"Tristezas de la Calle Corrientes"
"Corrientes Street Blues"

I tried to translate this tango about five years ago, and it didn't come out very well. The words and the structure of the poetry were too difficult. That’s when I realized that not only does a good translation help you dance tango, but also, a bad translation can sometimes ruin a tango for you. For a long time I didn’t care much for Tristezas, because it just didn't make sense to me.

Now however, with the help of my profesora, I discovered that part of the earlier problem wasn't totally my fault. I had originally checked what I was hearing against the castellano lyrics on the Todotango website. Todotango is a good Argentine site that I use as a reference for names and dates in tango, and it's usually accurate. I assumed their lyrics came from the pages originally written for Tristezas, and would be correct. But for some reason, they had the word "Si" instead of "Sí". It doesn't look like much, but "Si" with no accent means "if", while "Sí" with an accent means "yes". Substitute "if" for "yes" in the translation below, and you'll see the problem. It messes up the whole translation. Once we figured that out, it all fell into place.

Tristezas is a very well known and important tango, so we'll look at three different versions. The first is probably the one that's the most popular in the milongas. Here's the version most dancers are familiar with—Calo with Berón singing:




Street like a valley
begging for coins.
River without bends,
where the city suffers.

What sadness
in your pale lights!
Your signs burdened
by dreams,
and your posters...
only cardboard laughter.

Laughter that needs
the courage of alcohol.
Crying turned into songs
of love for sale.

Market of sad pleasures...
a swap meet of caresses,
hanging on an illusion.

Sad?  Yes...
because you are ours.
because you dream.

Your joy is sadness.
And the pain of waiting
runs through you.

You live in the weak light,
crying your sadness!

Sad?  Yes...
because your are ours.
from your burden.

Calle como valle
de monedas para el pan.
Río sin desvío,
donde sufre la ciudad

¡Qué triste palidez
tienen tus luces!
Tus letreros

sueñan cruces,
tus afiches
carcajadas de cartón.

Risa que precisa
la confianza del alcohol.
Llantos hechos cantos
pa' vendernos un amor.

Mercado de las tristes alegrías...
cambalache de caricias,
donde cuelgan la ilusión.

¿Triste? Sí ...
por ser nuestra.
¿Triste? Sí...
porque sueñas.

Tu alegría es tristeza.
Y el dolor de la espera
te atraviesa...

¡Y con pálida luz
vivís llorando tus tristezas!

¿Triste? Sí ...
por ser nuestra.
¿Triste? Sí ...
por tu cruz.


There's an unusual line in this tango that caught my attention: "Tus letreros sueñan cruces." The literal translation is, "Your building signs dream crosses." What a strange thing to say. It reminded me of the earlier problems I had translating the word "cruz" in Farol on page 5. As I thought more about it, I began to realize that to really understand this tango, you need to look at it together with Farol, because both Tristezas and Farol were written by the same man—Homero Expósito.

Expósito was a poet, and he saw things through the eyes of an artist. Before I got into tango, I never paid much attention to art. But I've been thinking about it a lot lately, and I've come to believe that art doesn't really tell us anything new. Art can be a lot of things, but basically, I think that good art tells us what we already know—but in a different way. A good artist uses words (or paint, or music, or maybe even a camera) to help us see and feel the familiar in a different way. He or she makes the familiar more clear, or intense, or maybe more beautiful. Or maybe even more frightening or ugly. Sometimes great art may confuse us, but in the end, it also helps us see.

75 years ago, Expósito looked around Buenos Aires, and his artist's eyes saw the same thing everyone else saw... but in a different way. He went south to the Riachuelo, but instead of seeing poverty, he saw beauty and glory. He wrote in Farol: "A human neighborhood... a working neighborhood, with its stories sung in tangos." He listened to the night sky, and heard, "the wind murmuring with poetry... with the dreams of a million workers."

Then Expósito went across town, to the bright lights and laughter of Corrientes Street. For 100 years Corrientes has been a mix of art and affluence that represents Argentina's dream of success. But in Expósito's eyes, the light takes on a ghastly hue, and there is desperation in the laughter.

