What is Tango?

"Tango is the ultimate communication between two people, allowing two bodies to dance as one" - Miguel Angel Pla

Tango and Marginalization
Miguel Angel Pla
(Translated by Lynne Taylor)

Of African origin, the word tango, tangó, tambo, or tambor (tambor meaning drum), was used to denote the place where blacks who were captured as slaves were kept before being sent on to their final destinations. By extension, the word was also used to refer to the cells of the slave ships in which they were confined. Following their emancipation, former slaves gradually grouped together on the outskirts of the Buenos Aires of the period - united by common stigmas such as colour, language and religion - and the almost onomatopoeic word tango was also applied to these meeting places.

Caucasian, criollo, or of mixed race (mestizo, zambo etc), those individuals who were not fully accepted into the closed society of the capital found a safe haven in such places. They were hang-outs for muleteers (who transported cattle), horse breakers, cart drivers, as well as those who for various reasons were persecuted by the police and the militias.

And in these hang-outs there was dancing. Accompanied by rudimentary percussion instruments of religious origin, blacks danced with swaying, sometimes shuddering movements, which whites mocked at first and later imitated in crude fashion when they tried to copy them. To these movements they added others, which were less supple, less ostentatious and more rationalised. Blacks danced for themselves and their Gods and beliefs, whites for themselves and those around them. The music had to be adapted for whites, and the guitar was introduced. And so tango was born!

It is worth noting that as this process of metamorphosis or gestation was taking place, the word tango was making itself known in every part of the American continent where African slaves were to be found.

The origins of tango can be traced back to the middle of the last century - back to the arrival of the men who would make up the “generation of 1880” (amongst them the founding fathers of independent Argentina), to one of their paradigms of government: to govern is to populate, and to the influx of Europeans and Asians into the Rio de la Plata region. Thus, all the necessary conditions were in place for the genesis of “something” accessible and universal enough to bridge ethnic, linguistic, religious, historical and social barriers.

To this ethnic melting pot (comprising descendants of former African slaves, oppressed American Indians, Spaniards, Frenchmen, Syrians, Turks, Poles, Portuguese, Germans and so on) were added Spanish tanguillo and Cuban habanera music - and what it produced was tango. Never in human history has there been an example of popular culture of such richness and scope and which combines such a range of contributions. And if that were not enough, tango’s popular origins, which preserved it for some 50 years, gave it a firm anchorage in a country that was not yet 200 years old.

Tango was first written down at the end of the last century, producing “la milonga” - the 2/4 time (fast for what we know today as tango).

And so tango was born and matured on the geographical and cultural periphery of a cosmopolitan city where the social “elite” had its eyes on Paris. El Queco, Sacudime la Persiana, La Cara de la Luna, La Morocha, are some examples of tangos from this early written period (most of which had daring, salacious and/or picaresque lyrics).

With the immigration of Polish Jews, tango was introduced, along with the mazurka, into brothels (where its entry was aided by the prospect of an embrace), by two Jewish mafia organisations. It then reached the street corner (an early meeting place), later the tenements, and with the formation of the first orchestras (duos, trios and quartets), the bars of the poorer outlying districts. By that time there existed a tango culture. There were bandoneonists, guitarists and violinists to play it, and the first tango singers, who would intone the choruses. The bar-cum-store where tango developed early on gave way to more open, spacious places where customers could listen to tango and also dance to it. They had platforms and even stages for orchestras and singers. It was the age of the first orchestras, the first singers and the first dancers.

For reasons of snobbery or other motives, tango attracted good boys and girls from bad homes and bad boys and girls from good homes. This was the eve of a golden age: one of great orchestras, singers and composers, who produced a series of recordings and films which were responsible for spreading River Plate culture throughout the world. Charlie Chaplin, Rudolph Valentino, Laurel and Hardy, as well as Cachafaz, Tito Luciardo, and Carlos Gardel, and more recently, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Al Pacino, Robert Duval and Madonna have all danced tango for the cinema.

Dance is one of the most basic forms of human communication. It is a ritual often used by primitive tribes to seal or celebrate agreements. This is how tango began as a dance, and how today it allows a Dutchman and a Japanese woman a three-minute non-verbal exchange.

