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A History of Tango Music

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Tango Music - bandoneón players

A Brief History of Tango Music

by Christine Denniston

The origins of Tango are obscure. There are many theories, each with its passionate advocates, 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. Nevertheless, we owe a great debt to the many dancers and musicians who gave shape to the Tango, though we shall never know their names.

The earliest evidence of 'tangos' being sung on stage in Buenos Aires comes from the mid Nineteenth Century (though if we could hear them today, we probably wouldn't recognise them as what we would call Tango). Tango bands at that time would often be made up of flute, violin and guitar, or tangos might be played on a solo piano in the brothels and cabarets.

The oldest tango which is still in the repertoire of Tango orchestras was written by Rosendo Mendizabal, a pianist working in a club, and was named, after one of their regular clients who came from the province called Entre Rios, El Entrerriano. The tango was written in the 1890s.

Soon after this the first sound recordings of Tango started to appear, performed by everything from a singer accompanying himself on the guitar to a municipal brass band, as well as pianola rolls which can still be played. These early recordings have a very Spanish feel, and lack some of the key influences that formed the Tango we know today.

The first great tango was written around 1905 by Angel Villoldo, one of those singers with a guitar. It was El Choclo, one of the two tunes that almost everyone will instantly recognise as Tango. Villoldo wrote many influential tangos, and his tunes are still played regularly today. He is the first great Tango artist that we can name and know a few facts about. Interestingly, he wrote El Choclo as a comedy song which he performed himself - choclo means literally corn-cob, but he was using it in a less literal and more bawdy sense. Villoldo's words quickly fell out of use, and were replaced in the 1940s by a lyric proclaiming grandly that with this tango the Tango was born.

Around the turn of the Century massive European immigration brought huge numbers of Italians to Buenos Aires, a great many of them from Naples. (In Lunfardo, the dialect of Buenos Aires, the word for Italian is tano, shortened from neapolitano, Neapolitan.) They brought with them a more lyrical style of violin playing, and the melodic influence of Neapolitan song, a key factor in the melodic beauty characteristic of Tango.

Soon afterwards, probably around 1910, the bandoneón, the emblematic instrument of the Tango, arrived in Buenos Aires, perhaps brought by German immigrants or sailors. The bandoneón was invented, probably in Germany, possibly in France, and produced in Germany, as a cheap substitute for a church organ in poorer communities. A large accordion-like instrument, the bandoneón is possibly the hardest instrument in the world to learn to play, having two button keyboards, each with no obvious relationship in the placing of notes, and each having the notes placed differently depending on whether the keyboards are going in or out. 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.

By 1912 Tango had its first real recording star, Juan Maglio, "Pacho", a bandoneonista, recording with flute, violin and guitar. His success in Buenos Aires was huge, and the position of the bandoneón as Tango's key instrument was confirmed.

A driving force in the development of Tango music had always been the dance, and around this time it was the dance that introduced the music to the world. Young men of good Argentine families (and Argentina was one of the richest countries in the world) would be sent to Europe to study, or to do the Grand Tour. Some of these young men, not surprisingly, had spent many happy hours in the brothels, clubs and places of ill repute in Buenos Aires, where they had learned to dance the Tango. Polite society in Paris saw the dance for the first time and fell in love, and very soon the whole of Europe was whipped by a furious Tangomania. 1913 was the year of the Tango. The impact back in Buenos Aires was profound. To the elite, Tango had been something that they chose not to associate themselves with, in public at least. Now Tango could move from the tradesman's entrance to the front door, and into the salons of the wealthy.

The lyrics of Tango had generally been humorous, like those Villoldo had written for El Choclo, and often portrayed Buenos Aires street life. In 1915 Pascual Contursi wrote a lyric called Mi Noche Triste for an existing tune, and in 1917 it was recorded by Carlos Gardel. Gardel was already a famous folk singer, working in the duo Gardel-Razzano, and folk music was the most popular musical form in Buenos Aires at the turn of the Century. Whether Contursi had intended his lyric seriously or ironically is open to debate, but Gardel sang the story of the abandoned lover with passion and pain, as though he meant every word. The triumph was immense. Tragic love became the backbone of the Tango repertoire, and the Tango became universal. Gardel himself went on to become a huge icon throughout the whole Spanish speaking world. His rags to riches story - the illegitimate son of an impoverished French immigrant who became a superstar - his warm personality, his compositional talent, his tragic death in a plane crash at the age of 44, and, of course, his glorious voice, made him one of the world's great popular heroes, and an enduring symbol of Buenos Aires.

In 1916 Roberto Firpo, pianist, leader of the most successful Tango band of this period, and creator of the standard Tango sextet - two bandoneones, two violins, piano and double bass - 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. Later Pascual Contursi added lyrics, a story of lost love, which were recorded by Gardel, but the tune itself has been recorded by almost every Tango orchestra in every style, and is, the world over, the symbol of Tango.

The early Tango musicians had for the most part been self-taught. In the 1920s classically trained musicians began playing the Tango, the most successful and influential of them being violinist Julio De Caro. His brilliant orchestra, including in the late 1920s and early 1930s the gloriously gifted bandoneonista Pedro Laurenz, introduced a new complexity and elegance to the music, slowing the pace a little, and making it less popular with the dancers of the time.

Then in 1935 came Juan D'Arienzo and Rodolfo Biagi. D'Arienzo was a violinist, but not a very good one, who by 1935 had given up playing himself in favour of directing his orchestra, something for which he had far more talent, having both excellent taste and tremendous style as a showman. With pianist Rodolfo Biagi, he created a quicker style, with a characteristic 'electric' rhythm which dancers found completely irresistible. Although the more academic Tango lovers were shocked by what they saw as a lack of subtlety and musical innovation in the D'Arienzo-Biagi style (De Caro apparently said in 1935 that their success wouldn't last the summer, something for which D'Arienzo never forgave him), dancers loved it, and flocked back to the dancefloors. The new 'electric' rhythm was hugely influential, with everyone, even De Caro, 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.

In the late 1940s the music and the dancing began to separate again, as musicians began to be interested in playing for a concert audience, or for records and radio programmes designed to be listened to rather than danced to. Singers, too, who were becoming stars in films and on records, wanted to be freed of the rhythmic constraints imposed by the requirement to please dancers. For a while the two schools existed side by side.

But is 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 dificult, 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 with Nadia Boulanger. 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 realised 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.

This is still an early stage in the renaissance of the Tango. The future will certainly hold a new synthesis, new directions and new riches.