"...to win, first I had to lose"
Tango music is made up of cadence, melody, and lyrics—and each tango has its strengths and its weaknesses. Some are well balanced, while others are strong in one area and weak in another. For instance, a few of the best tangos by D’Arienzo and Biaggi have such an incredible cadence that they get by almost on compás alone. And there are other tangos by Pugliese that have no words, and very little compás—but the power of the arrangement and melody carries them. Finally, there are a few tangos like this one that cover all the bases. It has a melody that grabs you and sticks in your head, the mix of orchestra, compás, and singer is perfectly balanced, the lyrics are beautifully composed, and the story has something interesting to say. “Suerte Loca” uses colorful language to take us on another mini-tour of the streets and clubs where the tango was born:
A truco card
In the deck of life,
I always draw the card of the “boca”…
and on my side I hear it said
that it’s because I’m crazy with luck.
But I only began to understand about “luck”
when I saw how I was being tricked.
And now the only ones who can beat me
are those who bet their lives.
In the deck of life,
to win, first you must lose!
When I first began to play
I also trusted in blind luck,
but later I saw that it was all a lie…
that the money
is in the hands of the most ruthless.
If you don’t believe me…
if you follow your heart…
what faith you have!
Can’t you see you’ll never win?
If you play with the cards of illusion,
you will only draw cards of pain!
En el naipe del vivir,
suelo acertar la carta de la boca…
y a mi lado oigo decir
que es porque estoy con una suerte loca.
Al saber le llaman suerte
yo aprendí viendo trampearme
Y ahora solo han de coparme
los que banquen con la muerte.
¡En el naipe del vivir,
para ganar, primero perdi!
Yo también entré a jugar
confiado en la ceguera del azar,
y luego vi que todo era mentir…
y el capital
en manos del más vil.
No me creés…
te pierde el corazón…
que fe tenés…
¿No ves que no acertás?
¡Que si jugás a cartas de ilusion,
son de dolor las cartas que se dan!
These lyrics hit you on several levels. On the surface, Fiorentino is singing about a card game called ”truco”. It’s a gambling game that uses old-fashioned Spanish cards, and it has close ties to the arrabal. And it also has ties to tango, because truco was commonly played in the same clubs where tango was danced. Although I’ve never seen it played in a milonga today, they do still play it in some boliches, and I once saw it played at a sidewalk table in Mataderos.
I had a tough time finding out about “la carta de la boca” (the card of the mouth) that’s mentioned in the first line. I finally asked a taxi driver, and he went into a long, complex explanation… but at the end, I still wasn’t sure what it was. I think it’s a card you need to draw at a certain time… and you hope it’s the right one. Our guy sings that at first, he was like all beginners… he thought truco was about luck. But later he came to realize that the sharp guys always won… and that they were merciless and tricky. Over time, he picked up their tricks and learned their game. He says luck is an illusion. Don't be a sucker. Either wise up and learn from your mistakes… or lose. The language is great: “play the cards of illusion, and you will only draw cards of pain”. And anyone who has been in sports, or business (or lived a little) knows exactly what it means when Fiorentino sings, “To win, first you must lose.”
So it’s good gambling advice, and it’s good general advice as well. And, depending on how you want interpret it, it may also reflect a bit of tango's cynicism against the rich and powerful. At the lowest level, Fiorentino talks like a Mafioso: Mess with me and you’ll die. He uses the word “vil” , which literally means “vile”, to describe the people who know how to win. But for me, that’s a very strong translation—unless he really is talking about killing people when he says you have to “banquen con la muerte” (“bet your life”) to challenge him. Finally, he could also be talking in a cynical way about the illusion of love and relationships: Could “the card of the mouth” be about a kiss? Could “Follow your heart, and you won’t win” be about relationships? Probably not… but it’s one way to look at it.
At this point we should be familiar with some of the things Troilo is doing. Listen to how artfully he mixes the sharp compás of the bandoneon and piano with the smoother melodies of the full orchestra! Troilo pioneered the uniting of singer and orchestra in tango, and no one was better at weaving the cadences of the singer's words into the rest of the music. Notice how his tangos with Fiorentino use the orchestra to lead up to the place where the words begin—and then the singer is given a place to tell a fairly complete and coherent story. He meshes the words into the cadences and melodies of the instruments with incredible skill. And when you combine Troilo’s talent with the words of a poet that were specifically written for the cadences of tango, the results can be spectacular (see “Farol”).
In “Suerte Loca”, listen again (at about 1:05) to how Troilo introduces Fiorentino: There’s a sort of “bada bada bip-bip-bip…" and then Troilo backs off as Fiorentino begins to sing, “In the deck of life, I always draw the card of the boca…” At 1:44 the orchestra joins Fiorentino as his voice soars, and then the bandoneons and the piano begin to syncopate, as Troilo plays the orchestra off of the syllables of the words. Rather than the long poetic recitals accompanied by a musical background that are common in some non-dance tangos, or the old improvised storytelling of the payadores, these are tangos in which the melody, the compás, and the singer all carefully play off of each other.
Finally, the ending: After Fiorentino finishes singing, the orchestra returns for a moment... and then Troilo himself comes in... his bandoneon high and sweet. You can you picture him there in the smoky club, his head back, his eyes closed. Playing softly.
For the milongueros, Troilo represents the ultimate expression of their tango. They say he may not be the greatest bandoneonista of all time, and Fiorentino is certainly not the best singer, but somehow, together, they combined to create something unequaled. The mood in the milongas varies, at times lighter and less serious, at other times, profound. This quiet moment with Troilo's bandoneon is one of the profound ones. A moment of "entrega". A moment of surrender and delivery. It's one of the times when everyone pays attention; it's one of the secret codes of the milongas.
What a great tango! Can you feel it? From the first notes, you should be humming along: “En el naipe de vivir…” Fiorentino hasn’t begun yet, but the intro is a warm-up for the little opera that is to come. You need to get ready—and if your partner is good, he or she will be doing the same. You know what’s coming; you know Troilo’s format, and you have the skills to express it. Posture and balance, connection and step. The cadence supports you and the melody carries you. You don’t rush. You wait for the music… and the words inspire you. Calm, centered and focused… channeling the music. Doing this well is called “having the music inside”—and it’s rare to find it outside of a few places in BsAs.
I hope these pages are helping you enjoy the Golden Age tangos… and if they are, then that’s good enough. But the real purpose here is to help people appreciate this special music in a special way—that is, by dancing to it. And although it may sound officious to say, there is a right way to dance to these tangos. Okay, I know—there is no “right way” to dance tango—but this is music that was meant to be danced to in a certain way. It’s the result of a long collaboration between the musicians and the dancers of the neighborhoods, and some of it is performed at a pretty sophisticated level. I don't know how such humble neighborhoods were able to produce something so spectacular and timeless, but they were. So you need to be very careful about fooling around with the things that make the music and the dancing work well together… especially if you’re from another culture. We'll discuss that, a little more in the next few pages.