The music of the tango

by Ted Gioia

Below is part one of Ted Gioia's survey of tango music. For part two, click here. See also Gioia's related Dozens feature on "Twelve Essential Tango Recordings," and Karen Kucharski's gallery of tango-inspired art.

The tango moves in a rarefied air. We have come to expect an earthy naturalism from the assorted genres of what we call, clumsily, "world music." But the tango holds stubbornly on to a haughty elitism. Its sensuality, like that of all great beauties, does not disdain the assistance of artifice and posturing. It casts a wary eye at naturalism. After all, one only says of the embalmed corpse, "Doesn't he look natural." And the tango is far too alive to accept such dubious compliments.

                                    Tango, artwork by Karen Kucharski

It is a music of extremes. One expects nothing less from an art form born of the brothel but destined for the loftiest palaces. The words of the famous tango "El Choclo," describing the origin of the tango, tells of this child of the "sordid mud" which yet came into life "searching for the sky,"—indeed the two blending, the song reminds us, much as one can see the reflection of the moon in the waters of a stagnant puddle. One hears the paradox in its notes: its harmonies which move dramatically from the major to the minor; its melodies which build lethargically in careful steps and half-steps, then leap to unexpected, yearning precipices. Its movements on the dance floor capture the same contradiction, combining the most abstract formalism with a bold personal intimacy.

Like so many other quintessentially Argentinean characters—Borges, Maradona, Che Guevara (no, he was not a Cuban, but an Argentine with a medical degree for the University of Buenos Aires!), Evita, even the General himself—the tango can seem to be accessible and familiar, tied to the common people, yet retain its haughty elitism. More than any other type of music, the tango can be both hot and cold, at the same time; sensual yet distant; can embody a defiant, almost aggressive posturing, yet also suggest something deeply introspective and personal. Here intense passion blends seamlessly with the mannerisms of the ballroom. The end result is a music equally at home on a polished marble floor, a lighted stage, an open-air courtyard; a music where two fantasies can intertwine, playing by the most formal rules, yet subverting all rules and regulating.

                                      Corner Tango, artwork by Karen Kucharski

Even the etymology of the word tango points to two, contradictory meanings. On the one hand, it evokes the Latin word "tangere"—to touch—a fitting old world description of the most tactile of dances. But it also looks back to Africa. Even today, maps of Africa show cities named "Tango." In some African languages the word refers to a enclosed space or reserved ground.

These two paths—one pointing to Europe, the other to Africa—are equally present in the music itself. Buenos Aires claims the tango as its own, but the closer we look at the tango's history, the more we are drawn outside of Argentina. The greatest tango singer, Carlos Gardel, hailed from France, born of French parents, and was originally named Charles Romuald Gardes. The most famous tango composer Astor Piazzolla was raised mostly in New York. Its most characteristic instrument, the bandoneón, was a German invention, and during the formative years of the tango the squeezeboxes were invariably imported from overseas. Indeed, one of the most moving tangos I have ever heard emerges unexpectedly in the midst of a Mahler symphony. Even the most definitive aspect of the music, its odd stop-and-start rhythmic propulsion, paradoxically both relaxed and tense, is apparently an import. Much of the musical inspiration for the tango's rhythmic flow came from the habanera, a musical style developed in Cuba. Shall we add that the most famous tango composition was written for a group of Uruguayan students? Recall also that the most successful tango stage production of recent memory was staged in New York, some of the most popular tango bands of today are based in Europe, and the movie most closely associated with the dance was set in Paris. (Despite what you may have heard, it was not the Last Tango.) Where is Argentina in all this?

Even the locals apparently had their doubts almost at the start: the Buenos Aires tango cabarets where the music flourished in its early years frequently took on French names—the Petit Parisien, the Folies-Bergere. Maxim, Montmartre, the Abbaye, the Pigall—as if seeking to dissociate the city from its most celebrated musical genre. Given all this, one can be forgiven for supposing that the tango's roots in Argentinean culture are only superficial at best.

