The people who really know tango music (not just the milongueros, but the older people who have listened to tango radio all their lives) say Angel Vargas has a “voz chica”, which means “small voice”. At first I thought this was derogatory—but it’s not. They are saying that singers like Fiorentino and Vargas have voices that are smooth and soft—that they don’t sing with a lot of volume. The best way to understand this is to contrast them with someone like Alberto Castillo (who we’ll listen to soon). Castillo has a strong, sharp voice that could probably fill a room without a microphone. But neither a “big” nor a “small” voice is better. It’s how you sing that’s important—and of course the same thing applies to dancing. For non-Argentines who want to pick up the rhythms and accents of castellano (Argentine Spanish), Angel Vargas is a great place to start. So before we wander into the minefield of tango technique, let’s listen to the way Angel Vargas sings “Tres Esquinas”
I’m from the barrio of the three corners,
an old bastion of the arrabal…
where the beautiful girls in their aprons
blossom like flowers.
Where on warm quiet nights
the malvón flower gives off its ancient perfume
and horse carts sleep in the yards
under a full moon.
I’m from this neighborhood of humble rank…
I’m the tango of emotion.
I’m from the neighborhood that drinks mate
in the shade of the vine covered walls.
When I was young, I strutted
in your angled streets…
I fought with knives, crazy with love.
I burned in the eyes of a bad woman,
with the passion of a wild fire.
Yo soy del barrio de tres esquinas,
viejo baluarte de un arrabal…
donde florecen como glicinas
las lindas pibas de delantal.
Donde en la noche tibia y serena
su antiguo aroma vuelca el malvón
y bajo el cielo de luna llena
duermen las chatas del corralón.
Soy de ese barrio de humilde rango...
yo soy el tango sentimental.
Soy de ese barrio que toma mate
bajo la sombra que da el parrral.
En sus ochavas
compadrié de mozo...
tiré la daga por un loco amor.
Quemé en los ojos de una maleva
la ardiente ceba de mi pasión.
In Tres Esquinas, the voice of tango itself is speaking about its origins: “I’m from this humble neighborhood of flowers and beautiful girls… of mate and vines, and angled corners. I was young and full of passion… fighting with knives… burning in the eyes of bad women.” Well, here we are on another journey into the arrabal. As you become more familiar with the words of the tangos, you find that they are mostly about three things: love (good, bad, lack thereof, etc.), the neighborhoods of BsAs, and of course tango itself. For me, the tangos about tango, and about the neighborhoods, are the ones that are the most interesting. Everyone from Barry Manilow to Barry White has covered the subject of love thoroughly, but the arrabal of Buenos Aires belongs to tango. Some people may be getting a little tired of touring the arrabal… but “El Tango es el Tango”. Whether you like it or not, it is what it is. The music is bandoneon and dos por cuatro, the milongueros dance the way they dance, and tango is the arrabal. The song says, “I am tango… and I’m from the arrabal of the tres esquinas.” My profesora and I translated these words on a Thursday, and as I began to write them up on this beautiful Sunday morning, it hit me… I must find the “three corners”! I need to go to the birthplace of tango!
It turns out that it wasn’t that hard. In fact, it was ridiculously easy. I Googled “tres esquinas”, and found it right away on the Barracas website! (Yep, Barrio Barracas, one of the most humble of all BsAs barrios, has its own website.) Barracas is known as the “Barrio of the Three Corners”, and “Las Tres Esquinas” are at the intersection of Montes de Oca and Osvaldo Cruz. I checked the map, and found that it’s near the southern terminus of city bus line #12, which runs right by our house! So I took most of the money out of my pockets, walked three blocks to the bus stop, and 40 minutes later I was there! It was that fast—a total of about an hour from planning stage to successful execution. Unfortunately, Alej didn’t come along. She said she was tired of wandering through dangerous neighborhoods with me—especially when they were next to the banks of the Riachuelo. The Riachuelo is the river that runs between Avellaneda and the city of Buenos Aires, and it empties into the Rio de la Plata at Boca. Years ago it was the inspiration for a lot of tangos, but today it’s so polluted that walking near it and breathing the air can actually make you sick. (This is not an exaggeration. It smells awful, and there are sometimes stories in the paper about people going to the hospital who are overcome by the fumes).
