An Introduction to the Music of Tango
The origins of Tango are obscure. There are many theories but ultimately it is impossible to discover the facts because the records don’t exist. Tango sprang from the poor and the disadvantaged, in tenement blocks and on street corners, amongst people whose lives usually leave little trace in the history books.
The earliest evidence of ‘tangos’ being sung on stage in Buenos Aires comes from the mid Nineteenth Century. The oldest tango which is still in the repertoire of Tango orchestras was written in the 1890s.El Entrerriano. The first great tango was written around 1905 by Angel Villoldo, El Choclo and is popular today.
Around the turn of the Century, massive European immigration brought huge numbers of Italians to Buenos Aires, who brought with them a more lyrical style. Soon afterwards, probably around 1910, the bandoneón, the emblematic instrument of the Tango, arrived in Buenos Aires, perhaps brought by German immigrants or sailors. A large accordion-like instrument, the bandoneón is possibly the hardest instrument in the world to learn to play, having two button keyboards, But no other instrument sounds like the bandoneón, and, once past the hurdle of learning where the notes actually are on the keyboard, bandoneonistas can create the most extraordinary, hauntingly beautiful sounds.
The lyrics of Tango had generally been humorous, but In 1915 Pascual Contursi wrote a lyric called Mi Noche Triste for an existing tune, and in 1917 it was recorded by Carlos Gardel. The triumph was immense. Tragic love became the backbone of the Tango repertoire, and the Tango became universal.
In 1916 Roberto Firpo, pianist, leader of the most successful Tango band of this period, created the standard Tango sextet – two bandoneones, two violins, piano and double bass. He heard a march by a young Uruguayan called Gerardo Mattos Rodriguez, and decided to arrange it as a tango. The result was the most famous tango of all time, La Cumparsita. but the tune itself has been recorded by almost every Tango orchestra in every style, and is, the world over, the symbol of Tango.
Then in 1935 came Juan D’Arienzo and Rodolfo Biagi. With pianist Rodolfo Biagi, he created a quicker style, with a characteristic ‘electric’ rhythm which dancers found completely irresistible. The new ‘electric’ rhythm was hugely influential, with everyone speeding up the tempo in the late 1930s.
1935 is seen as the beginning of the Golden Age of Tango, and the next decade was one of astounding creativity on every front. The dance matured into one of the most beautiful couple dances the world has ever seen, a subtle, heady blend of sex and chess. Composers, arrangers, lyricists and singers all hit new heights. There were more great orchestras than one could count, such as those led by Anibal Troilo, Carlos Di Sarli, Miguel Caló, Lucio Demare, Alfredo De Angelis or Osvaldo Pugliese. It was the period in the Tango’s history when all the branches of this extraordinary art were most closely integrated, and each spurred the other on to ever more stunning achievements.
But in 1955, the coup that ousted Perón brought a very different political climate, which was to hit the Tango hard. The nationalistic Peronist government had encouraged Argentine music, for example by putting quotas on the amount of foreign music allowed to be played on the radio. The new regime, instantly suspicious of anything that was determinedly Argentine, because it implied nationalism and therefore Perón, discouraged Tango, and encouraged the importation of music from abroad, bringing Rock and Roll and the new world youth culture to the young of Buenos Aires. Also, bans on meetings of more than three people, for fear of political agitation, made public dances difficult, and the dancing went underground. Tango moved in a few years from a mass movement involving a huge proportion of the population of Buenos Aires, to a persecuted fringe activity, with many great artists being blacklisted or imprisoned for their Peronist connections.
In 1950 a brilliant young bandoneonista called Astor Piazzolla left Buenos Aires to go to Paris to study classical composition . Although born in Argentina, he had been taken to the United States as a small child. He came to Buenos Aires as a teenager and began playing in the orchestra of Anibal Troilo, doing there some wonderful arrangements, before forming his own orchestra in 1946. Surrounded by such musical riches, he realized that it would be hard to have the success that he wanted by staying within the Tango tradition. Taking elements of Tango, elements of the Jazz that he had heard as a child in the States, and classical ideas, Piazzolla created what he called Tango Nuevo, New Tango. Determined that his music should be listened to rather than danced to, Piazzolla made the jazzy rhythms very different from what the dancers were expecting.
When Piazzolla’s Tango Nuevo was first heard in Buenos Aires it caused outrage, with many people saying that it so far from the tradition as not to be Tango at all. But the cross fertilisation with North American and European forms created something accessible and appealing to people not brought up with the Tango tradition, and Piazzolla’s huge success in the rest of the world softened opinion at home. Musicians and stage dancers both found the freer rhythms appealing, and with the near disappearance of the social dancers, new Tango music mostly followed Piazzolla’s lead.
The fall of the military junta in Argentina in 1983 and the phenomenal success throughout the world of the hit show Tango Argentino, premiered the same year, thrust Tango back into the spotlight, catching both musicians and dancers unawares. Hastily thrown together Tango shows sprang up in Buenos Aires, and began to follow Tango Argentino around the world. Young people, keen once again to reassert their Argentine-ness, wanted to learn to dance the Tango, and began trying to piece the dance back together as best they could. Dances that had been operating underground came back into the open, and people who hadn’t danced for twenty five or thirty years gradually began to dance again.
The new interest in the dance created a demand for the Tango music of the Golden Age, which began to be re-released, first on cassette, then on cd. A twenty-four hour Tango radio station, FM Tango, was opened, followed by a cable station, Solo Tango. A new generation of dancers and musicians, brought up with Tango Nuevo, or without Tango at all, are starting to rediscover the tradition. Most recent recordings are still heavily influenced by Piazzolla, but some younger musicians are realising that a large part of their audience in the future will be people who have come to Tango through the dance, and are looking to the Golden Age for inspiration.