E L   T A N G O   at a glance

by Eduardo Fernandez

The origins

In the second half of the last century, Argentina was finding and developing its own identity. After independence from Spain and various civil wars, the port town of Buenos Aires became the indisputable center of the Argentinean economy and cultural development.

The port played an important role in the history of Buenos Aires. Leaving through the port were cattle products (leather and meat). Entering the port were millions of Europeans looking to escape the misery, wars and economic inequities of their homeland. But in the "promised land", land and wealth were already concentrate in few families. So the migrants did find in Buenos Aires an not in rural areas the space for living. This process that started around 1880 brings in Argentina around 6 million migrants. Buenos Aires became in a very fast process of change. Housing was one of the worse problems that migrants faced. Since there the "Conventillo" was born, usually an old house from rich people that moves to the North of the town, and was rented by singles room were entire families live in small space. In the "Conventillo" happens a small reproduction of what happens in the whole city. People from different cultures living together produce something very new.

Buenos Aires had already their own poor, black former slaves, gauchos from the country side, mestizos who had survived the civil wars and finally the newcomers: Italians, Spaniards, and Europeans. Buenos Aires became a melting pot. A new culture was created, the culture of the portenos, of the man and woman whose lives were centered around the docks, the place where people both arrived and found work. In this Argentinean port town, the Tango was born.

It is a common mistake to say that tango is the music of Argentina. Tango is the cultural expression of the Rio de la Plata, which includes Buenos Aires, Rosario and Montevideo. Like other countries, Argentina has a large diversity of musical expressions and tango is only one, and one that is strongly related to the social history of portenos.

The newcomers brought with them to their new home their music, their musical instruments and their dances. Soon the music from the Argentine countryside, the African- influenced milonga, was enriched by its exposure to the newly arrived polkas, mazurkas, and eventually the Habanera and the waltz. Afro Argentinean steps and rhythms started to mix with European music and choreography.

The first tangos were played with guitar, harp, flute, and sometimes an accordion. The bandoneon arrived Buenos Aires around 1865. Developed around 1835 by Heinrich Band, an accordion maker in Karsfeld, it is a portable instrument, related to the organium and harmonium. It is a free reed instrument. It is also a diatonic instrument (that means that every button produces different notes depending on whether it is opening or closing). It has two keyboards, the right one contains 38 keys, and the left one 33 keys. It was made in Germany by Alfred Arnold until WWII, and from his name is know today: the Doble A. Its introduction in El Rio de la Plata was like that of the other imigrants, not too much information about it. What is definite is the fact that since its arrival in Buenos Aires, "El fueye" (esquizbox) as we call the bandoneon, went from the early players, without formal music education to the next generations of very skillful ones. Then, the bandoneon grows up and becomes the center of the tango orchestra. Its heavy and deep sound pushed away for ever the cheerful flute. However, neither Germans nor Europeans were the first to perform on this instrument. The first performers were blacks such as Jose Santa Cruz, his son Domingo Santa Cruz, El Pardo Sebastian Ramos Mejia, and others. The bandoneon reached its maturity when musicians like Arolas, Pedro Maffia and Pedro Laurenz developed and expanded its musical possibilities.

The evolution

The Tango started as a cheerful music danced and played in the slums, and could often be heard in the bordellos. Them Tango moved slowly from the slums to the Barrios, or working and middle class neighborhoods. It was through the performances of the Organitos (portable organs ) by itinerant Italians that the tango got into homes. By the beginning of the 20th century, tango was moving from the outskirts to downtown.

In this process many changes occur within the "porteno" culture as well in its music expression, the tango. Suddently tango is not any more music from bordellos. Its not any more the expression of "compadritos" and rough guys. Tango. Better musicians developed better orchestras and more appropriate places to dance. Cultivated poets joined the tango movement and lyrics became more elaborated. This evolution, with its many changes and rich processes, is known as the Golden Age of Tango. Tango start to talk about the most universal issue that relate man and woman: love. The pure love from the mother and the "Eden" that was the "barrio", that neighborhood, a safe space where pure sentiments happens. The other love was the love from the "minas", woman from downtown, always ready to leave the guy "amurado" (abandoned) for another one. Buenos Aires use to have a great gender imbalance. So, many men were alone. Prostitution was very popular at that time. Thousand of young europeans were traded. Big and well organized mafias, (like the French and the Jewish-polish) operated in the Rio de la Plata until late the 20ies. Solitude and loneliness is other important issue in tango culture along with sadness, probably the worst sadness that comes from sex without love.

