Ask Arlene…About Tango Lyrics

Hi Arlene

A lot of people who dance tango in UK don’t understand the lyrics. Do you think that they are missing out on an important tango element?


Dear Totty,

I don’t understand the lyrics of Tango apart from a few words here and there.  In spite of that, I still feel the music deeply.  I don’t know how that is, but I will never forget the first time I heard Tango music those many years ago and how the music spoke to me.  It still does.  I think it would be wonderful to fully understand the lyrics.  I have been serenaded while dancing and I must say that it has only been the Argentines that have sung with such feeling.  Can you imagine how much better you could be dancing if you could really understand what it is you are dancing to?

I have asked my friend Deby in Buenos Aires for her take on your question and she has thoughtfully provided an answer to your question.

Hi Totty,

Deby here from Buenos Aires.  Totty, it is not only people in the UK, it is people everywhere.  The lyrics of tango are written in Lunfardo not Spanish which makes them even more difficult to understand.  Do I think people miss out when they do not understand the lyrics?  Yes.  The lyrics of tango are about the life in Buenos Aires and it is where the passion of tango comes from.  When you understand the lyrics, really understand them, then the music speaks to you and moves you in a way you never thought was possible.  It is a feeling of sadness, passion, and joy, that you and your partner both share and transmit to each other.

Deby Novitz

©Deby Novitz 2009 TangoSpam all rights reserved.  No parts of this may be reproduced without permission of the author

17 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. EL Chupacabra
    Apr 08, 2009 @ 00:51:41

    I was at a class where the lyrics and the translations for some classic pieces were handed out.

    Most people weren’t really interested (unsurprisingly). But a few that were like myself, had difficulty as direct translations don’t work. I suspect you have to understand the historical social context around tango, no just translate Spanish or lunfardo.

    Would make for a great course though, no?

  2. irenicon
    Apr 08, 2009 @ 09:36:03

    I find quite a lot on planet tangos web site – they have translated lots from lunfardo and spanish (some are in one, some are in another). Thanks Alberto for all the hard work.

    The music/songs speak to me anyway but sometimes it is nice to know what the words mean too.

  3. Arlene
    Apr 08, 2009 @ 09:45:26

    Hi Annabel,

    Alberto is linked to these pages and has been for some time. He does a great job.

  4. jantango
    Apr 08, 2009 @ 09:54:26

    Those who dance are missing the feeling of tango if they don’t listen or understand the lyrics.

  5. Fatty Arbuckle
    Apr 08, 2009 @ 22:33:55

    Totty Darling,
    I must say that I think you have something here. I remember how I felt when I first found the translation of La vida loca by Ricky Martin. I don’t speak much Spanish myself you understand but I know that it would probably have a similar impact were I to find out what tocca tango’s lyrics mean. I suppose the real thing to do is learn more Spanish or indeed lunfardo whatever that is. What is Chorizo really? I often wish I could understand more.
    I hope this answers your point.


  6. Mr Walker
    Apr 10, 2009 @ 11:58:11

    I know that i don’t understand the lyrics except for the odd word here and there but neither doe’s my partner so i rely on my feelings for the music and i hope that together she feels how much i care for the music and her while we are dancing…i once asked my teacher to explain a song that i thought was about a deep love, hethen begun to translate some of the lyrics which turned out to be about a love for gambling and cards and the horse racing…and the odd loose for now i am content to use my imagination and keep them about deep passionate love….i hope that because i don’t understand it makes me more sensitive to the music and my partner……

  7. The Voice of Reason
    Apr 10, 2009 @ 21:33:33

    Mr Walker

    That song describes my life exactly. Only last night I had bets on Boca Juniors to win half time and full time, I also predicted the correct score at 3-1 Boca. Now that deserves a song don’t you think? Does this merit translation to Lunfardo? I think that it sounds quite reasonable. I also have a tenner eachway double on Arsenal for the champions league at 16/1 and Liverpool for the Premier league at 6/1(second gets half the odds) Now if that comes up I will write a song and translate it into lunfardo with help from my Argentinian tango friends. I will then publish both versions on these pages.


  8. jantango
    Apr 15, 2009 @ 02:44:51


    I found Derrick’s blog where he is translating lyrics of tangos. We got into a discussion about the language of the lyrics which may interest you and your readers.


