This tango is not as well known for dancing as some of the others, but the story is very porteña. It’s about a young cart driver (a “carrerito”) hurrying across town at the end of the day to his home in Once, a commercial district near the center of town. As his horses trot along, he thinks about his girlfriend in Nuevo Pompeya, near the banks of the Riachuelo to the south. Homero Manzi describes the “pinta” (the dressed up look) of the boy’s decorated clothes, his polished cart, and the way he urges his two horses, Manoblanca and Porteñito, up a small hill on the way home. It's a nice mental picture about something a little different in tango… a happy story about youth, energy, and optimism:
Where are you going, carrerito of the east side,
urging on your roan horses,
and showing-off your blue cart
with the two hand-painted initials?
With a shiny bronze star
attached to the harness,
where are you going, carrerito of Once
rapidly crossing the streets of the South?
Let’s go… pull hard… here comes a hill!
Harder! We need a little more!
“Great! We made it!
Now let’s keep it up,
because her eyes wait for me tonight,
at Centenera Avenue and Tabare.”
Where are you going, carrerito porteño,
with your sharp new cart,
with your eyes closed dreamily
and a sprig of leaves behind your ear for luck.
The pride of being well loved
can be seen in your bronze star,
carrerito of barrio Once,
as you return, trotting home to the corral.
Donde vas, carrerito del este,
castigando tu yunta de ruanos
y mostrando en la chata celeste
las dos iniciales pintadas a mano?
Reluciendo la estrella de bronce
claveteada en la suela de cuero,
donde vas carrerito del Once,
cruzando ligero, las calles del Sur?
Vamos, fuerza que viene barranca!
Fuerza, vamos que falta un poquito
“Bueno! Bueno! Ya salimos!
Ahora sigan parejo otra vez,
que esta noche me esperan sus ojos,
en la Avenida Centenera y Tabare.”
Donde vas carrerito porteño,
con tu chata flamante y coqueta,
con los ojos cerrados de sueño
y un gajo de ruda detras de la oreja.
El orgullo de ser bien querido
se adivina en tu estrella de bronce,
carrerito del barrio del Once,
que vuelves trotando para el corralon.
The boy has names for his two horses (in English, “White-hand” and “Little Porteño”), and he carries on a conversation with them like they are pets. If you’ve seen the cart drivers around BsAs, most of them are pretty rough, and their animals look neglected. Today they usually haul junk, but the boy in the song is dressed up and proud about being in love—and of being loved also. This tango is so famous that they built a monument to it at the corner of Centenera Avenue and Tabare in Pompeya… but for me, it almost falls into that large group of tangos where the compás disappears beneath the lyrics. Listen at around 00:40 and 2:00 to the way the melody wanders, and the orchestra hesitates, while Vargas works in the lyrics. It’s a small lapse in compás and melody, but it's a hint of what happens in many of the non-dancing tangos, where the orchestra provides background music to singers who almost seem to be reciting poetry.
It took me awhile to get used to Manoblanca, but now I love it—especially the part where the boy talks to his horses... and the way Vargas sings “Bueno! Bueno! Ya salimos!”. Vargas is really, really good in this one… but it took me awhile to get used to dancing to it. This is an advanced tango that requires careful movement by both partners. At times you have to wait patiently, and other times both partners must move very slowly together to connect their movement to Vargas’ voice. You also need to surge forward with the orchestra at the right moments—sort of like Porteñito and Manoblanca as they surge over the top of their hill! It's a tango that can be a lot of fun to dance to if you take your time and think a little.
The lyrics of Manoblanca are an exception to the heavier themes of the tangos that came along after 1920. But most of the earlier tangos that were played around the turn of the century were happy and upbeat. They reflected the boastful, macho attitude of the compadritos—the street tough guys that descended from the gauchos, and hung out on the orilla (edge) of Buenos Aires in barrios like Corrales (now called Parque Patricios). The famous milonga “El Porteñito” is a good example of this early style: “They call me El Porteñito… I’m famous… no one is my equal as a dancer… women love me…etc.” The great revolution in the tangos of the 1920s added more mature lyrics to go along with De Caro’s more serious musical arrangements. Tangos began to have more complex emotional themes, and stories about nostalgia and loss became almost a defining characteristic of tango. So the upbeat optimism of Manoblanca can be a nice break from the steady diet of heavy emotion in most of the other Golden Age tangos.