                                     Chantilectra, artwork by Karen Kucharski

But this paradox disappears when we realize that Argentine culture often reveals tenuous links to its own native soil. If a nationality could suffer from an identity crisis, one would find it here. Buenos Aires in the days of the tango's birth boasted three foreign-born residents for every native son. A whole country and culture was shaped by newcomers nostalgic for the Old World, but equally anxious to leave it behind them. And the tango was their music, a Latin American creation that would have been inconceivable without its ability to evoke France, Italy, Germany, all those homes that were no longer homes.

This quality of the tango, present at its birth, would prove decisive. Unlike most other styles of ethnic music, which tend to look inward, which celebrate the local and particular, tango gazed outward and upward, and reached for the universal. This tendency allowed—no, it actually demanded—that the tango evolve and change, and incorporate new elements. Like jazz, the tango could never remain a static style, but would constantly draw elements of other musical idioms into its orbit. Today modernist tango bands such as Gotan Project or Narcotango mix in sampling and electronics with the same fervor that their predecessors borrowed elements of classical and popular music. Other countries boast song or dance styles that preserve a tradition, that serve as a time-honored folk music, retaining some pure extract from the past. Thus Irish singers harken back to the Celtic bards, and players of the Chinese pipa can look back on a tradition as ancient as the Great Wall itself. But the tango purist is destined to perpetual frustration. The tradition itself is impure, always was, always will be.

Of course, tango purists exist, and struggle to hold the music to some unchanging standards—but this is a task that is doomed to failure. Tango has always changed, always innovated. Its birth was spurred by changes in how the milonga, the predecessor to the tango, was performed, an evolution marked by borrowings from the dances of the African-Argentines of Mondongo. More innovations followed, most notably the addition of the German bandoneón at the turn of the century, followed by further changes in instrumentation. Even before the 1920s, Roberto Firpo and Francisco Canaro were eliminating the flute, which had figured in the earliest tango recordings, and replacing it with the double bass. But when Firpo recorded "Mi Noche Triste" with his band, it was merely an instrumental, while the rising star Carlos Gardel added a sentimental lyric to his version, which proved to be much more successful with the general public. His rendition sold thousands of copies almost immediately upon its release—thus giving momentum to the next innovation in the music: the tango song (tango canción). The tango would never be the same—but despite Gardel's global popularity, many tangueros long held on to the view that one did not dance to a tango that is sung, a view that persisted in many circles until the 1980s.

The rise of the so-called "evolutionary school" in the 1920s took these progressive tendencies to the next level. Consciously aiming to expand the interpretive range of tango music, these players—who included Julio De Caro, Osvaldo Fresedo, Juan Carlos Cobian and others—attempted to bring a more advanced harmonic and melodic vocabulary into their work, while mostly staying true to the classic sextet instrumentation of two bandoneóns, two violins, piano and double bass. A more traditional school of tango bandleaders resisted this movement, focusing on the rhythmic essence of the music, and offering what they felt was a more danceable beat. But even these traditionalists felt compelled to innovate, and many expanded the instrumentation of their bands. Hence traditionalist bandleader Juan de Dios Filiberto doubled the size of the classic sextet. Three or four bandoneóns were now propelling the music, while other instruments, such as clarinet, trumpet and drum were increasingly incorporated into the tango idiom.

These changes signaled a final and complete break with the symbolic folk roots of the music. When even the traditionalists plow ahead into new, uncharted waters, we are in a whole new phase of development, one which many genres of "world music" never achieve: the music becomes an aesthetic experience, driven by artistic considerations, loosened from the stifling constraints of nationalism, patriotic fervor, and ethnic idealization. But the musicians also understand their position as commercial artists responding to the marketplace, which brings with it other responsibilities and demands, but also breaks down allegiances to static styles of the past. In these regards, tango was undergoing the same transformation in the 1920s as was jazz music. What started as a self-sufficient, almost spontaneous and ingenuous, cultural expression of a certain people, time and place, became aware of its own destiny to mutate and change, above all to move ahead.