But the smell doesn’t bother me too much, and walking around the dangerous backstreets of the arrabal really doesn’t bother me either (at least on a nice Sunday morning). Also, I like to take colectivo 12 (aka “El Doce”). I began taking it when I first came to BsAs, and it’s a very useful bus. It goes from Palermo in the north, down through the middle of town. If you want to take it to go dancing, it passes right by El Beso, Porteño y Bailarin, El Arranque, and Celia’s. And it runs a few blocks away from Niño Bien and Canning as well. So the Doce line is a mighty fine line—but I’d never been to its southern terminus. It turns out that El Doce has a whole other life in the south part of the city that I didn't even know about, and it's home is right next to the historic Puente Pueyrredon, the old bridge that used to be the main crossing over the river between Barrio Barracas to the north, and the city of Avellaneda to the south. The bus barn is a ramshackle brick structure that looks about 100 years old, and the bridge itself is so rusted that it’s almost falling into the river (traffic now passes high over the river on a concrete span to the east). The only traffic on the old bridge on Sunday is an occasional moped, or an old car creeping across. I wandered around and took some pictures:
I'm actually familiar with this neighborhood, because our friend Nestor Serra lives on the other side in Avellaneda (and so do a lot of other milongueros as well), and I've crossed the old bridge before. But I'd never been to the "three corners", and I wanted to see what I'd find. It was only a few blocks, so I walked over and looked around the intersection. I took a few pictures, but they were pretty disappointing. In fact, I didn’t even post any of them here. (You’re welcome to go there yourself to see what it looks like if you want—but don’t go at night.) There was a corner, and a neglected building that I’m sure was there at the time the song was written. It was up against some concrete pedestrian overpasses and the onramp for the new bridge, and there was a lot of trash. There were some people sitting on the balconies—although I suspect they were Peruvian or Bolivian immigrants who knew nothing at all about tango, and they gave me a lot of suspicious looks when I took pictures.
As I walked around the place I hummed "Tres Esquinas" and thought about tango. Despite what the song says, the "three corners" didn’t look very “tango-like”. Or at least it didn’t look like any vision of tango that I carry around in my head. Many tangos express an idealized vision of the way things used to be. They see the old arrabal bathed in the warm light of Expósito’s Farol—but I had bumped up against the harsh reality of concrete, traffic, and trash. When I first discovered tango, I thought it looked a lot like the way Tete danced—and I thought it probably sounded like the music from the movie soundtrack of “The Tango Lesson”. Today however, my idea of tango is probably closer to the sound of Troilo’s bandoneon, or the voice of Alberto Castillo. And I suppose it would look like the way Nestor Serra or Ernesto Delgado dance** … but you’ve almost certainly never heard of them outside of these pages. Neither of them strays very far from the neighborhoods where they were born, and if you saw them in a milonga you probably wouldn’t even give them a second glance—especially if someone like Pablo Veron or Gustavo Naveira were flying around nearby.
I'm not really sure what I found at the corner of Montes de Oca and Osvaldo Cruz, but I've been thinking about it. Maybe what I bumped up against was the question of perception vs. reality. Most of us who are serious about tango are searching for it in one way or another. We do our best, but it won’t always behave. Tango it is what it is, not what we want it to be... and usually when we think we finally have it cornered, it slips away again. We wander around looking for clues, and if we keep at it, doors eventually do open. But often we just find more doors. We look and listen and touch, but what’s real today may not be quite the same next week, or next year.
A couple of years ago someone came up to me in a milonga, introduced himself, and then asked, “What exactly is the arrabal? I mean, as far as tango?” I'm not sure why he asked me… he either knew about the website, or maybe some of the milongueros pointed him my direction, but either way I was taken by surprise. Did you ever have someone ask you a question that you sort of know the answer to, but you can’t quite put it together? I fumbled around a bit, and said, well, it’s sort of like the barrios or the suburbs, but it’s not the lowest class neighborhood, like a villa miseria. I know it was a bad answer, but it was the best I could do. A minute later, by coincidence a Castillo tango came on, so I walked back over to him and said, "Hear this guy’s voice? He's singing in 'arrabalero'. Alberto Castillo sings in the accent of the arrabal." Still not a great answer. But a little better.
I still think about his question sometimes. Tango and the arrabal are intertwined and inseparable—but what exactly is the arrabal? It’s one of those "sort of easy, but also hard" kind of questions. It's like asking what, exactly, is a horse? Well, here’s one definition of the arrabal:
** Nestor Serra and Cristina are in the first picture on the page, and Ernesto is pictured in the last paragraph above, dancing with Julie Taylor at Sunderland.