This is my Tango

By Pablo Corral Vega

This is not THE tango, it is simply my tango. And everybody has his own history, his joys and pains, his tears and betrayals, his dead, his loves. His own tango.

Most of these photos were stored for more than a decade. It hurt too much to see them. In them I could remember my old man, Dr. Julito, in the last trip of his life. I saw him walking the streets of Buenos Aires, sweet and distracted. In them I saw Eulalita, my mother, with all the anguish pressed to her chest: the certainty that this trip was a farewell.

I did not want my parents to visit me in Buenos Aires. I knew that, if they did, my tango, that sweet tango that I had poured myself into with such devotion, would be forever marked by my family history.

When I remember the final months of 2002, I think of my attic at the Plaza Hotel. I was staying on the ninth floor, above the treetops. From my balcony I could see the rain, the Retiro station, the Rio de la Plata in the distance.

The river has a life of its own. Although the city has its back to it, its telluric presence marks the life of Buenos Aires. Sometimes it turns a chocolate color and you can see the dark clouds swirling in the distance. When those low pressure systems are formed over the river there is something, a dark, ancient sadness, that invades everything. No, the rain does not fall, a fine sadness falls that can be felt, a sadness that floods the soul.

I remember sensations, images. I remember one of those afternoons, my father lying in my attic, sick. The doctors didn’t know what was wrong with him. My mother on the balcony, soaking in the rain, bent over, without hope. And the sadness that fell thinly invading all the cracks.

That was the beginning of the darkest period of my life. All the bricks with which I had built my identity were crumbling. My parents died, my savings were stolen, I lost the woman I loved, I lost my job. I was poisoned and came very close to losing my life. The successful, young, successful National Geographic photographer had disappeared, swept away by a dark whirlpool. Dragged by an exaggerated and capricious tango. My tango.

When I was in intensive care from the poisoning, the only thing that seemed to ease the pain was music. I listened to music all the time, especially Bach. I remember one night, my roommate had died and his family was crying inconsolably. I knew I was closer to the other side than to this side, it was hard to breathe, I just wanted to close my eyes and rest. A doctor came over. I recognized him immediately. He was the one who brought me into the world, a doctor who had died many years before. Why did I see him that night? Was it a second birth?

How little I knew of the pain, how little I knew of the sadness, how little I knew of the betrayal. How little I understood the tango.

Can you imagine the pain bony, naked as a blow? Can you imagine it standing in front of you, severe, in eternal and absolute silence? Can you imagine a pain that only hurts? And that also hurts without life, without affection, without tenderness, without beauty? A brutal, cold, cruel pain.

Such a pain would be unbearable, incomprehensible. Human beings need to embellish pain, to dress it up in music, in poetry, in friends and hugs, in memories. We need to humanize pain, tuck it in, welcome it, adorn it, dance to it with devotion and tenderness.

I think that there, in that hospital bed, I approached for the first time Discépolo’s definition of tango: “Tango is a sad feeling that is danced”. Yes, it is also a dry, bony sadness, one of those sadnesses that life imposes on us. Human beings have the possibility, the power to embellish even that pain with music, with the embrace, with movement, with poetry.

My reconnection with the tango

A few months ago I was in Camogli, a small town in Italian Liguria. There was a group of people dancing tango, a simple, improvised milonga by the sea. What was the sad, rhythmic orchestra of Aníbal Troilo, the lyrics of Pascual Contursi doing there? Why did the rhythmic sweetness of the great Pugliese sound that afternoon through the seas and the years? It was a bright, blessed afternoon. The children played, imitated the dance of the adults. The dancers closed their eyes and let themselves be carried away by the music and the sound of the sea. There was the noise, the life unfolding, full of sweetness and nostalgia, rich, complex, confused, full of love and heartbreak. There was the tango, my tango.

I am not Argentinean or Uruguayan, but that tango I heard in Italy was mine. I had earned the right to call it mine through work, through tears, through silences, through abandonment, through sadness. I recognized myself in it, I was proud of it. There I knew that I had to publish this book, to close the circle that had been broken.

