Chamuyo de gotán: time travel through tango history with the lyrics of its songs

Tango and its roots – is it a point of contention (as befits its being “rite and religion”, per the famed quote) – or a point of connection? The connection which brings together ourselves, the music, the orchestras, the singers … and where the lyrics may be the most elusive of the interlocking connecting elements?

In a presentation combining printed handouts, a slide show, and music, and titled, in proper Lunfardo slang, Chamuyo de Gotán, Talking Too Much about Tango, Derrick del Pilar tries to cover the history of Argentine tango from its obscure beginnings to the storied Golden Age – through its lyrics. With Derrick’s permission, here are my annotated notes.

Enrique Binda, “Clarin” interview on the occasion of the 2nd edition of the book: “tango was born into a normal society, as existed in Buenos Aires at the time”; “[by 1910] it existed in the city center as well as in arrabal, in as many academias as prostibulos”; “who do you think was buying tango sheet music for piano by the thousands, hoodlums and whores or people who actually owned pianos?”
It all starts from the contention, obviously. The much-touted, much-discredited Borgesian brothel-to-Paris-to-high-society narrative is largely debunked, with the help of the 1998 book by Hugo Lamas & Enrique Binda, El tango en la sociedad porteña, 1880-1920, a product of 35 years of research which extensively analyzed the materials of the formative years of Argentine tango, from news reports to police records.

The brothel - to - Paris - to - beaux-mondes narrative of tango history may be traced back to a 1936 book of Hector and Luis Bates where they romanticized and exaggerated its outlaw, pimp-and-prostitute roots, and declared that tango remained totally unacceptable in the middle and upper class society at home until its return from Paris ca. 1913. However, Lamas and Binda prove that between 1902 and 1909, 3 millions copies of piano sheet music of tango have been sold, and at least 350 gramophone recordings pressed. Given that a gramophone cost several months worth of salary, not to mention what a piano cost, there is simply no question that tango was gaining very substantial following in the middle and upper classes of Buenos Aires much earlier. Even some of the earliest tangos from the 1870s and 1880s, formally anonymous, are thought to have been authored by a Spanish noblewoman and concert piano player, Eloise D’Hebril Da Silva.

The police reports and regulations show that dancing took place in “academias” (dance schools/clubs which often had women for hire, and which were aggressively pursued by the police for violations such as … staying open too late), drinking establishments, and theaters (including the most upscale ones, such as the Opera, where the parterre seats may have been removed for the occasions), rather than in BsAs brothels where the local law forbade dancing as well as drinking (one would have to leave the city to find brothels which also operated as bars and dancing halls).

This said, of course sensual borders sexual, and an ethnic and social mix of a big city with its city music and dances juxtaposes against the homogeneity of the provinces and their native-born folk dances … so it comes as no surprise that the early tango found many detractors among the conservatives and nativists, and was widely depicted as half-vulgar and déclassé in the media of the day. It also seems likely that upper-classes acceptance of tango as a national music form preceded the wider acceptance of tango dance and especially tango poetry. The macho underclass hero of the early tango letras (literally “letters”, as the Tango lyrics are known) tells us a compelling story of tango’s lowlife beginnings. Enter Villoldo’s 1903 El Porteñito, the Little Son of Buenos Aires:

El Porteñito (1903)
Letra: Ángel Villoldo

Soy hijo de Buenos Aires,
Por apodo “El Porteñito”
El criollo más compadrito
Que en esta tierra nació.
Cuando un tango en la vigüela
Rasguea algún compañero,
No hay nadie en el mundo entero
Que baile mejor que yo…
Little Porteño
translated by Derrick Del Pillar

I’m a son of Buenos Aires,
they call me Little Porteño,
the toughest, coolest criollo
ever born in this land.
When one of my buddies
strums a tango on his ol’ guitar,
there’s no one in the whole world
who dances better than me…

The most classy milongas of the late 1890s and 1900s may have been held nightly at Lo de Hansen, or Restaurante del Parque 3 de Febrero, in Palermo, in the city’s largest and fanciest park inspired by Paris’s Bois de Boulogne (and, of course, commonly known as Bosques de Palermo). Mr. Hansen, a German immigrant, remodeled his 1869 park restaurant in 1877, as a part of redevelopment of the park. The new concessioners in the 1900s kept a fleet of five cars to ferry the guests around town at night. The daytime orchestra from Milan was being replaced by a tango orchestra for the night, and the rich and pampered daytime clientele, by the tango crowd with its share of malevos and shushetas and occasional fights and shootouts. The tabletops were made of very heavy marble slabs, lest anybody swings a table in a brawl. A posted sign asked the customers to please avoid tapping spoons or plates or bottles to the beat of their most loved tango tune, Villoldo’s “El Esquinazo” (because the earlier ban on “tapping the rhythm with hands or shoes” proved to be inefficient, as the crazed guests invented other ways to accompaniment the music)! By 1908, quality tango salons started appearing elsewhere in the best neighborhoods of Buenos Aires, and the golden days of old Hansen were gradually winding down. It was demolished in 1912. But the scene of tangoing at Lo de Hansen is lovingly reenacted in a 1937 movie, complete with fighting over choices of music, quebradas, boleos, and even a soltada. And the location has even seen an archaeological excavation in 2009, which unearthed bits and pieces of French floor tiles! (but the Porteño historians still argue if it was “the” dancing floor - in fact some oldtimers even insisted that the tango music there was only for listening, that dancing wasn’t allowed and that there wasn’t even room for it; while others, like Leon Benaros, wrote that many “disallowed” things were simply relegated to the back of the building, with its outdoor patio floor of white and black tiles … and lots of bugs at night, so the women didn’t sit in there – they were out in the front).

