historical notes

by J. Alberto Mariñas

It is difficult to trace the history of tango, but at the same time, it is quite arduous to avoid doing so, since many visitors to this site have solicited at least a basic outline that will shed some light on this complete cultural phenomenon -dance, music, song and poetry- which, for one reason or another, attracts many people.

Although the facts about tango and its personages are often discussed and subjected to scrutiny, it is generally accepted that tango was born in Buenos Aires toward the end of the XIX century. Nevertheless, some prefer to say, for conciliatory purposes, that it was born on the banks of the Río de la Plata, in order to please the Uruguayans who claim co-paternity of the phenomenon.

It is impossible to pinpoint a precise date of birth for a manifestation of popular origin and, therefore, one of evolutionary birth such as tango. However, what is certain is that most experts agree that the decade of 1880 was a starting point for what was then no more than a particular way of dancing to music. The society into which tango was born listened and danced to havaneras, polkas, mazurkas and an occasional waltz, as far as the whites were concerned, while the blacks, 25% of the population of Buenos Aires in the XIX century, moved to the rhythms of the candombe, a type of dance in which couples refrained from intertwining and danced in a way that was determined more by the percussive beat than by the melody.

Buenos Aires port   Port, 1885

Musically speaking, tango is related by genealogy to the Hispano-Cuban havanera and is thus August Sanderprogeny of the mercantile transactions between the Spanish speaking ports of La Havana (Cuba) and those of Buenos Aires (Argentina). Nevertheless, these origins explain little abut its birth. Initially, tango was interpreted by modest groups consisting only of a violinist, a flutist, a guitarist -and at times without the latter- and accompanied by an experienced blower who set the beat playing a comb converted into a wind instrument by way of a cigarette rolling paper. The mythical concertina was not incorporated into tango until a few decades later, in the year 1900, approximately. Little by little, this instrument substituted the flute. 

At first, tango must have been a way of interpreting already existing melodies, upon which other newer ones were created, although initially there was no written music since most often than not the interpreters and creators did not know how to read or write sheet music. In fact, with the passage of time, some of the first recorded tangos were not signed by the authentic authors but rather by clever characters who did indeed know how to write down music and took advantage of the existing void of authorship of certain popular tangos to put their own names on them, thereby earning a few extra pesos. 

Perhaps, at this point in the text, some readers may wonder about the origin of the name. It is a good question, but one lacking an answer or, what amounts to the same thing, having thousands. In the Spain of the XIX century, the word tango was used for a genre of flamenco; there are some place-names in Africa called tango, in Spanish colonial documents the vocable is used in reference to the place where the black slaves celebrated their festive meetings... some even say the origin could reside in the fact that the Africans were incapable of pronouncing the word 'tambour' correctly and uttered 'tango' instead. All in all, it is a good question but the irremissible lack of written documentation as well as the agraphic origin of tango and its forefathers, will forever hush the answer.


Gaucho Argentina Patagonian Indians

Anonymous postcards 

Gauchos and Patagonian Indians
Argentina, around 1870


The figures speak for themselves: Argentina grew from a population of two million in 1870 to four million twenty-five years later. Half of that population was concentrated in Buenos Aires where the percentage of foreigners reached %50, and which was also the migratory destiny of inland Gauchos and Indians.

In this environment, down in the slums and brothels, a new dance began to a new rhythm, and was associated from the beginning with bawdy-house ambiences, since the only women present in the dance academies or dance halls were prostitutes and 'barmaids'. 

Since they were females dedicating their souls, and above all, their bodies to accidental companions, tango commenced as a dance which was very "corporal", provocative, close, explicit... in a hardly sociably acceptable manner, something which would become apparent as it spread into an emerging phenomenon and began to expand outside the slums of the city of its origin.

Dancing tango in street 

Men practising
the tango in the street


In the beginning, when tango started to transform into song, the lyrics accompanying the music were obscene and the titles left little room for doubt: "Two without taking it out", "What a screw with so much wind", "Such a hit it doesn't fit", "Seven inches"... or even "The Choclo", which literally means corn husk but in its figurative or vulgar sense, it is equivalent in English to "cunt". 

