The Tango, a fascinating production of Latin culture. Part 1.
Decorative Art in Buenos Aires, the Fileteado
The Tango, a very personal experience
I first came in contact with the Tango when I was a child, as some of it was routinely played at dances and social gatherings in which my family participated (in Chile). My father and mother did a very good “salon” Tango, no flourishes and risqué movements, but with great rhythm. They usually got acclaim from other couples and very often were left alone on the dance floor, while everybody stood around and watched. I loved it all, the sound, the beat, the singing; I literally vibrated with the music.
At that time I was studying classical piano, with very strict, old-fashioned teachers, most of them German, and I was cautioned very seriously to stick to what I was learning and leave the rest until later years. Playing by ear was frowned on, with the result that I have never been able to do this, I need to read the sheet music. Fortunately, I’m quite good at that up to a certain level. I was never able to complete my piano studies, so after a period, I set off on my own, looking for attractive melodies to interpret.
About this same time, my mother asked me if I would like to review some old music sheets she had from her young days, and lo! I found several Tangos, some very well known, while others were unfamiliar. My mother had received a lot of them as gifts from families who were closing house for one reason or another, I remember some dates handwritten on their covers by previous owners: 1929, 1933, 1936, and some newer ones.
Interpreting sheet music
I start to play Tango
So I began to pick out these tunes. I played La Cumparsita, El Choclo, Viejo Rincón, Mi mocosita, Caminito, En una tarde gris, and several others. It was fascinating, and although I was never very brilliant at it, I loved it!
Unfortunately, when I was about 30 years old, I had to give up my piano, as my father sold the family house and both he and my mother went back to Britain. I remained in Chile, alone, and minus my house and my piano. I then spent a period listening to Tango recordings, and in this way I learned to distinguish styles, orchestras and singers.
About 10 years ago, I bought an electronic keyboard, one of those that play pre programmed rhythms with the left hand chords. And I also found online shops like Sheetmusicplus.com, where I bought several printed collections. Todotango.com was not as well developed as it is now, neither were the search engines! But there was some variety to be found in new CD recordings of old tunes. I unpacked my mother’s rather deteriorated sheets, and off I went, trying to adapt to the different techniques for playing on my new keyboard. I still love it!
Some preliminary ideas about Tango
A short introduction to Tango:
- The Tango, both dance and music, is known to many. People either respond to its insistent beat, or are captivated by watching the performance of an expert dance couple.
- There is more to Tango than just the beat and the dance figures, in fact it is a cultural creation, whose origins can be found in the mid 1880’s. These origins are not too clear, as there are no written records about the process.
- At that time, the Southern Latin countries, such as Argentine and Chile, had recently emerged from their fight for independence, and were busy consolidating their status as nations. National characteristics in music, art and social profiles, were beginning to appear, and economic development was starting up.
- In the middle of the 19th century, British companies arrived to Argentine to build the railway, thus opening up the vast regions of the interior. This brought about a rapid economic development and also a scarcity of laborers, and large quantities of immigrants were made welcome.
- Tango originated among the poorer classes, and was influenced by the various waves of immigrants that arrived from Europe. To begin with, the music had a very Spanish flavor, which combined happily with the Habanera from Cuba. The African slaves that had been brought to Argentine about the mid-1880’s, also contributed very highly to the shaping of the rhythm of the Tango.
- At a later date, various Europeans of Italian, British, Polish and Russian origin provided more variety to this melting pot of sounds and rhythms. The polka, the mazurka and the waltz melded in very successfully with the Cuban habanera and the candombe rhythms from Africa.
- At present date, the more traditional Tango music still retains a sort of hop to it that may have come from the polka. This is one of the significant features of the music, as it provides a short hesitation in each “measure” that marks a slight stop in the movements of the dancers. It can also mark a change in the footing. And it definitely provides the syncopated feeling one gets when listening to the tunes. (Note: a “measure” in Tango can be a count of 4 or a count of 2, depending on how the script for the music is set up).
- The original Spanish background of the music still comes through in the dance, which at times is reminiscent of the flourishes of the “toreador” during a bull fight. The difference is, of course, the fact that the dance couples embrace, and the toreador flirts with the bull from a prudent distance!
- Around the 1900’s, the Tango arrived in Paris, taken there by young persons from rich Argentinean families, who had learnt this exotic dance and its music by unofficial “slumming” visits to the cabarets in the low class neighborhoods. It was such a success, that high society Argentineans back home were obliged to accept it and show national pride in it. By 1913, it was acclaimed in Paris, London and New York.
- The dance is a constant improvisation, which combines “walking”, “turning”, “stopping” and various on-the-spot embellishments devised by each couple as the dance proceeds. My parents “walked the walk” like pros!
- Argentine Tango is not Ballroom Tango, the one that is often presented on TV during various competitions. Neither is it the stage dance or “fantasia”. The real Argentine dance is of a more socially intimate variety and takes place in nightclubs, at special meeting places called milongas, or on the street.