If you listen to the recorded versions of El Porteñito, you’d quickly realize that the words of the 2nd and 3rd verses are just never the same. They are always improvised or perhaps intentionally tinkered with, as it would have been the rule in the era before the recordings, when the boastful and crude letras would change with the neighborhood. It was always the guys from this street who were the toughest fighters and the best dancers in their couplets.

Carlos Gardel, 1917
(foto Horacio Loriente)

Another accepted narrative links the birth of tango canción, tango as a romance with set lyrics rather than improvised in the old payadores tradition, with the 1917 Gardel’s performance of “Mi noche triste” (a.k.a. “Lita”). The fame may be exaggerated, what’s so special about a song bursting onto the scene of some 3rd rate cabaret – we don’t even know for sure which one – but there is no denying that “Mi noche triste” ended up being the first recorded tango romance, and that the talent of Carlos Gardel truly electrified this formative epoch of tango. The letras by Pascual Contursi are, well, sorrowful, even though the character may be the same porteñito of the previous decade, a pimp at the prime of his life, now speaking in Lunfardo of his lost chica (or rather percanta), in his empty bachelor pad (cotorro or bulin).

Mi noche triste, Carlos Gardel, 1917

Mi noche triste (1915)
letra de Pascual Contursi

Percanta que me amuraste
En lo mejor de mi vida
Dejándome el alma herida
Y espina en el corazón.
Sabiendo que te quería
Que vos eras mi alegría
Y mi sueño abrasador.
Para mí ya no hay consuelo
Y por eso me encurdelo
Pa’ olvidarme de tu amor.

Cuando voy a mi cotorro
Y lo veo desarreglado
Todo triste, abandonado
Me dan ganas de llorar,
Me detengo largo rato
Campaneando tu retrato
Pa’ poderme consolar…
My Sorrowful Night
translated by Derrick Del Pilar

Deceitful woman, you left me
in the prime of my life,
leaving my soul wounded
and a thorn in my heart,
knowing that I loved you,
that you were my joy,
my burning dream.
For me there is no more comfort
and so I’m getting wasted
to forget about your love.

When I go up to my pad
and I see it all messy,
everything sad, abandoned,
it makes me want to cry;
I hang back a long time,
pining after your portrait
so I can console myself.

Ever since the 1872 epic “El Gaucho Martín Fierro” by José Hernández immortalized the image of the fearless outlaw, poet, and dueler of the Pampas in a classic payada verse, the gaucho remained a poetic symbol of Argentine people. But the times change. The 1926 “Mandria” makes a gaucho of a different era throw a poncho in a duel challenge – and then refuse the fight.

Mandria (1926)
Letra: Juan Miguel Velich y Francisco Brancatti

… Esta es mi marca y me asujeto
¡Pa’ que peliar a un hombre mandria!
Váyase con ella, ¡La cobarde!
Dígale que es tarde
Pero me cobré…
translated by Derrick Del Pilar

… This is my mark and it has kept me in check –
Why should I fight a wretched man?
Go with her, that coward!
Tell her that it’s late
but I’ve made my claim.

El Mocho”, “the Stub” David Undarz was called so because he lost a finger to an accident. El Mocho danced with his wife Amelia “La Portuguesa” (or sometimes remembered as “La Brasilera”) under the scenic name Los Undarz. In the cabarets of the 1910s, in the fine theaters of the 1920s, wildly popular. El Mocho’s trademark style was to showcase the follower, to make her moves and her footwork look stellar while the steps of leader himself remained understated. I’m sure you can recognize El Mocho’s legacy in the unwritten rules of gender roles of today’s tango dance! Progressing tuberculosis made El Mocho Undarz leave the city just before “Adiós Arrabal” was composed; soon, he died, aged only mid 30s.

The other legendary dancer from the lines of Adiós, Arrabal, Ovidio José “Benito” Bianquet, was better known as El Cachafaz (“The Troublesome” / “The Outrageous” as the lunfardo word may be translated). In truth, both of his nicknames predated his tango fame – his mother called him “Buenito”, “sweet little boy”, to the cops who wanted to punish the nice little guy for some broken windows in the neighborhood, and his father called him “El Cachafaz”, “the incorrigible rascal”, after he’s got a bit older and got in trouble with the girls. El Cachafaz must have been the first Argentine to try teaching tango in the US, before WWI; not much came out of it. But in 1919 he went to Paris and dazzled the City of Lights – he was remembered in Discépolo’s lyrics of “El Choclo” as “Caracanfunfa”, a dancer with a fancy footwork who “carried the flag of tango across the ocean, and mixed Paris and Buenos Aires barrios into an intoxicating drink”. As it turns out El Cachafaz wasn’t finished at all in 1930, when Carlos Lenzi wrote the letras of “Adiós, Arrabal” – what happened was that he parted with Emma “La Francesita” Boveda, after more than a decade of dancing together. But in a year or two, “Cacha” met Carmencita, and they went on to win movie roles and awards together. Their photograph accompanies every article about El Cachafaz, but since we paused at a page of tango history when the two haven’t yet met, I’m not going to include this picture. El Cachafaz died in 1942, age 55, slumped at a piano dressed in his best dance attire, waiting for a drink after a performance.
The Great Depression delivers a final blow the the figures of the compadrito and the gaucho – actually a horrible blow to the whole fabric of the civil society in Argentina. September 1930 brings what’s known as Década Infame, the decade of corrupt governments and stolen elections. The 1930 “Adiós, Arrabal” is a song of longing for the sweetness and integrity of the days of the past.

