By Alessandro Carrera (University of Houston).
According to the most common and less generous description, the milonga was the poor man’s habanera. In the Rio de la Plata area, between Uruguay and Argentina, the sensuous and sinuous 6/8 rhythm of the Cuban habanera was stripped down to a more robust and danceable 2/4, which made it popular in working-class dance halls. However, it is not always easy to distinguish between habanera, milonga, and tango – which eventually replaced the previous two – as the rhythm patterns intersect and the same controlled sensuality pervades all three of them. Paolo Conte’s “Alle prese con una verde milonga” is not a classical milonga. In fact, it may be closer to a slow rumba, leaning toward the historical milongas of Francisco Canaro as well as toward the slower, guitar-based folk song sometimes known as milonga pampeana. “Even granting that the milonga may be a song, / well, I have awakened it and I have led it to a slower rhythm, / so that the milonga would reveal much more of itself, / her African origin, her zebra-like elegance […] a green, fleeting vista that one has to follow […] up to the white lakes of silence / until Atahualpa, or some other god /comes and tells you, move away, kid, I’ll pick it up from here…” So Paolo Conte sings. The key to the whole song is the mythical name, Atahualpa. Not the last Inca emperor, killed on July 26, 1533 by the men of Hernando de Soto, but Atahualpa Yupanqui (Héctor Roberto Chavero Aramburo, 1908-1992), perhaps the greatest Argentinian folksinger, author of “Duerme, duerme, negrito” among his 350 songs, which include the most beautiful milongas de la pampa one could hope to hear. In 1982, introducing his “Green Milonga” at a concert he gave at the Television of Canton Ticino, in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4nAdnx8NOl4], Conte confirmed that the inspiration came from his encounter with Atahualpa Yupanqui at the Club Tenco Festival in Sanremo, Italy in 1980. Not the big Sanremo Song Festival, but a smaller and more sophisticated one, a singer-songwriters’ festival. Atahualpa was there as guest of honor and to be awarded the Tenco Prize. I happened to be there as well, and this is what I remember. In 1980, Argentina was under the heel of the so-called “Dirty War” junta, responsible for the imprisonment, torture, and disappearance of 30,000 citizens. The Tenco Prize is not political per se, but it was impossible not to think of the situation in Argentina when the jury invited Atahualpa from his exile in Paris to award him the prize. At the press conference following the prize, several well-minded or slightly self-righteous journalists wanted to extract from Atahualpa a statement against the Argentinian regime. Atahualpa was impenetrable. Tall, big, a mountain of a man, he looked at those scribblers as a condor from the Andes would watch an uninviting prey scurrying away into the thick of the forest, and did not say a word. The confrontation between the querulous newspapermen and the silent god went on until Sergio S. Sacchi, one of the festival organizers, got up and told them what they needed to know. “Listen, he has relatives in Argentina. Can’t you understand that you are putting his family in danger if you keep asking him political questions?” Some understood, and stopped. Others were almost offended that they could not get what they wanted from the illustrious refugee. Atahualpa never moved a muscle. Amidst the commotion, Paolo Conte was sitting in the back, attentive, watching, listening, not saying anything. In the end, the press conference was over and the journalists went away empty-handed. Atahualpa got up slowly, like a stone giant moved by an inscrutable internal force, and let a smile crack his lips. Later on – if I remember well, but I think I do – he and Paolo Conte were seated at the same dinner table, talking. I was sitting at another table and I could not hear what they were saying, I did not even know what language they spoke – probably French. One year later, Paolo Conte released “Alle prese con una verde milonga,” one of his most beautiful songs. A green milonga, because green is the color of grass. And the meeting of the musician and the milonga requires him to have “scarpe lucidate,” polished shoes, because it is a lovers’ meeting, and you do not want to look bad when you meet such a demanding lover. Until, that is, you reach the impassable “white lakes of silence,” the border of death, or any border you cannot cross. Here is where Atahualpa will take your place and carry on, forever.