In his wonderful Oda al aceite (Ode to Olive Oil), Pablo Neruda says of it, in a moment of gruff emotional release, “You are the Spanish language!” I don’t doubt that, having enhanced many meals with the dark flavors of Spanish olive oils. There is no comparison to them. Nothing the Italians have done with olives has ever come up to the Spanish.
So, given Neruda’s enthusiasm, I have thought about olive oil, and I have thought about the Spanish language. It is very rich, filled with Arabic, Castilian, Catalan and Basque elements, and of course Latin and Greek. It is harsh, dirty with earth and gritty delicacies. It laughs at itself. There is darkness and comedy at its heart, filled with Gypsy sadness and the notion that love is notable most especially for betrayal. (I’m speaking here of the language, although the same could be said of the oil.)
I would not truly feel the Spanish language, though, if it were not for tango.
It is impossible to have a conversation with a new Argentine acquaintance without tango being mentioned. Although it too is gritty and dirty, tango is a simple basic Argentine fact. Most of my Spanish-language mentors have been Argentines. As the inevitable conversation has occurred, some of them have dismissed tango as being not worthy of notice, and have announced that they will have nothing to do with it. Tango is, after all, “the reptile from the brothel”, as the writer Leopoldo Lugones once called it. It is difficult for people who maintain a certain glum decorum—and there are plenty of those in Argentina—to accept what tango represents. The way those tangueros dance, for example. The sneer of the dance and the sex of it. The lack of moral restriction. But other such Argentines have actually taken me aside privately and urged me to study the tango in depth. They realize that, though they may not approve, tango is too strong a force to be denied. And many, many Argentines simply melt with pleasure when they hear tango music, whether they dance or not.
And it was the noted tanguera Nora Olivera who eventually told me what I would need to do to fully understand the emotional depth of the Spanish language.
The better-born Argentine doesn’t want to contend with tango, really. They prefer thinking of themselves as cultivated Europeans, with Argentina situated somewhere in a vernal paradise between France and Italy, maybe with a bit of fashionable Castilian Spain thrown in. This tango business requires the gutter, they think, loose women and working-class reprobates whose clothes are shot through with old cigarette smoke. It does not fit into the class-conscious Argentine view. It is disgraceful.
The trouble for these people is that tango is also the single greatest art ever to come from Argentina.
I had begun studying the music because of my Argentine Spanish-language instructors. I had turned to the tango lyrics, hoping that studying them would help my study of the Spanish language. What I had not realized was that the lyrics are so filled with Buenos Aires slang (the famous lunfardo) that I would almost have to learn a new language, one that was imposed upon the classic Castilian, in order to understand what they were talking about in the tango itself.
I went ahead with it.
Tango is a hodge-podge, by no means just a Spanish expression. In the beginning it was as much an African expression, and was brought to Argentina even more by the conquistadores’ slaves than by the Spanish themselves. Many of the basic rhythms of the music (that of the habanera, for example) came to the New World from west Africa. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, shiploads of immigrants arrived at the Buenos Aires docks from everywhere else in the world. Most were from Spain and Italy. But there were Asians, Arabs of every sort, Irish, Germans, Poles, Lithuanians, Jews of every sort, Russians, English…. Early on, the majority of these immigrants were working-class men looking for a job. They spilled from the ships onto the streets of Buenos Aires (in the same way their brothers spilled onto the streets of New York), and were immediately at a loss for…well, community and, of course, female companionship!
Spanish was the ascendant language, having established itself in the sixteenth century, well before all these others came to South America. There was no changing that fact. But each of these immigrant peoples brought their music with them, and as the men walked about the streets and mixed with each other, learning Spanish, as they moved into the crowded conventillo working-class tenements, met each other at the boliche bars and the almacén dancehalls and sometimes accompanied each other to the whorehouse prostíbulos, the musics mixed. The rhythms and chords, instruments, ethnicities, cultures, sounds. All of it a stew from the moil of which tango came bubbling to the surface.