“I won’t ever change, but the old life of my mother neighborhood is gone forever” – insist the verses. It mourns the departure of the best dancers, of El Mocho, El Cachafaz. It bids farewell to “Rodríguez Peña”, officially known as El Salón San Martín at Rodríguez Peña 344, just off Corrientes, which was one of the best tango salons of the early 20th c. (immortalized by a 1911 tango composed by Vicente Greco, who played there).

Adiós, Arrabal
Letra: Carlos César Lenzi

Mañanita arrabalera,
Sin taitas por las veredas
Ni pibas en el balcón.
Tus faroles apagados
Y los guapos retobados
En tu viejo callejón.
Yo te canto envenenao,
Engrupido y amargao
Hoy me separo de vos.
Adiós, arrabal porteño,
Yo fui tu esclavo y tu dueño
Y te doy mi último adiós.

El baile “Rodríguez Peña”
El Mocho y el Cachafaz,
De la milonga porteña
Que nunca más volverá.
Carnavales de mi vida
Noches bravas y al final,
Los espiantes de las pibas
En aquel viejo arrabal.
Goodbye, arrabal!
translated by Derrick Del Pilar

Sweet morning in the arrabal,
no tough guys on the sidewalks,
and no dames out on the balconies,
your streetlamps all put out
and the pretty boys all passed out
in your old alleyway.
I sing to you venomously,
boastfully and bitterly –
today I’m leaving you.
Goodbye, arrabal of Buenos Aires!
I was your slave and your master
and here’s my last goodbye

The dances at Rodríguez Peña,
el Mocho and el Cachafaz
of the milongas of Buenos Aires
that never shall return,
my life’s great parties,
awesome nights and in the end
the blow-offs from all those dames
in that old arrabal.

As the 1930s march on, the things look increasingly bleak for Argentina. In 1932 Great Britain, the main export marker for Argentine beef, institutes a trade barrier system of “Imperial Preference”, putting Argentine economy on its knees and forcing the country into a near-colonial dependence under Roca–Runciman Treaty. By 1935, Enrique Discépolo, perhaps the most pessimistic of the Great Bards of Tango, doesn’t see any hope. The life is a hopeless mess, a pile of things which lost their past meaning on a shelf of a pawnshop. All the human beings are piled together there, and honesty and wisdom do not matter anymore:

Cambalache (1935)
Letras de Enrique Santos Discépolo

¡Que falta de respeto,
que atropello a la razon!
Cualquiera es un señor!
Cualquiera es un ladron!
Mezclao con Stavinsky
va Don Bosco y La Mignon,
Don Chicho y Napoleón,
Carnera y San Martín…
Igual que en la vidriera irrespetuosa
de los cambalaches
se ha mezcla’o la vida
y herida por un sable sin remache
ves llorar la Biblia
contra un calefón.
translated by Derrick Del Pilar

What a lack of respect,
what an affront to reason!
Anyone can be a baron!
Anyone can be a bandit!
Stavinsky and Saint John Bosco
go hand in hand with La Mignon,
Don Chicho and Napoleon,
Carnera and San Martín,
just as the rude window displays
of every pawnshop
have mixed up life itself
and you can see a wounded Bible
weep next to a boiler somewhere,
hanging on a hook.

Juan “Chicho Grande” Galiffi was an infamous 1920s/30s hit man of the Sicilian Mafia in Argentina
(Derrick explains that Stavinsky was an infamous swindler; Saint John Bosco helped underprivileged youth; La Mignon was slang for a call girl; Don Chicho a mobster, Carnera an itinerant boxer, and General San Martín, a national hero of Argentina’s wars of independence; and the sable sin remache was a hook nailed on a toilet wall to spear newsprint or book pages for use as toiler paper.)

Tango is reborn and reinvented with a new generation of dancers of the 1930s, most notably the D’Arienzo fans; new role for vocalists in the danceable tango – not just tango canción – is pioneered by Canaro; Sebastián Piana revitalizes the obsolescent genre of a milonga, allowing it to become a vibrant dance.

Yet the new milonga laments the bygone 1900s, and the sympathies of its main character remain with the honesty of the past:

Milonga del 900 (1933)
Letras: Homero Manzi

Me gusta lo desparejo
y no voy por la vedera;
uso funghi a lo Massera,
calzo bota militar.
La quise porque la quise
y por eso ando penando –
se me fue ya ni se cuando,
ni se cuando volverá.

