The birth of the tango
Tango has been called many things- “a secret danced between two people”, “not a dance but an obsession”, “a sad thought that is danced”, “that reptile from the brothels”. It has been said that “tango is not in the feet. It is in the heart.”
Tango is both a musical style and a dance. Its origins are obscure, and even its name remains a mystery. Tango is a place name in Angola and Mali, and in some African languages, tango means a “closed space”. Buenos Aires had been one of the main ports of entry for the slave trade, and in the mid 19th Century, a quarter of the population of Buenos Aires was black. In the Spanish colonies, tango referred to a place where Africans gathered to dance. Some historians believe the word was picked up by African slaves from their Portuguese captors. Perhaps tango comes from the Portuguese tanger, (to play a musical instrument), from the Latin tangere (to touch). Or was it the Spanish fandango?
Tango music and dance were born in the streets, bars, and brothels of mid-19th Century Buenos Aires and Montevideo, Uruguay. During the 1880’s, immigrants (mostly men) from Europe flooded the cities with dreams of a better life. The well-known tango dancer, Carlos Gavito has said, “Tango was an immigrant music, so it does not have a nationality. Its only passport is feeling.” Lunfardo, the language of tango, is a hybrid of European languages. The bandoneon, the instrument that is the musical soul of the tango, was an immigrant from Germany. Carlos Gardel, the icon of tango and one of Argentina’s great heroes, was born in France. From this mix of cultures emerged the collage that borrowed from all of them and became the tango. Its roots lie in African candombe, Cuban habanera, and the waltzes, mazurkas and polkas of Europe.
Reality for the immigrants was very different from what they had dreamed. They worked long hours in the slaughterhouses and tanneries and lived, crowded five or six to a room, in the conventillos (tenement houses). At night, dreaming of the women they had left behind, they looked for comfort and distraction- a few drinks, companionship, and a little happiness. The tango arose out of the melancholy, nostalgia, pain, and desire of ordinary people far from home. In a world where men often outnumbered women five to one, men had to wait in lines at the brothels to visit a prostitute. The bordello owners, not wanting to lose customers who got tired of waiting, hired musicians as entertainment. The first tango lyrics were improvised and usually about sex. The first great tango artist was the singer and guitar player, Angel Villoldo, who, in 1905, wrote and recorded El Choclo (the corn cob), a comedic song, which he made more respectable by loosely disguising its bawdy lyrics.
The first “academies” of tango were the cafes and bars in the arrabales (suburbs), where the waitresses could be hired for dancing and more. The men had to be skilled dancers to entice the most desirable prostitutes. It was not uncommon to see men practicing tango among themselves. Dancing well was a sign of masculinity and the tango was a prelude to sex. Without women, there would be no tango.
In this world of men, violence was common. Compadrones (toughs) with knives made their own laws and settled their disputes with knives. Some of the early tango dances re-enacted a fight between two men or the relationship between a prostitute and her pimp. Tango lyrics are filled with words and expressions in Lunfardo, a language developed in the underworld of Buenos Aires. In Argentina, the word lunfardo means thief.
In the early 1900’s, tango became popular with rich young men who searched for the exotic in the outskirts of Buenos Aires. Tango worked its way up into the high-class bordellos, finally finding its way into respectable dance halls, cafes, cabarets (such as Armenonville and Hansen’s in Buenos Aires) and even dance schools. Tango, the “reptile from the brothels”, dressed itself up, painted itself with a veneer of sophistication, and went to Paris with the sons of rich Argentinean families, sent to France to study. The salons of Paris welcomed the tango with open arms. The English writer, H.G. Wells, called 1913 the “Year of the Tango”. Tango became the rage, influencing fashion, art, music, and opera. In Germany, Juan Llosa dedicated a tango to Greta Garbo. Rudolph Valentino danced the first Hollywood tango in the movie, The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse. The tango has since been danced (mostly badly) by many luminaries of the cinema- Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, Peter Ustinov, and even the Flintstones!
When the tango came home to Buenos Aires, more respectable and subdued, smelling of French perfume, it was embraced by every level of society. Classically trained musicians, such as Julio de Caro, started playing tango. Tango music competitions were held and the winners were recorded. Tango musicians were in demand as accompanists for silent movies. Tango venues flourished and multiplied, and people flocked to places like the Café Nacional on Corrientes Street, the Pigall, and the Petit Parisien. The triumph in Europe, and the adoption of tango by popular singers, ushered in the Golden Age of Tango, when the orchestras of Juan D’Arienzo, An¡bal Troilo, Carlos di Sarli, Miguel Caló, Lucio Demare, Alfredo de Angelis and Osvaldo Pugliese were at their peak.
Since 1930, Argentine tango has survived military coups, censorship, and social upheaval and is now experiencing a new Golden Age. We are fortunate to be part of its worldwide Renaissance.
