From the Tenements of Buenos Aires to Broadway

ORIGINS OF TANGO

Tango has been around and popular for almost 150 years. It has had moments of glory and moments of decline and has a fascinating history. Let us look at that famed history.

It has been said that, in its early period, Tango was performed by two men facing each other, while they waited their turn to lie with prostitutes in busy brothels. Thus, it was a dance that was not accepted in “polite” circles, at its early stages. This myth or legend that Tango was born in the bordellos of Buenos Aires and men dancing with each other is controversial among historians, but persistent in many accounts.

It should be noted the origins of Tango are clamed not only by Argentina, but also by Uruguay, and so, this musical form is often referred to as “música rioplatense,” referring to the large region of the River Plate (Río de la Plata), flowing between Argentina and Uruguay, where Montevideo was a center of early Tango.

When and where did the Tango started and evolved, we can never be known with certainty. Tango was created by people often marginalized, who generally do not leave their mark in history: the poor, the underprivileged, the semi-literate…

Tango has been linked to the music played and danced by the Afro-Argentine population that was predominant in the lower strata of Argentinian society, in the middle of the 1800s. However, many Tango scholars disagree with that theory, pointing out that there are very few African elements in Tango music. They say that Tango did not refer to a particular negro dance, but to a place where they would gather to dance. I am no scholar – thus will not take sides. But I believe that musical forms have many roots. For example, in many tango pieces by Astor Piazzolla, the father of “new Tango,” one can detect Bach’s counterpoint techniques. Are we to say then, that Tango has its roots in Classical music? One can say, almost surely, that Tango originally combined traditional creole music with foreign music, all in fashion in the second half of 19th century.

It is most likely that Tango appeared in the “Academias” (academies) of Buenos Aires, which started as Dancing Schools and evolved into Dancing Halls, frequented mostly by marginal elements of society, but also by thrill seekers of “high society”.

Another theory places the birth of Tango in the “conventillos” (tenements) of the outskirts of Buenos Aires. The “conventillos” were dwellings populated mostly by immigrants and poor natives, who would gather on Sunday afternoons to socialize and dance among themselves. There were usually some musicians among the people that lived in these teeming tenements who were familiar with the music of the old country. However, some were also attuned to the traditional music of the new country and started to combine elements of both cultures, with the result of a new form of dancing music.

Violin, flute and guitar were instruments prevalent among the immigrant population of Buenos Aires at the end of the 19th century, and they were part of the musical groups that played Tango then. As the Tango evolved and became accepted and embraced by “polite” society, the musical groups moved into permanent venues (dancing halls, theaters), and incorporated the piano in their makeup. The flute eventually was abandoned by the trios or quartets that usually played Tango, and the bandoneon (a type of concertina) became the emblematic instrument of Tango music.

The original trio groups (violin, flute and guitar) played a “staccato”, bright and fast rhythm. The German-born bandoneon, with its “legato” and low-key notes, didn’t seem to fit into that style of playing. But in fact, its inclusion gave Tango its raison d’ê·tre and the bandoneon found the music it seems to be have been created for.

TANGO FLOURISHES

By the first decade of the twentieth century, Tango had moved from the “arrabales” (poor neighborhoods) of the city, to the Center and the areas where the elite and bourgeoisie found their entertainment. Now men and women danced to music performed by “orquestas típicas”, expanded musical groups with more instruments, including the bass, several violins and more than one bandoneon. Thus, Tango gradually lost its stigma of a sinful dance, as the doors of “proper” homes opened to the music that was played on pianos and other household instruments, as well on the “new” gramophones.