There are tangos for every occasion. Christ on the cross, the excommunicated Galileo, the Romeo of the balcony, the arrogant dancer, the mother who gave her sons to the battlefields of France, pretty girls in aprons - tango sings of all of these things. It is a reflection of man and his environment. It is a mirror which does not lie. Which is why it always has been, and always will be marginalized. As in Snow White, the mirror shows us just one reality - and it is a reality that the wicked Queen (or the powers that be) could never accept.

A few further considerations

Tango was born not as society’s prodigal son, but rather, some might say, as its stepchild, and its entire history has been a catalogue of proscriptions. Because of its humble exurban origins, it was not accepted by city people, much less by the ruling class.

The Catholic Church branded it the work of the Devil, because of its connection with pagan carnival rites which celebrated the King/God Momo. Clearly, the male-female embrace and the tenor of some of its lyrics also played their part. In 1934, Casmiro Ain “El Vasco” danced tango in the Vatican before Pope Pius X and there received his Holiness’s approval. From that point on our clergy merely tolerated it. In local festivals throughout the length and breadth of the country there could be music, choirs or folkdances, wherever they might be from, but no tango. For the city of Buenos Aires there were police edicts, and both municipal and government orders prohibiting tango in some of its forms.

Even today, although the present government announced at the beginning of its term that it would promote tango culture in primary education, it took eight years to formulate a law to do so.

Twenty years after its formation, the Orquesta de Tango de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires has neither its own premises for rehearsals nor a permanent venue for its performances. For over four years it has not had the necessary funds to repair the only harp in its possession. Over two years ago it lost the budget for transporting its piano to educational concerts which it gives weekly in public elementary schools. The orchestra does not have, nor has it ever had, dancers to accompany its performances.

The de facto government that defeated President Yrigoyen in 1930 banned tangos by Gardel which were accompanied by the guitar, and those which used lunfardo (Buenos Aires slang) in their lyrics. The government of the last military dictatorship prohibited songs by Enrique Santos Discepolo, such as Cambalache for example.

Without doubt, it has been the representatives of a prudish morality who have most fervently opposed the expansion of tango culture - but they have not been the only ones. As was said earlier, musical recordings and movies helped considerably in spreading Argentinian culture and cultural models to Spanish-speaking countries. With the result that a Chilean, a Peruvian, a Colombian, a Cuban or a Venezuelan wanted to use Argentinian expressions, drink mate, wear lengue, and listen to Gardel, when it was required that everyone chew gum, drink coke and wear jeans. It was a question of switching one archetype for another, of bringing a corporate action against one type of culture - that of tango.

As stated above, tango could be defined as a mirror of man and his environment. In this mirror the individual discovers his own shabbiness, his defects, or simply sees his feelings reflected in his expression. Add to this the rebellious nature of some of its lyrics, and it is easy to see why the guardians of main-stream culture want to BREAK THE MIRROR - that is to say, do away with tango. This is why tango does not feature in the mass media, much less in opinion-forming programmes. From an economic and philosophical point of view, we are living in a new era; with post-modernism and late neo-liberalism since the end of WWII, and now with the death of ideologies. All of which is undoubtedly more a product of intellectual theorizing than of observation. It was many years ago that the tango lyricist Celedonio Flores wrote that at Corrientes and Esmeralda, or any other street corner in any other city in the world “there is a cockatoo who thinks he is Carlos Gardel”, but he could well have been talking about the likes of Fukuyama and the supposedly globalizing philosophers (who know only too well that the “mind creates the phenomenon”). Their empty theories merely reflects the necessity of those in power to steer us towards individualism, and tango is gregarious and communal. Tango is modern

Winds of Change Blow from the North

Thanks to the travels of numerous representatives of tango at various periods, but principally thanks to the prolonged continuity of Tango Argentino, tango came to interest certain cultured, at first, and later perceived cultural elites and to finally establish itself amongst those of refined sensibilities throughout countries of the Northern Hemisphere. To such an extent that our culture is sought after and in demand abroad. Hotels, boarding houses and B&Bs all over Buenos Aires are primarily occupied by Japanese, Canadians, Americans, French; Germans Italians and so on. They are marking the beginning of a new era. They come in search of the roots of tango and are not fooled by “for export” versions. They want the real thing. Most can detect watered-down offerings. This is the great challenge for them and for us, which is to say for US (because they are us) - to reclaim our culture for all and for all time.