- There are three distinct types of Argentine social tango. The first is the basic tango, and responds to a relatively slow four-beat. The second is the milonga, which is much faster and feels like a polka. The third is the tango-waltz, which uses the traditional 1-2-3 beat of the European waltz, but with a definitely tango-like flavor.
- The word “milonga” can refer to the meeting place, or to the quicker style tango music, or to the form of the dance that uses this particular type of tango. You can actually dance a milonga to a milonga at a milonga.
- The Golden Age of Tango is considered to extend from 1935 to about 1955, and this 20 year period produced many beautiful Tangos and world famous interpreters. Amongst these was Carlos Gardel, who raised Tango to star level! Sadly, after the military coup, Tango had to go underground, as everything of a nationalistic flavor became suspect.
- After democracy was re-instated, the Tango began to flourish again, but has evolved in form and is no longer so classic. This revival started in the 1980’s and has produced “Tango Nuevo” (with Angel Piazolla), “New Tango”, “Electro Tango”, “Tango Fusion”, and so on. The revival also created a demand for the Golden Age Tango, and this in turn created a market for reproductions of the old recordings, improved for sound by modern technology. The Tango is very much alive and healthy!
The Basic Rythm
The Bandoneon, an indispensable instrument
Details of Tango music
As already stated, the rhythm is very characteristic. The most well known form is a 4-count, that goes something like this:
If I were counting, it would be
The wait-hop stands for beat Two. Using a pentagram, it would look like Tango Rhythm 1 in the accompanying graph.
Tango rhythm 2 would read as:
In this case, the “dums” correspond to beats 1, 3 and 4. The two “hops” combine into the missing beat 2. Not at all easy to explain! But just by looking at the two figures shown and comparing them, one can see the breaks in the counting scheme, which provide for the “syncopated” sound of Tango. Strangely enough, the beats are not accentuated by the use of drums, as it is the bass that carries the beat.
Another driving force in the creation of classic Tango music was the Neapolitan influence, brought from Europe by hundreds of Italian immigrants, who bequeathed their lyrical sense of music, making the tango very tuneful to the ear.
And finally, the prize instrument! This was the bandoneón, a concertina-like accordion that sounds like a church organ. It was originally created to provide organ-sounding music to church congregations in the poorer regions of Europe, and it is thought that it was introduced to Argentine by German immigrants. Nothing sounds quite like a bandoneon, and the Tango could not exist without it. It is also an extremely difficult instrument to play.
The melodies are generally a most extraordinary mixture of simple chromatic scales and 3-note arpeggios. A chromatic scale is one that plays the white and the black notes in sequence, one after the other just as they appear on the piano keyboard. The tango melodies use segments of these scales in ascending and descending order. An arpeggio is a combination of 3 or 4 notes that go up or down the keyboard, but are not consecutive, but rather jump each intermediate note. A more complete explanation must consider the fact that in English, the white piano keys are identified by the letters of the alphabet. Thus, the basic scale at the middle of the keyboard would read C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C, corresponding to the classic Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Ti-Do scale. An arpeggio derived from this scale can be illustrated as follows:
C – D – E – F – G – A – B – C (This is the complete scale with consecutive notes)
C - E - G (This is a basic arpeggio, formed by jumping every other note).
All in all, the melodies use a very characteristic combination of the white and black keys, with lots of insistently repeated keys and/or scales. It is usually quite simple, but sounds very complicated!
Three of the most famous Tangos
No review of Argentine Tango could be complete without referring to El Choclo and La Cumparsita. Another well-known melody is Mi Buenos Aires Querido, composed and sung by Carlos Gardel.
- El Choclo started out as a bawdy comedy song. A “choclo” is a corn-cob, and the original words, now lost in time, definitely had a double meaning. However, somewhere along the way these verses disappeared, and what we have today is a proclamation of the “birth of the tango”, something like a signature tune.
- La Cumparsita started out as a march, composed by a young Uruguayan called Gerardo Mattos Rodriguez. It was later turned into a Tango, and later still it acquired lyrics speaking about a lost love. It was recorded by Carlos Gardel and its fame was sealed. It is the international symbol of the Tango, and has been recorded by many orchestras the world over. I have played it on the piano as a solo version, and it is incredible. I've played as an amateur in front of large mixed audiences at recitals and as invited artist at countless ceremonies of the educational world in the area of Concepción, Chile, and it has always been received with an ovation, not because of my not too expert playing, but because of the uplifting merits of the tune itself. And the rhythm is sensational!
- Mi Buenos Aires Querido is one of the more well known tunes by Gardel, and is emblematic both of the town and of the musical genre of the Tango.
Todotango.com, a very interesting web page, shows a small collection of very old videos featuring Carlos Gardel. For his interpretation of Mi Buenos Aires Querido (and some other songs as well), use this link
This then, is some of the background information about "one of the most beautiful couple dances the world has ever seen", as the Tango is generally referred to by those who are devotees.