December 17th, 2012

Tango: by a horse’s head

[NOTE: I've decided to every now and then republish an old post, especially one involving the arts rather than politics. Here's one that first appeared in August of 2008.]

You may recall my disastrous efforts to learn to tango, chronicled here. But I still enjoy the dance as spectator, and the other evening I had the good fortune to attend a thrilling tango performance.

Which made me think of one of my favorite movie scenes (for those of you unfamiliar with “Scent of a Woman,” in this clip Al Pacino is supposed to be blind, and to have managed to persuade a lovely young woman to allow him to teach her to tango):

From my previous tango experiences, I will say that either the Pacino character is the best leader on earth or else this is not this lady’s first tango. Perhaps both.

But why quibble when it’s so much fun? It’s partly the music that sends us—especially the exhilarating crescendo that begins at 00:53 and repeats later at 1:56. Note also her slowly dawning delight, and the joy of the featured viewer, a young man who has been assigned the challenging task of “minding” Pacino to make sure he doesn’t get into trouble. Fat chance.

The song’s title in the You Tube comments is identified as “Por Una Cabeza,” which my recollection of high school Spanish tells me means something like “for a head” or “through a head.”

Odd. Neither translation seems to lend itself to romance—even of the tragic/demented/destructive tango variety. “For a Face,” perhaps—but “For a Head?”

And so, being the inveterate researcher that I am, I looked up the lyrics to the song and found to my surprise that the phrase refers to horse races, and the title can be translated roughly as “By a Head.”

Here’s a translation of the first stanza:

Losing by a head of a noble horse
who slackens just down the stretch
and when it comes back it seems to say:
don’t forget brother,
You know, you shouldn’t bet.

Of course, being a tango, the song isn’t really about horse races; it quickly segues into being about love. The metaphor is that the hero keeps losing in love, just by a bit (“a head”), and knows he should stop betting—both on horses and on love. But of course he also knows, and we know, that he will continue to risk all:

Many deceptions, losing by a head…
I swore a thousand times not to insist again
but if a look sways me on passing by
her lips of fire, I want to kiss once more.

Enough of race tracks, no more gambling,
a photo-finish I’m not watching again,
but if a pony looks like a sure thing on Sunday,
I’ll bet everything again, what can I do?

The song was written by Carlos Gardel, a man I’d never heard of before but probably should have. Gardel, considered to be “The King of Tango,” was an Argentine (perhaps born elsewhere; several countries vie for the honor) famous throughout the great capitals of the world during the 1920s and 1930s until his untimely death in a 1935 plane crash. He made a number of films for Paramount that showcase his singing, and the following vignette may be of interest to those interested in political trivia:

In 1915 Carlos Gardel was supposedly wounded after being shot by Che Guevara’s father, Ernesto Guevara Lynch, as a result of a bar room brawl in the belle epoque Palais de Glace in the Recoleta district of Buenos Aires, although different versions assert that he was shot in the chest or in the leg, yet another variation holds that it was not Che’s father but rather Roberto Guevara, a high-class boy often involved in quarrels.

The “Por Una Cabeza” featured in “Scent of a Woman” is hyper-romantic, with its sobbing, throbbing violins and the schmaltzy situation of the blind older guy dancing with the fawn-like young woman—a scenario Pacino somehow pulls off with great charm and believability. But Gardel’s original is quite different, a world-weary but forceful paean to the resurgence of passion and the urge to try again.

Gardel looks here for all the world like he’s escaped from the cast of “Guys and Dolls,” about to sing a combination of “Fugue for Tinhorns” and “Luck Be a Lady.” And as the number gets going, it morphs (at 1:37) into a Grade-B version of the Ascot scene in “My Fair Lady”—minus the Cecil Beaton costumes:

Note at 2:29 when Gardel sighs and says “Como siempre,” (“as always”), tearing up his ticket in resignation at his loss. A nice touch.

I have to say I much prefer the “Scent of a Woman” version. Gardel’s vibrato has that old-fashioned 1920′s-1930′s wobble that doesn’t speak to me much. Styles in music and singing change, and it’s almost impossible to hear him in the same way that his contemporaries did.

But the song remains a masterpiece.

[UPDATE: Funny thing, but in the over four years since I wrote this post, my tastes must have changed, because on listening to Gardel's version this time, I must say that I liked it very much.]

8 Responses to “Tango: by a horse’s head”

  1. Fausta Says:

    Here’s what got me into tango: This number from The Tango Lesson http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SX_R6QYr2_g
    Love the location, love how she starts with a Danny DeVito lookalike and ends with the late Omar Vega & the fabulous Carlos Copello.

    I made it to Buenos Aires and danced in that location, the Confiteria Ideal with some good dancers (alas, Vega is no longer with us). The BBC did a documentary on CI 10 years ago http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=wx-LNAVlxbk

    Tango is not about steps, though. It’s about walking, stopping, and connecting with your partner.

    The best instructor I’ve had, Mario Bournissen, is a most musical dancer. Look at how he projects the energy of the music by stopping to mark a phrase http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ycc2BT9k84

    One of the famous tango dancers said, The essence of tango isn’t in the steps, but in the pauses.

  2. Gringo Says:

    Like Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and Big Bopper, Carlos Gardel died in a plane accident. While they died in their 20s, Carlos Gardel died in his mid 40s, with a much more complete obra already accomplished. Argentines say of Carlos Gardel, “Gardel cada día canta mejor.” [Gardel sings better every day.] Which Neo can attest to!

    Ástor Piazzola, the famous tango player and composer of tangos, spent most of his childhood in the US, where he began at age 8 to play the bandoneón, the accordion-like instrument featured in the tango. At age 14 in the US, Ástor Piazolla met Carlos Gardel. Impressed by Ástor virtuosity, Carlos Gardel invited Astor to tour with him. Ástor couldn’t get his father’s permission to go with Gardel, which was fortunate, as this was the tour when Gardel died in a plane crash.

    Libertango is one of Piazzola’s better known compositions.

  3. Don Carlos Says:

    Pity the Pacino clip does not open for me. Never saw the movie; the title is off-putting, as I have scented many women as patients, to generally negative effects. The very obese and the seriously ill have their own scents, to be endured, not enticed by.

  4. Jewel Says:

    Have you seen the very hilarious movie, Strictly Ballroom, Fausta, Neo-neocon?

  5. lino Says:

    Shifting from dance to literature, lyricist Alfredo Le Pera is an important reference. Excerpts from his poems punctuate the chapters of Manuel Puig’s most beautiful novel, “Boquitas Pintadas” (Heartbreak Tango).

  6. Fausta Says:

    Strictly Ballroom was fun!

    Another tango movie I like is Assassination Tango, written/produced/directed by real-life tango aficionado Robert Duvall, & starring his wife Luciana Pedraza. Here they are, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4OPZWLx2fiw

  7. OlderandWheezier Says:

    Sorry, but when I see “horse’s head” and Pacino in the same thread, I immediately think of a different movie.

  8. NCC Says:

    The actress Pacino dances with in Scent of a Woman is Gabrielle Anwar, who now plays Fiona on Burn Notice.

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