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The Tango, a fascinating production of Latin culture. Part 1.

Updated on May 17, 2014

Decorative Art in Buenos Aires, the Fileteado

This famous style of decorative art is inseparable from the classic Tango. It is called Fileteado
This famous style of decorative art is inseparable from the classic Tango. It is called Fileteado | Source

Colorful Tango

Caminito, a famous street
Caminito, a famous street | Source

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

Tango music scores
Tango music scores | Source

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, where I bought several printed collections. 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!

On the streets of San Telmo, Buenos Aires
On the streets of San Telmo, Buenos Aires | Source
The Kiss
The Kiss | Source
Posters of Carlos Gardel
Posters of Carlos Gardel | Source

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

Without the Bandoneon, the Tango would not be the same!
Without the Bandoneon, the Tango would not be the same! | Source

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., 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.

The Tango and Carolos Gardel are inseparable!

Three cultural elements of Buenos Aires: the art of Filetedo, the Tango and Carlos Gardel
Three cultural elements of Buenos Aires: the art of Filetedo, the Tango and Carlos Gardel | Source


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    • poetryman6969 profile image

      poetryman6969 3 years ago

      It's sexy so I like it for that reason.

    • joanveronica profile image

      Joan Veronica Robertson 3 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi Hendrika many thanks for your nice comment. Yes indeed, there are various variations to the Tango. I no longer dance either (old age!) but I have always enjoyed playing the music, it is very fullfilling. Glad you like this post!

    • Hendrika profile image

      Hendrika 3 years ago from Pretoria, South Africa

      Thank you for taking the time to research the Tango. I love all kinds of dance, even I am not able to dance anymore! Old age. I never new there is a difference between the ballroom Tango and the traditional.

    • joanveronica profile image

      Joan Veronica Robertson 3 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi Donna - another Tango music enthusiast! Astor P. is among the greats, I think. I'm more tuned into the classic Tango composers, but he is extraordinary. So happy you liked the post!

    • joanveronica profile image

      Joan Veronica Robertson 3 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi Paula, how nice to see you here. I'm so glad you like Tango, the tunes are sometimes difficult to relate to. However, I have always found it a beautiful genre. And a dream to actually play on the piano and keyboard. Thanks for the comment!

    • profile image

      Donna Cook 3 years ago

      Hi Joan, I love the music of tango. Astor Piazzolla is a personal favorite. Manuel Barrueco's guitar recordings of Piazzolla are just amazing.e

    • Paula Atwell profile image

      Paula Atwell 3 years ago from Cleveland, OH

      My parents are aficionados of Latin dance, however this is one that they do not do. I have watch it on TV and seen ice skaters dance to it and it is a passionate and fascinating dance to watch. Very interesting. :)

    • joanveronica profile image

      Joan Veronica Robertson 3 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi Jodah, many thanks for your visit and comment. And I do agreee about the score going up and down, that's why I was so surprised when I saw the 100. This hub started off quite high up in the scores, and then dropped for no reason. Now it's up again, who knows what will happen next! I'm enjoying it while it lasts. Thanks again and I'll see you.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 3 years ago from Queensland Australia

      Great hub Joan, well deserving of a 100 score. Though being of high quality doesn't always guarantee that the way they go up and down. I always love hearing your tales of Chile which I find to be an interesting part of the world. The tango is a very sensuous and exotic dance and I love to watch couples doing it well. Voted up.

    • joanveronica profile image

      Joan Veronica Robertson 3 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi Phyllis as usual, your comment has made my day. Thank you so much for your great support, it is always so welcome. When I lived in Osorno, I danced the polka a lot, it was very popular at that date and my friends were mostly of German origin. I also danced Tango, but just the salon version, not the show version. Such a fantastic beat to it, it just sways you over the dance floor. If you search my profile you will find seven more hubs on the tango, to enjoy.

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 3 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Hi Joan. You have created a wonderful hub here. I love to watch couples dancing the Tango - it is so romantic and passionate. When I was about 8 or so, my Dad taught me how to dance the polka -- we were a hit at family gatherings. I always wanted to learn the tango. You have provided so much history and information in this hub and I so enjoyed reading it. I also always love to read about your life and family. I am happy to know you got an electric keyboard to continue your music. Thank you for writing this amazing hub.

      Voted Up, across (no funny) and H+

    • joanveronica profile image

      Joan Veronica Robertson 3 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi Sunshine625 so happy for you visit and comment! Isn't this a beautiful genre?

    • joanveronica profile image

      Joan Veronica Robertson 3 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi mary615 I'm glad you like the Tango! I didn't include a video in the Hub because my focus is on the Tango as a musical and lyrical genre. Besides, the videos that are available are not the authentic, basic dance, they are "show" dances and tend to distort the true feel of this dance, which as you say, is beautiful but not "showy". Sorry! I grew up with the oldfashioned product, not the new interpretation. I will look around and see if I can find something that could be more realistic.