I remembered myself in Buenos Aires, exploring the night, dining with friends at the Undici restaurant. I remembered myself joyful, in love with life. Grateful. Laughing carefree. I remembered my attic and how happy I was watching the city go by. I remembered the nights listening to tango in Roberto’s bar and taking pictures in Gricel, Sunderland or Niño Bien. I thought about the sunrises by the river, after a whole night of tango. I remembered that night at El Beso when Tito -the milonguero who became my guide in the labyrinth of Buenos Aires night- invited me to sit at his table for the first time. And I remembered when the great Carlos Gavito gave me permission to photograph him because “I had taken tango seriously”.

And I remembered that photographing is just a delicious excuse to live.

I remembered that beautiful porteña who was the innocence, the laughter. She was a child. Delicious mixture of curiosity for the world, irrepressible desire to live… and sensitivity. Shyness made her more beautiful. My heart danced every time I saw her.
I remembered the incomprehensible ways of the “bobo” or heart in lunfardo – the dialect of the tangueros. (Bobo means fool in Spanish.) “Bobo, bobito”, I would say to my heart, “why are you so silly! Why are you so dreamy and in love? And the dummy, the dumber it was, the happier it was.

Imperfect, deliciously imperfect. That’s how my tango heroes were, and that’s how my milonguero friends were. They bet on life: “For one head, all the madness. His mouth that kisses, erases the sadness, calms the bitterness”.

The passage of time

It has been exactly twenty years since I first went to Buenos Aires and entered a tango show. I could recognize the music, it was the same that my excited uncles sang at family gatherings in Cuenca or the one my mother played on the piano in the house. The dance, on the other hand, was foreign to me. The short skirts, the exaggerated sensuality, the legs in the air, the orgasmic faces, seemed poor, limited to me. These people should be in an intimate, private place, not on stage… I thought.

Exaggeration makes sensuality trivial, strips it of its complexity. The tango-dance had disappointed me. I couldn’t relate to it, it was a staging for tourists, a genre limited by pretence. But the music, it did preserve its soul! A centennial music, rich, extraordinarily diverse, full of popular poetry, territory of great composers and great performers.

Music brought me back to Buenos Aires.

In my successive trips, I learned that there are two genres of tango-dance: the show tango (with its legs in the air, its pirouettes and its canned sensuality) and the floor tango, the one that is danced for oneself, in silence and intimacy. They are worlds apart. One is in the streets and in the shows for tourists; the other is in the milongas, in closed and dark spaces.

When I look at the photos from 2001 and 2002, especially those from the parties, I feel a deep nostalgia. They were happy, adventurous times. How many tangueros have left! Gavito is missing, Teté is missing, Pepe Libertella is missing, Pichuquito is missing, Pipa is missing, Osvaldo Zotto is missing, Carlos García is missing. Ten years have passed and the passing of time can already be seen on the faces of the friends of the Buenos Aires night. This is the last generation of milongueros who lived the golden days of tango in the fifties and sixties, when dances were organized with the music of the great orchestras. When they are gone, tango will be orphaned, it will have lost its epic.

I have returned every year to Buenos Aires and seen the transformation of the milongas. Now they are full of tourists and many of the old milongueros are gone. In this book there are photos from 1996 to the present. A project about tango should not, could not be done in less time.

Tango is crossed by nostalgia, marked by the acute awareness that life is going away, dragged by a whirlpool. The passage of time is the invisible soul of the tango. There is the “Caminito that time has erased, that together one day you saw us go by”. Or that magnificent phrase of Santos Discépolo in Uno: “If I could like yesterday, want without foreseeing…”.

In tango there is always the yesterday that will not come back. And there is the today that we cling to in vain. That tension between the past and this present destined to become nostalgia, is the essential tension of tango. The more intense life is today, the more intense the nostalgia will be tomorrow.

And yet, we make the decision to live, to feel, to love, to make mistakes. We embrace each other to save ourselves from the whirlpool that drags everything down. We know that it will be useless. But it doesn’t matter.

Death, abandonment, lack of love, sickness, betrayal cause pain. We will have the redeeming option of humanizing it, of beautifying it.

Everyone has their own story. From it, we have the material to build a joyful, sad, meaningful, deep tango: complex. These pages are a simple testimony of my history, of my tango.