Norman Thomas di Giovanni

Notes on the Tango by Norman Thomas di Giovanni

Introduction

The Tango in Montevideo

A farewell dinner in a Montevideo restaurant on a summer night, with tables spilling out onto the pavement under the plane trees. A famous Uruguayan poet in his early forties consoles the guest of honour on the eve of his return home to Europe. Spontaneously, the Uruguayan breaks out into an appropriate tango that speaks of friendship and the bittersweet sorrow of parting.

A woman at the table listens, then interrupts with another tango. The poet begins a third. Soon they stand together, the one starting, the other joining in. The spirit is not that of a contest but of a quiet feast of nostalgia. Tango follows tango. Two hours later they still stand there, gently egging each other on. It is three o'clock in the morning.

'When you come back,' promises the poet, 'we'll get drunk for three days and three nights and I'll sing you three hundred tangos. That's how many I know. Three or four hundred.'

 

The Spirit of the Tango in Buenos Aires

An Argentine novelist comes back to his family, his home, his city, his country, his world - Buenos Aires - after seven years, seven months, and seven days of political exile in Mexico.

I meet him ten days after his return. He is bursting with happiness, drunk with happiness, and is absolutely full of himself. I ask what he's doing.

'I'm making love to Buenos Aires,' he says.

Vast, sprawling, flat Buenos Aires, the federal capital of the Argentine Republic, divided from the Province of Buenos Aires and the rest of the country by the ring road known as the General Paz. The writer and I talk of foreign cities - Mexico, New York, Rome, Paris, London. I chide him for not knowing Europe. For a moment he looks worried, inadequate, then the radiance engulfs him again, and he is able to announce emphatically, 'No, it will be twenty years before I cross the General Paz again.'

 

Jorge Luis Borges on the Tango

'Dictionaries of music give a definition of the tango that is both elementary and straightforward, but a French or a Spanish composer who correctly pieces together a “tango” finds to his astonishment that he has constructed something that Argentine ears do not recognize, that our memories do not cherish, and that our bodies reject. Without Buenos Aires evenings and nights, no tango can be made.'

 

Definition

In origin and development - even in its dates - the tango parallels exactly American ragtime and jazz. Like jazz, the tango's beginnings were lowly and illegitimate. Born on the waterfronts and in the outer slums of Buenos Aires and Montevideo, it was taken up in a variety of dance halls, dives, and whorehouses. 'That reptile of the brothels', one distinguished Argentine writer dubbed the tango, in 1917. In the same way that American blacks speak of their most intimate music as soul music, to the contemporary Argentine - and especially the man of Buenos Aires, the porteño - the tango is the expression of his soul.

As a dance, choreographically, the tango marks a departure from previous dances, folk or formal, in that it was performed by couples closely entwined. The movements involved an intimate parting and coming together again in a manner blatantly romantic and sexual. Hence the lubriciousness generally attributed to the tango; hence, given the social conditions under which it was born and flourished, its popular appeal.

 

History

The Tango's Prehistory

The tango emerged, probably not before 1880, in the River Plate port cities of Montevideo, Buenos Aires, Rosario, and La Plata. The earliest tangos were without lyrics and were danced, but its steps and figures evolved before anyone knew he was dancing the tango. Musicologists trace the tango back to the habanera, Cuban music of the late nineteenth century with similar rhythms, whose own origins stem from France. But the line of descent is not direct. Along the way, a variety of influences gave shape to what we now know as the tango. Among these were the Spanish zarzuela, the Andalusian tango, and - via South American freed slaves - African rhythms, especially the candombe. Some historians claim that the tango, as a dance, was a parody by the blacks of the politer dances of the day, such as waltzes, mazurkas, polkas, etc. The word 'tango' itself seems to be of African origin.

A reflection of the tango's complex roots is found in the fact that when at the turn of the century the first tangos were published, they were termed not only tango criollo, or Argentine tango (to distinguish it from the Andalusian), but tango-habaneras, tango-milongas, etc.

The milonga was a native forerunner. Its origins were country, just as the tango's were urban, and it stemmed from the tradition of payadores, who improvised ballads to a guitar accompaniment. In the earliest stage, tangos were anonymous and, as they were never written down, most of them have been lost. When at some point words were added to the music they followed the payador tradition - that is, they were improvised. They were also quite frequently salacious. Borges remembers these lines from a milonga of the period:

You may escape from my balls,

but from my prick - never!

