So That You Know Who I Am...
by Jorge I. Oclander
Tomorrow, my ship will sail away.
Perhaps, it will never return.
I will say your name
When I am far away.
I'll have a memory
I can tell the seas about.
Let us dance this tango,
I do not want to yearn.
Tomorrow, my ship will sail away.
(from "Mañana zarpa un barco")
Luis Bravo, the Argentine born creator of Forever Tango, sits staring at his espresso. Slowly he lifts his eyes revealing the pain which covers them. "I think it has always been my destiny to create Forever Tango," he says. "I have been leaving somewhere my whole life."
His eyes search the mud of the coffee grounds at the bottom of the cup and looks out a window. When he turns back he forces a smile.
"The tango" he says, "has been described as a mirror for the sadness and the loneliness of the immigrant's life, but it is not."
"It is the music of the emigrant, someone who is always leaving and never finds home." A shadow covers his smile and his eyes turn back to the grounds at the bottom of the cup of espresso.
He's got a point. The tango is more than an intricate dance. It is a feeling, an emotion and the culture created by the thousands of men who were forced to leave their homes, their families, their wives and their lovers during the last 25 years of the nineteenth century by the desperate poverty of a disintegrating Europe.
"To make America," they said, referring to their dreams of fortune as they climbed aboard crowded steamers in Napoli and Genoa, Marseilles and Hamburg, Liverpool and Malaga, Belfast and Istanbul to seek their fortune in America.
With them, they took their cardboard suitcases, the browning pictures of their loved ones and their illusions of finding riches in America. For most, the boat never came. Instead of their dreams, they found the horror of the packing houses along the Riachuelo in Buenos Aires, and near the port in Montevideo, Uruguay. They worked from dawn to sundown in the heat and the stench of spoiling meat in places like the Mataderos district of Buenos Aires and El Cerro in Montevideo; or along the docks along both shores of the mud colored Rio de la Plata. Nights were the worst times. They returned to the "conventillos" where they lived five and six to a room. Some lived in sewer pipes stored on an empty lot belonging to a Frenchman named A. Touraint and became known as the "atorrantes," the Buenos Aires street dialect's word which even today describes homeless bums.
At night the Italian, French, Irish and German immigrants crowded into the bars and the streetcorners of the "arrabales" where they dulled their pain with cheap wine and sang the mournful napolitan and andalucian love songs to the women left behind. Sadness covered the grey stone and muddy streets of their barrios. Only the rising sun dulled the pain of memories.
"The tango belonged in the night," says Bravo.
It was a man's world. Violence was common as the alcohol and the cocaine took effect. Knife wielding toughs, the "compadrones," ruled the arrabales.
Many of the early tangos tell the violent story of these confrontations. In the Argentine epic Martin Fierro, two cowboys meet at a "pulpería" (bar), and exchange words in the form of double-meaning song:
"Va-ca-yendo gente al baile," says one compadron. Literally the words mean, "people are coming to the dance." But, in his double-speak he has called the other man's woman a cow (vaca). "Mas vaca sera tu madre," (Your mother is a bigger cow.) answers the black man. Knives flash. The tango "El Ciruja," (the surgeon) tells of the expected outcome: "Y, el Ciruja, qu'era listo para el tajo, al galan le cobro caro su amor," ("And, the 'surgeon' who was quick with the knife, charged him dearly for his love").
Eventually women - many of them prostitutes - made their way to the ports to satisfy the demand for love (even if commercialized) of these men. They too, found their way into the tango. Their "kilombos" and "enramadas" (brothels) where they plied their trade around the turn of the century became the show place for the tango.
"The tango is seen as a music of passionate love," says Argentine philosopher Ricardo Gomez. "It is not. It is the music of loneliness and lust."
"Look closely at the dancers and you'll see the relationship between the prostitute and her client. The dance is intricate, legs intertwine but all of the movement is from the waist down," he says.
If properly danced, the upper body is stiff, the look between the dancers intense but distant. It is the intensity of lust and power. It is the passion of sexual desire.
The male controls with his eyes. Yet, it is she who is really in control. A mere brush of her hand across his neck or his chest.
It is she who dances.
Initially, the "moralistic" (but not necessarily moral) Argentine high society rejected the tango. Slowly the spoiled children of the landowners and cattle barons began to make their way to the "enramadas."
Shortly after World War I, a group of Argentine intellectuals on their annual sojourn to Paris decided to have fun by teaching the "indecent" tango to their friends. To their surprise, the tango quickly became the craze of the Parisian ballrooms.
And, Argentine society, always looking towards Europe - a popular saying in Argentina describes society as a Spanish culture which speaks Italian, admires the French and wishes it was English - reimported the tango back to the shores of the Rio de la Plata.
It also changed it.
It was no longer the tango of the compadron - the ballet-like reproduction of two men locked in mortal combat. The compadron was replaced by the "compadrito" who dressed like him; the "fungi," a wide rimmed hat thrown over one eye, a white handkerchief tied around his neck, the short coat and tight trousers and, as a last connection to the toughness of the port, the knife to the side.
But, he had none of the compadron's substance.
Eventually, the evolution of the tango took it to the better dance halls closer to "el centro," (downtown) of Buenos Aires. The "fungi" and the silk neckchief were replaced by the black tuxedo, patent leather shoes, spats and silk top hat. Immortals like the tragic Carlos Gardel and celebrated salon orchestras like Francisco Canaro's gave the music legitimacy and acceptance.
But allow your eyes to look at the desolate stars and the haunting shadows of the musicians of Forever Tango on the stage, close them and listen to the pain of the bandoneon, search the passion, and the sadness of the dancers caught in the tidal wave of lust, arrogance and solitude and you will feel the "sad emotion" that is the seed and the semen of its immortality.
"You'll see everything is a lie,
You'll see nothing is love,
You'll see the world doesn't care
It just keeps turning, turning...
Luis Bravo looks at the cup of espresso again, searches its bottom. He becomes quiet, he closes his eyes.
"The tango" he says, "was bred into my soul."