More often than not, the creative masters behind some of your favorite tangos have remained totally hidden to the wider public of tango dancers and even, yes, to some of the craziest aficionados out there. Some of those classic songs are rightfully associated with the orchestras and singers that recorded them, but often, this was just an adaptation of a piece of music by an external musician plus a poet or lyricist who came up with lyrics for it (or the other way around…). Today’s article will teach you a bit about one of those poets, and a second, upcoming part will introduce you to a totally unknown composition by him – along with a nice surprise for fans of a certain singer, who is the prime personification of the Golden Age of tango singing.
In the early 20th century, Argentina was attracting a sizeable inflow of Jewish immigrants from the Russian Empire, an environment plagued by antisemitism, which culminated in mass-scale violence (“pogroms”) and other forms of persecution. These Jews and their descendants have greatly contributed to Argentine/Buenos Aires culture and intellectual life until the present day. And unsurprisingly, that also means there were Jewish tango musicians and lyricists, even though they are not necessarily among the most famous orchestra leaders or singers. The Russian-Jewish influence can be traced back to orchestra musicians, composers, a few orchestra leaders, and also a few poets. The most influential of them, was, arguably, Luis Rubistein, a man of enfant terrible characteristics and an original and quite dramatic poetry style.
Luis Rubistein was born in 1908 in Buenos Aires as the son of fresh Jewish refugees from Dnipro, a town in present-day Ukraine. As a boy, he was expelled from primary school for throwing an inkwell at his teacher, who told him off for writing poems in the classroom. Without any further formal education, Rubistein, a real street kid, educated himself by mingling with the tango crowd and dedicated his life to the world of nightclubs, cabarets and tango music. As a tango poet, he should be recognized for his dramatic lyrics, some of which have been eternalized as amazing dance classics (example, example, example, example, ejemplo, בייַשפּיל: “I am a prisoner of your unlove!“). These lyrics sometimes contain situations and language that have the power to make you feel particularly touched, even uncomfortable, essentially provoking you into feelings or memories of melancholy, loneliness and in some cases even disgust. Rubistein is one of the poets who recognize tango both as an intellectual pursuit and something spiritually connected to the ”barro” (“mud”), the often tough life of ordinary people in a raw, sprawling city.
I sometimes wonder how life must have been for these Eastern European Jews who(se parents) fled persecution in their homelands and, later in their lives, even had to endure the torturing thought of their relatives being brutally exterminated by the Nazis. It’s impossible to find out what went through their heads at the time, but let’s listen to a lyric by Rubistein which is possibly one of the most emotional, atmospheric writings you will ever find in tango: Charlemos (translation), “let’s dream together, on this gray, rainy afternoon”, an illusion of romance with an revealing, yet cryptic ending. We can interpret it simply as a song of heartbreak or missing love, but we will never know what the true intentions behind such melancholy were, from the author himself. What’s more, the absolute number one lyric you need to get familiar with is Nada más (translation), my personal favorite tango, and the absolute summit of pathos in tango:
“How much snow will there be in my life…
without the fire of your eyes!
And my soul, yet lost,
bleeding through this wound,
will lay down and die.
On the cross of my yearning
I shall fill my soul with darkness.
The blue of the sky will cloud
above my distress
of watching you depart.”
And beyond these sorrows of love, there are also lyrics describing the typical life in Buenos Aires neighbourhoods (Carnaval de mi barrio) and a few heavily using lunfardo, the tango language of the streets, but to reinforce my point made earlier about the ”uncomfortableness”, Rubistein also wrote perhaps the most questionable lyrics in Golden Age tango music: in Un crimen, a remorseful murderer explains somewhat melodramatically to a judge how he killed his wife, throwing details at us we don’t really want to hear. Here, Rubistein shows his emotionally provocative side, in a negative way, but it’s also quite immersive, a result of that same ability to pull you into his lyrics.
In the second part of this article, we will see a similarly rough story (just don’t take it too seriously, it’s pathos after all!) which you will be able to understand better due to knowing a bit more about the author and his signature writing style. So, be sure to stack up on some calming pills and fasten your seatbelts for another ride into uncharted tango history!