But musical evolution was not happening in isolation. The cultural ambiance of the tango was equally in flux. Who could trace its movements, or presume to know where it might appear next? The sensuous dance could now be found in tents, under the trees, on the patios of tenements, in the brothels, or the more finely named academias -- which sounded like formal schools of dance but were often themselves poorly disguised houses of ill repute. Tango also seeped into the upper class via many paths, emerging at the more reputable dance salons, cafes, bars, ballrooms, on stage at theaters, or less visibly at the garconnieres—apartments rented by the elite class for romantic trysts. One heard tango everywhere, at wedding receptions, out on the street, even accompanying the silent films at the movie theaters. The tango had captured the heart of Argentina.

But tango, like a true child of the New World melting pot, had wanderlust, and no sooner had it established its legitimacy in Buenos Aires, it began retracing its connections to the Old World. In 1907 three tangueros—Angel Villoldo, Alfredo Gobbi, and his wife Flora Rodriguez de Gobbi—arrived in Paris, drawn by the modern studios where they could make recordings of their music, such as Villoldo's aforementioned classic "El Choclo." At that time, tango was all but unknown in the French capital, but this obscurity would not last for long. By 1913, tango was a Parisian scandal and sensation, a cause for debate on moral decline, and the hottest commodity in the city's nightlife. It was the subject of lectures and exhibitions; it was used to sell perfume, clothing, and other items; it was celebrated on Parisian postcards. The dance even became associated with a color: a fashion designer found that his orange dresses sold better if the hue of the cloth was re-named "orange tango." Tango teas, starting at four in the afternoon and continuing until seven in the evening, were especially popular, imparting a veneer of respectability to the pernicious import. In 1913, a minister felt compelled to warn his listeners: "It is not what happens at a tango tea that so much matters, as what happens after it."

                              Night Cafe, artwork by Karen Kucharski

The "anti-tanguistes" leveled countess other charges against the dance, attributing everything from intoxication to murderous fights to the Argentinean dance craze. One French journalist went further in diagnosing a medical cause for this particular problem: "There is a whole category of jealous Frenchmen who do not love these Argentines, but we must also admit that there is a whole category of Frenchwomen who adore them . . . Let us also add that Argentine seductiveness produces its fullest effects on women who are beginning to suffer the torments of the menopause." And though these allegations were sometimes ridiculous, and often unwarranted, there remained a core of truth to their charges. An almost tyrannical sensuality imposes itself on the tango dancers. One is reminded of V.S. Naipaul's description of the ethos of the Argentinean male: "Machismo makes no man stand out, because every man is assumed to be a macho. Sexual conquest is a duty."

In Paris, the impact of this new dance was soon reflected in striking changes in social mores. Young women who, only a short while before, would never have thought of leaving their homes unaccompanied, were now frequenting tango events, where they surrendered themselves to the embraces of virtually unknown dancing partners. The Catholic Church, unwilling to let such matters pass, issued increasingly strident denunciations. Even the Primate of France, Monsignor Amette, felt compelled to issue a public denunciation, exposing the dance's wantonness, and urging priests to use the confessional to stress its sinfulness to parishioners.

Such steps did little to slow down the popularity of the new dance, and perhaps merely added to its allure. The tango craze spread quickly to other parts of the continent, finding a receptive audience in England, Germany, Italy, and as far away as Russia. By the summer of 1914, even British royalty was caught up in tango fever. For a ball given by the Grand Duke of Russia at Kenwood in Hampstead, a demonstration of new dances was planned, including an exhibition of the tango. But fears that Queen Mary, who would be in attendance, would disapprove of the sensual dance led to a decision to cancel its inclusion. The Queen, however, was anxious to see this much discussed dance, and expressed her disappointment to her hostess. The tango was quickly added to the program, and received the approval of the Queen.

Other royal personages were not far behind. The Queen of Denmark, it was whispered, attended tango teas. The Tsar Nicholas II, upon hearing that two of his nephews had learned to dance, demanded to see a performance, and was said to have approved of it. In Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm was less sympathetic—no surprise, since he still distrusted the "too modern" polka and waltz, preferring the minuet and gavotte at court balls. He prohibited officers in uniform from dancing the tango, which effectively stopped its use at many formal occasions, where officers in uniform were invariably present. But the passion for the dance continued in many parts of German society—even among the Kaiser's own household, where his son, the Crown Prince, was known to be an aficionado.

