(part 2/2) A brutal, unknown tango by infamous poet Luis Rubistein – and two stars enacting it

This is the second half of the article, you can find the first half here.

As we saw in our introduction to the tango poet Luis Rubistein, his lyrics have a markedly dramatic style and a sometimes even nasty edge, like in the previously-mentioned, controversial tango Un crimen, which relatively graphically describes the murder of a wife or girlfriend by her own lover. Today, we will focus on another tango by Rubistein with a similar, yet more ”complete” story. This tango has remained totally forgotten, but fortunately there is one recording we can use to “reconstruct” it, along with the photos below, on which two important singers act out the story of the tango, for their many fans back in the day. And one of them is still very popular with you dancers even today, because of his grand role in Golden Age tango music. Let’s introduce you to both of them, before moving on to our little piece of theatre.

The male role in our lyric is played by Francisco Fiorentino, the archetypical “orchestra singer” in tango history: around 1940, Aníbal Troilo’s band was gaining staggering success playing great dance music that, at the same time, gave plenty of central space to Fiorentino to sing, which was a kind of exciting musical blend not seen much before, and one soon adapted by the other famous orchestras. Formerly, the main two styles were either a singer being the dominant factor (tango canción, example, like the recording we will analyse today) or the orchestra being the dominant factor with a singer only singing a refrain (estribillo, example, lyrics by Rubistein as well). Needless to say, this new “boom” brought both Troilo and his singer Fiorentino great fame, instead of just one of these two sides. In what we consider the best dance music nowadays, “Troilo-Fiorentino” still plays a central role, sophisticated and lyrical but not too complex (the reason why later orchestras are often less danceable).

Yet, other than most similar singers in the early 1940s, Fiorentino was not quite new to the scene. He had been a refrain singer for a very long time and even a bandoneonist for various orchestras, combining these two roles as well. And even though some current-day Argentine snobs look down on Fiorentino for not having a really fancy voice, he had already made quite the name for himself during those earlier years. It’s therefore not surprising we find him portrayed in this little play below, together with a popular, female tango canción singer. We cannot really say Fiorentino was top-of-the-line popular back then, in the mid-30s, but apparently still famous enough to be considered for a fan feature like this. And how about a sweet, unknown fun fact? The most likely first example of “Troilo’s” later success formula is actually also sung by Fiorentino, with the orchestra of Roberto Zerrillo. We can sometimes find clues and roots in unlikely places.

The other star featured in our little story below is Mercedes Simone, more known for her singing of “full tangos” than dance music and for her acting in several tango-related movies. However, before you dancing-minded people fall asleep, she has actually made her contribution to our dancing universe too, and for a female singer, actually a relatively big one. Simone has left us… two refrain tangos with the Adolfo Carabelli orchestra, very danceable tangos indeed, and while there obviously isn’t a lot of material, she still seems to beat the female competition…. simply because of how little refrain singing/dance tangos have been recorded with female singers. Anyway, it’s unfortunate that we do not have any recordings with Fiorentino and Simone together, but we can at least reconstruct the concept with the photos below, which we will now finally discuss.

fiorentino simone tango theatre

“What have you done?!, a tango by Rubistein”, an eye-catching title for this feature, about a tango that “tells(/sings, literally) of profound drama of love and of remorse”. On the first photo, you can see Fiorentino standing with a gun next to a shocked Simone, on the second, a crowd of neighbors surrounding the killer and the killed, and on the third, Fiorentino bringing flowers to her grave, which is like a tango metaphor for a guilt that cannot be undone. Most of the feature, well, features the lyric by Rubistein while the captions next to the photos explain what situations from the lyric are being enacted.

I always love the relatively natural expressions of tango stars on relatively informal photos like this (do browse my blog, or search by musician or singer if you want to see more), because nowadays we are mostly familiar with portraits and other arrogant, exaggerated, artificial scenes typical for famous people, which was as much the case back then as it is today. In any case, let’s listen to the only recorded version of this tango, interestingly enough also with Simone. Apart from the lyric, the music was also composed by Rubistein himself, but in a tango canción we often can’t really distinguish the melody that well.

In the story, a man kills his lover by gunshot in her chest, and while the story is told from the man’s perspective, we first hear the woman screaming these words to him, “What have you done?!”, while lying down, bleeding from her chest. While the man shudders and neighbors arrive at the scene, screaming “Murderer!!” at him, she continues with words he would never forget: (not fully quoted for conciseness) “What have you done, my sweetheart, when I’ve always been so good to you…”. And the look of her eyes would always follow him, in his life in prison. And in the end, bringing flowers to her grave, he wants to tell her that “inside my chest, your quavering voice is an eternal burden”, but of course, his cruel vice is irreversible, and he’s condemned to loneliness ever after.

This tango reminds me of a few tangos in which a man returns to his former lover’s grave and only silence awaits him, and even though the root for his ‘betrayal” is much more likely a betrayal in love than a murder, we can never really know what the lyricist intended. In the case of Rubistein, it’s almost pathetically explicit, and we will surely not excuse martial violence, but Argentina back then was a very macho society and a lot of tangos, as a product of their times, show, let’s say, the dark underside of the life of the streets. This is why even a gruesome story can teach us something about the cultural context of tango music.

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