The educated Tanguero

Essential Tango Knowledge

Alfonsina y el mar

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Tango is a trinity of music, poetry and dance. This is a truth, every Tango lover will learn sooner or later. Tango as a music is loud and expressive, Tango as a dance is variable between impressive and expressive and the poetry inside Tango is usually very impressive and almost not visible to the typical non Spanish speaking Tanguero outside of Latin America.
Today I want to talk about this very soul of Tango. In a milonga, there is sometimes a situation, when people had their lot of Pugliese, Neotango or whatever they desire and people are really tired. As a DJ, I react to this situation by playing slow cuddly music where people can cool down and gather energy for the final tandas. One of the songs sometimes played here is “Alfonsina y el mar”, which is according to our definition a NonTango song. This song is known to almost everyone in Latin America and I think, an educated Tanguero should know the background and the meaning of this very unique piece of music.

The song is named after Alfonsina Storni, which was a very popular poet and journalist. In South America she is a legend, but in Europe and Australia, almost nobody knows her. She was born in Switzerland in 1892 and moved to Rosario (Argentina) in 1901 with her family. 1907 she joined a travelling theatre company and performed as an actor [1].
Later she worked as a teacher and journalist, but also published poems. Here she was strongly influenced by her close friend Horacio Quiroga. Alfonsina was a fighter for women’s liberation and feminism in general, using a very sharp tongue.

Plaque to memorize Alfonsina Storni. The plaque is located outside the Cafe Tortoni in Buenos Aires. (Picture: R.Stoll)

Plaque to memorize Alfonsina Storni. The plaque is located outside the Cafe Tortoni in Buenos Aires. (Picture: R.Stoll)

In 1935 she was diagnosed with breast cancer, had surgery, but had to suffer a lot during the following chemotherapy [2]. In 1937 and 1938 two of her best friends, H.Quiroga and L.Lugones committed suicide. In 1938 she travelled to Mar del Plata, wrote her final poem “Voy a dormir” (I am going to sleep), which she sent to the newspaper La Nacion and commited suicide at the beach of La Perla [1, 2]. Her tomb is at the Cementerio de Chacarita in Buenos Aires.
Looking at this final poem (taken from [3]), a lot of the tragedy of her situation can be felt:

Dientes de flores, cofia de rocío,
manos de hierbas, tú, nodriza fina,
tenme prestas las sábanas terrosas
y el edredón de musgos escardados.

Voy a dormir, nodriza mía, acuéstame.
Ponme una lámpara a la cabecera;
una constelación; la que te guste;
todas son buenas; bájala un poquito.

Déjame sola: oyes romper los brotes…
te acuna un pie celeste desde arriba
y un pájaro te traza unos compases

para que olvides… Gracias. Ah, un encargo:
si él llama nuevamente por teléfono
le dices que no insista, que he salido…

This is the english Translation (taken from [4]):

Teeth of flowers, hairnet of dew,
hands of herbs, you, perfect wet nurse,
prepare the earthly sheets for me
and the down quilt of weeded moss.

I am going to sleep, my nurse, put me to bed.
Set a lamp at my headboard;
a constellation; whatever you like;
all are good: lower it a bit.

Leave me alone: you hear the buds breaking through . . .
a celestial foot rocks you from above
and a bird traces a pattern for you

so you’ll forget . . . Thank you. Oh, one request:
if he telephones again
tell him not to keep trying for I have left . . .

This is really beautiful and meaningful poetry. The tragedy of her death inspired the historian and writer Felix “Falucho” Luna to write the poem “Alfonsina y el mar” (Alfonsina and the sea, an ode to the ill-fated poet Alfonsina Storni) [5]. The music was written by Ariel Ramirez, “one of the chief exponents of Argentine folk music” [6]. It was performed by Mercedes Sosa for her album “Mujeres Argentinas” in 1969, which made her an iconic performer of Argentinean folklore. Later the song was performed by more than 40 other musicians, among them Placido Domingo, Nana Mouskouri and Shakira [7].
This is the original performance by Mercedes Sosa. The original song is not a Tango, it is played as a Zamba. Typically it is performed with a piano playing the intermediate instrumental part or with guitar only. Here are two examples (Mercedes Sosa has performed this song in many variations):