Me la nombran las guitarras
cuando dicen su canción,
las callecitas del barrio,
y el filo de mi facón.
Me la nombran las estrellas
y el viento del arrabal;
no se pa’ que me la nombran
si no la puedo olvidar.
Milonga of the 1900s
Translation by Derrick Del Pilar

I like mismatched things
and I don’t go out on the sidewalk;
I wear a Massera porkpie hat
and military boots on my feet.
I loved her because I loved her
and ’cause of that I’m hurting now –
she’s left me and I don’t even know when,
don’t even know when she’ll come back.

Guitars remind me of her
when they are speaking their songs,
so do the little neighborhood streets,
and the edge of my dagger.
The stars remind her name to me
and so does the wind of the arrabal,
I don’t know why they remind me of her
since I could never forget her…

The final verses of Manzi are almost never sung on the records, the lines there become palpably political, professing distrust to the changes of modernity, and loyalty to the legacy of Leandro Alem, founder of Radical Civic Union and the leader of 1890 Revolution, who took his own life in 1896.

Tristezas de la Calle Corrientes (Horacio Coppola – Buenos Aires 1936)

It’s hard to count all the tangos which sing of Avenida Corrientes; a simple search in the Argentine tango lyrics website returns 159 texts! They tell of the old, narrow street of tango’s formative years and the new wide Corrientes nearly purged of its tango history; of the grandeur and the squalor; of the real landmarks and the fictitious addresses, like the number 348, an illicit den of love, tango, and dimmed lights from Donato’s 1925 “A media luz”.

The 1933 “Corrientes y Esmeralda” charts all the contrasts of the city to just this one intersection, two blocks East of the Obelisk, where grand theater Odeón (#782) and popular cabaret Royal Pigall (#825) faced across the street not 200 ft from one another … the street corner which was home to great poets and artists and to the thugs and drug-addicted call girls. In 1955 Julían Centeya recited a moving tribute to Café Dominguez, a few blocks West near the intersection of Corrientes and Parana, immortalizing the first Buenos Aires tango bar to stay open 24/7, where the quartet of the bandoneonist “Liendre” De Leone played in the 1910s and 1920s … the cafe which was no more. The actual verses of “Café Dominguez” belong to Enrique Cadícamo who lived a block away, at #1330. And Enrique Discépolo’s home was half mile further West, at #1990.

The sense of loss of tango history turns most palpable in Osvaldo Pugliese’s 1961 tango, “Corrientes Bajo Cero”, “Corrientes Below Zero”. Roberto Chanel sings of Corrientes reborn as the crib of gotán, a place where Piazzolla’s bandoneon sounds again, where the doors of “El Olmo” (at #948) and “El Germinal” (at the corner of Maipú, where Juan Maglio Pacho once debuted) have reopened, where the music of Pugliese himself rings at Teatro el Nacional (#960) … but it turns out to be just a dream, and we wake up to find a frozen place where “El Marzoto”, “El Ruca”, and “El Tibidabo” are shattered, too! Yet, just close you eyes again, and then you may see a monument to Carlos Gardel rising side by side with the Obelisk…  (Needless to say Pugliese now got a plaza named after him, and a monument, at the corner of Corrientes and Scalabrini Ortiz).

But the best known Osvaldo Pugliese monument must be the one at the very end of Avenida Corrientes – at his grave at Chacarita Cemetery, with the maestro’s piano traditionally graced by red carnations as a symbol of his absence (whenever Pugliese was detained – and there were times when the authorities locked him up almost every weekend – his orchestra kept playing, but with a red carnatios placed on his piano to signify that the maestro can’t be there with them, but is present in spirit). The whole world of tango’s past is there at Chacarita. Its first band leaders, Villolda and Arolas, are buried there; Gardel’s chapel crypt is there, as is the modest grave of El Cachafaz. A parcel purchased by Francisco Canaro has the graves of the greatest of tango’s golden years as well as his own. Its greatest poets are there, Cadicano, Contursi, Discépolo, Flores, Manzi, Exposito, Centeya… Orchestra leaders – Troilo, De Caro, Laurenz, Fresedo, De Angelis, Malerba, Gobbi, Maffia, Varela, Maderna, Pontier, Bianco, Filiberto, Cobian… And, ever a maverick, Juan D’Arienzo rests in a different section of Chacarita.
Corrientes Angosta

Teatro Odeon @ Corrientes & Esmeralda

At Royal Pigall, Canaro’s orchestra played alongside a US ragtime band

Old Corrientes by night

Avenida Corrientes

We return to Corrientes street and tally our losses.

In a decade which passed since “Adiós, Arrabal”, the famed avenida has lost more than half of its buildings, demolished in Depression-era public works for a massive widening of the old street, the street still remembered by the porteños with the one epithet, “Corrientes Angosta”, “the Narrow Corrientes”.

There is sadness, poverty, and despair under these street lines of the grand boulevard of the Obelisk and fine theaters and bookstores, and there is also acceptance of the fate. The song takes life as it is.

Tristezas de la calle Corrientes
Letra: Homero Expósito (1942)

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.
Que precisa
La confianza del alcohol.
Hecho cantos
Pa’ vendernos un amor.
Mercado de las tristes alegrías
Cambalache de caricias
Donde cuelga 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…
Corrientes Street Blues
translated by Derrick Del Pilar

like a valley
of coins for buying bread,
dead end river
where the city suffers –
what sad pallor under your lights!
Your signs dream of crosses,
your posters, cardboard cackling
that requires
liquor’s confidence,
become songs
to sell us a love,
market of sad joys,
pawnshop of caresses
where they hang up all our dreams.

