tenderness, betrayal and trust.

No, no, that’s all too hackneyed! Let’s face it: the only way to describe music and dance in words is through poetry, and even then… but what about the third element, the lyrics? What the tango really is, in fact, may be best expressed in the very lyrics of certain tangos. Take, for example:

Tango lindo que se estira

En una bandola atorrante,

Sos velorio y cocaína,

Y sos tristeza de mina

Que se clava en un puñal.

(Beautiful tango that circulates / By way of a wandering bandoneón, / You are funeral wake and cocaine, / And you are the sadness of a woman / Who stabs herself with a dagger.) Remarkable lyrics but, let me tell you, difficult to translate. This is because a great many tango lyrics make use of lunfardo, a hodgepodge

Argentinean street

slang created by poor immigrants living on the fringes of society. It makes use of several languages, but principally comes from Italian dialects. The word “lunfardo,” in fact, comes from the Italian word “lombardo,” meaning an Italian from Lombardy. It originally meant “outlaw,” then evolved into the name of the official lingo of the underworld, intended, as is all street slang, to communicate in code to fool the authorities. Lunfardo has been called “the language of the tango.”

The tango began as dance and music, but this does not mean that there were no early lyrics. Given the insufficient number of reputable young ladies in Buenos Aires at the end of the 19th century, it is not surprising that early lyrics coming out of the city might be about “fallen” women. Here are a few of the lyrics from an early tango entitled “Flor de fango” (“Mud Flower”):

Justo a los catorce abriles,

Te entregaste a la farra,

Las delicias del gotán.…

Fuiste papusa del fango,

Y las delicias del tango

Te espiantaron del bulín.

(Exactly at the age of fourteen, / You gave yourself over to the spree, / The delight of the tango / … / You were a mud beauty, / And the delights of the tango / Took you from your home.)

The tango-as-song, however, really came into its own around 1915, with the arrival of the idol of tango lovers throughout the world, Carlos Gardel, who became the voice of that desperate, confused, homesick porteño (“port dweller,” what Buenos Aires natives call themselves), submerged in misery and expectation, facing an uncertain future. Some say the beautiful and nostalgic lyrics come from the pervasive Italian influence.

Others believe they are the product of hard times.Whatever the cause, the lyrics to the tango became poetry, lunfardo and all.

Take a look at some of the exquisite lyrics (in this case, lunfardo-free) from a well known tango, “El día que me quieras” (“The Day That You Love Me”):

Acaricia a mí en sueño

El suave murmullo de tu suspirar.

Como ríe la vida

Si tus ojos negros me quieran mirar,

Y si es mío el amparo de tu risa leve.

Es como un cantar.

Ella aquieta mi herida.

Todo, todo se olvida.

(The soft murmur of your breathing /Caresses me in sleep. / How life laughs / If your black eyes want to gaze on me, / And if the refuge of your gentle laugh is mine. / It is like singing. / It soothes my wound. / Everything, everything is forgotten.)

In sharp contrast to this is a type known as the “diatribe tango.” This is nothing like the lovesick masochism of the bolero. This is anger and cynicism directed at the world, the

queja del arrabal” (“complaint of the slum”),

the voice of the disgruntled immigrant:

Verás que todo es mentira.

Verás que nada es amor,

Que al mundo nada le importa.

Yira… Yira.

Aunque te quiebre la vida,

Aunque te muerda un dolor,

No esperes nunca una ayuda,

Ni una mano, ni un favor.

(You’ll find out that everything is false. /

You’ll find out that nothing is love, / That

nothing is important to anybody. / Go on…Go on. / Although life may break you down, / Although you may be in pain, / Don’t ever expect any help, / Neither a hand nor a favor.)

In “Cambalache” (“Junk Store”),we find the maximum expression possible of scorn and disenchantment in a tango that tells us the 20th century is a “cambalache problemático y febril” (“problematic and feverish junk store”):

Que el mundo fue y será porquería,ya lo sé,

En el 506, en el 2000 también,…

Vivimos revolcados en un merengue

Y en el mismo lodo todos manoseamos.

Todo es igual. Nada es mejor.

Lo mismo un burro que un gran profesor.

(That the world was and is a pigsty, / I already know, / In 506 and 2000 as well, / …/ We live wallowing in a mess / And in thesame mud all of us smacked about. / … /Everything is the same. Nothing is better. /The same a dunce as a great professor.)

If you want to listen to tangos, you can tune into Oscar López Salaberry’s program “Simplemente Tango” on Eco, 95.9 on the FM radio dial from 9 to 10 p.m., Monday through Saturday ( If you want to watch the tango, López puts on a show every Wednesday night at 8 p.m. in the restaurant Ni Fu Ni Fa, 2.5 kilometers west of Multiplaza in the western San José suburb of Escazú (203-7667). If you want to learn to dance the tango, López also gives classes; give him a call at 394-8902.

Tango enthusiasts can also get their groove on in the eastern suburb of San Pedro at Fantasías de Tango (www.fantasiasdetango. com).Max Bosa Calvo teaches classes and gives exhibitions. For information, call 385-9331. Classes are also available Monday through Wednesday nights at the Promenade Centro de Artes in the southeastern San José district of Zapote. Call 283-6660 for more information.


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