Rudolf Valentino dancing tango in the movie “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” (1921)

Around 1910, the new musical form moved into the international arena, brought first by sailors, who had learned the dance in Buenos Aires, to the port of Marseille and from there to Paris, where in 1912, it became the rage of the city. Argentina, at that time was the seventh richest country in the world, and among the wealthy of the country, it was fashionable to send their young to Europe to complete their education. Most of the young people were more interested in fun than in education. They had learned Tango in the Southern Hemisphere and were eager to share their knowledge of the exotic dance with their female European counterparts.  On the other hand, members of the upper classes, were keen to learn the unusual dance, and Tango became a real craze. From Paris, Tango jumped to London and other European capitals, and crossed again the Atlantic in the opposite direction, where the dancing couple of Vernon and Irene Castle, introduced the dance in New York in 1913. Shortly thereafter, Tango become the rage in ballrooms, theatres and films, all over the world.

THE EMERGENCE OF TANGO CANCION (SINGING TANGO)

The lyric form of Tango grew parallel to the dancing Tango. However, until the second part of the 1910’s the sung Tangos were few and coarse. They incorporated picaresque, sexual and even obscene lines. Others sung the praises of the “guapos” (braggarts) and their exploits. However, as Tango moved from the “conventillos” to the homes of the middle class, a new Tango poetry emerged. It had a story line, more romantic, personal, melancholic, and even sad.  The lyrics spoke about the common man, his struggles, his woman, his memories and his city. Thus, as it continued to evolve, it became the musical ethos of Buenos Aires.  The breakthrough in the new era of “Tango Canción” can be traced to the 1917 tango, by Pascual Contursi, “Mi noche triste” (My Sad Night), made popular by Carlos Gardel, the most emblematic Tango singer in the XX century.  From then on, poets on both sides of the River Plate wrote some of their finest work at the rhythm to Tango music. With the improved quality of the lyrics, great singers were recognized and, in a few years, led the Tango scene.

The new media of disk recordings gave Tango a boost.  The first Tango recording appeared in 1910, featuring the “orquesta típica” of Vicente Greco. Many other recordings followed, and Tango orchestras lead by musicians like Francisco Canaro, Roberto Firpo and Eduardo Arolas, became widely popular and eventually, legends in the annals of Tango.

With the orchestras, came the singers. As mentioned, Carlos Gardel dominated the scene during the 20s until 1935, when his life was cut short in a plane accident. Ironically, Gardel was not born in Argentina, but in Toulouse, France, in 1890. His single mother emigrated to Argentina in 1893 and Gardel was raised in Buenos Aires. For some unknown reason, in 1920 he claimed that his place of birth was Tucuarembó, Uruguay.  However, three years later he applied for and obtained Argentinian citizenship.

His singing career started in 1910, but he became famous in 1917, as mentioned earlier, with his interpretation of the tango “Mi noche triste”. The recording of this tango-song sold 10,000 copies and was a hit not only in Argentina, but in all Latin America. He became a star not only as a singer, but also as an actor, who was featured in more than 20 films (some short and silent). He traveled extensively through America and Europe, making him a renown international figure. He had a compelling baritone voice, he was “cool” and had a fetching virile look that embodied the romantic image of the Tango hero. His popularity didn’t die with him and even today, after 85 years later, he is still venerated as the greatest Tango singer of all time.

Carlos Gardel

Still, with the advent of the radio and its need to offer a variety of popular music, Gardel wasn’t the only Tango singer that become trendy in the 1920s. We can mention: Agustín Magaldi, Charlo (b. Carlos José Pérez), Alberto Gómez, Alberto Vila and in the 30s and 40s, Hugo del Carril. By the mid-1920s feminine voices also emerged. Among them, Rosita Quiroga and Azucena Maizani, were pioneers. Later, came Sofia Bozán, Tita Merello, Tania, Mercedes Simone and Libertad Lamarque, along with dozens of others.

AN IMPASSE

As singing Tango gained prominence, dancing it started to lose its appeal for many. From the early 1920s to the middle of the 1930s, Tango dancing became less popular in Buenos Aires, being replaced by the current fashionable dances of Europe and the USA, like the charleston and the foxtrot. Also, the political and economic climate contributed to Tango’s general decline in Argentina.