It is very interesting to have a close look at the lyrics, so here are the original lyrics in castellano and the English translation [8]:

Por la blanda arena que lame el mar
su pequeña huella no vuelve más.
Un sendero solo de pena y silencio llegó
hasta el agua profunda.
Un sendero solo de penas mudas llegó
hasta la espuma.
Sabe Dios qué angustia te acompañó
qué dolores viejos calló tu voz,
para recostarte arrullada en el canto
de las caracolas marinas.
La canción que canta en el fondo oscuro
del mar, la caracola.
Te vas Alfonsina con tu soledad,
¿qué poemas nuevos fuiste a buscar?
Una voz antigua de viento y de sal
te requiebra el alma y la está llevando
y te vas hacia allá como en sueños,
dormida, Alfonsina, vestida de mar.
Cinco sirenitas te llevarán
por caminos de algas y de coral
y fosforescentes caballos marinos harán
una ronda a tu lado;
y los habitantes del agua
van a jugar pronto a tu lado.
Bájame la lámpara un poco más,
déjame que duerma, nodriza, en paz
y si llama él no le digas que estoy,
dile que Alfonsina no vuelve más,
y si llama él no le digas nunca que estoy,
di que me he ido.
Te vas Alfonsina con tu soledad,
¿qué poemas nuevos fuiste a buscar?
Una voz antigua de viento y de sal
te requiebra el alma y la está llevando
y te vas hacia allá como en sueños,
dormida, Alfonsina, vestida de mar.
———————————————————————————-
Across the soft sand that the waves lick
Her small footprints are not coming back anymore
Only one path made of sorrow and silence
Reached the deep water
Only one path made of untold sorrows
Reached the foam
Only God knows about the anguish that accompanied you
And about the old pains your voice never told
That caused you to go to sleep, lulled by the song
Of the seashells
The song sung in the depths of the dark sea by
The seashell
You’re going away, Alfonsina
Along with your loneliness
What kind of new poems did you go looking for?
An ancient voice made of wind and salt
Is shattering your soul and taking you away
And you go there, like in a dream
Asleep, Alfonsina, dressed with the sea
Five little mermaids will escort you
Through paths made of seaweed and corals
And phosphorescent sea horses will sing
A round, by your side
And the aquatic dwellers
Will soon play by your side
Dim the light of the lamp a bit for me
Let me sleep in peace, nurse
And if he calls don’t tell him I’m here
Tell him that Alfonsina is not coming back
And if he calls never tell him I’m here
Tell him that I have left
You’re going away, Alfonsina
Along with your loneliness
What kind of new poems did you go looking for?
An ancient voice made of wind and salt
Is shattering your soul and taking you away
And you go there, like in a dream
Asleep, Alfonsina, dressed with the sea
——————————————————————————–

Interesting here is the strong reference to Storni´s last poem “voy a dormir” in the paragraph from “Bájame la lámpara un poco más”.
The song is no Tango, but there are (more or less) danceable versions. I personally like the version by Medialuna Tango Project [9]:

The final question is: should that music be used for dancing ? Remember the emotions and the desperation of this song is real, even if it is second handed. I personally think, Alfonsina would be very happy if you dance to the music, provided you remember her just a little bit while listening or dancing to this song.

Greetings from my vacation in good old Germany,

-Richard

References

1 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfonsina_Storni
2 http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfonsina_Storni
3 http://www.los-poetas.com/j/storni1.htm#VOY%20A%20DORMIR
4 http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/i-am-going-to-sleep/
5 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/F%C3%A9lix_Luna
6 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ariel_Ram%C3%ADrez
7 http://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfonsina_y_el_mar
8 http://lyricstranslate.com/en/alfonsina-y-el-mar-alfonsina-and-sea.html
9 http://www.amazon.de/gp/product/B002GUBJKC/ref=dm_att_alb7

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