One can hear quite clearly in a number of the earliest recorded tangos traces of Spanish zarzuela and occasionally bits of waltz and even ragtime. It would still be some years before the true tango was defined. Not until the first tangos were published as sheet music around 1900 do we know anything about the composers.

 

Social Factors

The city of Buenos Aires counted a population of 165,000 in 1865; by 1914, the figure had swollen to one and a half million. Proportionally, the same was true for smaller Montevideo. At the same time, all along the River Plate people from the country, displaced by new forms of rural exploitation, were flocking to the cities. Factories burgeoned; so did conventillos, or slum tenements. In 1919, close to half the dwellings of Buenos Aires were conventillos.

The wealthy, elegant Barrio Norte began to grow after the yellow fever epidemic of the 1870s. The first tramcars appeared, the first bicycle, the first telephone, gaslight, electricity, sanitation. The exclusive Jockey Club was created in the 1880s, and the city began to be modernized in the European style. Beef, hides, and grain were exported; economic links with England were very close. The counterpart to this financial boom was the working-class neighbourhoods and forty thousand new factories and whole hard-bitten suburbs where the teamsters and slaughterhouse workers lived in smouldering poverty. Populist parties grew as well as socialism and anarchism.

Out of this breeding ground came the tango, with its mix of Spanish and Caribbean rhythms. In twenty years, such was its genuine popularity that it swept away all the music and dance before it - the milongas and waltzes and polkas. In the same way that Buenos Aires and Montevideo were making Argentines and Uruguayans of Spaniards and Italians and making city dwellers of rural people, so too the tango became more and more native, more and more River Plate.

With his elbows on the filthy table

his eyes lost in a dream,

the wop Domingo Pulenta thinks

about the tragedy of his having emigrated.

So run the lyrics of one early tango. A historian writes that 'Foreigners and native Argentines invented the tango in sad and poverty-stricken conditions on the tumble-down edges of Buenos Aires; they had no formal preparation and little technical skill.'

 

The Old Guard

The classical tango, dating from about 1900 to 1920, is quite unlike the sentimental tango that is widely known outside Argentina and that is a late development and a degeneration. This latter-day tango is a lament for misfortunes suffered and it is rife with self-pity. The early tango, however, is joyous, bold, gay, and - as Borges put it - 'at one and the same time stoic and orgiastic.'

The career of Angel Villoldo spans perfectly this classic era of the tango, and his life and personality typify the spirit of the age. He was born between 1864 and 1869, worked as a typesetter on the newspaper La Nación and wrote plays on the side. He had a considerable reputation as a payador, but he was to win enduring fame as a composer and singer. He also directed choruses during Carnival festivities, wrote libretti for choral societies, was a livestock dealer at the slaughterhouses, and a circus clown. During the Centenery celebrations, in 1910, Villoldo sang in several restaurants, bars, and cafés, in various parts of Buenos Aires.

Here are some examples of his bold lyrics sketching city life:

Wanting to win the grand lottery,

Juanita bought a ticket

ending in the number eight,

but what came up was seven.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Reverend Jaifío was found

In Lavalle Square

The night before last

With a black girl in his carriage.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Day before yesterday five girls

came to me for confession,

and after having confessed

they kissed my ... girdle.

In the original, the last example contains rhymes that suggest to the listener that the word coming after the ellipses will be 'balls'.

Villoldo often met with tram drivers at one of their terminals, and in the early years of this century he wrote a famous tango about the tramcars. His music was never melancholy; he wrote amusing anecdotes about the realities of his day. He was an inveterate womanizer and left this self-portrait in one of his best-known tangos:

I am a son of Buenos Aires,

nicknamed El Porteñito;

I'm one of the cleverest Argentines

ever to be born in this country.

When some friend of mine

plays a tango on his guitar,

there's no one in the world

who dances it better than me.

There's no one my equal, either,

when it comes to loving women....

Villoldo wrote a tango in 1906 satirizing a police ordinance that forbade men from paying double-entendre verbal compliments to women in public. The penalty was a rather stiff fine of fifty pesos.

Police headquarters have decreed

an ordinance on morals,

saying that a man must abstain

from speaking sweet words to a woman.