Sad? Yes.
Because you’re ours…
Sad? Yes.
Because you dream…
Your joy is sadness,
and the pain of waiting
cuts across you
and with faint light
you live weeping your sadness.
Sad? Yes.
Because you’re ours…
Sad? Yes.
That’s your cross…

Taking the cue from Homero Expósito, an actor, singer, and comedian Marcos Caplán, the Jewish enfant terrible of tango’s Golden Era, made the “premature rumors of the demise of tango” the centerpiece of his show at Teatro Maipo. “It’s a lie that tango has died!” – he would exclaim – “I’m going to slaughter it myself, right now!” – and then sing, mockingly, some tango hit of the season.

Marcos Caplán
But has tango lost its soul? Its rough edge? Has it become tame and tired? (Have you heard the story of the newspaper article declaring that tango has died? “El tango ha muerto”, it appeared in “Caras y Caretas” … in 1903)

Yo soy el tango, 1941
Letra: Homero Expósito

Soy, el tango milongón
Nacido en los suburbios
Malevos y turbios.
Hoy, que estoy en el salón
Me saben amansado
Dulzón y cansado.
Pa’ que creer
Pa’ que mentir
Que estoy cambiado,
Si soy el mismo de ayer.

Escuchen mi compás
¿No ven que soy gotán?

Me quiebro en mi canción,
Como un puñal de acero
Pa’ cantar una traición.
Me gusta compadrear
Soy reo pa’ bailar,
Escuchen mi compás

Yo soy el viejo tango
Que nació en el arrabal.

Hoy, que tengo que callar,
Que sufro el desengaño,
La moda y los años.
Voy, costumbre del gotán
Mordiendo en mis adentros
La rabia que siento.
Pa’ que creer
Pa’ que mentir
Que estoy muriendo,
Si yo jamás moriré.
I Am the Tango
translated by Derrick Del Pilar

I am the tango of the milongas
born on the outskirts,
rough and tough.
Now that I’m in these fancy halls,
they think I’m tamed,
sappy and worn out.
But why lie,
why believe that I’ve changed,
if I’m the same as yesterday?

Listen to my beat:
don’t you see that I am gotán?

I bust myself in my song,
like a steel dagger,
to sing about a betrayal.
I like to strut around,
I’m cool for dancing,
listen to me beat:

I’m the same old tango
born in the arrabal.

Now that I have to quiet down,
that I suffer from disillusionment,
fashion and the years,
I’ll follow the tango custom:
I’ll bite my tongue
at the anger I feel.
But why think,
why lie
that I’m dying
since I’ll never die?

In the days “Una emoción” was composed, the listeners might have read its message of cleaner, humbler tango as a call for purge of the remnants of the underclass origins of tango (culminated several years later with the ill-advised Peronist proscription of lunfardo, which replaced letras and even titles of the tango pieces with censorship-approved mediocrity) or maybe a jealous partisan attack on the irreverence of “El Rey de Compás” D’Arienzo and his followers. Indeed Raul Kaplán, its composer (and probably the only Jewish fiddler to ever direct a tango orquesta tipica), firmly belonged to the camp of tango romanticism. But we now see the message of “Una emoción” through the prism of Gavito’s legacy – as a passionate call for humble respect to tango’s roots and for the mutual respect and community-building.
Finally – Una emoción, 1943 – the beat of tango has permeated the city, its every corner. This nostalgic feeling, this loving and longing reflection of its past days, grows only more sweet and more enchanting every time when we hear it. Tango has become timeless; it no longer needs to pretend to be something convoluted, because it’s so natural for this humble and deep emotion to resonate in our hearts. That’s what we call Tango, and nothing more.

Una emoción (1943)
Letra: José María Suñé

…Envuelto en la ilusión anoche lo escuché,
compuesta la emoción por cosas de mi ayer:
La casa en que nací…
la reja y el parral…
la vieja calesita y el rosal.
Su acento es la canción de voz sentimental…
su ritmo es el compás que vive en mi ciudad.
No tiene pretensión,
no quiere ser procaz.
se llama tango… y nada más.
An emotion
translated by Derrick del Pilar

Wrapped up in a dream last night I heard it –
an emotion composed of things from my yesterdays:
The house where I was born,
the iron fence and the ivy,
the old carousel, the rosebush.
Its accent is the song of an emotional voice,
its rhythm is the measure that lives in my city –
it has no pretensions,
it doesn’t want to be lewd,
it’s called tango, and nothing more.

At the start of our era of the rebirth of tango, it was Gavito who carried the message of Una Emoción as an article of faith – so I must close this long post with an old, grainy video of Gavito’s dance. See you on the dance floor!

Honoris causa

Whoever goes in search of a lost time, also knows that the imprints left by plaques removed from walls, their orphaned nails jutting out into the air, and flagpoles that have lost their function, are as much the documents of the history of a building, as the time that is marked when they stopped scraping the ad stickers off from the windows, so that the moss, the sumac, the graffiti can freely breed on the building.

