Tango and Lunfardo: The Italian Influence on Argentine Music 

By Mirta Roncagalli

Tango, a musical genre and dance born in the Río de la Plata, has a strong Italian influence. Not only were many musicians, composers and singers of Italian ancestry, but the contribution of this culture can also be seen in the language, topics, style, and dissemination of the tango itself. An example of such an encounter is the case of Baron Antonio Oscar De Marchi. Born in Milan, he was a naturalized Argentinian citizen, who in 1913 planned and organized the first tango events for Argentine elites. At the same time, the tango was also becoming a success in Italy and its spread in Europe was related to the connections forged by migrants. The prominent artist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti was impressed by the dance and decided to write about it, even if negatively, in his futurist writings such as a letter of 1914 titled “Abbasso il tango e Parsifal!”.

Image taken from “El Tango se apropia del Cervantes” article published by Municipalidad de El Trébol on October 25, 2016. 

If we take a step back, we see how De Marchi and Marinetti’s fascination is only one of the outcomes of decades of cultural exchange. In fact, starting in the mid-nineteenth century, as Italian migration to Argentina began to rise, one also finds a growing Italian influence in Argentine culture and life. Tangos about Italians and their fate can be divided into two groups, on one hand, those that address the migratory process to Argentina and, on the other hand, lyrics that narrate migrants’ sadness, nostalgia and feeling of estrangement. Another example of this hybridization is clear in the music of tango: the first bands that used to play were trios formed by a violin, a guitar, and a flute then, around 1900, Italians introduced the piano and the bandoneon. Italian institutions in Buenos Aires contributed to an additional change in tango. Italian clubs and mutual aid societies were able to influence the style of tango by renting their spaces to the tango enthusiasts. In so doing, the dance became more refined than versions played on street and in the bars of La Boca neighbourhoods. This change contributed to an improved status for tango and slowly distanced the music from earlier perceptions of immorality or criminality.  Immigrant tenement housing (conventillos) were another site of the cultural exchange between the Italian and the local popular culture. In these spaces, recent arrivals merged traditions, cultures, and languages and generated a new cultural product. An example of such an encounter, extremely relevant for the tango, is Lunfardo. 

The counter in the Ostaja San Vincenzo. Photo taken from “Focacce, fritti e forni d’autore: lo street food tra i vicoli di Genova” article written by Cristina Capacci and published by La Republica on July 29, 2019. 

Lunfardo is a sort of hybrid language used to write the lyrics of tango. A linguistic system especially used by working class drew from a combination of different languages, especially of Italian dialects such Piedmontese, Lombard, Venetian, Tuscan, Neapolitan, Calabrian, Sicilian, and Genoese. The same word “Lunfardo” comes from the linguistic variation of “lombardo” and means “thief”. This linguistic code would have had a strong connection with crime and for that reason would have spread especially among the members of the most marginalized part of the population, initially the most involved with tango. However, according to other linguists, Lunfardo was an evolution of Cocoliche, a transitional language used by the Italian immigrants that mixed their mother tongue with their dialects and Spanish. Lunfardo was formed by words and expressions of affection used in everyday life to express friendship and companionship; these words are central to tango. 

Here are some Lunfardo words of Italian origin that we can often find in tango lyrics: mina (“woman”), minga (“nothing”), encanar (“imprison”), morfar (“eat”), vento (“money”), fiaca (“laziness”), crepar (“die”), chitrulo (“stupid”), cuore (“heart”), yeta (“bad luck”), bacán (“person with a lot of money”), mango o guita (“money”), and many other. Some of these terms are present in the following tango, Prepárate pa’l domingo: ​

Preparate Pa’l Domingo  ​

An interesting aspect is that due to nationalist debates about the purity of the language in the 1930s and 1940s the use of Lunfardo in the mass media was forbidden. This censorship affected Argentinian broadcasting but was not able to erase the use of the language. In 1962, in fact, the Academia Porteña del Lunfardo was founded. In those years, tango emerged as a national art and as a product of migration. Contrary to popular belief, it did not become an instrument of assimilation, but rather a system of cohesion, one that transformed the meaning of being Argentine.   ​

Todo Tango: a digital archive of music and lyrics 

On this page, among other things, you can find a Lunfardo dictionary, as well as the lyrics of some tangos (for example El cirujaEl caprichosoMinga, me van a cambiar! ) where there are Lunfardo words of Italian origin.   

Sources

  • André, M. C. “Tango y Lunfardo: Un Estudio Transatlántico Sobre La Identidad Argentina / Tango and Lunfardo: A Transatlantic Study about Argentinian Identity.” Kamchatka, no. 9, 2017, pp. 297-311.  ​
  • Bedoya Ángel, L. C. “El conventillo.” El mundo.com, 2018, https://www.elmundo.com/noticia/El-conventillo/374888  
  • Conde, O. “La inmigración italiana en las letras del tango.” Italian Migration and Urban Music Culture in Latin America, edited by Nils Grosch, Rolf Kailuweit, 2015, pp. 73-84. ​
  • Fumagalli, M. “Il Tango Nella Milano Del Primo Novecento: Lo Strano Caso Del Barone De Marchi.” Criando, no. 4, 2019, pp. 15-21.  ​
  • Goldoni, F. “Los italianos, el lunfardo y el tango.” The Coastal Review: An Online Peer-reviewed Journal, vol. 9, no. 1, 2017, pp. 1-29, https://digitalcommons.georgiasouthern.edu/thecoastalreview/vol9/iss1/1  ​
  • Liberatori, A. “Rock ’n’ Roll, Tango, and Italian Boogie-Woogie: Transnational Music and Immigrant Life in Buenos Aires.” Cultural History, vol. 7, no. 1, 2018, pp. 76-97.  ​
  • Marinetti, F. T. Abbasso il tango e Parsiafl!, 1914, https://archive.org/details/f.t.-marinetti-abbasso-il-tango-e-parsifal-1914_202205/page/n1/mode/2up  ​
  • Washabaugh, W. “Introduction: Music, Dance, and the Politics of Passion” The Passion of Music and Dance: Body, Gender and Sexuality, Routledge, 2020.      

Tango and Lunfardo: The Italian Influence on Argentine Music 

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