Heroes & Anti-Heroes of Tango: Ten Classic Tangazos

by Derrick Del Pilar

Craftsman of Return, Oxygen Tango

Scottish statesman Andrew Fletcher famously wrote, “...if a man were permitted to make all the ballads, he need not care who should make the laws of a nation,” or, as I like to put it, I don’t give a damn who makes the rules as long as I get to write the songs. Or at least translate some of them and present them to you.

Many popular songs and ballads have heroes, (and anti-heroes) whose trials, tribulations, antics, and exploits reflect either the community’s real experiences, or the ideal lives they construct for themselves. Here are just a few from the porteño realm of tango, for your listening and dancing pleasure.

La maleva

There are so many powerful and amazing women out on the dance floors of the world—but often the way women are portrayed in tango lyrics is not exactly inspiring. As you’ll see below, when they are not jilting their men, women in tango lyrics are often victims either of his caprices or destiny and disease.

La maleva however, is a blank slate, an archetype waiting to be filled. The word means something like “bad girl,” or, even better, “femme fatale.” A maleva is dangerously attractive, sensual and lethal, like the women who populate the dark smoky rooms of film noir, but even rougher around the edges. A maleva has no satin gloves or long elegant cigarette holder—she holds her smokes firmly between bare fingers, and she’s not afraid to puff right in your face if you’re trying her patience.

There are many great versions of this instrumental tango. Here are my favorites for dancing:

Orq. Anibal Troilo, 1942

(iTunes album: The History of Tango Volume 4: Los mejores tangos instrumentales)

Orq. Rodolfo Biagi , 1939

(iTunes album: Tango Collection)

Orq. Francisco Canaro, 1938

(iTunes album: Grandes del tango 29)

Orq. Miguel Caló, 1943

(iTunes album: Grandes del tango 45)

Griseta (1941)

Orq. Carlos Di Sarli, singer Roberto Rufino

“And in the crazy ramblings of the cabaret, the sweet melody of some tough guy tango encouraged her illusions—she dreamt of Des Grieux, she wanted to be Manon.”

Griseta, or Grisette, the girl in the shabby gray dress, represents the hard working immigrant girls (stereotypically, they are French) of Buenos Aires. She is a devotee of 19th century novels, where the heroine wins the love of a good man, but tragically dies soon after.

Tangos like these seem to be cautionary tales, meant to keep young women on the straight-and-narrow through scare tactics (Griseta eventually meets the same fate as the women in her novels, on a night filled with champagne and cocaine). But remember: Griseta is no mere drone—she reads, she dreams.

iTunes album: 100 tangos 100 vol 5

Santa milonguita (1939)

Orq. Juan D’Arienzo, singer Alberto Echagüe

“She had big breathtaking eyes, lips red and dainty as sin, and a seagreen gaze...”

Nowadays a lot of tango organizers call their dances “milonguitas” or little milongas, but the word has another meaning—a milonguita is a girl who enjoys dancing and champagne, perhaps a bit too much, so calling her “Saint Milonguita” is rather tongue-in-cheek. But this girl is redeemed halfway through the song, by a new love (she wants to be good, we are told—as good as bread). Alas, it is not meant to be, and after her lover leaves her, she returns to the cabaret to weep.

iTunes album: The History of Tango/ El Rey del Compás/ Recordings 1938-1939, Vol. 2

Madame Ivonne (1942)

Orq. Ricardo Tanturi, singer Alberto Castillo

“But it just so happened that one day an Argentine man came and set the little French girl’s heart aflutter...”

Like Griseta, Madamoiselle Ivonne was a Frenchwoman—but she was happy in Paris, the darling of the Latin Quarter, until she was seduced by a dashing Argentine man, and followed him south. Ten years later and she has nothing left—she sadly drinks her champagne, and she is no longer a Madamoiselle—she is merely Madame. Make of that what you will...

iTunes album: Ricardo Tanturi con Alberto Castillo – Cuatro compases

Claudinette (1942)

Orq. Juan D’Arienzo, singer Hector Mauré

“Midnight in Paris, at that bohemian café, swallowed up in the swirling mists of a fine gray rain, I watched you disappear...”

A fellow Oxygen staffer really drew my attention to this lovely tango. Listen to the drizzly tinkling of the piano, played by the awesome Fulvio Salamanca.

This poor French girl never came to Buenos Aires—but she didn’t fare any better than Griseta of Madame Ivonne. Our singer (the incomparable Hector Mauré) is lamenting the loss of Claudinette—but her huge, dark, feverish eyes seem to suggest that she did not merely break up with him, but rather succumbed to the fate of Griseta, of Mimi, of Manon.

iTunes Album: Glorias del Tango: D’Arienzo Vol. 1

El Cachafaz

In Lunfardo, “cachafaz” means hoodlum, hooligan, rascal, rogue, rapscallion. “El” Cachafaz was  tango’s most mythic dancer, though only a few fragments of his dancing (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Yv9V-3APpc) survive. We can see him doing a few little hops and kicks to show off—how roguish, how rascally! Carmencita Calderón, his final dance partner, said he was an ugly, pockmarked man with impeccable manners who always addressed her formally and respectfully. One evening in 1942, after dancing “Don Juan” (a tango about another famous rogue) in a stage show, El Cachafaz went back to his dressing room and died suddenly of a heart attack, at the age of 57. Carmencita danced, with enviable agility in her feet, into the 21st century and passed on at age 100.

