“Tango Did What It Pleased With Us” : An Urban History with an African Obsession

by Steven Woodruff 2009

“Tango did what it pleased with us and it led us and misled us and it ordered us and found us again.”    From the Borges short story, “Man  From The Pink Corner”

Like many of  the emblematic dances and music traditions of the New World , tango was born out of  a distinctly creolized context, finally taking its current  form as recently as the 1880’s.  Tango historians have been generally lacking in acknowledging its essential African history. But Robert Thompson’s recent book, TANGO, convincingly credits African dance and early African practitioners in music with much of the creation for the underlying elements  in tango’s movements . Candombe and Canyengue, both early proto-tango dances, clearly come in name and style  from the Congo where individual social and ritual movement were recast according to the  needs of  the new, hybrid population.  This syncretization assembled both  music and  movement from Europe, Africa, Cuba and the Caribbean to create a newly minted national phenomenon.

Tango 1920’s

Whereas many social dances are born of upper or middle class surroundings, tango was clearly  the product of  a social underworld.  This  was  the only  intersection  of place  and  society where all the  necessary ingredients could  coalesce freely.  Thus, much of  the early history involves blacks, the immigrant working poor, and  the residents of the lowly arrabales, the poor outlying districts of the newly prosperous Buenos Aires circa  1880.  The mix was predominantly male and the early dancing came packaged as a men-only street ritual in movement  and  music, which only after it gained currency, began to include women.  It was a tough crowd and  remained  that way well into the 20th century.

Argentine immigration before and at the turn of the century was a chaotic blend of Spanish, Italian, and German arrivals blending with  the mixed race resident population.  Into the early tango lyrics went the  emotional content of Spanish and  Italian verse along with  sophisticated melody making . From the  Germans came the bandoneon, which was to develop into the classic melancholic sound fronting the tango orquesta tipica.  From Cuba came the pulse of the habanera which was remade into  the  tango’s signature syncopated  rhythms. From Africa, came the eccentric and  adversarial movement that, as Jorge Luis Borges says makes out of tango a kind of “fight in dance“.

By the turn of the century  Buenos Aires had a well-formed national  dance which was taken to  Europe and  sanitized by the incipient ballroom dance fad . There, some of the established conventions of partnering and  etiquette were forced onto the lowly  tango. It began to  grow in popularity and began  to attract  a broader cross section of the Argentine population than its rough roots would have permitted.  The 30’s and 40’s  proved to be the golden era of tango in Argentina.  It was the era of the full scale tango orchestra, signature instrumentalists and crooners, fabulously melancholic desperate lyrics ( Homero Manzi, Evasristo Carriego and others), and above all the era of the tango icon, Carlos Gardel. The early recording  industry was on hand to capture it  all and produced thousands of recordings of a golden age in full  bloom.

An evening milonga

It was this time which did more to crystallize tango, its music, lyrics and  movement into the form we have today. Out of that mold has come Nuevo Tango, a post-dictatorship expression whose prodigious inventor Astor Piazzolla single-handedly changed the face of  the  music, making it new, complex and stridently powerful.  It was his creativity which propelled choreographed stage tango to take flight, giving tango dancers and musicians an artistic performance context for dance reviews such as Tango Forever and Tango Fuego y Pasión. These programs have enjoyed worldwide popularity and even influenced concert dance choreographers such as Paul Taylor whose Piazzolla Caldera (1997)  fuses tango ethos with contemporary movement in an affecting hybridization.

Much of the early tango was captured on film by the Argentine cinema. Recently, Sally Potter’s layered creation, The Tango Lesson and Carlos Saura’s, Tango have moved Tango into the realm of popular film. The films have sound tracks which use classic tango, Nuevo Tango and truly contemporary compositions modernized with electronica and remixes.

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