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Max, Tango, and The Spanish Language

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“A veces me pregunto si no será mi sombra
que siempre me persigue, o un ser sin voluntad.
Pero es que ya ha nacido así, pa’ la milonga,
Y ,como yo, se muere, se muere por bailar.”
(“I ask myself sometimes if it’s really my shadow
that’s always chasing me, or some being with no will of its own.
But it was born this way, for the milonga,
and, like me, it dies, it dies to dance.”)
Elizardo Martinez Vilas (Marvil)

In his wonderful Oda al aceite (Ode to Olive Oil), Pablo Neruda says of it, in a moment of gruff emotional release, “You are the Spanish language!” I don’t doubt that, having enhanced many meals with the dark flavors of Spanish olive oils. There is no comparison to them. Nothing the Italians have done with olives has ever come up to the Spanish.

So, given Neruda’s enthusiasm, I have thought about olive oil, and I have thought about the Spanish language. It is very rich, filled with Arabic, Castilian, Catalan and Basque elements, and of course Latin and Greek. It is harsh, dirty with earth and gritty delicacies. It laughs at itself. There is darkness and comedy at its heart, filled with Gypsy sadness and the notion that love is notable most especially for betrayal. (I’m speaking here of the language, although the same could be said of the oil.)

I would not truly know Spanish, though, if it were not for tango and for Max.

It is impossible to have a conversation with a new acquaintance that is familiar with Argentina without tango being mentioned. Although it too is often gritty and dirty, tango is a simple, basic Argentine fact. Many of my Spanish-language mentors have been Argentines.

As the inevitable conversation has occurred, some of them have dismissed tango as being not worthy of notice, and have announced that they will have nothing to do with it. Tango is, after all, “the reptile from the brothel,” as the Argentine writer Leopoldo Lugones once called it. It is difficult for people who maintain a certain glum decorum — and there are plenty of those in Argentina — to accept what tango represents. The way those tangueros dance, for example. The sneer of the dance and the sex of it. The lack of moral restriction.

The better-born Argentine simply doesn’t want to contend with tango, really. They prefer thinking of themselves as cultivated Europeans, with Argentina situated somewhere in a vernal paradise between France and Italy, maybe with a bit of fashionable Castilian Spain thrown in. This tango business requires the street, a rough life, clothes that are shot through with old cigarette smoke and gruff laughter. It does not fit into the class-conscious Argentine view. It is from the lower depths. It is disgraceful.

The trouble for these people is that tango is also the single greatest art form ever to come from Argentina – and that fact is not lost on all Argentines. Many others have taken me aside and urged me to study the tango in depth. They realize that, though they may not approve, tango is too strong a force to be denied – and there are many, many Argentines as well who simply melt with pleasure when they hear tango.

I had studied the music because of my Argentine Spanish instructors. I had turned to the tango lyrics, hoping that studying them would help my study of the Spanish language. What I had not realized was that the lyrics are so filled with Buenos Aires slang (the famous “lunfardo”) that I would almost have to learn a new language, one that was imposed upon the classic Castilian, in order to understand what they were talking about in the tango itself. I went ahead with it.

Tango is a hodge-podge, by no means just a Spanish expression. Its antecedents were even more an African expression, and were brought to Argentina by black people when their Spanish masters brought them as slaves. The Spanish themselves, with their flamenco rhythms and dance, provided tango with equally irreplaceable elements that were augmented in very substantial ways in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by shiploads of immigrants that arrived at the Buenos Aires docks from everywhere else in the world.

Most were from Spain and Italy, but there were Asians, Arabs of every sort, Irish, Germans, Poles, Lithuanians, Jews of every sort, Russians, and English. Early on, the majority of these immigrants were working-class men looking for a job. They spilled from the ships onto the streets of Buenos Aires (in the same way their brothers spilled onto the streets of New York), and were immediately at a loss for – well, fun!

Spanish was the ascendant language, having established itself in the sixteenth century, well before all these others came to South America. There was no changing that fact, but each of these immigrant peoples brought their music with them. As the men walked about the streets and mixed with each other, learning Spanish, as they met each other at the boliche bars and the almacén dancehalls, as they got involved in the ethnic street fairs and parades that were held in all the working-class Buenos Aires neighborhoods, as they joined guilds or unions for whose meetings music was frequently an element, and when they went, as was — to be sure — the case now and then, to the whorehouse prostíbulos, the musics mixed. The rhythms and chords, instruments, ethnicities, cultures, sounds. All of it a stew from the moil of which tango came bubbling to the surface.

