The Tango, as we know it now, has been around for about a hundred years, but its origin may be traced much farther back than that, to 17th century England, and an old country dance that became Contredance in France and Contradanza (later Danza) in Spain. Imported to Cuba by the Spanish, it became Danza Habanera. The dance Habanera del Café popular during the Spanish American War, would become a prototype for the Tango.
Today, Tango notes are an Argentine symbol. Jorge Luis Borges, famous Argentine writer of the 20th century, defined the Tango as “…la realización argentina más divulgada, la que con insolencia ha prodigado el nombre argentino sobre el haz de la tierra. Es evidente que debemos averiguar sus orígenes y prescribirle una genealogía donde no falten ni la endiosadora leyenda ni la verdad segura.” (The most widespread Argentine achievement that has lavished the Argentine name brazenly on the face of the earth. Evidently, we it is our duty to research its origins and assign to it a provenance that does not ignore its revered legend or true reality.) A daunting task, given that the origin of the Tango is as obscure as the etymology of its name. Theories and hypotheses abound about both.
As an artistic expression, Tango digs deep into the complex human condition to expose the essence of the Porteño(1). This may be why it exists equally in the neighborhoods of Buenos Aires and the streets of Paris as well as in the cultural centers of New York City and the Academies of Japan.
While the Tango is synonymous with Argentina, it is only representative of the music of Buenos Aires where it originated, namely the area around the port of Buenos Aires, on the shores of the world’s widest river – Río de la Plata. This is where immigrants fleeing war or economic crisis in their own countries arrived bringing with them the sounds of their homelands. By the late 1800’s six million immigrants had flocked to the port city and by 1880 lack of housing became a critical problem. Affluent families moved North and rented large houses as single rooms to immigrant families, giving rise to the “conventillos”, where people of various nationalities and languages came together to share the limited living space available .
Single rooms structured around one of several central patios were rented to families or single men. These patios, where renters gathered to drink mate, dance the milonga(2), or do the laundry, inspired the sainetes(3) and are said to be closely tied to the origins of the Argentine Tango.
Fundamentally porteño, many writers attribute the musical styles the 19th century Tango to various genres, including the choreography of the milonga, the rhythm of the candombe(4) and the melodic, and sentimental lines of the habanera. But it was also influenced by the Andalusian tango, the chotis(5) and the cuplé,(6) in addition to the payadas(7) puebleras and the milongas criollas.
The first known Tango, Dame La Lata (Give me the tin), was the work of Juan Pérez. The lyrics were written in Lunfardo, the Buenos Aires street slang. The title alludes to the tin that dance clubs sold to clients to give to the woman with whom they chose to dance. The first known structured tango was El Entrerriano (1897), the work of Argentine pianist Anselmo Rosendo Mendizabal ( http://www.todotango.com/english/music/song/559/El-entrerriano/)
El Choclo (1905), created by Angel Villoldo was first recorded tangoas. It continues to be popular today.
Most of the early tangos were improvised and without lyrics. Structured lyrics did not appeared until after 1910. Pascual Contursi is considered the most important tango lyricist and his best known tango is Mi Noche Triste. This version was sung by Carlos Gardel in 1930: http://www.todotango.com/english/music/song/178/Mi-noche-triste-Lita/
Carlos Gardel (born Charles Romuald Gardes; 11 December 1890 – 24 June 1935), was a Uruguayan singer, songwriter, composer and actor who personifies the soul of the Argentine tango. He created classic Tango masterpieces that he performed with his famous baritone voice and dramatic phrasing of the lyrics. From humble beginnings as a local bar singer, Carlos Gardel exploded into a worldwide phenomenon. His repertoire was creole rural music (cielito, estilo, triunfo, cifra, milonga, zamba, vals), which was loved all over Argentina. One of his best knows compositions, Por Una Cabeza (1935), demonstrates Gardel’s love of horses. Two days before his death, Gardel would write “Me he gastado una ponchada de mangos en la raza caballar” (I have spent a boatload of bucks on the horse breed).
In addition to the Tango, Lunfardo, the slang of the old tangos, is integral to the porteño’s cultural identity. The term Lunfardo, originally applied to thieves and low lives, derives from Lombardo, describing an inhabitant of Lombardy, Italy. The following are some examples of the use of Lunfardo in the early Tangos.
Yira, Yira ( http://www.todotango.com/english/music/song/167/Yira-yira/ ) by Gardel.