In 1908, Villoldo sang in a café concert on the famous street corner of Suárez and Necochea, in the Boca, where the early tango flourished. He accompanied himself on the guitar and often, at the same time, played both guitar and harmonica. He travelled to Paris, in 1905, to sing and record his tangos on phonograph records. He recorded for Victor, Odeon, Columbia, and so forth. He died of cancer, in Buenos Aires, in 1919. His era died with him.

 

Where Tangos Were Played

So lascivious were the steps and figures of the tango that one pope banned it and no decent home would tolerate it. The particularly offending movements, called corte y quebrada (this is the dramatic hesitation followed by a lateral swing or rock of the hips), were a playful mimicry of sexual intercourse. Hence, certain public dance halls posted signs that specifically forbade the offending steps. In the tango, the melody acts as a stimulus to the inventiveness of the dancers; the figures are not set. Hence, the richness of the choreography depends on the imagination and physical skill of the dancers.

In some verses of the era, quoted by Borges in his book on Evaristo Carriego, the poet of the slums of Buenos Aires in the early part of the twentieth century, we read:

The bride's uncle, who has taken it upon himself

to see that the dancing stays proper, says,

a bit shocked, that suggestive dance steps

are not allowed - even in fun.

'For modesty apart, not that any of these louts

would know what I'm talking about, this house

may be poor - there's no denying that -

poor as anything, but respectable.'

Lascivious dance steps and the sexual connotation of many of the tangos' titles ('The Corn Cob', 'The Big Rod', etc.) have been noted by all historians. Old photographs show two men dancing the tango together on the street. What they were actually doing was trying out various intricate steps to perfect what they would do with whores that same night in brothels. They would not practice at home so as not to offend their wives and daughters. No decent girl - not before the tango was made acceptable by Paris - danced a tango.

The tango was played and danced in a great variety of locales. These were:

Salones. Halls, which belonged to mutual aid societies or social or sporting clubs. These functioned on weekends or on patriotic holidays. Some were the province of a particlar immigrant group. A certain famous salón, the Rodríguez Peña, gave its name to one of the early great tangos. There, on Mondays, dance contests were held in elegant dress. Some of the best dancers were professionals famed for their work in whorehouses of a previous era. The best musicians and some of the first small orchestras played in these halls. The atmosphere was colourful. One salón was run by Charlie the Englishman, whose wife was María La Vasca, who had her own highly-reputed brothel.

Casitas. Private homes. The word is a euphemism. Individuals, either owners or tenants, operated these, a group of friends renting a place for a single night, where they danced and caroused. They were clandestine brothels, really, and whoever ran them hired the necessary number of girls for the evening. María La Vasca's, at Carlos Calvo 2721, was one of the most famous of these, functioning from the 1890s on. What may be the first tango still in the repertory, 'El entrerriano', was born at María La Vasca's. 'Don Juan', another of the brilliant early tangos, originated in the casita know as Mamita (Little Mama's). In Montevideo, these casitas were known as pensiones.

Hotels and tearooms. The tango 'Gran Hotel Victoria' was written for the opening of the hotel of the same name, in Córdoba, in January 1906. Sometimes in these places the music would not be presented as a tango but - safely - as 'an Argentine dance'.

Cabarets. Armenonville, Moulin Rouge, L'Abbaye, Montmartre, Maxim, Royal Pigall, etc. One, the Palais de Glaçe, was built as an ice-skating rink.

Restaurants. El Americano. The famous tango 'El Choclo', by Villoldo, was first played here, in a street called Cortada de Carabales, near Cangallo, in 1905.

Summer restaurants. Open-air places. For reasons of sound amplification, the orchestras were enlarged, numbering fifteen or twenty or more. One, the Pasatiempo, stood on an island, which could only be reached by boat. Another, the Rose Pavilion, functioned during the afternoon for ladies and gentlemen and young girls and at night under circumstances less suited to the family. Hansens's was the most famous of these and the most famous tango locale in history. It originated in 1875 or thereabouts. It was a family restaurant and beer hall by day and a dance hall by night.

Cafés and bars. Here the tango was listened to, not danced. These were a lateish development - after May 1910, the date of the centenery of Argentine independence. Some of these places had waitresses, who would dance with the clientele. Very numerous in Buenos Aires and Montevideo.

Academias. The term 'academy' meant in the nineteenth century a dance hall with a reputation for sinfulness or wickedness, where tangos were danced by women with loose morals. Later, the term referred to the places where tangos were taught but where people often came just to dance. Usually the women professionals were paid by the dance.