The former museum of minerals and fossils, in what was formerly Breslau, was erected in 1866 in place of the former St. Matthias bastion, as the final building of the university, which was established in the gorgeous Jesuit convent that lined the river Oder. When, after 1945, with the total destruction of the collection the building lost its purpose, and, not incidentally, also changed its country and language, it was subsequently occupied by the pharmaceutical faculty of the new, now Polish university. Judging from the imprints left by the multitude of plaques which were previously to be seen on it, the building may have been too big for the university, and it was shared with a number of other institutions. The imprints of other plaques bear witness to the names, doomed to oblivion, of the neighboring streets. The familiar size and position of the imprints of even more plaques suggests that they probably erected monuments, more lasting than bronze, to events and persons no longer non gratae, over a period of almost fifty years. Small plaques, like flocks of sparrows, serve as a schematic diagram to the wires, pipes and tunnels running under and upon the ghost building, as long as they remain, and as long as it stands. That this will not be long is clear from the most recently placed plaques warning of collapse. When this agony might have begun, I don’t know. The sumac trees have already reached the second floor, but as late as, 2003 they attached yet one last plaque, the only one you can see today.

wroclawfarma wroclawfarma wroclawfarma wroclawfarma wroclawfarma wroclawfarma wroclawfarma wroclawfarma wroclawfarma wroclawfarma wroclawfarma wroclawfarma wroclawfarma wroclawfarma wroclawfarma wroclawfarma wroclawfarma wroclawfarma wroclawfarma wroclawfarma wroclawfarma wroclawfarma wroclawfarma wroclawfarma wroclawfarma wroclawfarma wroclawfarma wroclawfarma wroclawfarma wroclawfarma wroclawfarma wroclawfarma wroclawfarma wroclawfarma wroclawfarma wroclawfarma wroclawfarma wroclawfarma wroclawfarma wroclawfarma wroclawfarma wroclawfarma wroclawfarma wroclawfarma wroclawfarma wroclawfarma wroclawfarma wroclawfarma wroclawfarma wroclawfarma wroclawfarma

Pink postcards 2

Name of sender: Károly Timó, 1st Royal Infantry Regiment, 9th Company, 3rd Platoon
Address of sender: Debrecen, Salétrom Street Barracks Hospital

Address: To the honored Miss Antónia Zajác
3rd district, Kis Korona Street 52.

On the 25th [of September 1914]

My dear sonwrite immediately

From the great joy I do not even know what to write so quickly, in spite of that, I am shot in my right arm. Because it was a real miracle that I escaped the danger. Now I only have on my mind to get to Pest to hospital, so I could see you as soon as possible. However, do not worry about me, because within a few weeks I will be completely healed up, and by then perhaps there will also be peace
How are you, my son, and your mother and sisters? What are the news about Feri? Endre and the Német kid are here.
If you get this card, please go immediately to my parents, and let them know, in case they have not received their card.
Embracing and kissing you, your loving Károly
On Monday I come to Pest

Previous letter (indicated in grey on the map):

Szerencs, 28 August 1914
[The letter reveals that he was enlisted in one of the largest Hungarian fighting units, the 1st Royal Infantry Regiment. From the Hungarian border they were transported without pause directly to the Galician theater of war, and immediately put in action in the Rohatyn area, as part of the front concentrated for the liberation of Lemberg, which was attacked and later occupied by the Russians.

Long live the homeland! March of the 1st Royal Infantry Regiment

After the unsuccessful operation, a general retreat was ordered, so after almost a month they came back to the border, next to Mezőlaborc. This time, however, from the opposite direction.

Things have evolved differently from the plan. One month has passed, and the young soldier sends his card from the Salétrom Street Barracks and Hospital in Debrecen. He was wounded in his right arm. In the style with his previous letter: while playing soldier, he got a boo-boo on the arm. The injury might have happened a few days earlier, probably in the battles around Mikołajów. Something joyful in the pain, for during his convalescence they can meet, and maybe by then there will be peace, too.
At the end of the letter he is interested in the fate of the eldest Zajácz brother, the assistant upholsterer. He was ordered to the Western front.]

Wounded Hungarian soldiers, transported from the Galician front and looked after in the hinterland, a few days before the postcard was written. Tolnai Világlapja, 20 September 1914.

Next postcard: 27 October 1914

The City of Smile

“In the Smile School of Budapest, a woman looks at herself in the mirror with a grim bandage on her face.” Het Leven, 1937

An epidemic of suicide sweeps through Budapest, and the city tries to stop it in an odd way: by creating a “Smile Club”, where people are taught to smile again. The initiative is covered in the 17 October 1937 issue of Sunday Times Perth:


Budapest, Saturday
Although a magnet for tourists from all over the world, Budapest has for several years been known to its own people as The City of Suicides.

Budapest suffered badly after the war and has received unpleasant publicity from the number of cases of self-destruction occurring every year within its boundaries. Some of them are alleged to have been inspired by the Budapest song, “Gloomy Sunday”, but, be that as it may, the suicide rate in Budapest is definitively very high.

The favorite method adopted by most Budapest melancholics is drowning, and patrol boats are stationed along the boundary near the bridges to rescue citizens who seek consolation in the dark waters of the Danube.

Now, however, a “Smile Club” has been inaugurated to counteract the suicide craze. It was originally began more as a joke by a Professor Jeno and a hypnotist named Binczo, but somehow it caught on. The organisers have now a regular school and guarantee to teach the Roosevelt smile, the Mona Lisa smile, the Clark Gable smile, the Dick Powell smile, the Loretta Young smile, and various other types, the rates varying according to the difficulties encountered.