It was a madness, a whoredom, that most wonderful of cultural events, a bastardization from innumerable parents, a burst of musical languages and unusual couplings from which sprung a single, yet endlessly complicated, gorgeous flower.
In my more self-congratulatory moments, I consider my Spanish quite accomplished. I quietly thumb my nose at those occasions in which I still fracture it. By the time I came to tango, I had been studying Spanish for ten years or so, and I went about speaking it like an Hispanic dandy.
I felt that the language of tango lyrics was preparing me for Buenos Aires, at the time a city I had never visited. Those lyrics form a kind of language that is spoken there on a daily basis. I have now mastered some of the Argentine nuance that I have learned from my porteño friends…the aspirated “Y”s and double “L”s for which Buenos Aires is noted, similar to the breathy sound so well known in Brazilian Portuguese. Also, the italianate enunciation, in which certain syllables are elongated well beyond what speakers from other countries would ever consider. These elongations need to be accompanied by the appropriate gesture…the index finger placed below the right eye when some unwelcome truth is about to be told. The ends of all five fingers joined and held up before the face when a frustration is being humorously described. Sometimes the fingers flying apart when the final point is made, like a firework exploding. (All these of southern Italian extraction.)
Nora Olivera spoke with me from the beginning of our acquaintance in this way. I had just met her, at Casa Hispana, a Spanish-language school in San Francisco that had invited Nora and her troupe of tangueros to perform at a party for the students.
But I was told by her that night that simply knowing about this—being a student of tango lyrics, the Spanish language, its gestures, and a lover of the very sound of the language—was not enough. She shook her head, discouraging me with the news that, despite my laudable efforts, Spanish would elude me forever if I did not do the one thing with it that I had not yet done.
She had asked me to sit down. There was the usual initial pleasantry that takes place when a Spanish-speaking gringo is encountered. I sometimes feel that those of us who do speak Spanish at all well are like strange birds or lush floating butterflies. We seem to be quite unusual. So we are humored in a very friendly way by others who speak Spanish from birth.
“You’re an American?” Nora asked, right away.
“But you speak Spanish.”
I nodded again.
Nora did not even pause as most Spanish-speakers do who also speak English, as they try to decide which language should predominate. She started asking questions immediately in Spanish.
“And you care about the language, yes?” she said.
“Of course. I wouldn’t have spent so many years suffering through it, you know, its… grammar…the vocabulary. Very difficult.”
I went on, that I had made a study of tango lyrics, that I had translated them, that—
“Che,” she interrupted again, tossing her hand to the side as though to dismiss my enthusiasms. “You dance, of course.”
The conversation fell to silence. Fear invaded me, the sort that comes about when you feel that you are about to make a fool of yourself. I had seen tango danced many times professionally, and could not imagine that I would be able to do it in the way I had seen Nora do it…or Carlos Gavito, Jorge Torres, Nito García, Natalia Hills, Orlando Paiva, Mariela Franganillo…. I did not realize then that very, very few can dance the way these do. But at that moment, they were the only references I had. I calmed my heart. I had at least read that tango shares a similar romance with the Spanish language, the same poetic disasters, the same Mediterranean warmth, the same humor.
“No, I don’t dance,” I said. “You see, it’s just that I, that I—“
“But there is nothing that expresses the blood, the heart, the flow, yes? better than tango.” Nora pointed a finger at my chest. “So, poeta, you’ll never understand what’s being said to you, or what you’re trying to say…” A sudden commiserating smile came from her. “Forgive me.” She studied her hands, and then the empty, unwashed cup on the table before her. “You won’t understand the Spanish language completely if you don’t dance tango.”
I’ve now been dancing tango for many years, and study with Nora to this day, twice a week. She thinks my comprehension of the soul of the Spanish idiom has made progress.
Terence Clarke’s new novel, The Splendid City, with the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda as the central character, will be published in January, 2019.