Wednesday, May 03, 2006

A Brief History of Tango

Etymology: The word "tango" may have come from many African languages where it means "closed space," "reserved ground"--in Africa today it appears as a place name in Angola and Mali. It could also be a derivation from the Portuguese tangere: to touch--and therefore it could have reached the Western hemisphere through Portuguese slave ships with slave-trading connection in San Tome` (Gulf of Guinea). In this case the word was picked up by slaves from their captors. No matter what the origins are, Tango acquired the standard meaning of "place" where the African slaves got together for dancing throughout the Spanish American empire. Later in the 18th century, black dancers in general were given the name of Tango.

The music and the dance: Tango started as a fusion of African slave dance (candombe) and milonga (a bastardization of polka): the compadritos observed the African-Argentine steps and movements and blended them into their own traditional polka and mazurka. Approximately around 1850s, "milonga became a mockery of the dance the blacks hold in their own places."

Prior to the 1920s Tango music and dance was defined as The “Old Guard” style: the instrumentation was simpler, the tempo slightly faster and the social context firmly set in the old barrios where 'disreputable' men would dance with each other in the streets for practice while awaiting admission to the taverns. Tango moved out of the barrios and arrabales when the wealthy youth started "slumming" and taking part occasionally in the compadritos’ gathering. The dance started its progress towards the center of the city by becoming a grandiose form of entertainment in all brothels and also in the high class brothels close to the center of the city. It also became synonymous of moral corruption for the upper Argentine class.

The “New Guard” style: Between 1916 and 1920 with the closing of the bordellos Tango migrated to cafes, cabarets and dance halls. By 1918 a few key composers were writing original Tango lyrics, often as poetry rather than music. Picked up by a rising generation of new singers, the consciously melancholic tone of much of this new writing became a key component in what would become the 'New Guard' style, typified by Francisco Canaro, Julio DeCaro and, most especially, Carlos Gardel.

Each wave of immigrants contributed to the re-making of Tango dance, music, and lyrics. Italian immigrants, some of them key figures in political and upper class social scenes, took charge of the dance and cleaned it up. They embraced the dance by softening its rough edges and making it suitable to dance in their homes and social gatherings: Italians would dance Tango liso (smooth tango) with their wives and sweethearts in their very proper low, middle, and upper class settings. They introduced the use of the accordion and the mandolin. (The Tango liso evolved into ballroom Tango.) German Immigrants introduced the use of the most representative instrument of Tango, the Bandeon: a German-made squeezebox instrument--extremely difficult to play. Jewish immigrants introduced the use of the violin.

In the 1910s we see the first Tango recordings and orchestras: from the traditional number of three musicians to six; from one bandeon, one violin, one guitar to two bandeons, two violins, one piano and one flute (orchestra tipica). In 1913-14 Tango invaded Paris and London through the high, smart society: wealthy Argentinean lived in Europe and gave parties to which the local nobility was invited. Soon Tango became a craze all over Europe giving life to the phenomenon called the “Tangomania of the 1920s.” Tango was liberating for women (it allowed unprecedented freedom of movement) and seductive for men (it glamorized the image of the latin lover; Rodolfo Valentino introduced it to Hollywood later). Tango influenced fashion in clothing with Satin Tango (yellow/orange silk) and Jupes Culottes (pants for women); new fashion in perfume: Nirvana and Sakountala (sandalwood and patchouli); new fashion in French cuisine: la banane tango, le peche melba, and le gateau tango. Because of this newly acquired fame, upper class society embraced the dance back in Argentina, provided that it was "cleaned up" of its most transgressive steps.

The “Post-New Guard” style: While the war in Europe interrupted Tango appreciation during the first half of the 1940s, in Argentina a “post-new-guard” style was starting to gain ground, pioneered by Anabal Troilo, an extraordinary bandoneon player who increased the size of the classic Tango orchestra, and introduced a new level of aggressiveness that laid the foundations for the Nuevo Tango style of Piazzola. This new sub-style occurred roughly parallel with the emergence and duration of the Peron dictatorship, politicising the Tango. By 1955, when Peronism was collapsing, and American culture and Rock 'n' Roll was invading Latin America, Tango suffered; it was considered politically incorrect and definitely unhip. By 1960 the style was confined to the backwaters of Argentine culture. However, it was revived by artists like Piazzola who, angered by social and political events, became intensely patriotic and deeply committed to the rescuing of the 'National' music. Piazzola played often outside Argentina and developed an austere, pare-military approach that caused controversy around him still lasting today (he died in1992).

I am fully aware of the fact that the above is a very concise rendering of the origins and evolution of Tango and I apologise for the omission of many important names and facts. I wanted to offer a quick introduction to the dance and the music in order to encourage our readers to read further on their own.

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