From its humble birth to its elevation as reigning dance in the salons of the occidental world, tango traveled an interesting round trip journey between the Old and the New Continents, with a decisive and brilliant layover in Paris.

How did it get there? The answers to this question are also disparate and varied. Some texts, many more ingenuous then erudite, go so far as to offer first and last names of "the" person responsible for this trip. Actually, in its expansion as in its birth, the causes were more complex and, indeed, more plural.

The elite youths of Buenos Aires did not hesitate to go down to the slums to have fun, dance and, while at it, to pick up some 'mine' or milonguita who was enticing or who let herself be enticed. And to approach the unknown woman, nothing better than a tango. Of course, the tango was neither accepted in their homes nor could it be danced by the young ladies of their milieu and, for this reason, it remained marginal and lower class for many years.

Nevertheless, the trips of these patricians to Europe, especially to Paris, lit the fuse. Paris was not only the capital of glamour and fashion, it was also a city which nurtured a plural society, part of which was gay and unprejudiced. The gallant dances of the French capital came from way back when; Louis Mercier, chronicler of Parisian life, wrote in 1800: Jacques Henri Lartigue Paris 1911"Apart from money, nowadays dancing is the most popular thing among Parisians, whatever their social standing may be: they love dancing, they venerate it, they idolize it... It is an obsession no one escapes". If this was so at the beginning of the XIX century, it was also so at the beginning of the XX century when public locals such as the Bal Bullier of Montparnasse or the Moulin de la Galette experienced exorbitant fame. In addition, at the turn-of-the-century, boldness was not as out of pace with the Parisian customs as it had been before. Some annual dances, such as the students' Bal des Quat'z Arts, "were famous for the scantness of the garments worn and the raving sexuality always reigning there".

Within this social context, it was not difficult for the daring dance created in the Silver Capital to find a terrain fertilized for its blooming and conversion into an oddity at first and a furor afterwards. Once in Paris, the European trend setter, the capital of fashion, the cradle of chic, its extension to the rest of the continent first, and then to the entire world, was easy and quick. Ironically, it is not until then, when Buenos Aires takes a look at itself in Paris, that tango finally enters into the most noble salons, guaranteed by the European baptism, and becomes the best of all pedigrees for an emergent bourgeoise struggling to make of its city the Paris of America 

Glory also brought simultaneous rejection. The eternal social dynamic was set into motion, the old against the new, censorship against openness, tradition against renovation. Foes of tango surfaced everywhere and some of them were famous and distinguished. Pope Pio X forbade it, the Kaiser prohibited it for his officials and the Spanish magazine La Ilustración Europea y Americana spoke of it as the "...indecorous and by all means reproachable 'tango', a grotesque ensemble of ridiculous contortions and repugnant attitudes, seemingly impossible to execute, or even witness, by someone who at all esteems his personal dignity". The quotation comes from that particular Spanish magazine, but it is easy to find other similar ones in English, German and even French publications.

However, when the reaction arrived, the die was already cast: tango had triumphed. There were tango dresses, tango colors, tango teas... tango was the number one dance of that prewar world which was destined to end very soon with the first worldwide conflict, the rise of the United States as a world power and the transformation of customs. Afterwards, tango stayed alive, tango songs were born strong, taking the place of the tango dance, but with a more limited success, geographically speaking. The world, in a new prewar period, discovered and admired Carlos Gardel and, at the end of the conflict, the supremacy of the United States disembarked in Europe with the swing that only died to make way for rock.

All these years, tango has a brilliant history of limited booms and relative declines and a continuous life throughout which both the dance and the music have been developed so thoroughly that it has reached a level of sophistication and purification that makes clear the maturity of a manifestation now living the first decades of the second century since its birth.

The photographic credits are listed by order of appearance:
1 Anonymous
2 August Sander
3 Anonymous
4 Anonymous
5 Anonymous
6 Jacques Henri Lartigue