Jeno says the methods employed at his school, aided by better business conditions in Budapest, are making smiling popular, and before long it is hoped that the name of Budapest will be change to the City of Smiles.”

“In the Smile School of Budapest, a woman looks at the smiling woman’s faces held in front of her. On the wall, two smiles and the picture of Mona Lisa.” Het Leven, 1937

Gloomy Sunday, the popular 1933 hit of Rezső Seress was in fact propagated by the press as “the Suicide Song” or simply “the Killer Song” in more than a hundred languages all over the world, claiming that dozens, or even hundreds of people committed suicide because of it. It is, however, probable that this was one of the largest, deliberately constructed hoaxes of the century. The lyricist, László Jávor, who was also the criminal reporter of the 8 O’Clock News, mentioned in his reports on seventeen consecutive suicides, that the scores of Gloomy Sunday were found next to the corpse. What is more, this same newspaper attacked the song as inherently inspiring suicide, and demanded it be banned. An unprecedented international press career started on the wake of these articles. All this at a time, when the song, with a privately published score, was not played at all, had no recording at all, and was unknown in Hungary, so much so that even the fashionable bar pianists did not know what it was when foreign guests asked them to play it. So it is very strange that in Budapest they had to guard against the epidemic caused by it.

Rezső Seress – László Jávor: Szomorú vasárnap (Gloomy Sunday, original version), performed by its first singer Pál Kalmár

But the news is also supported by another source. The Dutch tabloid Het Leven published in the same year, 1937 a series of five photos – the five illustrations of this post –, which show you how the clients are taught how to smile in the “Smile School of Budapest”.

“In the Smile School of Budapest, a white-robed teacher points on the smile of Mona Lisa with his pointer.” Het Leven, 1937

But what was this Smile School?

The reporting on the school is quite similar to that of Gloomy Sunday. The photos from Het Leven started to spread at the beginning of this year from the photo archive of Het Leven, which was recently digitized and made public by the Dutch National Archive of The Hague. The photos first joined the text of the Australian newspaper in April on Retronaut, and since then they have only migrated together. They were also presented in the Hungarian blog of photo history Mai Manó, and finally, a few days ago, Miklós Vincze kneaded it all together into a striking and coherent story in Englisn for io9. The story keeps spreading, and now it even has a Russian version. In Hungary, however, I think there is no living person who has ever heard of such a school.

“Outside of the Smile School of Budapest, six people wearing masques which forces smile on their faces. In the midst of them, the portrait of a laughing man.” Het Leven, 1937

The laughing man is President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was an award-winning champion of smiling indeed, but I do not know how many people would recognize him in 1937 in Budapest, and how much it was appropriate to teach his smile there in that year. But it is clear that the Australian newspaper listed the same smile models who also figure here, as if they collected them from these photos.

“In the Smile School of Budapest, the clients watch the white-robed teacher pointing out the five phases of a smiling mouth.” Het Leven, 1937

But Budapest did not belong to the most important themes of Het Leven. In their photo archives from 1916 to 1941 we only encounter the city six times. It is therefore strange, that now they publish such a well-informed report from the Hungarian capital. The other five occasions also include one more City of Suicides topic, which surely excited their readers, when in 1937 they published an obviously staged photo series about a woman jumping from the second floor of a building in Budapest.

Het Leven, as is written in the introduction to their photo archive, was a tabloid, which was characterized as “hard news photography, paparazzi photographers, aggressive, penetrating and sensational style”, and they did not shrink from staged photos or open hoaxes in the interest of quelling the hunger for sensation of their readers. Is it possible that this time the same thing happened?

The key to the solution is probably a third site, not quoted by anybody, where the same pictures figure: in the archive of Het Leven’s American namesake, Life. On 6 September 1937 this magazine also published a short article on the Smile School in Budapest.


A joker in Budapest, Hungary lately evolved the “smile school” shown on these pages. The idea was to counteract the bad publicity Budapest has gotten from the number of suicides supposedly inspired by the Budapest song, Gloomy Sunday. The suicide rate in Budapest is actually very high. Patrol boats are stationed day and night along the Danube, near the Budapest bridges, to rescue citizens who try to do away with themselves by drowning.

The smile school is a hoax backed by “Prof.” Jenö and a hypnotist named Vincze. They claim to charge up to $500 for teaching the Roosevelt smile in six weeks. The Mona Lisa smile is more difficult but cheaper. Jenö now has 45 students. He says better business is enabling pupils to smile naturally.”

If a hoax, then a hoax. The only question is whether it was a hoax arranged in Budapest, or rather in America. I vote for the latter. This is suggested by the clothes, the faces, the environment. It was the American public, rather than the Hungarian, who was responsive to Roosevelt’s portrait, and in general to the whole story, because it was in America that the earlier hoax prepared the field for this later one.

The beginning and ending key wording of the Australian article is the City of Smile. Maybe it is not too bold an assumption that as the first, and so also the second hoax were inspired by Hungarian song: this one The Land of Smile by Ferenc Lehár, which was presented in 1929 with great success in Berlin, and was at this time at the peak of its popularity. Both the title and the basic thesis of this operetta – an opposition of forced smiles and disappointment in love –, set in an exotic Eastern European and Chinese environment, may have paved the way to the idea of “Prof. Jenö and the hypnotist named Vincze”.

