CIGALA & TANGO
There’s something special about Diego el Cigala. I can see him now, tapping a rhythm on his cardboard tobacco box with his lighter. His hair in its usual ringlets, his eyes dart about like a happy bat. He’s humming. Always humming. Here he is in Casa Patas, with his previous disc, Dos lágrimas (Two Tears), already a success that would delight most singers; but he’s already working out a new project among the smoke rings curling from his mouth – or from the music. Always a new ambition, as if the need to sing were imposed by his soul, and always changing. He wears those loose white shirts that on his thin body seem to fly about like a white dove, a proud cock dove whose eyes pierce the darkness of the night – or of the soul. There he is, talking, and we believe what he says while he eats ham or cheese, leaving the bread to one side as if it were not yet blessed. In the middle of the hall full of wooden chairs, he seems to paint a dream; suddenly he gets up and, as if he’d just had a majestic revelation, whispers to me a silent sigh: “I’m off, man, I’ve got to go, I’m in a heck of a hurry. I’ve got the idea for a song.” Diego has a permanent desire to fly off and find a chance encounter with his soul’s need. The next day I asked him: “What did you come up with?” “Man,” he replied, “I’ve got a tango.”
From the moment he performed the miracle of Lágrimas negras (Black Tears) based on his chance encounters with Bebo Valdés, to the very instant the tango mixed itself with the smoke rising from his soul, the El Cigala I remember has travelled like a gust of wind, always bringing new breath to life. In the course of that trip it was natural that he meet up with a tango, like a spirit confined in a hand – or in two feet – or in a close dance that grips the hope of never again losing the inspiration inhabited by love. Tango is love and luck at once, and that’s what makes it orderly and yet a search, a strange chance, governed both by emotions and by severity. That’s El Cigala: emotion and severity, chance and adventure. How could he not meet up with a tango, waiting for him on some street corner of the night?
Of course, to find that inspiration, just like Jorge Luis Borges or Julio Cortázar, Tomás Eloy Martínez or Alfonsina by the sea, El Cigala needed to be alone; that night he flew off, and still flies, until he lands some other day at some other time, grinning because he has pulled the sound of a tango out of nothing, out of the night streets. His deepest question: What is life for if you don’t sing it? He didn’t know the answer then, and maybe he doesn’t yet, but in his bony, blue-black hands and in his large eyes, black and white like the shirt he loves, there’s something that comes from an impossible spiritual mixture: the weary inner rhythm of Eduardo Falú, the timeless glance of Atahualpa, the still look of Jorge Luis Borges. This is the definitive spirit born of Argentine melancholy, whose past is also exactly the past of that melancholy. The tango was born of this infinite blending of ranches, meat and loneliness, and it got into the blood of the world; and now those veins run through Diego el Cigala. That’s hardly surprising.
When the tango finally passed from his throat to form part of his sigh (a slow dying of the word until it comes to life), I saw him again, eating marmitako [a Basque fisherman’s stew of tuna or bonito with potatoes and tomatoes]. It’s funny how memories grow out of circumstance in the minds of men: that time when we were celebrating Dos lágrimas, which was like a hand laid on his heart full of hurt feelings (hurt by the death of his friend Isabel de Polanco). We were drinking dry sherry and eating very thin slices of second-rate ham, poorly smoked in the mountains of springtime; but here we were, freezing, and Diego and Amparo needed that marmitako to warm themselves up. Now, every time I think of that tango and Diego el Cigala, the warm memory of that marmitako comes with them, to the place that whenever he calls me to tell me how that tango’s voyage is going, he says over the phone: “Hey, let’s get together and eat another marmitako.”
That cold afternoon in Madrid, Diego seemed to perform a miracle that I later discussed with my friend Jorge Fernández Díaz, who wrote the beautiful article that precedes this poorly written one. I told Jorge how El Cigala sketched out the concept of the record as if he were singing it, on the tablecloth surrounded by white wine and crusts of Galician bread. At some point we talked about the title to be given to this group of songs – that is, his noble and now unforgettable incursion into the dark, mysterious and beautiful world of the tango. I don’t remember who said it should be called Cigala & Tango.
Then Amparo started to savour the name, and said it aloud. El Cigala said it, too, tasting it, but at that moment he was more occupied with the music itself than with titles. That Monday his throat was full of sand, and his evocation of the harshest tango, the one that I found most intimate and difficult, was full of a special emotion rooted secretly and openly in the sentimental monument called Dos lágrimas. “It doesn’t matter,” Diego said. “The important thing is that the record communicates the passion that joins tango and flamenco, as if they were dancing together.” That’s what Diego el Cigala said, and he kept on eating his marmitako, that seemed a homage to the warmth food gives to the memory of hunger.
When Jorge remembers his encounter with El Cigala in Buenos Aires, he says flamenco immediately took over the atmosphere of his reception there, before the performance in the Teatro Gran Rex resulting in this record. He met the unknown musicians for the first time there, and suddenly Diego was a part of that place, like the sound of the tango. That day, over the marmitako, Diego had sketched this future encounter as if he had seen it in a dream, perhaps the night that drew him out of Casa Patas and made him walk through Madrid, as if a dim light, the light of Alfonsina or the river, were calling him over the plains. Now, suddenly, he has transformed them into the song of a soul, the soul that spoke the tango for the very first time. When he and Amparo told me about the record Diego was going to make, I asked El Cigala if he intended to include Sus ojos se cerraron (Her eyes closed). Then, this man whose voice seems to combine order, chaos and dreams began to sing that wounded version, that monument to sonorous, sounding loneliness, and since then I can’t think of melancholy or sadness or the desire for company without a living memory of Diego stopping everything that night and saying: “Juan, a tango has come to me, I have to go find it.”
He found it, and here it is, like a feeling held in the hand that accompanies the dreams he sings.