Cuando la suerte qu’ es grela,
fayando y fayando
te largue parao;
cuando estés bien en la vía,
sin rumbo, desesperao;
cuando no tengas ni fe,
ni yerba de ayer
secándose al sol;
cuando rajés los tamangos
buscando ese mango
que te haga morfar…
la indiferencia del mundo
-que es sordo y es mudo-
Verás que todo el mentira,
verás que nada es amor,
que al mundo nada le importa…
Aunque te quiebre la vida,
aunque te muerda un dolor,
no esperes nunca una ayuda,
ni una mano, ni un favor.
Cuando estén secas las pilas
de todos los timbres
que vos apretás,
buscando un pecho fraterno
para morir abrazao…
Cuando te dejen tirao
después de cinchar
lo mismo que a mí.
Cuando manyés que a tu lado
se prueban la ropa
que vas a dejar…
Te acordarás de este otario
que un día, cansado,
¡se puso a ladrar!
Tango is not the only genre written in Lunfardo. The following is a Lunfardo poem composed by César Bruto (1905-1984) notable writer, humorist and newspaper reporter:
A la Señora Academia
Yo soy hijo del lunfardo
y es mi cuna arrabalera;
yo conocí a las percantas
más vivas y más gilbertas;
y anduve con los bacanes
y alterné con los linyeras
y chamuyé con los chorros
y otros reos bien pulentas;
y en la pieza del cotorro
yo tuve mina y catrera
y en el ropero del cuarto
yo colgué mi viola rea,
y usé lengue y usé funyi
cuando de noche iba al feca.
Yo conocí en mis andanzas
la alegría y la tristeza,
la del tipo bien derecho
y la del tipo berreta,
la de aquel que fue en cafúa
porque lo ensució una grela,
y la del otro cafishio
que al final quedó en chancleta.
Por eso quiero decirle
a la señora Academia
Porteña de los lunfardos
Que, aunque yo soy un cualquiera,
hoy vine para dejarle
en esta preciosa fiesta
la humilde flor del suburbio
que nació en una maceta,
pero que tiene un perfume
que de lejos te recuerda
el cariño de la javie
y el amor de una pendeja.
The ´Lunfa´dialect, developed between the 19th and early 20th centuries, was inspired mostly by European immigrants, such as the Italians, French, Portuguese and Poles. The slang was predominantly integrated into the lower classes of Buenos Aires and the surrounding Gran Buenos Aires. Originally used by prisoners to communicate with each other without being understood by the guards, Lunfardo was a slang of about 5,000 terms. In the early 20th century, it began to infiltrate all social strata and classes.
Both the Tango and Lunfardo surged during the same time period, so it is not surprising that it would become part of the Tango lyrics. Today, Lunfardo is spoken primarily in the region of the River Plate (Argentina and Uruguay). The vocabulary is not readily understood even by all porteños, so a dictionary may be useful to understand all the words of a Tango. http://www.elportaldeltango.com/dicciona.htm
Tango’s history is full of controversy. Condemned by the Church, persecuted by the police and shun by the higher social classes as indecent and lascivious, initially could be danced only in cabarets, brothels and similarly seedy establishments frequented by compadritos and guapos. Compadritos were young men—mostly native born, poor and of mixed ancestry—who dressed in slouch hats, loosely tied neckerchiefs and high-heeled boots with knives tucked casually into their belts. The suburban descendants of the rural gauchos, they were equally discriminated against, said to be lawless and aggressive.
In 1910 Ricardo Güiraldes, a well-known writer, poet and upper-class playboy, wrote a poem called Tango while touring Europe danced the Tango in a fashionable Parisian salon. The performance was a hit and the Tango became the first of many Latin dance crazes to sweep Europe. The popularity of the Tango in Europe prompted Buenos Aires upper classes to take note. Young men of traditional porteño families, who had undoubtedly become familiar with the dance in less acceptable venues, who would introduce the Tango to respectable ballrooms, much to the displeasure of the older generation.
In 1926, the Hollywood movie “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” featured a scene by Rudolph Valentino dressed as a gaucho in wide trousers and leather chaps, with a carnation in his mouth and whip in hand performing the Tango. It would be one of the greatest scenes in the history of the Tango even though, in real life, gauchos never danced the Tango. Compelled by the power of that scene, future Tango stars would dance the Tango equally inaccurately dressed.
