"El Bulín de la Calle Ayacucho"
"The Clubhouse on Ayacucho Street"
Tango was born in the southern part of Buenos Aires, but it quickly spread all around the city. This famous tango is about an apartment in the fashionable Recoleta neighborhood of the 1920s:
The bulín on Ayacucho Street,
that I rented when I was young and wild…
the bulín where the guys would drop in
at night to play cards and gamble.
The bulín where so many of the boys
in those tough times,
found food and a place to sleep...
feeling desperate, as if they would cry.
The primus stove never failed me...
it was loaded with fuel,
and there was always hot water...
mate was the thing there.
There was always a guitar,
shiny and well tuned,
and a playboy with a nasal voice,
who dreamed of becoming a singer.
El bulín de la calle Ayacucho,
que en mis tiempos de rana alquilaba…
el bulín que la barra buscaba pa´caer
por la noche a timbear.
El bulín donde tantos muchachos
en sus rachas de vida fulera,
encontraron marroco y catrera...
rechiflado, parece llorar.
El primus no me faltaba...
con su carga de agua ardiente,
y habiendo agua caliente...
el mate era allí señor.
No faltaba la guitarra
bien encordada y lustrosa,
ni el bacán de voz gangosa,
con berretín de cantor.
Buenos Aires is crowded and expensive, so families often live together in apartments that aren't very big. And unlike the U.S., where kids often go away to school or get their own places, young Argentines often stay at home. In the days when this tango was written, it was common to find several generations living together, so a bulín was a small rented apartment shared by young people to get away from their families, and facilitate the making of new Argentines.
At first this tango seems simple—only a few nostalgic lines about a sort of clubhouse where people met and enjoyed each other’s company. And it ends with the line about a young man with a “berretin” (a glorious, impractical dream), trying to sing in a “voz gangosa” (the tough, nasal accent of the arrabal). It’s not an especially sad story… so why do the words and music seem to convey such a sense of loss? Well, because like many tangos arranged for dancing, it only has the first half of the lyrics.
In the second part, we suddenly jump forward to a cold, empty room. No carpet, no light, and no friends gathered around a bubbling mate kettle. There are only bitter memories of a treacherous winter night when a young girl "flew up to the sky": Una noche de invierno fulera, hacia el cielo de un vuelo se fue.
Finally, the tango ends with: El bacán de la rante alegría está seco de tanto llorar.
Now we have the full story. We realize that the bacán mentioned at the end of the tango (the young man playing the part of a cool, wealthy playboy) is actually the narrator himself—and the tragedy of losing his lover has taken away both the bulín on Ayacucho, and his innocent dreams of singing tango. His happy, hopeful voice has become "dry from crying".
It’s likely that many of the older Argentines dancing around us in the milongas know all this, and they understand why this tango is so sad. And now, we do too.
1. The bulín in this tango was located at Ayacucho 1443 (Ayacucho y Pena). Those who have been to club El Beso know that it's at Riobamba y Corrientes. If you walk one block west to Ayacucho, and ten blocks north, you'll be there.
2. For his younger, wilder days when he rented the apartment, the narrator uses the phrase "in my times of the frog".
3. We don't know how or why the girl died, but in the time before modern medicine, young people dying from disease and infection probably wasn't uncommon.
4. It’s interesting that the most famous voz gangosa of all was probably Alberto Castillo—and he may have been putting on his street accent a little as well, because he was actually a well educated physician from a prosperous family.
This chapter is still under construction....