The rupture of the cuple, missed friends, lost streets and barrios, memories from the past feed the lyrics of tango since 1917, when Gardel sang "Mi noche triste" (My sad night) from Pascual Contursi and iniciate the "tango cancion" that gave the tango a new dimension.

Dance became slow, the process of cleansing from the dark origins produce a more polite and social accepted dance. Tango was declining at the end of the 30's when Juan D'Arienzo comes up with a new vibrant and fast rhythm. "Portenos" were getting more and more in fast step dances like fox trot or shemys. D' Arienzo gave the dancer a new begging. After him great orchestras where created. With more elaborated music, a little bit slow than D'Arienzo, were Osvaldo Fresedo, Miguel Calo, Carlos Di Sarli, Troilo y Pugliese, among the ones that american people are familiar. Those are not all the orchestras, they were around 600 orchestras during the forties. Some of them never plays in public, only for recording an other plays in radio stations. Every big radio station use to have their own orchestra. Tango was danced everywhere. From family parties to the famous cabarets in downtown. Apart from the dance tango has another space: the cafes. Places where the orchestras plays and people attend only for listen. Singers became a very important part of tango, names like Fiorentino started to be identify with the orchestra.

This rich period know as The Golden Age of Tango, is when tango arrives to it's maturity. This process ended around 1955, with the aggressive introduction of Anglo music. Of course there are other explanations for the decline of tango, including many reasons from inside the tango culture. Buenos Aires and its inhabitants were changing again. The renaissance

In the beginning of the '80s the renaissance of tango began. To say renaissance means that Tango was dead or almost. Again, there are many ways to explain that phenomenon. One is that tango was danced in very successful shows like Tango Argentino that toured around the world with the best tango dancers of that time, amongst them Virulazo and Juan Carlos Copes. Another is the resurgence of all styles of couples dancing.

Today, what attracts many people to tango is the surface, the visible part: the dance. Concerts often include a couple of dancers as a hook to get an audience. Tango shows feature mainly the dance. Today, outside Buenos Aires, tango is danced in ballrooms: people dance open and engaged in a furious exchanges of steps. The milonga has become a gym. The close embrace is seen as boring by the athletes of the dance. The encounter between a man and a woman in the embrace, the pleasure of walking together to the music no longer happens. The passion is lost. Even so, people enjoy attending the so called milongas, places to dance tango.

On the other hand, the lack of knowledge and understanding of the lyrics and the themes that tango talks about, plus the fact that the old lyrics of traditional tango sometimes don't express current feelings in matters like love, friendship and other values that traditional tango talks about, makes it problematic to have a singer in the orchestra.

Regarding the music, many Europeans and Americans re-discovered tango thanks to Piazzolla. His innovative music, with no lyrics, appealed to the taste of the global middle class: easy to enjoy; not suitable for dancing (another problem resolved); rooted more in classical and jazz music than the traditional tango. Finally, even the increasing interest on tango worldwide, today it is unthinkable to create a big orchestra like where Calo or Pugliese with four bandoneons, four violins, bass and piano. No public for that. So, trios and small setups are the most common.

Will tango develop and survive outside Buenos Aires? Our personal view is no. It will not survive, at least as a culture, probably as a dance, as a choreography. A consume society like the american need permanent changes and challenges. As soon tango became consume it will be abandoned by another dance. Probably some of those who dive in the tango culture will stay, not for the choreography but all what tango talks about.

Eduardo Fernandez,
Washington, DC December 1999


A History

Although it has come to epitomize the glamour and elegance of high society, with women in sleek glittering evening gowns and men in tux and tails, the tango originated in society's underbelly--the brothels of turn-of-the-century Argentina. As immigrants from Europe, Africa, and ports unknown streamed into the outskirts of Buenos Aires during the 1880's, many gravitated toward the port city's houses of ill repute. In these establishments, the portenos (as they were called) could drown their troubles in a few drinks and find some companionship. They looked desperately for a distraction to ease their sense of rootlessness and disfranchisement as "strangers in a strange land."