          Dance of Gold, artwork by Karen Kucharski

Even in an age of isolationism, Americans could not long resist this alluring export. ALL NEW YORK NOW MADLY WHIRLING IN THE TANGO, proclaimed a banner headline in The New York Times in 1914. The paper of record further noted the influx of dark-skinned men, who were setting up as tango instructors. Although these immigrants claimed to come from the native soil of the tango, the more skeptical suggested that they might merely be charlatan refugees from the recent upheavals in Mexico. Rumors and innuendos were insufficient to stem the popularity of the dance. That same year, W.C. Handy published his "St. Louis Blues," with its haunting habanera-based tango passage amidst a song that also plumbs the depths of the blues, revealing some deep-seated affinity between the two idioms. Of course, the tango's ability to migrate to new settings was already legendary: as I noted above, one of the most haunting tango interludes I have ever heard appears for a brief spell in the second movement of Mahler's seventh symphony, composed some ten years before Handy's song was released.

The tango craze could not continue at this heated level for long, and with the on-set of World War I, the public's attention was drawn to more pressing matters. But in the post-war years, the tango proved its staying power, and in the early twenties it had established itself as an important part of Parisian nightlife, especially in Montmartre, where musical imports from abroad were an important component of the bohemian lifestyle daily enacted in the vicinity of Place Pigalle. A whole community of Argentinean musicians had set up shop, meeting the local demand for the exotic music.

The Pizarro family was the most pervasive source of tango music for Parisian revelers; five different Pizarro brothers—Manuel, Salvador, Juan, Domingo and Alfredo—all led bands at one time or another. In 1925 Francisco Canaro brought his band from Argentina to Paris, where he entertained a host of celebrities, including Gloria Swanson, Arthur Rubinstein and Rudolph Valentino—the latter, who also used the tango sensation to enliven his image, encouraging Canaro to come to the United States (which he did, although after Valentino's death). Violinist Eduardo Bianco arrived from Argentina the same year, and would later enjoy the dubious distinction of having performed tango music for two unlikely fans: Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.

All these successes would pale in comparison with the sensation caused by Carlos Gardel. As tango was destined to spread all over the world, a suitable ambassador was required, one who could become an international star. Overcoming barriers of language, culture and class, Gardel filled this role with great distinction and ease, and only his early, tragic death prevented him from becoming a household name—akin to Chevalier, Piaf, Dietrich—in lands far-flung from his native soil. "Crossing over"—as the marketing mavens put it these days—to the film industry was the last obstacle Gardel faced, but it was one for which he was well prepared, as his small body of surviving movie clips make clear. In his absence, other Latin American entertainers became international film stars; but not one of them, from Carmen Miranda to Cantinflas, achieved the dignity, presence and artistic depth that Gardel promised to bring to the silver screen.

His life story is, in its own right, a cinematic one, with all the visual cues and symbols one wants from a good movie. As a boy, Gardel would sometimes sleep clutching a stick, pretending it was a guitar. His voice attracted attention from an early age. At seven, he would sit singing at a street front door, attracting a crowd of youths with his renditions of popular pieces. Legends tell of a mis-spent youth, possibly even a criminal record. Researchers have woven a fanciful web of intrigue around some ambiguous documents —a 1907 court appearance by a Carlos Garderes or Gorders in Montevideo; a Buenos Aires news report from 1905 mentioning a "certain Carlitos"—involved in a violent altercation at a railroad station—proving nothing, but tantalizing many. Gardel's songs, with their intimate knowledge of lowlife pursuits, do little to discourage such speculation.