Still, some important orchestras were born in that era, such as the ones of Osvaldo Fresedo, Carlos Di Sarli, Osvaldo Pugliese and Aníbal Troilo. The texts of many Tangos written in those years, reflect the desperation of the common man, his pain and anger, during the hard economic and political times of the 1930s. Enrique Santos Discépolo is the most prominent of the authors who criticized the abuses and inequalities of the era. His tango “Cambalache”, is a bitter reflection of the times and its lack of values.

THE GOLDEN ERA

Perhaps, the most important orchestra in the development of Tango, that makes its debut in the 30s, is the one lead by Juan D’Arienzo, dubbed “el rey del compás” (king of the beat), who taken a clue from the milonga (another dance popular in Buenos Aires, at that time), changes the beat of his tango interpretations from 4/8 to that of 2/4. This has a formidable appeal to the tango enthusiasts and ushers in the Golden Era of Tango.

During the late 30s and early 40s, there is a creative impetus among musicians, composers and orchestra leaders. The orchestras become larger, each with its own style and great new singers, that enrich the Tango scene. Poets open new paths in Tango lyrics, with greater literary flight, more profound and romantic texts that will mark forever the nostalgic and sad style for which it is still known.

Until the middle 1950s, Tango is again king in the large ballrooms, in the radio and in films, and in the hearts of the masses.

A NEW HIATUS

In September 1955, there is a coup in Argentina. The ensuing military dictatorship bans public gatherings and imposes censorship, while discouraging popular musical expressions, like Tango. And more importantly, Tango must compete with the international craze of Rock and Roll and loses.

However, Tango survives in small musical spaces in Buenos Aires, and there are new voices that emerge during those years, most notably the composer Astor Piazzola, but also singers like Edmundo Rivero, Roberto Goyeneche and Julio Sosa.

Astor Piazzola is a musician that will give Tango a new vision with the “Nuevo Tango” (New Tango). His music introduces harmony and counterpoints from Classical music and jazz. The musical interpretations of Piazzola are closer to chamber music. Thus, it’s said that his tangos are to be listened to, not to be danced.

Traditional “tangueros” (tango enthusiasts), at that time, see Piazzola’s Nuevo Tango as heresy, but he has many young followers. His style is also emulated by other composers who satisfy the needs of a subgroup of Tango aficionados.

Thus, through the 60s and 70s Tango loses its appeal to the masses, but it is kept alive by small groups of devotees in venues like the legendary “Caño 14”, a Tango hall where many greats of Tango performed over two decades, to the delight of local fans and foreign tourists.

THE COMEBACK

In 1983 a show called “Tango Argentino” premiered in Paris and was an instant success. It opened in New York about one year later. Then successfully toured the United States, Europe and Asia for over a decade. In the 1990s another show, “Forever Tango”, created a sensation in the international scene.

Both shows that depicted the history of Tango, with its music, songs and especially dancing, had a decisive influence on the resurgence of Tango, prompting people around the world to take Tango lessons. Thousands flew to Buenos Aires, where dancing schools were overrun by tourists who wanted to become proficient in the dance. The Argentinian public became enthused again. While Tango shows moved again into the top in radio, TV and theatres, young couples took to the streets to show off their dancing skills. The Tango was “in” again.

Amateur dancers in a subway station (2014)

Among the younger generation the repercussion of this comeback was two-fold. On the one hand, many dusted off old scores from the “Guardia Vieja” (Old Guard) and rescued older musicians and singers from oblivion.  Others developed new forms of Tango, that incorporate other sounds like jazz, rock and even electronic music, such as the one created by the “Gotan Project”, a group based in Paris, that is been active since 1999.

Today, these two Tango tendencies live side by side and Tango, after almost 150 years of its birth, is still alive and well.

Originally published in Spanish in ViceVersa Magazine, January 15, 2021

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