It was a madness, a whoredom, that most wonderful of cultural events, a bastardization from innumerable parents, a burst of musical languages and unusual couplings from which sprung a single, yet endlessly complicated, gorgeous flower.


In my more self-congratulatory moments, I consider my Spanish quite accomplished. I quietly thumb my nose at the knowledge that there are moments in which I still fracture it. By the time I came to tango, I had been studying Spanish for years and I went about speaking it like some sort of Irish Hispanic dandy.

I felt that the language of tango lyrics was preparing me for Buenos Aires, a city I had never visited. I had by now mastered some of the Buenos Aires nuance that I learned from my porteño friends in San Francisco and New York – the aspirated “Y”‘s and double “L”‘s for which the Argentines are noted, the same breathy sound so well known in Brazilian Portuguese. Also, the Italianate enunciation, in which certain syllables are elongated well beyond what speakers from other countries would ever consider. These elongations need to be accompanied by the appropriate gesture – the index finger placed below the right eye when some unwelcome truth is about to be told. The ends of all five fingers joined and held up before the face when a frustration is being humorously described. Sometimes the fingers flying apart when the final point is made, like a firework exploding.

The night I met Max, I learned from her that simply knowing about this — being a student of tango lyrics, the Spanish language, its gestures, and a lover of the very sound of the language — was not enough. She was part of a tango troupe that the renowned maestra Nora Dinzelbacher had brought to the Casa Hispana in San Francisco for a party, at which they had done a demonstration of tango. (Actually Nora wasn’t so renowned then. This was fifteen years ago, but she certainly is now.)

I had never seen anything so sensuously riveting in my life as the tango I saw that night. So I spent a few minutes afterwards rhapsodizing to Nora and Max about how I was studying tango lyrics, that they were helping my Spanish tremendously, that I could imagine the lyrics being a key to my entry to true, spoken Spanish, if only in Argentina – but an entry anyway, that could allow me to a whole new manner of conversation.

They both listened in silence. A long silence. Then Max began shaking her head, discouraging me with the news that, despite my laudable efforts, the Spanish language would elude me forever if I did not do the one thing with it that I had not yet done.

So far the conversation had gone without a hitch. There was the usual initial pleasantry that takes place when a Spanish-speaking gringo is encountered. I sometimes feel that those of us who do speak Spanish at all well are like romantic birds or lush floating butterflies. We seem to be very unusual.

“You’re an American, right?” Max said.

I nodded.

“But you speak Spanish.”

I nodded again.

Max did not even pause. “And you care about Spanish?” she said.

“Of course. I wouldn’t have spent so many years suffering through it, you know, its grammar, the vocabulary. Very difficult.”

“You want to speak it well,” she said.

I blathered that I lived in San Francisco, mentioning again that I was a student of the tango, that I had translated lyrics and…

“Well,” she interrupted, tossing her hand to the side as though to dismiss my literary enthusiasms. “You do dance, don’t you?”

The conversation stopped. Fear invaded me, the sort of fear that comes about when you feel that you are about to make a fool of yourself. I had seen tango danced many times professionally, and could not imagine that I would be able to do it in the way I had seen Nora Dinzelbacher do it, or Carlos Gavito, Juan Carlos Copes, Guillermina Quiroga, Gustavo Naveira, Orlando Paiva, Diego DiFalco or Mariela Franganillo. I did not realize then that very, very few can dance the way these do, but at that moment, they were the only references I had. I calmed my heart.

“No, I don’t dance,” I said finally. “You see, it’s just that I, well, that I…” I waved a hand before me defensively.

“Okay,” Max said. “Tango shares the same feelings as Spanish, the same laughter, the same disasters. I can’t think of anything that expresses the blood, the ventricles and flow, yes? of the Spanish language better than tango.”

She pointed a finger at my chest.

“And you’ll never understand Spanish…” A sudden commiserating smile came onto her lips. She studied her hands, and then the crystal glass of red wine that she held in her left hand. “Forgive me, Terry, but you’ll never truly understand Spanish if you don’t dance tango.”

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About Terence Clarke

  • I dearly loved Max, and your article is nice…but Spanish and tango are so completely different. You could speak Spanish for years, be a native speaker, and still never understand the letras of the tango because they are in lunfardo. Lunfardo was a street language for the thieves that became part of the local dialect for Buenos Aires and Montevideo. The Rio Platense Spanish and accent is not spoken or used in any other part of Argentina.