    • Sunshine625 profile image

      Linda Bilyeu 3 years ago from Orlando, FL

      It takes two to tango! Fabulous hub! :)

    • mary615 profile image

      Mary Hyatt 3 years ago from Florida

      The only Tango I have seen danced is in the movies. I think it is a beautiful dance.

      I'm a little disappointed you did not include a video on this wonderful Hub, or did I miss it???Voted this UP, etc. and shared.

    • joanveronica profile image

      Joan Veronica Robertson 4 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi DDE many thanks for your visit and comment. The tango has a long and varied history, and all of it is fascinating. See you!

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 4 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      I have not learned tango you enlightened me on such an interesting culture.

    • joanveronica profile image

      Joan Veronica Robertson 4 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi, Daisy Mariposa many thanks for your visit and comment. I love the Tango, but more as a musical genre than the elaborate dance. That is beautiful to watch, but I've never really learnt it. The Tango is a dream to play on the piano or keyboard, that's my great love!

    • Daisy Mariposa profile image

      Daisy Mariposa 4 years ago from Orange County (Southern California)


      Thanks for publishing this very interesting article. I took ballroom dancing lessons many years ago. The tango was once of the dances I learned, Unfortunately, I've forgotten everything.

    • joanveronica profile image

      Joan Veronica Robertson 4 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi Mike Robbers, so happy for your visit and comment! And doubly happy that you appreciated my efforts on an important element of the Latin culture. I find so few people have clear ideas about this area of the world, and that is so sad! There is much of value around here. I couldn't imagine living anywhere else! So thank again, and I'll see you!

    • Mike Robbers profile image

      Mike Robbers 4 years ago from London

      An interesting and well written article about tango and Latin culture.

    • joanveronica profile image

      Joan Veronica Robertson 5 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi Marisa, welcome to my Hubs! It was great of you to stop by, and your comment is full of interesting details. Your idea about the "fileteado" is really good, I still have to finish the series I'm doing now, but that could be next on the list! Have a good day (or night)! Thanks sgsin for your comment.

    • Marisa Wright profile image

      Kate Swanson 5 years ago from Sydney

      Great description of your parents doing the 'salon' tango while everyone watched. It's a pity tango has become all about those fancy leg flourishes, because my husband thinks tango is too complicated and won't learn it. if I could just find someone who teaches good old-fashioned slinky salon tango, I think he'd love it and I would certainly love to dance it with him!

      I also identified with the comment about losing your piano. I played the piano all the time in my youth, but once I left home at 19, I lost access to one. I did buy an electronic keyboard again when I was in my thirties, but then moved and had to sell it, and haven't had the space or time to get another. Maybe it's time!

      I was intrigued by the "fileteado" artwork at the top of the Hub - maybe you should do a Hub about that?

    • joanveronica profile image

      Joan Veronica Robertson 5 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi, Movie Master, many thanks for your visit and the vote! I' m so happy to find another tango lover, and I would like to mention that there are 8 Hubs in all in my Tango series for you to enjoy! All of them have lyrics in English, with my own original translations.

    • Movie Master profile image

      Movie Master 5 years ago from United Kingdom

      Hello Joan, I started ballroom dancing when I was about 9 years old, my favourite dance has always been the tango - I love listening to tango music, it just makes me want to get up and dance!

      The history and background is so interesting, thank you and voted up.

    • joanveronica profile image

      Joan Veronica Robertson 5 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi, thank you for the visit and the comment, I'm so glad you liked it! Have a good experience with the Tango! By the way, that is the first of a series of 8 articles, so help yourself! Be happy!

    • Kosmo profile image

      Kelley 5 years ago from California

      I love to watch good tango dancers. Thanks very much for the introduction to tango. Hasta luego!

    • joanveronica profile image

      Joan Veronica Robertson 5 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi Angela, glad you read and liked it! Maybe you could wave some magic over it! You seem to do that very well. Thanks for the visit and the comment. Be happy and enjoy the Tango.

    • Angela Brummer profile image

      Angela Brummer 5 years ago from Lincoln, Nebraska

      What an amazing topic and artilce!

    • Pavlo Badovskyy profile image

      Pavlo Badovskyi 5 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

      I noticed and going to read all :-)

    • joanveronica profile image

      Joan Veronica Robertson 5 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi again Pavlo, many thanks for your visit and your comment! I want to tell you that I have written EIGHT Hubs about Tango, and I love them all! Hopefully many readers will also love them! Have a good day!