Taken together, these two tangos present us with a different way of looking at Buenos Aires—and maybe even at ourselves. I'm even tempted to use Tristezas as a metaphor for the things that are happening in tango today—but we've been down that road before, so we'll let it go this time.

Now let's listen to Troilo with Fiorentino. It's the version I like best for dancing, because I think it has a little more tango-like intensity. It's less orchestral, but more staccato. It's a bit harsher and faster, with a little more energy for dancing. Unfortunately, Fiorentino's voice lags a little in this one. It doesn't quite match the energy of the orchestra. Still, it's very good. Listen to how Troilo introduces his singer—the way the orchestra goes "up-up-up-up-down", and then, "up-up-up-up-up" just before Fiorentino begins to sing:


Earlier, when talking about tango artists, I used the words "he or she"—although when it comes to the Golden Age, it's mostly "he". I don't think there were any women in the orchestras, and as far as women singers, most milongueros don't like to dance to them—but that doesn't mean there aren't any great women tango singers.


The last version we'll listen to is sung by Libertad Lamarque. Although it was recorded at about the same time as the others (1942), it sounds a bit dated. Her style of singing is no longer popular, and instead of the polish of the Troilo and Calo versions, her orchestra has more of the old-fashioned guardia vieja sound of the 1920s. But as I listened to it, and concentrated on the way Libertad was singing, I began to think that if I were Expósito, this is who I would want telling my story. Listen to the way her voice breaks slightly... the pausing, and the intensity of her expression. It's as if she feels the words more deeply than either Berón or Fiorentino. She doesn't exactly have a pretty singing voice, but if you follow along with the words as she sings, I think you'll find that her voice sounds genuine. It sounds as if she knows exactly what she's saying.

Here's Libertad Lamarque's "todo la carne en la parrilla" version of Tristezas de la Calle Corrientes:




Yes! Now we're getting somewhere. You'll notice that this one contains more lyrics, and it includes the last, and maybe the most powerful lines of Expósito's poem:


People hanging out,
soaking up
the artsy atmosphere.

Poor souls,
with nothing in their pockets
but the dream of making it...

Easing their journey
of hope by
filling their minds
with illusions
at a table in some bar.

Street like a valley
begging for coins...
River without bends,
where the city suffers...

Men sold you...
betrayed you like Jesus,
and the dagger
of the Obelisk
is bleeding you endlessly.

Vagos con halagos
de bohemia mundanal.

sin más cobres
que el anhelo de triunfar...

Ablandan el camino
de la espera con la
la mente siempre
llena de ilusiones
en la mesa de algún bar.

Calle como valle
de monedas para el pan...
Río sin desvío
donde sufre la ciudad...

Los hombres te vendieron
como a Cristo y el
puñal del Obelisco
te desangra
sin cesar.


This tango could not have been very popular with defenders of the status quo. I’m sure the Buenos Aires Chamber of Commerce wouldn’t want to use Tristezas as part of their promotional literature.

After I listened to this tango, I decided to find out more about Libertad Lamarque. It turns out that she was the most popular screen actress in Argentina in the 1930s. One time, she was on a movie set with another actress who kept showing up late, and keeping everyone waiting. When Libertad said something about it, the other actress got angry, and the two became enemies. The other woman was Eva Duarte, who later married Juan Peron. And when Eva's husband came to power, apparently she decided to ruin Libertad Lamarque. Libertad was blacklisted, and she couldn't work. Even her friends began to avoid her. And a few years after she recorded this tango, she had to leave Argentina.

Although she continued with a successful movie career, her movies weren't allowed to be shown in Argentina or Uruguay, and she was banned from the radio. In a way, it makes the final line of her Tristezas even more meaningful—Expósito's unforgettable image of Argentina's broken dream, impaled and bleeding on the Obelisco.


"Chan chan"

You may have noticed that most tangos end with a pause, and then two hits of the bandoneon. This is so well known that porteños sometimes end their letters and emails with it. Chan chan.