But the golden era of the Tango were the mid 1930’s, when Carlos Gardel burst onto the scene. The invention of the radio, records and film contributed to making him famous around the world and added to the Tango’s international popularity. Tragically, Gardel was killed in a plane crash over Colombia in 1935 and the Tango became split into the traditionalist and evolutionist styles. The traditionalists followed Filiberto, D’Arisen, Biggie and De Angelis and the evolutionists De Caro, Dia Sari, Troilo and Pugliese. Their bands grew and played to packed concerts and dance halls until the end of the Golden Age, around the 1950’s.
Next came the New Tango spearheaded by Astor Piazzola, who became the next Tango superstar. His compositions were “for the ears rather than the feet” and he proceeded to composed several operas and concertos as well as scores for the film and theater. Piazzolla would pave the way for the new age of Tango.
In 1920s, tango-rocker (tango rock) became popular. Examples of this style are such albums as “Homage to Gardel and Le Opera” by Lit to Nubia. The music replaced the standard combination of violins and bass with a rock-style rhythm section that included electric guitars and synthesizers. The Siglo XX trio mixed Tango also with jazz, creating yet another style.
Unable to compete with the new trends in music and dance, in the 1980’s the Tango lost its audience to rock and roll, the bolero, jazz and electronic music, suffering a sharp decline that lasted until about the beginning of 21st century, when the dance gained international recognition. Initiated by Argentina and Uruguay, in 2009 the UNESCO added the Tango to its List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. A much deserved recognition of a genre that has endured the passage of time, social discrimination and the competition with new popular musical trends.
The Tango of recent decades is not what it used to be, but the old Tango lives on in the area of the River Plate and many young people have started to accept the tango as being a part of them, who are interested resurrecting the Tango in their own way, mixing Piazzolla with primitive bands, with flute and guitar, deconstructing and restructuring it. This new style of Tango could result in making it more powerful than ever.
Etymology of the word Tango
Theories and hypothesis about both origin of the dance and the etymology of its name abound. The following are only some of these:
The Quechua term Tanpu, used by the Incas before the arrival of the Spanish to the New World. Tanpu became Tampu in Spanish and was used to refer to sites, hostals or meeting places for the native population. Eventually, Tampu was assimilated as Tambo into the Spanish language and referred to hostals used by armies during the days of the Inca Empire.
Tambo was a discriminatory term used by the “higher” classes to refer to Native Americans and former black slaves . Native Americans and former black slaves embraced the term and referred to their own reunions as tambos. In In his Historia de la República Argentina (1913) – History of the Argentine Republic – Vicente Fidel López includes reference to this term: “desde que subió al gobierno, Rosas(9) se hizo asistente asiduo de los Tambos. Cada domingo se presentaba en ellos con los relumbrones de su uniforme de brigadier general, con su señora, con su hija, y sus adulones y paniaguados de su casa. Se sentaba con aire solemne y serio al lado del Rey del Tambo Congo, del Tambo Mina, del Tambo Angola, etc.” (Since assuming the governorship, Rosas attended Tambos regularly, every Sunday, donning his impressive Brigadier’s uniform, with his wife and daughter, sycophants and servants in tow.)
According Historians like José Gobello y Ricardo Rodríguez Molas, the word Tango traces its origins to the African slave trade, namely to the place where local blacks were brought to be shipped out as slaves. The term Tangomao was an Africanism of the Portuguese term for “man who traffics black slaves”. By extension, the term was used to refer to the places where the black population gathered to dance and sing and by extension, to their music.
(1) Porteño: From the port city of Buenos Aires.
(2) Milonga: Argentine musical composition of lively rhythm in a strong 2/4 beat, related to the tango.
(3) Sainete: Theater play of one of more acts, often a comedy.
(4) Candombe: Uruguayan music and dance originated by African slaves.
(5) Chotis: From Schottisch ‘Scotish’, it is a music and dance that originated in Bohemia. It is a Central European dance based on an Scotish dance of unknown name. It is also known as German Polka.
(6) Cuplé: A short and light song sung in theaters and other such establishments.
(7) Payada: Improvised poems and verses that the payador recites in a song accompanied by the guitar, often competing with another payador.
(8) Rosas: Born of a prominent family in Buenos Aires as Juan Manuel Ortiz de Rozas but he simplified his name to Juan Manuel de Rosas. He was a Federalist who became the Governor of Buenos Aires and a ruthless dictator.