A Short History Of Argentine Tango

by Tomás Alberto García
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(2005)
Mar del Plata, Argentina (now)

Tango is a universe in itself. Tango is music, dance, singing and poetry. It is an extraordinary phenomenon of customs.

Tango's origins go back to the 19th century, somewhere around the 1870's. It was born and developed in the working-class suburbs outside the city of Buenos Aires. Between 1860 and 1925, 70% of the immigrant population were men who came to Argentina to try their luck. Because of this, it was common for men to dance together, due to the fact that the majority of immigrants were men.

Tango grew from a combination of forms: Cuban habañera, milonga (a type of folk dance), African candombe and Italian melodies. Immigrants made a major contribution to the development of tango, especially Italians, the group with greater numbers and from where the first musicians came. They gave to the tango its melancholic and nostalgic air.

Tango was originally played by only one musician on a guitar or an accordion. Later, trios were formed with guitar, violin and flute or clarinet. These instruments were chosen because they were easy to transport, since musicians would play at different locations in one evening. This modality lasted until the introduction of the piano at the beginning of the 20th century. Almost immediately the bandoneón joined in, replacing the accordion, the flute and the clarinet. (The bass eventually replaced the guitar, and the "modern" tango group consists of bandoneón, violin, piano and bass.)

The bandoneón gave the definitive sound to the tango, and once and for all the tango reached its destiny. With time, the tango adopted a new modality; it became more temperamental, serious and rhythmic. There is no doubt that the bandoneón gave to the tango this radical mood transformation. It became an expression of deep feelings.

In 1916 the American modern dancer Isadora Duncan visited Argentina and declared: "I have never danced Tango, and a tourist guide forced me to dance. My first steps were timid, but the feeling of the languid music caused my body to respond to the voluptuousness of the dance. Soft as a caress, toxic as love under the midday sun, cruel and dangerous as a tropical forest."

At first, tango was prohibited in many public places, due to its "voluptuous" nature and its working-class origins. A long time passed before it was accepted in "proper" people's homes and in high society. At the beginning of the 20th century, during the era known as "La Belle Epoque," Paris was the center of the world, and Argentine aristocracy looked to Paris as a model for itself. Once tango was accepted in France, the high and middle classes in Argentina accepted it; in fact, they took great pride in this uniquely Argentine art form. From France, tango spread through Europe and the rest of the world. More orchestras were formed, and the tango developed, eventually to reach its splendor in the 1940's.

This decade, known as the "Golden Age" of tango, was the most impressive, and families from all levels of Argentine society started to dance, packing the dance halls and making it possible for even the largest orchestras to survive and prosper. Tango finally reached its maturity, was widely accepted and entered into posterity, a posterity we still enjoy today.