Por Una Cabeza

tango tango history Aug 10, 2023

© by Mariano Díaz Campos  

Before Al Pacino and Gabrielle Anwar danced to Por Una Cabeza in the movie Scent of a Woman (1992), this beautiful tango was already very popular and famous.

Composed by Carlos Gardel, with lyrics by Alfredo Le Pera, this tango stole the hearts of so many tango lovers. Not only for those who came to the concerts of Carlos Gardel, but also all who watched and admired Gardel on the big screen in the movie Tango Bar (1935). 

Carlos Gardel, el Zorzal del Tango, is considered the best tangosinger of all times.
The Zorzal is the bird "song thrush", that sings beautifully. Gardel was not only an amazing singer, he was also a great actor, and he could dance tango very well.

Some sidenote to know about tango music: we can divide the tango music in two main genres. The Tango Canción and the tango for dancers. Carlos Gardels music was for concerts, for listening, not so much to dance to.

Let's first watch this clip with Por Una Cabeza from the movie Tango Bar:

Before we go into the translation, let's create a bit more understanding of the time that this song takes place.

This movie was made at the start of the Epoca de Oro de Tango (Golden Era of the Tango, 1935 - 1955). A time in which Buenos Aires breathed tango, and the hearts beated the tango rhythm. Not only golden Era because of the popularity of this dance and music, but also because of the tremendous quality of the artists in this genre, mainly singers, musicians, poets and composers.

The level of the dancers was incredible. The creativity had no limits, new steps were being invented by each dancer and dance couple, the youth was crazy for tango and their enthusiasm to develop this dance was unstoppable. Although the carreer of tangodancer did not exist yet: all these super talented dancers created and developed their skills beside their other jobs.

It is Buenos Aires of the 1935. This is in the middle of the La Década Infame (Infamous Decade, 1930 – 1943). In 1929, Argentina was wealthy by world standards, but the prosperity ended after 1929 with the worldwide Great Depression. Despite the political and economical problems, tango could flourish. Maybe for many tango was an escape from reality. The best orchestras that are still inspiring so many dancers and musicians of today, were created in these times.

Horsebetting is very popular in Buenos Aires, also in this time. Possible another way to escape reality and find distraction. And also after this period, horsebetting stayed very popular in Argentina.

My grandfather was caretaker of race horses. He was also organising horseraces and bets, beside organising milongas. He invited famous artists and singers at his milongas. My grandpa's sister also ran a milonga in the centre of Buenos Aires, where the same famous tango artists came to perform.

My mother was send to classical ballet classes and flamenco classes as a young child, which shows the family was doing well. My grandfather hoped his daughter would become a jockey; she was the smallest and lightest of the family, perfect for a jockey. But she prefered dancing.

My grandfather passed away when my mother was still young, and in those days the passing of the father of the family changed to whole story of the family. My grandmother was widow, with 9 children. Times changed. Still a child, my mother stopped school, and started working in the big city.

Nevertheless she became a famous professional tangodancer, as was her destiny. She started dancing tango at her fathers feet, and he must have been so proud of her if he had known.

Back to the horsebetting. Often a race was won just by one horse-head distance "por una cabeca": for a (horse)head. It refers to a horse winning (or losing) a race narrowly – by just the length of its head.

The expression Por Una Cabeza was figuratively speaking used to describe "almost". The lyrics speak of a compulsive horse-track gambler who compares his addiction for horses with his attraction to women, and the love he lost 'por una cabeza' just at a head distance he lost her.

Por una cabeza

Letras (español) | Lyrics (English translation)

Por una cabeza, de un noble potrillo,que justo en la raya, afloja al llegar.Y que al regresar, parece decir:"No olvides, hermano,vos sabes, no hay que jugar
por una cabeza, metejón de un día
de aquella coqueta y risueña mujer,que al jurar sonriendo el amor que está mintiendoquema en una hoguera,todo mi querer.

For a head, of a noble foal,
that right on the line, slackens when it arrives.
And when he returns, he seems to say:
"Don't forget, brother,
you know, you don't have to play
for a head, a day's crush 
of that coquettish and smiling woman 
that by swearing smiling the love that is lying 
burning in a bonfire,
all my love.

Por una cabeza, todas las locurasSu boca que besaBorra la tristezaCalma la amargura

By a head, all the craziness 
her kissing mouth 
erase the sadness 
calm the bitterness 

Por una cabezaSi ella me olvidaQué importa perdermeMil veces la vidaPara qué vivir

By a head 
if she forgets me 
What does it matter to lose me 
a thousand times. Life 
For what living

Cuántos desengaños, por una cabezaYo juré mil veces no vuelvo a insistirPero si un mirar me hiere al pasarSu boca de fuegoOtra vez quiero besar

How many disappointments, for a head
I swore a thousand times I will not insist again 
But if a look hurts me as I pass
her mouth of fire 
I want to kiss again 

Basta de carreras, se acabo la timbaUn final reñido ya no vuelvo a verPero si algún pingo llega a ser fija el domingoYo me juego enteroQué le voy a hacer
Por una cabeza, todas las locuras
Su boca que besaBorra la tristezaCalma la amargura

Por una cabezaSi ella me olvidaQué importa perdermeMil veces la vidaPara qué vivir

Enough of (horse) racing, the a gambling match (timba) is over 
A fierce end I never see again 
But if any pingo* becomes fixed on Sunday 
(*pingo is an agile, spirited and very good-looking horse)
I play the whole game 
What am I going to do 
By a head, all the craziness 
the mouth of her that kisses 
erase the sadness 
calm the bitterness 

By a head 
if she forgets me 
What does it matter to lose me 
a thousand times life
for what living


Miguel Angel Zotto & Daiana Guspero dance Por Una Cabeza

Here you can watch Miguel Angel Zotto & Daiana Guspero, dancing many steps of legendary dancers of the past. Miguel Angel Zotto made it his mission to bring the dance of the milongas to the stage, and we are forever grateful for his work. He started this together with his dance partner Milena Plebs. Miguels' brother Osvaldo Zotto (QEPD RIP) also represented the milongueros of the past, he was always in admiration of his inspirations. They both spoke with the utmost respect about these legendary milongueros every time I met them. And they did so much to keep this legacy of us all to enjoy still in the 21th century.

And it is so wonderful to see that Miguel Angel Zotto not only brought this dance style to the theater stages all around the world, but also to national Italian television.

Here you can watch the tango scene in Scent of a Woman (1992).  


© by Mariano Díaz Campos