What are tango songs about?

The lyrics are in Spanish, but knowing what some of the words mean gives you a better feeling for the dance. 

As you might have suspected, the overwhelming majority of tango songs are about impossible or tragic love, loss and longing. Most of them were written and sung by men, so there is a fair bit of complaining about women who have betrayed them, left them or otherwise treated them badly!

But many of the lyrics are very romantic; some warn of the dangers of love, some mourn the pride that caused them to reject a woman who they truly loved. Other songs talk of nostalgia for home, about the social environment of the milonga, or about dancing itself.

To give you a flavour, here are some excerpts with translations by Katriona from songs we often play in our Cambridge tango classes, along with links to recordings on YouTube by some of our favourite orchestras.

If you want to see the full lyrics, Todo tango and Poesie de Gotan, are excellent resources. Both have English translations.

Tu, il Cielo y Tu

Lyrics: Hector Marcó

Tu, el cielo y tu (You, heaven and you) played by Francisco Canaro’s orchestra, recalls the moment when the singer’s love left, saying goodbye and sailing away from him. It has the following refrain at 1:31 and 2:17:

no me repitas ese adiós...
que esto lo sepa sólo Dios,
el cielo y tú...

don’t repeat that goodbye to me
it is only known by God,
by heaven and by you.

Toda mi Vida

Lyrics: José María Contursi

Toda mi vida (All of my life) played by the orchestra of Anibal Troilo and sung by the famous tango singer Francisco Fiorentino also laments a lost love, declaring that, even though he knows she loved him as much as he loved her, his suffering is far greater than hers. It includes these lines at 1:41 in this recording:

No sé porque te perdí,
tampoco sé cuándo fue,
pero a tu lado dejé
toda mi vida,
y hoy que estás lejos de mí
y has conseguido olvidar,
soy un pasaje de tu vida, nada más.

I don’t know why I lost you, 
nor even when it was,
but at your side I left and lost
all of my life,
and today you are far from me
and have managed to forget me.
I was a brief passage in your life, nothing more.

Sonar y nada mas

Lyrics: Ivo Pelay

The very popular vals Soñar y nada más (Dream and nothing more) starts with these words of warning:

No despiertes si sueñas amores,
niña hermosa, que amar es soñar...
Despertar es quebrar ilusiones
y hallar, entre sombras, la amarga verdad.

If you’re dreaming of love, don’t wake up
lovely girl, for to love is to dream…
To wake is to break your illusions
and to find, in the shadows, the bitter truth.

The chorus comes at 1:43 and has the refrain:

Soñar y nada más,
con mundos de ilusión...
Soñar y nada más,
con un querer arrobador...
¡Soñar que tuyo es él
y vive para ti!...
Soñar, siempre soñar
que dicen que, en amor,
es triste despertar.

You can find the full lyrics here.


Dream and nothing more
in worlds of illusion.
Dream and nothing more
with a captivating love.
Dream that he is yours
and lives for you!
Dream, always dream,
for they say, in love,
it is sad to wake up.

Así Se Baila El Tango

Lyrics: Elizardo Martínez Vilas

Así Se Baila El Tango (This is how to dance the tango) played here by the orchestra of Ricardo Tanturi asks what the rich folk across town know about dancing tango. The singer boast of his own elegance, panache and style, then explains:

Así se baila el tango,
mientras dibujo el ocho
para estas filigranas
yo soy como un pintor.
Ahora una corrida,
una vuelta, una sentada – 
¡Así se baila el tango,
un tango de mi flor!

Así se baila el tango:
sintiendo en la cara,
la sangre que sube
a cada compás
mientras el brazo,
como una serpiente,
se enrosca en el talle
que se va a quebrar.

Así se baila el tango:
mezclando el aliento,
cerrando los ojos
para oír mejor
cómo los violines
le dicen al fueye
por qué desde esa noche
Malena no cantó.

This is how to dance the tango:
when I sketch an ocho
with these filigrees
I am like a painter.
Now we walk,
we turn, and pause – 
This is how to dance the tango
a tango that blooms from me!

This is how to dance the tango:
feeling in your face
the blood that rises
with every beat
while your arm,
like a serpent,
wraps around the waist
that it is going to break.

This is how to dance the tango:
mingling our breath,
closing our eyes
so we can hear the music more,
while the violins
explain to the bandoneons
the reason why, since that night,
Malena sings no more.

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