From this heady, intermingled cultural brew emerged a new music which became the tango. Though musical historians argue as to its exact origins, it is generally accepted that the tango borrowed from many nations--the relentless rhythms that the African slaves--the candombe--beat on their drums (known as tan-go); the popular music of the pampas (flatlands) known as the milonga, which combined Indian rhythms with the music of early Spanish colonists; and other influences, including Latin. Some say the word "tango" comes from the Latin word tangere (to touch.)

Ironically, as these lonely immigrants and societal outcasts sought to escape from their feelings, they instead developed a music and dance that epitomized them. The wail of the tango, it is said, speaks of more than frustrated love. It speaks of fatality, of destinies engulfed in pain. It is the dance of sorrow.

Originally, the tango dance developed as an "acting out" of the relationship between the prostitute and her pimp. In fact, the titles of the first tangos referred to characters in the world of prostitution. These tango songs and dances had no lyrics, were often highly improvised, and were generally regarded as obscene. Further, the early tangos not only represented a kind of sexual choreography, but often a duel, a man-to-man combat between challengers for the favors of a woman, that usually ended in the symbolic death of an opponent. Sexual and evil forces were equally celebrated in this ritual. During this time, the wailing melancholy of the bandoneon (an accordion-like instrument imported to Argentina from German in 1886) became a mainstay of tango music.

With the advent of the universal suffrage law--passed in Argentina in 1912--the lower classes were allowed to vote, which served to legitimize many of its cultural mainstays, including the tango. As it became absorbed into the larger society, the tango lost some of it abrasiveness. The structure of the dance, however, remained intact, and soon the tango developed into a worldwide phenomenon. Even the Americans were doing it, although some ladies were given to wearing "bumpers" to protect themselves from rubbing a bit too closely against their male partners.

During the first two decades of the new century, the tango took Paris by storm. The blessings of the Parisians, in turn, made it a staple of Argentinean high society. Tango was reigning supreme in the cabarets and theatres frequented by the rich. Out of this culture, the tango musician became elevated to professional composer status. A pioneer in this genre, Roberto Firpo, created the typical tango orchestra--rhythm played on piano and double bass; melodies played on the bandoneon and the violin, with strong counter melodies and variations. The stars of this era were Osvaldo Fresedo and Julio de Caro.

In 1918, lyric writing for the tango become the latest trend, bringing forth the birth of a star who is still celebrated five decades after his death--singer Carlos Gardel. The memory of this handsome, charismatic performer has reached hero worship status in Argentina, not unlike what Elvis Presley inspires in the USA.

In 1930, a sudden military coup in Argentina ended the citizens' right to vote, and thus largely silenced the voice of the people, the tango. During this time, a very pessimistic philosopher/singer of the tango emerged, Enrique Santos Discepolo. He is famous for the line, "The 20th Century is a trash heap. No one can deny it.."

Tango revived in the late 1930's when the Argentinean masses regained a good measure of their political freedom. They celebrated their social rise with the tango, which became a symbol of their physical solidarity and part of their daily life. Again, tango musicians emerged who took the form in new directions including Fresedo, de Caro, Pugliese, and Anibal Troilo.

Soon, wealthy intellectuals, far removed from the working class, "orilla," began writing new lyrics for the tango. Because of their influence, tango took on a more romantic, nostalgic, and less threatening air, a sweet remembrance of youth in an idyllic society that never existed.

When Juan Peron rose to power in 1946 the tango again reached the pinnacle of popularity in Argentina, as both he and his wife Evita embraced it wholeheartedly. Yet, with Evita's death in 1952, the tango again fell from the mainstream spotlight. American rock-and-roll invaded the popular scene, and the tango again seemed out of step with its times.

Today the tango is enjoying a renaissance of popularity, keeping the fire of this daring art form burning brightly.


ARRABAL: Outskirts, suburb

BARRIO: Neighbourhood or district

COMPADRE: A person living in the suburb, haughty, proud and brave

COMPADRITO: Typical character of the suburb, a bully and a braggart

CONVENTILLO: Edifice with multiple rooms and no basic comfort where the immigrants of different origins live: workers, failed craftsmen...

FUEYE: the Bandoneon

GUAPO: Nickname for a man who practises the cult of courage

LUNFARDO: Slang of Buenos Aires

MILONGA: Popular music of the pampa and the Rio del Plata

PORTENIO: Term for the residents of Buenos Aires (port)



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