A note about porteños and their animals: The first thing I noticed about animals in Buenos Aires is that the cats are very friendly. Every other place I’ve been, stray cats always run for cover, but here they’ll walk right up like your best friend if you give them half a chance. I always end up playing with them, but Alej doesn’t like it. She says it’s a disease risk (so far I haven’t had any problems). Apparently the tolerance and gentleness of the porteños makes cats feel secure. While they seem to like and respect cats, they really love dogs. Dogs are everywhere, and they seem to know the rules. They stay out of people’s way, and they're very polite and reserved, unless you make the first move to be friendly. Many people here talk to their animals, and one of the best things about picking up castellano was being able to listen to small bits of conversation on the sidewalk as owners debated issues with their dogs. I’m not sure how much the dogs understand, but it’s pretty funny.
One night we came out of a milonga across from Parque Centenario and I saw one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen in BsAs. There was a guy on the other side of the street with a horse cart, and every time he climbed up on the cart, for some reason, the horse would start backing up. The man would yell, and whip at the horse, but it would just slowly continue backward, like a car stuck in reverse. After a minute, he’d climb down, talk to the horse, and then physically pull the bit in its mouth until it would reluctantly begin to shuffle forward a few steps—but the second he would climb up on the cart, the horse would begin backing up again. This happened at least three or four times, and we just couldn’t stop laughing. It was like an old silent movie routine with Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin. When we finally caught a taxi, the cart had moved backwards half a block from where it started, and the man was going crazy. I think if he’d had a hat, he would have thrown it down and stomped on it.
I would disagree with one part of your translation of Manoblanca in
"Reluciendo la estrella de bronce claveteada en la suela de cuero"
"With a shiny bronze star nailed to the sole of your boot"
I think that's not correct. I never saw or heard of any "carrero" having a bronze star nailed to the sole of his boots. Instead, it was current for them to nail a bronze decoration to a piece of sole that would hang as a necklace before the horse's breast. It was the pride of those guys to pay for decoration to their horses or carts. Much like the decoration you can see in some trucks and "colectivos" in Buenos Aires still now. The popular craft of "filete" or "fileteado" was born of that. [See picture.]
I did a little search on the web to try to obtain some documentation on a horse's attire at the time of "cuarteadores" and "carreros" in Buenos Aires. To no avail... except that I found a photograph of some guys parading somewhere -- they are disguised somehow like Basque or Catalan Spaniards, so I suppose they are in Spain—but the picture allows me to make my point. If one looks at the thing that hangs to the horse's neck. The "estrella de bronce, claveteada en la suela de cuero" of the lyrics would be placed exactly at the same place using the same technique. I remember having seen some decorations much larger than the one you can see in the picture. But then, after seeing this picture I began thinking that in fact the bronze star can also be on the horse's front. Or in those things to hide the eyes—whatever their name is—but in that case it would be two of them, and the lyrics only tell about one. Anyway, Manzi makes special attention not to tell where the horse wears his bronze star. Maybe you should avoid in the translation to do what Manzi didn't: place the star. In any case you have all my best wishes of success with the translation! It would not be an easy one!
Another thing: "Vamos, fuerza que viene barranca!" I think that "barranca" should be capitalized. I don't remember if there's a "barranca" in the Once and Caballito neighborhood, where the lyrics place the scene. A "barranca" being a kind of gentle cliff. There's one at Belgrano, somehow afar from Once. But if there is one at that eastern side of town and doesn't have a name like "Barranca de Belgrano", the poet would have put: "Vamos, fuerza que viene LA barranca!" or "Vamos, fuerza que SE viene UNA barranca!" So I Think that when he names this particular "barranca" it's a shortening of "Barranca de Somewhere". Un abrazo milonguero.
Leo, thanks again for your excellent help and attention. It’s surprising how many people read these translations, and they should be correct. So I changed the literal translation of “attached to the boot sole” to “attached to the harness”, meaning, attached somewhere on one of the harnesses. I think that’s about as close as we can get.
The next question is also tough: Does “barranca” refer to a specific hill, in which case it should be capitalized, or is it just any hill? I think we’re splitting some pretty fine hairs, but it’s a fun discussion, so let’s keep going. It seems to me it could be either one… but if had to guess, I’d say Manzi and Vargas probably didn’t think about it that much. Maybe they just needed a hill to make the story more interesting, and putting in “la” or “una” didn’t fit well with the music.
Anyway, BsAs is pretty flat, and most of the barrancas I know of slope downhill toward the river. And the route from Once to Pompeya is toward the Riachuelo, so you’d expect that if there are any hills, Manoblanca would be more likely to descend rather than climb them. However, in the interest of historical accuracy and academic rigor, I am prepared to go the extra mile on this one… literally! So, if this freezing, grey weather ever lets up, I’ll ride the route on my bicycle, and look for hills! The only people who are more aware of hills than horse cart drivers are cyclists, so I’ll follow an approximation of the boy’s path from Plaza Once to Manoblanca's monument at Centenera y Tabare. And if I find any hills, I’ll ask the locals if they have a name (and maybe also if they ever saw Manoblanca trot by). So stay tuned, and I'll report back.