Before Gardel, the joyous, light-hearted feelings predominated in the tango, but this had now changed. Borges, in a famous poem on the tango, describes it as an impossible dream of dying, on a suburban street corner, in the act of fighting. Strange as it sounds, this odd characterization captures many of the core elements of the tango ethos. What Freud called thanatos, his controversial concept of a death instinct in the human psyche, permeates this music. The melancholy tone, the city setting, the mix of romance and violence, all weave their way into the fabric of the tango. Yet Gardel's music was never morose, despite the dark thematic content of the lyrics. He somehow delved into the sleazy, low-life side of tango culture and made it seem elegant, an aristocracy of its own making, with its own titular characters, from the compadrito, a violent, womanizing ruffian, to the porteno, the lowly port worker.

          Dance of Gold II, artwork by Karen Kucharski

One is reminded of Louis Armstrong, like Gardel raised without his father in an impoverished setting, branded as a juvenile delinquent, but able to rise above these circumstances by sheer will and a preternatural musical talent. And like Armstrong, Gardel retained this sense of the untamed street life, the outer fringes, in his music, even after success allowed him entry into high society. This fluidity and mobility explains much of the appeal. of these artists, with personal stories that mimic the flux of the larger societies they inhabited. Other popular musicians have hidden their working class roots, found a refinement in their art that their early lives never gave them—one notes how Sinatra's street-smart elocution and twang disappear the moment he starts singing—but for others this type of transformation on stage is not possible. Their childhood is so deep a part of the adult's worldview—in some ways they have never grown up—hat it can never be swept away under the carpet. The child waif remains present in the adult artist.

Gardel's appeal drew on these biographical elements. His music expressed the man he was, and the life he led. He did not try to hide his humble beginnings, or attempt to cultivate an image which was at odds with the rough-and-tumble life he led. A directness and honesty permeated his artistry, and the public responded to this in almost an intimate, one-on-one way. His singing was almost equally devoid of artifice and mannerisms. He sang his songs full-throttle, wearing his heart on his sleeve, putting himself deeply into his music. In this regard, it is interesting to listen to a recent recording of Gardel songs performed by the heralded young Argentine tenor Marcelo Alvarez. On the last song on the disk, Alvarez uses the latest studio wizardry to record himself singing "Mi Buenos Aires querido" alongside Gardel's original version. A revealing blunder! Listening to Gardel's impassioned rendition, one quickly forgets the polished charm of Alvarez's effort, which seems all too facile in comparison to the power and sweep of the original recording. The fact that the recording quality of Gardel's voice is so much poorer, despite the best efforts of the engineers, makes its greater depth of emotional experience all the more impressive. It is almost as if Gardel's personality is too big to be contained by the flat, one-dimensional sonics of 1934. Of course, the advance in sound technology has proven to be as much of a crutch as an advantage for the modern musician. A generation after Gardel's death, all popular singers would be slaves to the microphone, striving to convey the nuances and subtle shadings that the new technology made possible. Gardel was the exact opposite. He sang to his audience, the entire audience—not settling for an off-hand whisper into the metal ice cream cone in his hand—projecting to the people, with what one simply calls, for want of a better word, heart. Audiences could not help but respond to this fervent man with the emotion-filled, penetrating voice.

Conquering Europe required a more stylized effort, and for once Gardel took on some artificial trappings in order to further his career. For his early Parisian performances, Gardel wore an elaborate gaucho costume, perhaps fulfilling the fantasies, menopausal or otherwise, of his Parisian audiences. In this new setting, he quickly scored a hit with his song "El Carretero," recorded a few days after his local debut at the Florida cabaret in rue Clichy. Soon "El Carretero" was being hummed and whistled around Paris, and Gardel need only walk into some nightclubs to find the house band striking up the tune in his honor. His records were selling in excess of twenty thousand units per month, and his picture was featured on the cover of La Rampe's Christmas issue, the gaucho outfit now replaced by a stylish coat and tie. Cesar Vedani has provided an eyewitness account of Gardel's impact on Parisian audiences, which is related in Simon Collier's biography of Gardel:

Gardel began to sing, against a background of din and murmur. With his very first verse the noise began to abate. Within a moment or two the murmuring had ceased altogether. They listened to him in silence, a silence more impressive than the hubbub it replaced. At the end of the song they gave him an ovation. He sang a second song, and the same thing happened. And again, and again . . . He was lord and master of all those captive people. I watched the miracle happen.