There are versions of this instrumental tango available on iTunes by two great orchestras of the Golden Age. They show two sides of El Cachafaz: D’Arienzo, his playful, rascally side; Di Sarli, his elegance and manners.

Orq. Juan D’Arienzo, 1936

(iTunes album: Grandes del Tango 5)

Orq. Carlos Di Sarli, 1953

(iTunes album: Y Su Orquesta)

El yacaré (The Gator)

Orq. Ángel D’Agostino, singer Ángel Vargas

“Everyone’s whipping furiously, but there’s nothing they can do—Antúñez is already at the head of the stretch.”

At first, we foreigners tend to think that tango is all milonga and cabaret, a smoky dance hall filled with tuxedos and evening dresses, empty bottles of champagne littering every table. Then as we learn a little more we see that tango is also the poor neighborhoods of Buenos Aires, their cobblestone streets, their streetlamps and tin houses. But this song is set on a sunny Sunday at the racetrack, all the horses lining up on the turf. The hero is a jockey, Elías Antúñez. He was a real person, born in the rainy, marshy province of Corrientes—hence his nickname, the Gator. The 1940s were the height of his career, when he won many big races in Argentina. Listen for it, and you can hear the steady trot of a thoroughbred in D’Agostino’s orchestra.

iTunes album: Assassination Tango (Motion Picture Soundtrack)

El cuarteador (The Towing Man)

Orq. Aníbal Troilo, singer Francisco Fiorentino

“My name is Prudencio Navarro, the towing man of Barracas. I’ve got a nag that’ll take any cart and pull it right out of the mud.”

Back in the day, the streets in the neighborhoods far from downtown Buenos Aires were still dirt, and various wheeled vehicles could easily get stuck in potholes or muddy patches. Enter the cuarteador, a man with a strong horse who will tow your waylaid vehicle out...for a price. Rumor has it that some unscrupulous cuarteadores would actually dig holes or moisten spots in the road so they’d have more customers...I’m sure Prudencio wasn’t so shifty, though. He is singing, you see, because while he was out wandering the streets of love, his heart felt into a deep hole, and now even his horse won’t be able to drag him out. Still, he is upbeat, and manages to whistle and make other funny noises (listen for these in Troilo’s recording).

iTunes Album: The History of Tango: Aníbal Troilo and Francisco Fiorentino, Recordings 1939-1944

Manoblanca (1944)

Orq. Ángel D’Agostino, singer Ángel Vargas

“Tonight her dreamy eyes await, down on Avenida Centenera & Tabaré.”

No, Manoblanca is not the girl. He’s the horse (actually, in case you didn’t notice, horses figure in the previous two songs as well—but they aren’t the title personalities). This sweet little song is that rare gem: an optimistic, upbeat tango. The hero is a handsome young man with a sky-blue horse cart, and two faithful steeds to pull it: Porteñito and Manoblanca (though only one gets mentioned in the title—Porteñito better be getting extra oats!). He’s making a trip from his home in the neighborhood called Once to the poorer southern districts to see the girl he loves, and at the end he returns home, beamingly proud and beloved.

iTunes album: Grandes del Tango 10

Patotero sentimental (The Softhearted Gangster) (1942)

Orq. Carlos Di Sarli, singer Roberto Rufino, 1941

“In my life I’ve had girls, so many girls—but never a Woman.”

A patotero is not the kind of guy who likes to show weakness, or vulnerability. He is a member of a street gang of more or less thuggish young men, and the guy in this song is the King of the Cabaret. He thinks he’s hot stuff...but sometimes, when he’s had a few drinks, he starts to wax nostalgic, filled with regret for leaving the one Woman (with a capital W, as Irene Adler was to Sherlock Holmes) who truly loved him.

iTunes album: Tango Collection (only Rufino is listed as the artist)


Derrick Del Pilar

Tango found Derrick Del Pilar in 2006, when he was living (and studying) in Buenos Aires, in a small apartment a few blocks from Evaristo Carriego’s house. In Buenos Aires, he studied the social dance with Lidia Ferrari, and despite the vociferous dissatisfaction expressed by the first lady he managed to cabecear in Salón Canning, he has immersed himself in tango ever since. From 2006–2008 he was a regular on the social dance scene in the up-and-coming tango community of Tucson, Arizona. From 2008-2009, while living in the San Francisco Bay Area, Derrick studied extensively with many of the world-renowned tango teachers who spend time in Northern California. He has also lived, danced, DJed, and lectured in the communities of Eugene and Portland, OR. Derrick is a thoughtful tango DJ who has shared tandas of music by the Golden Age maestros at festivals and venues in Chicago, Arizona, New Mexico, Oregon, Southern California, and the Bay Area, including the Portland Tango Festival and the San Francisco Tango Marathon. In May 2008 Derrick received a B.A. from the University of Arizona with a double major in Spanish & Portuguese and Creative Writing, and in December 2009 he received an M.A. in Latin American Studies from the University of California, Berkeley—with a focus on the history and literature of Argentina in the late 19th and early 20th century. He also lectures on tango lyrics and history at festivals around the U.S.