Ferenc Lehár: “Always smiling, always looking satisfied!” The Land of Smile, performed by Peter Anders (in German).

By the way, whence the names of these early Borats, Jenő and Vincze? The simplest answer is that the two Hungarians creating this undertaking – or hoax – were, indeed, named this. But what if they were not even Hungarians? Even then, some Hungarian names had to be found for them. I do not think it unlikely that both of them borrowed his name from the Hungarian world champion footballer Jenő Vincze, during these years at the top of his career.

Unless our whole theory, as it is, is a mistake, and in fact the truth is what was written by sancane, an author of extraordinary fantasy, under the five photos of Het Leven in the May issue of da Parte. His inspired text, which fills the gaps in the sparse documents presented above, erects a monument more lasting than bronze to the genial Hungarian hypnotist Sarkady Jenő (1894-1965), about which, unfortunately, we do not have any other data aside from this epitaph, and it is no longer probable that any will ever pop up:

Sarkady Jeno (1894-1965)
a Hungarian hypnotist with great practical geniality and prompt treatment.
Founder of the School of Smile.
With his special genius, in the years following World War I, he confronted
the grave sadness etched on the faces of the people living along the Danube.
To counter the stricken appearance and the suicidal epidemic, the anxieties
and disturbing thoughts of his contemporaries, he founded the “Smile Club”,
this society of scientists to train the human face to show the signs of joy,
the act of smiling, to burst forth in mockery, to extrinsic complacency,
thus opposing the ignoble semblance of modern age.
The reward was quantified according to the types of smiles to
learn, which varied in intensity and depth of devotion.
The price-list included the smiles of Roosevelt, Mona Lisa,
Clark Gable, Dick Powell, Loretta Young, and many others.
Smile on the lips, to heal the ancient disease of Budapest!

The heroic enterprise of the undeservedly forgotten Doctor Sarkady is today more topical than ever.

Prayer for victory

In 1935, when Stalin sarcastically inquired of Pierre Laval how many divisions the Pope had, he apparently did not much estimate “those legions”, as Churchill puts it in his coverage of the event, “who are not always visible on parade”. True, in 1941 he revised his position, when, after the German offensive, he made an alliance with the hitherto oppressed Russian Orthodox Church, in the hope of using the divisions it mobilized.

Nicholas II, however, from the outset had a wider horizon than the Red Tsar, and he knew well that the world war is fought not only on land, on water and in the air, but also on a transcendental level. It is therefore not surprising, that – as Pesti Napló reported exactly a hundred years ago, on 20 September 1914 – he considered it necessary to monopolize for the purposes of the Russian army the metaphysical resources of occupied Galicia:

“The oppressed Russian Jews, afflicted with so many pogroms, are today quite courted in the Tsar’s country. The government embraces the beloved Russian Jews. As to how sincere this hug is, is demonstrated by the Russian decree sent from Petrograd to the Russian governorships before the great Jewish feasts. The ukase strictly instructed the governorships to control the prayers of the Jews in the synagogues. The governorship authorities send functionaries to each Jewish temple and prayer house, and they pay careful attention that on the two major holidays the believers pray for the Tsar and the victory of the Russian army. The governorships already ordered the prayer books of the Jewish subjects to be presented for revision, and the Jewish communities made sure that the representatives of the authority will receive prestigious seats in the temples.

The two major holidays, Rosh Hashanah, “the head of the year”, that is, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, fell on 20 and 29 September in 1914. It is reassuring to know, that on these days the functionaries and representatives of the Russian authorities certainly fulfilled their religious obligations, if they were Jews, and if not, then spent the holy days in the best place, which hopefully had a good effect on the growth of their personal piety.

However, war is war, and military movements require rapid responses. On the same day the Tolnai világlapja published a short report, which demonstrates not only with mere words, but also with an objective and irrefutable photographic recording, that the Galician Jews unambiguously pray for the victory of our weapons.

“They, who pray for our victory. Nobody desires more the downfall of the Russian army than the Galician Jews. They know well the fate that would await them if they fell under the yoke of Russian despotism and religious bigotry. In every community of Galicia, the religious Jews fast and daily call upon God to help the Hungarian-Austrian and German weapons to victory. These religious Jews counterbalance the nefarious machinations of the spies bought with Russian money, and also in all other respects they favored our valiant army.”

“Your co-religionists have suffered a great deal because of their patriotism under Russian rule. The Jewish population is very patriotic. We will never forget it. Speech of Charles IV in Czernowitz.” Visual commentary of the Kötődések / The Ties research project to our post.

However, the Lord of Hosts is unbiased, and His intentions are unfathomable. The land of the shtetls was reoccupied in the following spring from the Russians by the Austrians, then by the Ukrainian Republic, then by the Red Cavalry, then by the Poles, the Soviets, the Wehrmacht, Bander, and the Red Army. So that one thing became sure, exactly the one which was sworn by the Lord of Hosts to the ears of Isaiah:

“These houses will collapse,
all will be desolate,
the palaces will remain without inhabitant.”

As we see to this day in Galicia.