Although it has come to epitomize the glamour and elegance of
high society, with women in sleek glittering evening gowns and men in tux and
tails, the tango originated in society's underbelly--the brothels of
turn-of-the-century Argentina. As immigrants from Europe, Africa, and ports
unknown streamed into the outskirts of Buenos Aires during the 1880's, many
gravitated toward the port city's houses of ill repute. In these
establishments, the portenos (as they were called) could drown their troubles
in a few drinks and find some companionship. They looked desperately for a
distraction to ease their sense of rootlessness and disfranchisement as
"strangers in a strange land."
From this heady, intermingled cultural brew emerged a new
music which became the tango. Though musical historians argue as to its exact
origins, it is generally accepted that the tango borrowed from many
nations--the relentless rhythms that the African slaves--the candombe--beat on
their drums (known as tan-go); the popular music of the pampas (flatlands)
known as the milonga, which combined Indian rhythms with the music of early
Spanish colonists; and other influences, including Latin. Some say the word
"tango" comes from the Latin word tangere (to touch.)
Ironically, as these lonely immigrants and societal outcasts
sought to escape from their feelings, they instead developed a music and dance
that epitomized them. The wail of the tango, it is said, speaks of more than
frustrated love. It speaks of fatality, of destinies engulfed in pain. It is
the dance of sorrow.
Originally, the tango dance developed as an "acting
out" of the relationship between the prostitute and her pimp. In fact,
the titles of the first tangos referred to characters in the world of
prostitution. These tango songs and dances had no lyrics, were often highly
improvised, and were generally regarded as obscene. Further, the early tangos
not only represented a kind of sexual choreography, but often a duel, a
man-to-man combat between challengers for the favors of a woman, that usually
ended in the symbolic death of an opponent. Sexual and evil forces were
equally celebrated in this ritual. During this time, the wailing melancholy of
the bandoneon (an accordion-like instrument imported to Argentina from German
in 1886) became a mainstay of tango music.
With the advent of the universal suffrage law--passed in
Argentina in 1912--the lower classes were allowed to vote, which served to
legitimize many of its cultural mainstays, including the tango. As it became
absorbed into the larger society, the tango lost some of it abrasiveness. The
structure of the dance, however, remained intact, and soon the tango developed
into a worldwide phenomenon. Even the Americans were doing it, although some
ladies were given to wearing "bumpers" to protect themselves from
rubbing a bit too closely against their male partners.
During the first two decades of the new century, the
tango took Paris by storm. The blessings of the Parisians, in turn, made it a
staple of Argentinean high society. Tango was reigning supreme in the cabarets
and theatres frequented by the rich. Out of this culture, the tango musician
became elevated to professional composer status. A pioneer in this genre,
Roberto Firpo, created the typical tango orchestra--rhythm played on piano and
double bass; melodies played on the bandoneon and the violin, with strong
counter melodies and variations. The stars of this era were Osvaldo Fresedo
and Julio de Caro.
In 1918, lyric writing for the tango become the latest trend,
bringing forth the birth of a star who is still celebrated five decades after
his death--singer Carlos Gardel. The memory of this handsome, charismatic
performer has reached hero worship status in Argentina, not unlike what Elvis
Presley inspires in the USA.
In 1930, a sudden military coup in Argentina ended the
citizens' right to vote, and thus largely silenced the voice of the people,
the tango. During this time, a very pessimistic philosopher/singer of the
tango emerged, Enrique Santos Discepolo. He is famous for the line, "The
20th Century is a trash heap. No one can deny it.."
Tango revived in the late 1930's when the Argentinean masses
regained a good measure of their political freedom. They celebrated their
social rise with the tango, which became a symbol of their physical solidarity
and part of their daily life. Again, tango musicians emerged who took the form
in new directions including Fresedo, de Caro, Pugliese, and Anibal Troilo.
Soon, wealthy intellectuals, far removed from the working
class, "orilla," began writing new lyrics for the tango. Because of
their influence, tango took on a more romantic, nostalgic, and less
threatening air, a sweet remembrance of youth in an idyllic society that never
When Juan Peron rose to power in 1946 the tango again reached
the pinnacle of popularity in Argentina, as both he and his wife Evita
embraced it wholeheartedly. Yet, with Evita's death in 1952, the tango again
fell from the mainstream spotlight. American rock-and-roll invaded the popular
scene, and the tango again seemed out of step with its times.
Today the tango is enjoying a renaissance of popularity,
keeping the fire of this daring art form burning brightly.