A brief Tango History by Murray Pfeffer, reproduced from the Trio Garufa’s website www.triogarufa.com:

The Tango, often called ‘The Argentine Tango’, is Argentina’s contribution to the world of dance. The Tango came from the brothels and low cafes of Buenos Aires at the turn of the century. However, at it’s very beginning, it was a ballet-like dance between two men, which, just a little later, became the obscene dance of the brothels where both men and women had the opportunity to rub their bodies together. Over the years, the Tango has changed becoming an elegant and stylish dance evoking a picture of high society, with women in sleek glittering evening gowns and men in tuxedos and tails.

During the last 25 years of the nineteenth century, the desperate poverty of a disintegrating Europe caused a great migration – “to make America” was the saying. Very large numbers of eastern Europeans emigrated to the New World. While New York City was a favorite desitnation, a great many landed in Buenos Aires with their few tattered belongings and a pocket full of dreams for a better life. Although a few emigres did bring their families, generally it was the men who came first to build a home and then later sent for their wives and children. Many found a new home in the outskirts of Buenos Aires during the 1880’s.

Here, instead of their dreams, they found the stark reality of the meat packing houses along the Riachuelo in Buenos Aires, and near the port in Montevideo, Uruguay. In places like the Mataderos district of Buenos Aires and El Cerro in Montevideo; or along the docks on both shores of the mud colored Rio de la Plata, they worked from dawn till dusk amid the heat and the stench of spoiling meat.

Many lived five and six to a room, in various housing conglomerates that came to be called “conventillos”, while others lived in sewer pipes stored on an empty lot belonging to a Frenchman named A. Touraint and, in the Argentine vernacular, became known as the “atorrantes”, – a slang expression which today still describes homeless ‘bums’. The Conventillos housed thousands of poor immigrants, mostly from Spain and Italy, but elsewhere too, along with Argentineans from the provinces.

Nights were often the worst times. Italian, French, Turkish, Irish and German immigrants would congregate on street corners of the “arrabales” (the city’s outskirts), or crowd into the bars where they could dull their desires with cheap wine and sing mournful Andalucian and Neapolitan love songs to the women left behind.

In this ‘male world’ there was often violence as the alcohol and the cocaine took effect. Knife wielding toughs, called “compadrones,” ruled the arrabales. In the beginning, the Tango was danced by two men – “the tango of the compadron”. They danced not arm in arm, but in something of a ballet-like, style, expressing a tale of two men locked in symbolic mortal combat (and often ending in real combat). The expression ‘ballet-style’ may be confusing. In the Spanish ethos, there is a history of men dancing either alone, or in a group. Nowadays, we can conjure up a vision of modern day male Flamenco dancers dancing in bolero jackets, with a hat pulled low over one eye, and such. So too, with the early Tango. It was danced by one man alone, -expressing his sorrows and hopes, or by two men expressing some sort of moral combat. This is the type of dancing to which ‘ballet-style’makes reference.

In time, women – many of them prostitutes – made their way to the ports. They too, found their way into the Tango. The “kilombos” and “enramadas” (brothels), where they plied their trade around the turn of the century, became show places for the Tango. French, Italian, Spanish, Polish, and German women were brought in to work in these bordellos. Supply very often did not meet Demand and eager men would wait in long lines. Not wishing to lose the “customers” to boredom while they were waiting, the bordello owners hired musicians – usually trios playing guitar, violin and flute -as entertainment. Mostly they would play the popular music of the time: polkas, habaneras, waltzes, and mazurkas. And, the customers, might often “dance” with a prostitute. Since these humble people had no dance training whatsoever, it must have been some very simple “walking” dance, with quite a bit of body rubbing. (In today’s ballroom, the Basic steps of the Tango are ‘walks’ and the dance protocol demands that the dancer’s bodies be in contact.)

Many men found momentary respite in these brothels of Buenos Aires. Here, both the new immigrants and the ‘portenos’ (men born in Bueno Aires) could find some companionship and drown their troubles in a few drinks. The grey stone and muddy streets of their barrio (neighborhoods) echoed their sadness. Only the rising sun would dull the pain of memories. It was a time when the Tango belonged to the night.

This eclectic mix of cultures, the European emigres, the peasants from the Argentine hinterland, and the disadvantaged “portenos” became a new social class. They began to create their own cultural expressions. This “Tango culture”, -the particular slang, usages and customs of the group, is earlier than Tango dance as an artistic expression.

