Tango History: Buenos Aires, Paris and the Class Divide

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Tango postcard, c. 1919

The tango of the early 20th century was far more than just a dance; it was a philosophy and a way of life. It was music, poetry and a host of legends that evolved in the poorest barrios of Buenos Aires. Discépolo once said that the tango is ‘a sad thought which is danced’ – a sad thought that was shared by a nation.

Tango Origins

The exact origins of the tango are lost; perhaps a melding of Iberian and African cultures through the slave trade; perhaps a courtship dance developed in the brothels of the Buenos Aires. Regardless of how it was formed, what is known that the earliest recognizable tangos appeared shortly before the turn of the twentieth century. They were danced almost uniquely by the poor and working class, many of whom were immigrants who had flocked to the ‘Southern City of Light’ only for their dreams of work and new found riches to be shattered.

Tango Legends

The theme of broken dreams worked its way into the dance. The songs that accompanied the music began to portray a kind of world-weary nostalgia, a yearning for golden times past forgotten amidst a life of sin and misfortune. The comfort of home and family were eulogized, while the dangers of women and alcohol were portrayed as the road to ruin.

“Now that the years have whitened by temples,” wrote Villoldo in El Choclo, “Dear tango, old tango that overpowers me with the cadence of its music. I remember that period so wonderful that it’s gone”.

“I loved her with all my soul,” declares Serrano in Donde Estas Corazon, “as we love once in our lifetime. But destiny, cruel and blood thirsty, left me without her love.”

First Tango in Paris

Through the tango was eased the pain of a collective broken heart, a generation of men who felt hopeless forgotten by society. The tango itself may also have been forgotten, had it not been adopted by the sailors who also frequented the brothels where it was popular. Through these sailors it came to Spain and then London, New York and Paris, where it became hugely popular in the years following the First World War.

Through this process it also evolved and when it made its debut on the Parisian stages it had been somewhat changed and ‘cleaned up’. What had begun in Buenos Aires as a solemn and sensual dance became a highly choreographed performance charged with tension.

The Golden Age of Tango

Ironically, it was only after the tango became popular with the French that the Argentina’s own elite began to take notice. They had always yearned to model their city on Paris, the perceived capital of culture, and after its success in the French capital the dance was re-imported back to Buenos Aires. The changes it had undergone, however, along with the largely upper class adoption of the new dance meant that there remained a great social divide – one that was later used as a form of social protest by the proletariat.

The golden age of tango that followed is often credited to the appearance of Carlos Gardel, the ‘saint and the sign of all tango idols’. However, while it is certain that Gardel had a great impact on the tango, and no movement can survive without its heroes, it was the social undercurrents outlined above which were the main precursor to this new popularity.

Tango and Social Protest

The dance continued to evolve and by the late 30s and 40s there were significant political motivations evident in many tango lyrics. The working class tanguistas sought to reclaim the dance from bourgeoisie perversion and accused the Buenos Aires elite of taking their innocence from them.

“That the twentieth century is a display of insolent malice nobody can deny it any more,” ranted Discépolo in Cambalache, banned by the Argentine government after it was written in 1935.

“Where can my neighborhood be? Who tore off my childhood?” demands Castillo in Tinta Roja.

Many of the tanguistas felt an affinity with the poorest barrios and their outrage at what they saw as exploitation is clear in many of their songs.

Decline and Rebirth of the Tango

By the sixties however the tango was in decline. Changing sexual values seemed to render the tango obsolete, as the conservatism implied in its ideology was worn away by new liberal ethics.

Since the mid nineties though it has enjoyed an unexpected revival, in both its home in Buenos Aires and around the world, as Argentines react against the encroachment of globalization and reaffirm their own national identity.

The Tango has a long and complex history that can only be understood in the context of social change and class divide. Originally a solemn and melancholy expression, it has since become a showpiece display for European and American stages and a form of political protest in Buenos Aires itself. The twentieth century has seen something of a revival of its fortunes; only time will tell if it is here to stay.

References:

  1. Gift, Virginia (2008), Tango: A History of an Obsession. BookSurge
  2. Göttling, J. “Tango, melancólico testigo”. Corregidor (Buenos Aires), 1998