    • Pavlo Badovskyy profile image

      Pavlo Badovskyi 5 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

      I never loved latin dances until the time my son "fall in love" with cha-cha-cha and rumba. I had voluntary or much more involuntary to learn lot of things about Latin dances. But Tango was always some kind of enigma to me. It is a hidden passion, it is a dance which gives you a hint and helps to show your love. This article was very interesting because it not only tells about tango, it describes your own feelings about it. I like and share it .

    • joanveronica profile image

      Joan Veronica Robertson 6 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi Marcelo, I am truly happy to read your comment! Not only have you written it in English so beautifully, you have expressed such nice sentiments. Thank and be happy!

    • profile image

      Marcelo 6 years ago

      Dear Joan!. Excellent article!,you have a very interesting point of view. You always amaze me with your extraordinary knowledge. I think that you should participate in the tv-show: Who wants to be a millionare?.

      Best Regards


    • pongogirl2 profile image

      Jasmine Pena 6 years ago from California, USA

      Tango is a really interesting form of dance:)I've seen dancers dance to it and its really lively:) love it!

    • joanveronica profile image

      Joan Veronica Robertson 6 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Thank you so much for your comment and the follow! There is a second part to the series on the tango, which includes my free translations of some of the lyrics. I would be very interested in your opinion about these lyrics.

    • alliemacb profile image

      alliemacb 6 years ago from Scotland

      This is a really great hub. I love the Tango, but have never tried it. There are some classes running at my local community centre and I may just be inspired enough now to give it a try. Voted up and interesting.

    • joanveronica profile image

      Joan Veronica Robertson 6 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi Claudio, nice to hear from you. I'm rather surprised the Tango did not come up during our multiple conversations on just about everything, while you were preparing for the TOEFL. I usually tend to include topics I really know about, in that kind of class, as a help to my students to become used to absorbing "a bit of everything", which in turn increases the use of vocabulary. Anyway, I'm glad you liked it! Best wishes for your Doctorate studies!

    • profile image

      Claudio Muller 6 years ago

      Dear Joan,

      Once again, your article is really good. I never thought you knew all this about Tango. Now a can say "I had an English teacher who teaches and plays the piano well".

      Best rergards,

      Claudio Muller.

    • profile image

      Jael Cabrera Saavedra 6 years ago

      Yes Joan, I Hope to see You soon . I hope to return study enghish the next year. I recently arrived to Concepcion because I studied cardiology care nursing in Santiago. This year will recover "all kinds" of energy.

      in relation to tango,I love it, love his music passion, interpretation and elegance of the dance. I always remember the film perfume de mujer and this may show only an extract of the above.

      Best regards

    • joanveronica profile image

      Joan Veronica Robertson 6 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi, Jael, I'm so glad to hear from you again! I know you like listening to music, and I'm glad you liked my article on the Tango. Your comment contributes to showing how Tango gets into your very bloodstream!

      Thank you again. Maybe I will see you sometime soon?

    • profile image

      Jael Cabrera Saavedra 6 years ago

      Joan, thanks for sharing your music experience. Relate the history of tango requires knowledge and history, but relate our own musical history; this requires challenge and passion...

      Tango is something spectacular, breathtaking, awesome ...

      thanks for your experience

    • joanveronica profile image

      Joan Veronica Robertson 6 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi, Julio, thank you for your comment and for visiting my article! I hope you will enjoy the Tangoi for many years to come.

    • profile image

      Julio Tobar 6 years ago

      Joan, it´s very interesting, how from something so simple, somebody can makes something so beautiful? definitely you write in an involving way.

    • joanveronica profile image

      Joan Veronica Robertson 6 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi Singhi, you must certainly learn to tango! Just to feel that lovely rythm vibrating through your movements is a life experience! Thank you for your comment, and good luck on your Tango experience.

    • profile image

      Singhi 6 years ago

      Hi Joan!

      I liked the way you exposed your own experience and a historical background of tango at the same time. It made your article much more personal =)

      I hope to learn how to dance tango some day, but first, I need to convince my boyfriend heheh



    • joanveronica profile image

      Joan Veronica Robertson 6 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi, teacher12345! Thanks for visiting and for your uplifting comment. I am hoping to write several articles more about specific Tangos, that have some special meaning or outstanding characteristics. As a Chilean of British descent, I am not overly fond of Argentine, but the Tango is a special aspect of that culture, and is so international now, that it can stand alone, and continue to fascinate everybody that comes in contact with it.

    • joanveronica profile image

      Joan Veronica Robertson 6 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi Susana, thank you for visiting my page! As usual your comment raises my spirits.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 6 years ago

      This is a beautiful dance and one that really gets the heart beating. Your hub has a good deal of history and music background that is quite interesting. I didn't realize there was so much to the art of this dance. I love your personal story! Thanks for sharing.

    • profile image

      Susana 6 years ago

      As always very well written Joan. Caminito is on of my favourites too.


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