The bandoneón is the musical heart of the tango. It originated from the German Koncertina, a square instrument with 14 buttons and a bellows, invented around 1830 by C.F. Uhlig. After this, many different models developed, with varying numbers of notes. In 1850, Heinrich Band began selling the instrument, which became known as the bandoneón. The Argentinean bandoneón usually has 71 buttons, each with two different notes, depending on whether the bellows is open or closed. The two reeds are tuned exactly an octave apart. No tremolo is audible when a single note is played. It cuts through the sounds of the other instruments in the orchestra, impossible to ignore.
Ironically, the bandoneón was originally developed to play church music, as a portable substitute for the organ. Stories of the arrival of the first bandoneón in Argentina, probably around 1870, vary widely. It may have been brought by a German, English or Brazilian sailor, or a soldier who traded clothes and food for it.
Musicians from many countries have composed classical music for bandoneón. There have been many great Argentinean bandoneón players, such as Eduardo Arolas and Aníbal Troilo. However, it was Astor Piazzolla who did the most to take the bandoneón from the dance floor to the concert hall. His more than 750 compositions included concerti, operas, film and theatre scores, and he made over 70 recordings.
The bandoneón is the perfect instrument for tango. Tangos have been written to it, such as Ché bandoneón (Hey, bandoneón), and Quejas de bandoneón (Laments of the bandoneón). The slang for it is fueye (bellows). It breathes in and out with the dancers, the bellows pumping like the heart. It is irresistible, drawing you inside the music. To dance tango, you must listen to the bandoneón.
Just as the origins of tango are surrounded by myth and mystery, so is the icon of tango, the legendary singer and composer, Carlos Gardel. It is thought that he was born Charles Gardes in Toulouse, France on December 11, 1890, but other versions of his biography give his birth date as 1883 or 1887 and his birthplace as Tacaruembó, Uruguay. He became an Argentinean citizen in 1923 and, some time before that, had changed his name to Carlos Gardel. He once said, “My country is the tango, and its capital is Corrientes Street.”
Gardel moved to Buenos Aires with his mother, Berthe Gardes, in 1893. In the Abasto Market neighbourhood where he grew up, he was called El Francesito (the little Frenchman). Raised in poverty, he earned a little money by singing folk songs at parties and at some of the cafés surrounding the Abasto Market. In about 1912, in a folk singing competition at one of these cafés, he met the Uruguayan singer, José Razzano, with whom he formed a duet that lasted until 1925.
Until 1917, tango had primarily been an instrumental genre. In that year, Gardel’s recording of Mi Noche Triste, with lyrics by Pascual Contursi set to Samuel Castriota’s tango music (originally entitled Lita), changed the face of tango history.It was a tremendous success.Gardel invented the tango song and became the model for all tango singers. In 1925, he began his solo career and established his international reputation.In Barcelona, he recorded 22 songs, 20 of them tangos.In 1928, he sang with Josephine Baker at the Fémina Theatre in Paris and sold 70,000 records in three months.
Gardel’s first film, El Flor de Durazno, was made in Buenos Aires in 1917, and many short films of him performing his songs were made in 1930. His career as a film star blossomed from 1933 to 1935 with the release of films made in France (Luces de Buenos Aires, Esperame, La casa es seria, and Melodía de arrabal) and New York (Cuesta abajo, Cazadores de estrellas, El día que me quieras, Tango on Broadway, and Tango Bar).
It was at this time that Gardel began his collaboration with the poet Alfredo Le Pera. Together they composed a series of songs that have become classics of tango. To name just a few: Cuesto abajo, Por una cabeza, Golondrinas, Sus ojos se cerraron, and of course, Mi Buenos Aires querido (My beloved Buenos Aires), the anthem of nostalgia for porteños (people from Buenos Aires) far from home.
On June 24, 1935, near the end of a Latin American tour, the plane carrying Carlos Gardel and his band on the short flight from Medellin to Cali, Columbia crashed during take off from the Olaya Herrera airport, and Gardel lost his life.In Cali, he was to have made his final radio appearance before returning to Argentina.When his remains were brought to Buenos Aires, the city stopped, as its people mourned their beloved Carlitos.Multitudes came to his wake at the Luna Park arena and his funeral procession along Corrientes Avenue to the Chacarita Cemetery.The man had died but the myth was born.
Even though the old Abasto Market has now been replaced by a modern shopping centre, a bronze statue of Gardel stands nearby. In Argentina, El zorzal (the songbird) is immortal and forever young. President Juan Perón once said, “To govern Argentina, you have to put on a Gardel smile.” To this day, people still leave a lit cigarette in the hand of his life-sized statue beside his tomb. His music is still played in every corner of Buenos Aires, and, as the popular expression goes, “Cada día canta mejor”. He sings better every day.
All articles ©Linda Walsh
Originally published in T.O. Tango and Dance Review
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