Today it is generally accepted that the Tango is borrowed from many nations. It took the relentless African slave rhythms -the ‘Candombe’ and the beat of their drums (known as tan-go), and added the popular dance music of the Pampas (Argentina’s prarie land) called the ‘Milonga’ .(The Milonga, was an early rural dance-form that mutated into the Tango around 1880.) It combined Indian rhythms with music of early Spanish colonists. The “Candombe”, was a typical Uruguayan rhythmic form, well known in the nearby port city of Buenos Aires. (As an aside, it is interesting to note that ‘True’ Tango music does NOT use any drums in the ensemble.) The Salon dances (mainly the Waltz), -those involving men and women embracing, were the precedent for the dance, which was refined until it became what we now know as Tango.

These early immigrants and societal outcasts, seeking escape from their own emotions and feelings, would soon develop a music and a dance that epitomized their loneliness and desires. The wail of “their” Tango spoke of more than just frustrated love. It spoke of fatality and of destinies engulfed in pain. It was a dance of sorrow. “El Tango no est en los pies. Est en el coraz¢n.” (Tango is not in the feet. It is in the heart.)

The Tango dance originated as an “acting out” of the relationship between a prostitute and her pimp. Tango songs and dances, often highly improvised, had no lyrics, and were generally quite obscene. Titles usually referred to characters in the world of prostitution. During this period, Tango music largely consisted of the melancholy wailing of a bandoneon, an accordion-like instrument imported to Argentina from Germany in 1886.

Between 1880 and 1930, Argentina developed qjuickly. Buenos Aires was virtually entirely rebuilt during this period. The beautiful old colonial Spanish city, with it’s one story buildings and narrow streets, was replaced by a metropolis of wide avenues and beautiful parks. The tall buildings were of French and Italian architecture. (Argentina became one of the ten richest nations in the world, maintaining that position until the early 1950’s when it’s economy began a lengthy decline, lasting for the next 30 years.) During the prosperous period, the very rich had the habit of going to Europe at least once a year. They. maintained big homes in Paris or London, where the nobility, the famous and the very rich regularly attended their parties. The French coined the phrase “he is as rich as an Argentinean” to mean extremely rich. Some young Argentineans visiting Europe introduced their “indecent” Argentine Tango to the Parisian nobility, and the dance took Paris by storm. Tango became the craze of the time. Parties were given with Argentinean orchestras, tango lessons and milongas. Even women’s fashion changed. Bulky dresses were replaced by lighter, looser ones so the ladies could adjust to the moves of Tango. Tango rapidly migrated to the other big capitals, London, Rome, Berlin, and finally New York. Now the Tango became “respectable”, and was soon re-imported to the shores of the Rio de la Plata and featured in the cafes and clubs frequented by rich Argentinians.

But it was no longer the Tango of the compadron – the two men in combat. “The compadron was replaced by the “compadrito” who dressed like him; the “fungi,” a wide rimmed hat thrown over one eye, a white handkerchief tied around his neck, the short coat and tight trousers and, as a last connection to the toughness of the port, the knife at his side. But it was all ‘looks’, he had none of the compadron’s substance.”

By 1912, the Tango, helped by Argentina’s passage of Universal Suffrage, was becoming absorbed into the larger Argentine society. While the dance lost some of it abrasiveness, it’s structure remained intact, and soon the Tango developed into a worldwide phenomenon. One writer said that even the Americans were doing it, although noting that “some ladies were given to wearing “bumpers” to protect themselves from rubbing a bit too closely against their male partners”.

“Eventually, the evolution of the tango took it to the better dance halls closer to “el centro,” (downtown) of Buenos Aires. The “fungi” and the silk neckerchief were replaced by the black tuxedo, patent leather shoes, spats and silk top hat.”

In this new culture, the tango musicians were now elevated to professional composer status. Roberto Firpo, an early pioneer of the genre, created the typical Tango orchestra. The piano and double bass carried the rhythm. The melody, with strong counter melodies and variations, was played on the bandoneon and the violin. Performance stars of this era included such men as Osvaldo Fresedo and Julio de Caro.

A somewhat more rigorous classification of this history, that has become widely used, includes the dates and commonly used labels for the eras:

1900 – 1920 : La Guardia Vieja (The Old Guard)

1920 – 1940 : La Guardia Nueva (The New Guard) – The Epoca de Oro of Argentine Tango.

1940 – 1960 : La Post-Guardia Nueva (The New Post-Guard), – aka: “The generation of the 40’s”

1960 – present : El Nuevo Tango (The New Tango )

1900 – 1920 : Mainly the sung and small instrumental tangos (fundamentally trios and quartets), until ‘La Orquesta Tipica’ arrives on the scene, with the incorporation of the bandone¢n. Musicians like: Vicente Greco, Villoldo, Arolas, etc. One of the more representative tangos is La Morocha (Saborido and Villoldo). Perhaps, the Tango “El Choclo”, best exemplifies the “Guardia Vieja”. In 1907, one of the very first genuine Argentine Tangueros to visit Paris (France)was the song’s composer, Angel Villoldo, who wanted to do some recording. (At the time, Paris had the best recording facilities and techniques.) In 1918, writing Lyrics for the tango became all the rage with singers such as the tragic Carlos Gardel and celebrated salon orchestras like Francisco Canaro’s giving the music a new legitimacy and acceptance. Carlos Gardel is still revered today, five decades after his death. Another of the more representative Tangos of this period is “La Morocha” (by: Saborido and Villoldo).