  9. danny
    Jun 29, 2010 @ 14:27:49

    Tango lyrics create problems for leaders, because they either obscure the instrumental melody, which compels you to lead to the vocalist’s interpretation, when you would prefer to create your own, as a leader, or they don’t obscure the melody, in which case you have two separate melodies at the same time, which is very confusing, particularly for your follower. You wouldn’t play two tangos at once, and a vocalist who is doing his thing and extemporising on the melody and rhythm just makes things difficult. People who dance to lyrics are not really listening to the music, because they can’t hear it. The voice gets in the way, particularly when the music behind the voice is turned down by the recording engineer, so that it is barely audible, to promote the voice, providing a metronome at best. I always say that I will dance and listen to the vocalist at the same time, if the vocalist will dance and sing at the same time. It seems a fair deal. Perhaps DJ’s can take note. It would make such a difference. What DJ’s seem not to understand is that tangos with lyrics were written for listening to, at home, and for performance, on stage, and, even, sometimes, live in the milonga. But dancing to lyrics is one of the strange things that us foreigners do, which confirms to Argentines that we don’t understand tango, and they are right. I also think that tangos with lyrics, roaring out over the heads of the dancers at the milonga, are at least partly responsible for prompting the huge levels of noisy conversation, the laughing and the greeting, which we now have in the milongas, which further drown the music. Recently I learned that historically there was a movement in tango in Buenos Aires to contain the voice to a marginal position so that it became just another instrument in the band, and not the dominant one, so its not only me, it seems…… In the case of Alfredo de Angelis, for example, I just wish he would go away, from a dance point of view. Take Fumando Espero as an example. A more delicate and sensitive set of lyrics you would be hard put to find, and the melody is first rate, but by the time Alfredo has given the lyrics the full heroic, operatic treatment they no longer matter, and my ears are ringing. Teachers implore us to listen to the music, but what’s the point if they, and the DJ’s, play tangos with lyrics. A metronome will do just as well, except that its clear in the milonga that many of the dancers can’t hit the floor on the beat, even less so when they can’t hear the music anyway, because of the voice, so what’s the point?…. It just seems such a waste of good tango music, and time on the floor, to hide it behind lyrics, (which most of us don’t understand). Or have I missed something? Perhaps someone can enlighten me.

  10. Arlene
    Jun 29, 2010 @ 17:20:20

    @ Danny,
    I personally think you are missing something. I don’t understand the words either but I feel the music. It is possible to get beyond the singing. I can’t explain how to do it, but I can get to the place where I only hear the music. Otherwise, how can so many that don’t know the lyrics still dance well and with feeling to the music?

    Some people also like to dance to the singer and interpret their dance around him. Some people will focus on an instrument even when someone is singing. People have ways of getting around the singer if they want to. Sometimes the singer is seen as another instrument, either way, it is not a problem for some people. Some singers sing with such feeling that you don’t really need to know the words. I listen to all sorts of music; Arabic, Turkish, Spanish, French, Zouk, etc. I can’t understand the lyrics, but I can understand the music. Music is a language all of its own, one that can actually be read if you know how.

    And which beat are you trying to hit on the floor? There are so many ways to dance a Tango; on the beat, halfway down. If you want to just dance to the beat, which tends to be irregular in a lot of Tango music, then you might as well dance Ceroc. They have the same beat to nearly every song you can think of!

    Obviously not all Tango music should or could be danced to, but I don’t think you should say don’t dance to Tango music with Lyrics. You obviously have an issue with this.

  11. Tango Totty
    Jun 30, 2010 @ 00:31:43


    I tend to agree with Arlene. Ultimately its whether you like and have a feeling for the music you are dancing to. To be honest that tango music I like best is the really traditional music Disarli, Darienzo, Biagi etc where there is a strong underlying beat but also many different musical layers – To me its dancing to and between the different layers that makes the dance interesting and challenging. WIth the traditional tango music I dont find vocalists such as Hector Maure confusing at all. In fact the sentimentality of the vocalist not only enhances the feeling but it adds an extra layer and so more richness to the dance.

