De puro guapo (1927): Murder at a milonga

Here’s the dark side of tango culture: extreme misogyny, sociopathy, homicidal rage—though it’s nothing we can’t see on TV any night of the week. A compadrito—a species of arrogant, quarrelsome, often violent wiseguy typical of the arrabal, the immigrant quarters of Buenos Aires—shows up at a milonga and murders a girl who has rejected his affections. The lyrics describe the incident quite matter-of-factly, without apparent judgment, and in the process it gives us a very nice picture of the tango scene in a Buenos Aires conventillo. However, there’s an ironic twist, as explained in the notes that follow the English version.

Compare this lyric to the much milder song of the same title penned by Laurenz and Meaños eight years later.

De puro guapo*
Tango 1927
Música: Rafael Iriarte
Letra: Juan Carlos Fernández Díaz

At one of those concerts of bandoneóns
moaning their lamentations,
the local show-offs* are
dazzling each other with their low dips*
and the backstreet girls* in their Sunday best
have that glow of happiness
that flows from a languid, sentimental tango.

In the courtyard of the tenement*
a compadrito,* an arrogant wiseguy,
stops and stares
at the happy people in their excitement.
He doesn’t care about the dancing;
he hasn’t come for that.
He’s looking for aquella, that one,
she who wounded his heart.

And when he finds the traitor,
the thief of his hopes,
his hand clenches with fierce longing
on the handle of his dagger.
And like a tiger on its prey
he pounces swiftly, makes a deep cut
that leaves a bleeding red wound.
The tango dies in the bandoneón.

And then, without hurrying,
he backs away from the curious people,
guardedly departing
amidst the surprised murmur.*
But after a few steps
he comes back and in a rage he cries:
“I’ve repaid her betrayal
de puro guapo,
with courage and valor.”

NOTES

*De puro guapo: The guapos were highly respected figures of the arrabal, the outlying poor quarters of Buenos Aires. Acting as a sort of unoffical enforcer, peace-maker, and electoral fixer for hire, he operated according to a strict code of honor. Thus, the expression “de puro guapo,” describes a person who faces life’s challenges honorably, with courage and valor. However, a person who “plays the guapo” (se hace el guapo, se las da de guapo, or la va de guapo,) is a quarrelsome, argumentative person, someone who is looking for trouble. The song’s compadrito (see note below) is most assuredly not a guapo; he’s just “playing” one in his imagination. In reality, he’s nothing more than a thug, a troublemaker, and ultimately, a murderer. The song plays on the multiple meanings of the words guapo, compadre/compadrito, and compadrón. See note on compadrito, below.

*show-offs: compadrones (Lunfardo), show-offs, braggarts.

*low dips: quebrada, a distinctive figure in early tango, now primarily a feature of show tango. The quebrada was one of the reasons for tango’s disreputable image, because the man brings the woman to a recumbent position, as if for making love.

*backstreet girls: chirusas (Lunfardo)

*tenement: conventillo. Group housing consisting of tiny, rundown, overcrowded apartments with minimal sanitation and no kitchens. Cooking was done over a charcoal brazier in the courtyard (patio) of the house, which was also the site of music, dancing, and other social interaction.

*compadrito, wiseguy: The compadrito was a kind of half-baked, early 20th-century imitation of the historically prior guapo. “This personage, who is frequently confused with the guapo or the compadre, was in essence an imitator; a guapo in the middle of the road, a fetus that never came to term, the premature infant of the arrabal, a braggart, lewd….” (Blas Raúl Gallo, cited in El Tango by Horacio Salas, Editorial Planeta Argentina, 1986) “[The compadrito was] distinguished by gratuitous provocation, false pride, and the claim to great deeds which were not his own.” (ibid.)

* the surprised murmur. El murmullo de admiración. The word admiración can mean admiration, but that interpretation does not fit the sense of the song’s narrative. The dance-goers who witness the murder would not have admired the senseless murder of a defenseless girl by a compadrito. Thus I have resorted to the secondary meaning of the world admiración, “surprise.” (In an earlier version, I translated the phrase as “cry of alarm.” Thanks to my friend and colleague Theresa Faus for questioning that interpretation and helping me to make my version more precise.) [Added 6 December 2015]

– Michael Krugman, 16-01-2014

Castellano original follows.

A los conciertos que dan los fuelles,
protestadores en sus gemidos,
se están luciendo con sus quebradas
los compadrones en el lugar,
y las chirusas, endomingadas,
en sus miradas tienen el brillo
de la alegría que ha derramado
el tango rante y sentimental.
En medio del conventillo
se ha parado un compadrito
que contempla de hito en hito,
la alegre gente en su excitación.
No le importa que se baile,
él a bailar no ha venido;
busca a aquella que lo ha herido
en medio del corazón.

Y cuando encuentra a la traicionera,
a la ladrona de su ilusión
la mano crispa con ansia fiera
sobre la masa de su facón.

Y, como un tigre, sobre su presa,
salta ligero y asesta un tajo
que roja marca deja sangrando
y el tango muere en el bandoneón.
Y luego, sin darse prisa,
apartando a los curiosos
se retira receloso
entre el murmullo de admiración.

Pero apenas dio algunos pasos
se volvió y con arrebato
les gritó: de puro guapo
me he cobrado su traición.