1920 – 1940 : Here, besides the tango with lyrics and authors such as Discepolo, the instrumental Tango becomes prominent. There are two groups of writers. The composers most identified with the ‘Traditional’ Tango include Juan Darienzo, Francisco Canaro, Pugliese, D’Arienzo, Di Sarli, Troilo, Tanturi, and (early) Salgan. While such composers as Astor Piazzolla, Julio and Francisco de Caro, Juan Carlos Cobian, Elvino Vardaro, try to take Tango into a newer form. But probably the most important evolutionist was Astor Piazzolla. “La Cumparsita”, is an excellent example of a ‘Golden Age’ song. Another example is the Tango “Celos”, (“Jealousy” is the English name). Paris, France, was first to take the Tango to her heart, and soon after, the Tango took all Europe by storm. “Tango Jalousie” is a European tango written by the Danish composer Jacob Gade, and may be the best known Tango of the “golden age”.In 1930, an Argentine military coup ended universal suffrage. No longer able to vote, the citizenry became largely apathetic with a concomitant depressing effect on dancing the Tango. A rather pessimistic philosopher/singer of the Tango emerged at this time. Enrique Santos Discepolo is perhaps most famous for his lyric, “The 20th Century is a trash heap. No one can deny it.”The late 1930’s saw a Tango revival when Argentinean’s regained a good measure of political freedom. Celebrating their social rise, the Tango again became a symbol of solidarity and a part of people’s daily life. Tango musicians emerged taking the form into new paths. Among those musicians were such men as Fresedo, de Caro, Pugliese, and Anibal Troilo. Even wealthy intellectuals, far removed from the working class “orilla”, were writing new lyrics for Tango songs. Due to their influence, The Tango became more romantic, more nostalgic, and much less threatening, -“a sweet remembrance of youth in an idyllic society that never existed”.

1940 – 1960 : Musicians such as Anibal Troilo, Osvaldo Pugliese, Leopoldo Federico, Osmar Maderna, Atilio Stampone, are writing, strongly influenced by Astor Piazzolla’s evolutionist line with “La Ulltima Curda” being a good example of the songs then written. Such poets as Homero Manzi, Enrique Cadicamo, and Homero Exposito are writing. In 1946, Juan Peron rose to power and the Tango reached a new pinnacle of popularity in Argentina with both the generalisimo and his wife Evita embracing it wholeheartedly. But with Evita’s death in 1952, the Tango again fell from public favor. With the advent of American rock-and-roll, the Tango seemed “out of step” with the times.

1960 – To The Present: Piazzolla’s influence is so very strong, that many now divide Tango into Before and After Piazzolla. Piazzolla’s big hit, “Balada para un Loco”, convinced many doubting Argentinians that the “New Tango” was “for real”. Another example is “La Bestia Potenciada”, a big hit from the Tango heartland, Buenos Aires.The Tango still enjoys wide favor. Immensely popular (it is virtually the “national” dance of Finland), the Tango is again enjoying a world-wide renaissance. Several shows have already appeared on New York’s Broadway stages, and another version is still a very popular and required ballroom dance in international DanceSport Competitions. .

Many attempts have been made to trace the history of Tango, but nobody has ever found the exact root of its origins. It suffices to say that that Tango was the music of the “portenos”, – the inhabitants of the city of Buenos Aires. It is a “rags to riches” story that began in the late 1800s, when poor immigrants danced in Argentine brothels, and continued on to the glittering evening Galas of high society. Tango is still sexy and elegant, and danced with passion not only in Buenos Aires, but in London, Berlin, Tokyo, Paris, and New York, – but in fact, in every nation of the world, including Zambia. .


ARRABAL: Outskirts, suburb

BARRIO: Neighborhood or district

COMPADRE: Haughty, proud, brave man living in the arrabales (suburb)

COMPADRITO: Typical character of the suburb, a bully and a braggart

CONVENTILLO: Housing edifice with multiple rooms and no basic comfort where the immigrants of different origins live: workers, failed craftsmen…

FUEYE: the Bandoneon (accordion-type instrument)

GUAPO: Nickname for a man who practises the cult of courage

LUNFARDO: Slang of Buenos Aires

MILONGA: Popular music of the pampas and the Rio del Plata

PORTENIO: Term for the residents of Buenos Aires (port-area)



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