  12. danny
    Jun 30, 2010 @ 12:16:10

    Yes I do have an issue concerning tangos with lyrics, which is that as a leader, they get in the way of the lead. Yes of course I understand that tango (often) has an irregular beat, one of the many features of the music that the composer incorporates to enable the leader to provide a diverse and varied lead, all of which the voice conceals. Perhaps you will allow me to assert that both you and Arlene (and Debbie) are followers, and therefor do not have to deal with the issue of the missing bars of music, during the vocals, which is also an argument for supporting the contention that milonga DJ’s should always be leaders. The only choice we have, as leaders (and DJ’s), is to switch on the metronome in our heads, which some leaders, it has to be said, don’t have, until the voice goes away, and we can get back to dancing tango, a fact of which, as followers, you may be unaware. Perhaps you are aware of the story concerning La Cumparsita. Originally without lyrics and written by Rodriguez, a Uruguayan, as a teenager, Gardel wrote (awful) lyrics for it and reissued it without Rodriguez’s consent, prompting a lifetime of litigation, which Rodriguez eventually won, because, it was accepted at the time, that tango was not supposed to have lyrics, and if Gardel wanted to add lyrics he should have got permission from Rodriguez first. It was what we now call theft of intellectual property. Gardel created the demand for tango with lyrics and in this regard damaged tango, as a dance. Tango in fact is the only dance form which has lyrics that I am aware of. I perhaps would be a little less condemnatory if Gardel was actually any good as a lyricist (see Silencio for example) but he was maudlin, and conversely, many tangos with lyrics are great works of art, but not suitable for dance. I will put Silencio’s lyrics, and others, in translation up on my site in the next day or so.
    If you are dancing with me, I need you to pay me attention, not dance with the vocalist, whom I resent just as much as I would if a neighbouring dancer on the floor struck up a conversation with you while I was leading you. I resent acting as a sort of patsy for the vocalist, while he serenades my partner over my head, and I don’t want to be seen endorsing the vocalists’ presence in the milonga, uninvited. My follower cannot listen to two voices at once. It takes two, and only two, to tango, and if a follower wants to listen to a vocalist while she dances with me, I would invite her to find another partner. Leaders who dance to lyrics willingly clearly don’t see/hear this problem, and one wonders therefor if they are listening at all. My personal feeling is that at different times tango has been colonised by different interests who have changed tango, not necessarily for the best. Lyricists are a particular case in point, although it has to be said in their defense that tangos with vocals are not intended for dance, but for listening to at home, according to my Argentine friends who have vocal tango CDs, but don’t/can’t dance tango. (Yes, they do exist.)But tango has also been colonised by ballroom ‘tango’, which has done tremendous damage to us by confusing the public over what tango actually is, and also colonised by teachers who have adapted tango to make it easier to teach, and thereby compromised the connection, which is the point of tango, and therefor the milonga.
    Nevertheless tango survives, in spite of its enemies, and, sometimes, in spite of its friends. But if we could eject lyrics from the milonga it would go some way towards restoring our connection to the music and between the dancers. By way of further explanation compare perhaps Alfredo de Angelis Fumando Espero (vocal) with Agri’s Los Pajaros Perdidos (instrumental) and ask yourself which best expresses the spirit of tango, and how damaging it would be if Agri’s violin had to make way for de Angelis’ vocals. It’s no contest surely…..

  13. Andreas
    Jun 30, 2010 @ 14:10:43

    Danny, kindly stop making such assumptions about other people. Your inability to dance to tango with vocals doesn’t mean other people can’t.

  14. Danny.
    Jun 30, 2010 @ 16:49:25

    Thanks Andreas, but I write about what I see. Its nothing to do with (theoretical) assumptions. I have no axe to grind, but it’s common sense, surely. If you can’t hear the music, you must be dancing to something else. I also think that tangos with lyrics encourage the enormous roar of conversation and general clamour that you hear in milongas nowadays, which you never used to. Somehow vocalists unconsciously suggest to people, particularly new arrivals, that noise is good. Today we have the ‘social milonga’, where people go, seemingly, to socialize first, and dance second, the disco with added tango music. Its a pity. Regarding assumptions, false or otherwise, I can dance to tangos with lyrics, but its painful, because the vocalist overwrites my intention in the lead, and I don’t want to follow his, or anyone else’s, rhythmically. I want my lead to be a unique experience for my follower. There wouldn’t be any point otherwise. That’s not why I dance tango. The composer has given me all the options I could want, but the vocalist has closed them all down, except his, and reduced the orchestra to the role of the metronome. I resent it, which is why I refer to the arrival of the lyricists in the milonga as a form of colonization. I want to hold my own conversation with my partner, not someone else’s. I hope this clarifies my position on this.

  15. Tango Totty
    Jun 30, 2010 @ 18:03:29

    Danny, I think you are totally wrong and maybe you dont have any real sensibilty for the music. And whats more, its more than just a tad egotistical to think that the follower shouldnt be having the audicity to be enjoying the vocals just cos she’s dancing with you!!!! And what do you mean by saying the orchestra’s reduced to the role of metronome ?

    No whats really bad is when a leader starts singing the vocals or humming in your ear during the dance, thinking that he’s bare getting into the music, when he blatantly cant sing. For me there are only a few leaders in London who can get away with this – and they are argentine and good tango singers. The rest can Just shut the f*** up cos in my book it kills the dance instantly.

  16. danny
    Jun 30, 2010 @ 20:01:38

    If you listen to the lyrics you will very often find that the orchestra has disappeared behind them, just marking time, a waste of good musicians, and a good melody, and good music, in my view. Please listen and you will see that this is true in most cases, where the engineer has nearly silenced the orchestra to promote the voice. I need a follower who dances with me, not the vocalist. And yes I do listen to and for the music intently, unlike some of the vocalists who plague the milongas, whose recordings seem designed to promote themselves rather than the sentiments within the song. The only exceptions are the women vocalists who seem always to stay within the melody and the metre and who treat them with respect, (and whom we never hear in the milonga), but I wish most vocalists would go away, because I want to hear the music. It doesn’t seem to much to ask, or perhaps it is. Hope that helps.

  17. Tango Totty
    Jul 03, 2010 @ 16:34:00

    It is my understanding that for the traditional milongeros the lyrics are a really important part of the tango music. They set the tone and feeling that they are expressing through the dance.

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