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  • "Amarrado al recuerdo"—The Memory Dimension in Classical Tango Lyrics
  • J.N.F.M. à Campo

Imagine the scene: a 1930s milonga, an orchestra playing "Ilusión azul." Sharp music, bitter lyrics, a caustic dance couple, she in a sky-blue dress and he in a modest suit. She dances with a sardonic look in her eyes, he keeps looking blue. She moves around him, free as a butterfly, challenging him with ochos, giros, and voleos. He tries to counter her with sacadas, stop her with paradas, and threaten her with amagüés, but to no avail. She is the sovereign, he the subject.1

Proud and sovereign as a heathen goddessyou came by, showing your resentment,and since that day I know that I have lostthe ineffable glory of a dream of love …They were yours, the eyes that lied to me,as deceptive as lightning.And now I'm tied to the chains of a mournful memoryof a happy past by a damned lifein the golden arms of that blue illusion.

Finally she jumps on his hip in a sentada. He is the earthly pedestal, she the heavenly statue.

Tango has been studied by (ethno)-musicologists and cultural scientists, but also by psychiatrists, philosophers, gender experts, and social historians. They used tango songs as a source of inspiration to make reconstructions of patterns of class, nation, gender, morality, identity, and ethnicity.2 They paid no attention to the aspect of memory. Yet, in this song, the key word is memory, and in tango lyrics words like memory, oblivion, past, and nostalgia keep recurring.

In this article I will discuss in what way tango songs construct a past and which memory patterns they contain. I will quote from lyrics in which memory plays a central role. My findings are based on a thematic selection. I will first outline the development of the use of memory in tango songs. The time period concerned is the classical period (1880–1955). This period can be subdivided into the guardia vieja (Old Guard, 1880–1917), nueva guardia (New Guard, 1917–1937), and the época de oro (Golden Age, 1938–1955). [End Page 115]

This division is based on several criteria. Music—historically, it is a common classification. The stages correspond to social-economic periods, which is not so strange since the tango culture connected with everyday life. Guardia also means generation. The songwriters mentioned above worked mostly within the corresponding period.3 Every new period brought to the fore a new crop of writers, born between 1863 and 1886, 1886 and 1905, and 1906 and 1911. These three generations grew up while important changes in society took place, which they recorded as "experienced memories." Here, the development phases will be explored in "memory terms," such as collective memory and cultural memory.4 A collective memory is formed by the synchronized personal exchange of experiences in a collective context. With time, the diachronic transfer of images of memory through various media turns the "living memory" into cultural memory. This historical process will be reviewed in the final paragraph.

La guardia vieja (1880–1917)

After the Argentine Republic was formed in 1862, and after the country waged war against neighboring states and Indian tribes, the liberal government chose to modernize the nation. Immigration from western Europe was intended to improve the structure of the population, both quantitatively and qualitatively, but the majority came from the less-developed rural areas in southern Europe. From 1860 to 1910, the population of Argentina grew from 1.5 to 7.5 million people, of which 3 million were immigrants. Buenos Aires was transformed from a "large village" into a metropolitan city with a population of 1.5 million, half of which was born in Europe. Large land-owners—generally absent—and the bourgeoisie lived in the city center. Most migrants ended up in the "arrabal," an extensive area of slums around the city, and in thousands of overcrowded tenement houses. Their primary social framework was the neighborhood ("barrio").5

Since the country identified itself as a "European nation," the native population was excluded economically, culturally, and politically. There was an enormous gap between the "civilized city...


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