On Poetry and Culture Shock

Coplas, boleros, Frank Sinatra and other modern gods.

Since it is my father's birthday (feliz cumpleaños, Opá) I'm going to post something he likes.

There isn’t a word to call the genre in which people like Frank Sinatra, his contemporaries and his imitators sing. The closest I’ve ever seen is “the Standard”. “Frank Sinatra sang standards”. Well, OK, it’s an insipid label, but still. With a bit of a leap and a stretch of the imagination, the Spanish-speaking world has two equivalents I’m familiar with: the bolero and the Copla.

The Copla first. Coplas are more or less flamenco-ish to untrained ears (female singers traditionally wear flamenco dresses) but they cannot be danced. Most lyrics are love stories, most of them are sad and most of them are gendered: it’s not just that you can make an adjustment to Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered and change the “he” to “she”. No, it’s that “oh, yes, consider yourself well paid for your kisses” applies to a man talking to a woman, and “you have a son and you haven’t even given him a name” applies to a woman talking to a man. When somebody wants to sing the other gender’s songs, they change the You into I and viceversa: when a woman sings “Maria de la O”, she is Maria, and when a man sings it, he’s a sort of sympathetic narrator of her life. It is a terrible mistake and no one should ever mess about with the other sex’s lyrics (me defending gender differentiation, what next!?)

Boleros might be danced if arranged for that purpose (like Cole Porter or Gershwin can be). Just like coplas sound flamenco-ish, boleros can have a subtle Latin music flavour. Both coplas and boleros have gone in and out of fashion. They made a timid comeback about fifteen years ago, and then some singers played a bit with them, experimented, changed their arrangements. Probably the best album of experimental copla ever is Bebo Valdés and Diego el Cigala’s “Lágrimas Negras”: Cuban piano adorning coplas, boleros, and other beauties like the Brazilian Eu sei que vou te amar.

The most underused copla is Torre de Arena (which is a woman’s song). Think of the best lyric for a standard ever, My Way or What a Wonderful Love or Someone to Watch Over Me and imagine no one had ever sung it well! Bad voices or bad production or bad musicians or all three! I hope I don’t go to the Hell of Translators (where you have to translate Finnegans Wake for all eternity) for this, but here you have Torre de Arena’s lyrics. And it is of course dedicated to my father and my granny (although I don’t think she’s much of a blog reader).

Como un lamento del alma mía
son mis suspiros, válgame Dios,
fieles testigos de la agonía
que va quemando mi corazón.
No hay, en la noche de mi desventura,
ni una estrellita que venga a alumbrar
esta senda de eterna amargura
que, triste y oscura,
no sé dónde va.
Esta senda de eterna amargura
que, triste y oscura,
no sé donde va.

Torre de arena
que mi cariño supo labrar.
Torre de arena
donde mi vida quise encerrar.
Noche sin luna,
río sin agua, flor sin olor,
Todo es mentira, todo es quimera,
todo es delirio de mi dolor.

Como una flor que deshoja el viento
se va muriendo mi corazón,
y, poco a poco, mi sufrimiento
se va llevando todo mi amor.

Como una fuente callada y sin vida.
Como el barquito que pierde el timón.
Como flor del rosal desprendida
está dolorida
mi pobre ilusión.
Como flor del rosal desprendida
está dolorida
mi pobre ilusión.

Torre de arena
que mi cariño supo labrar (etc)

Like laments from my soul
my sighs, woe is me!,
are witnesses of the agony
that burns my heart.

There isn’t a single little star
in the night of my misfortune
to lit up the road of eternal bitterness,
so dark and sad
I don’t know where it leads…

Sand tower
that I learnt to build with love.
Sand tower,
Where I buried myself alive.
Moonless night, waterless river, scentless flower,
It’s all a lie,
It’s all false,
It’s all delirium born out of pain.

Like a flower the wind breaks
my heart dies,
and slowly my suffering
takes away my love.

Like a dead silent fountain
like a steerless boat
like a fallen rose
my poor hope is hurt.
like a fallen rose
my poor hope is hurt

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