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.
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.
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.