Making sense of the lyrics...
José María Contursi is the lyricist most famous for his tango ‘Gricel,’ (music by Mariano Mores) and the true story on which it was based. Contursi fell in love with a woman named Gricel, though he was already married and had a family. Later in life, he and Gricel were married. Contursi wrote many tangos for Gricel, including Verdemar, which we looked at this past January.
This month’s tango,’Tú,’ appears to be one of the many Gricel tributes.
If we read this lyric in the context of Contursi’s personal life a pretty simple plot is revealed: the narrator is ‘loveless, restless’ and because of past failures or unsatisfying relationships has given up (the ruins of my past, the tragic ending of my despair, the torture of living without dying). And all of this is contrasted with the illuminating presence of his beloved subject, ‘you.’
This contrast is fairly straightforward and occurs in the two verses and the chorus. Beyond this simple setup there’s plenty of substance - Contursi was one of the great tango ‘poets,’ schooled in classical technique and devices. His language and images are rich and worth absorbing. I’ve done a fairly literal translation, at the risk of awkwardness, in hopes of preserving some of Contursi’s linguisitic subtlety.
For example, look at two of the metaphors applied to the subject: ray of light, sunlight that lights up the sea spray. Contursi is consistent, and follows a simple metaphor (ray of light) with an original, evocative one. When have we ever seen the sun lighting sea spray in a tango? It sounds more like a phrase plucked from The Iliad.
Contursi uses personification: ‘My anxiety had already taken refugeamong the ruins of my past.’ A lesser lyricist would probably have simply mentioned anxiety without having it ‘take refuge in the ruins of the past.’ And he continues to avoid the straightforward by using metaphors. Any lyricist can write that music is playing, but Contursi’s ‘miraculous, crystal music’ is ‘you.’ ‘You’ says the narrator, are the ‘music’ that arrived in my life and taught me to smile and forgive. Forgive whom? Perhaps the narrator has learned to forgive himself for his past failures, or to forgive the universe for this fate that was…not the fate he had hoped for. Now that ‘you’ has arrived he’s got a more attractive option: ‘the warm promise of a better fate.’
This is rich language, worth reading and re-reading. Perhaps the simple plot allows Contursi to pull out all the stops with the poetry…or perhaps because of the simple plot he made sure that he did. And of course, we might imagine, this simple plot is autobiographical and comes from a very heartfelt place.
Contursi’s lyrics are always worth spending time with. Plus, since he coincided with the golden age of tango (the 1940’s), he collaborated with some of the best composers: Aníbal Troilo, Carlos Di Sarli, and in this case, José Dames.
Dames, as we’re seeing this month, had great expressive abilities and left us with lush, romantic tangos. The so-called ‘tango romanza’ had many great proponents: Enríque Delfino, Juan Carlos Cobián, Joaquín Mora, The De Caro brothers, Lucio Demare.
Tango doesn’t always give us a great composition with great lyrics but when it does it’s worth taking note. Put this one in your file!