By the time Gardel returned to Argentina in June of 1929, he was an international star. True, other tango singers—not just men such as Ignacio Corsinin and Agustin Magaldi, but also women like Azucena Maizani, Ada Falcon, Tita Merello and Mercedes Simone—enjoyed loyal followings, but Gardel was now firmly ensconced on a higher plateau than the rest. Rather than rest on his laurels, Gardel threw himself into work with a vengeance, entering the recording studio some thirty times over the next year. He boasted to a reporter that he recorded twenty songs every month, in addition to non-stop performing. Gardel also made ten short films, which captured his singing in top form and gave momentum to the embryonic sound film industry in Argentina. But necessity as much as artistic fervor was now driving him. Gardel was running up large debts, especially due to his passion for horse-racing and gambling. Other problems troubled the singer: difficulty with his throat which required surgery; his ballooning weight—which at times would reach 260 pounds; tensions with his manager; the waning of his long affair with Isabel del Valle; and a general economic malaise spreading from the North, which spurred political instability in Argentina. In this troubled setting, Europe beckoned again.

When you have seen Paris and enjoyed the applause of royalty, he told an interviewer, Buenos Aires no longer seems satisfying. From this point on, Gardel would be a citizen of the world, returning to Argentina only twice—for two months in 1931 and for ten months in 1933. His performances now consciously cultivated an international audience. Appearing to enthusiastic audience on the Riviera, Gardel now inter-mixed songs in French with those in Spanish. Returning to Paris, Gardel began work with an international revue, leading a troupe of around one hundred performers, which featured him, singing again in French and Spanish. Gardel was also making his first feature length film, Luces de Buenos Aires. His career seemed headed to the stratosphere, yet in fact it would end shortly in tragedy.


This is the end of part one of "The Music of the Tango" by Ted Gioia.


July 25, 2008 · 3 comments

  • 1 m.malloy // Jul 25, 2008 at 06:19 PM
    you know what a cool disc is the assad brothers, play the music of astor piazzola.
  • 2 Pablo Gaete // Jul 30, 2008 at 09:14 PM
    Ted, although I appreciate your praise of Tango, I regret to say some of your comments remain quite stereotypical and sometimes down right wrong. Ironic for someone trying to separate the genre from "world music." Piazzolla is not, in the strictest sense, Tango. It is an evolution, in my opinion an improvement. And he was surely NOT raised in NY, he went there when he was already banished from the Tango scene in Buenos Aires. I am Chilean and a musician, which means I have been to Argentina tons of times and know plenty of Argentines and Argentine Tango dancers, players and enthusiasts. From your article, you clearly do not. If you did, you would know that till this day, Tango purists do not consider Piazzolla Tango, but a derivation of the genre that, because of its rhythmic complexity, is not suitable for dancing to it. He is now embraced in Argentina, but not for dancing Tango and absolutely is not considered the genre's most important composer. To me, yes he is the best Tango has produced. But that's just my opinion and I can objectively say he should not be considered straight Tango. That would be like saying that Jazz fusionists are straight jazz when everybody knows they're an evolution of the genre as well. My friend, do yourself a favor and take a trip to Buenos Aires, come back and write another article.
  • 3 Ted Gioia // Jul 31, 2008 at 01:45 AM
    The archival records that might tell us exactly when Astor Piazzolla moved (with his family) to the United States have not survived. But it is likely that this event took place shortly after Astor was issued an identity card on March 29, 1925. This would have been just a few days after his 4th birthday. So Pablo's comment that Piazzolla only came to New York after being banished from the tango scene in Buenos Aires is hard to reconcile with the known facts. As to the rejection of Piazzolla by tango "purists": this is well known, and Pablo's comments are representative of this view. Jazz fans, of course, will find this style of argument familiar, since over the decades there have been similar purists in the jazz world who have tried to exclude most new developments that have come along. Time has a way of sorting out these differences of opinion, however, and rarely (I might add) in favor of the "purists."