Brothels. Supposedly, the tango did not exist in Buenos Aires brothels because dancing, alcoholic beverages, etc., were prohibited in them by local ordinance. Nonetheless, in periods of relaxed vigilance, tangos were danced in certain dives where whores gathered and also in officially registered brothels. Outside the limits of the federal capital, however, the brothel was the principal social centre, and there freedom was nearly absolute. One of the most famous was called The Red Lantern. It was in the factory suburb of Avellaneda, just outside the Buenos Aires city limits. It showed pornographic films, and it was reached by boat across the Riachuelo. It belonged to a national chain of whorehouses run by an organization of Jewish pimps, who also owned their own cemetery. Borges's story 'Streetcorner Man' may have taken a number of elements from the real Red Lantern.

Perigundines. Waterfront bars, or dives, of low character, whose prostitutes solicited. Such places were supposedly eliminated from Buenos Aires before 1900 but they continued to exist throughout the Argentine well into the Thirties.

Ollas. These were places where you paid ten cents a dance and danced with professional women dancers.

Formativos. Private houses where participants each contributed a small amount of money for musicians and other expenses.

Street corners. It was not uncommon for various dances to be held on street corners. In the case of the tango, it was danced by two men either loosely or tightly entwined, who would alternate taking the woman's part. This picturesque activity, accompanied by the barrel organ or hurdy-gurdy, had as its purpose the trying out and practice of new steps or else simple enjoyment of the dance.

 

Tangomania in Paris

By two routes, the tango reached Paris around 1910, where it quickly became the new craze and replaced all the other dances of the day. This happened not on the popular level but among the aristocracy and in the most sophisticated and refined salons, in the most expensive restaurants, and the most exclusive private parties.

First the tango arrived via the crews of ships carrying frozen River Plate beef to the port of Marseilles, whose dance halls and bordellos resembled those of Buenos Aires and Montevideo. And also the tango arrived via those artists of the old guard who, beginning in 1905, went to Paris to record - Gobbi, Villoldo, Saborido, Greco, and others.

The importance of this phenomenon was that Paris legitimized the tango, and after its acceptance in the highest circles there - from whence came all fashion - it could be taken up by the middle class of Buenos Aires. In 1913, the tango was even presented to and defended before the Academie Française by one of its members. Free of the taint of brothels, the tango was now referred to as 'tango de salón'.

 

The Twenties

Around 1917 came a new development - the tango-canción, or tango-as-song. Now the lyrics became important. At the same time, they left behind the tough, swaggering stance of the old guard and began to turn sentimental and self-pitying. 'Mi noche triste' (My Sad Night), with words by Pascual Contursi, is the first tango-canción, and it sets the pattern.

My girl walked out on me

in the prime of my life,

leaving my soul wounded

and thorns in my heart....

For me there's no consolation,

and that's why I'm getting drunk -

to try to forget her love.

Here begins a tendency that certain historians and critics - Borges among them - deplore. 'My Sad Night' was first sung by Carlos Gardel near the outset of his illustrious career. At once, Gardel became known as one of the creators of the tango-canción.

Today when someone begins to tell you a sad tale of personal misfortune, you cut him short saying, 'Please, no tangos.'

It was in the Twenties that musicianship was enormously improved. The players were now thoroughgoing professionals. The orchestras were larger, and the dance was simplified. At this time, the tango was played by sextets made up of two violins, piano, two concertinas, and a bass.

 

Gardel

Carlos Gardel was born in Toulouse, in 1890, and came to Buenos Aires as a small boy to live with his unmarried mother in a slum tenement in the heart of the city.

Gardel began singing early on and immediately rose to fame. Between 1919 and 1935, he made fifteen to eighteen films (a number of them in New York) and countless recordings. He died in an aeroplane fire on a runway in Ecuador, in 1935, at the height of his career. He went rapidly from cult figure to myth. Gardel had an extraordinary voice ('He sings better all the time,' it is commonly said of him even decades after his death), a big smile, and a warm heart. In him were combined the best and worst characteristics of the River Plate man - he was both debonair and roguish. He is greatly admired for his success (this is very Argentine), having been the first Argentine to sing and act his way into the world. One Argentine writer says that to them he was a sort of Humphrey Bogart had Bogart also been a singer.

Gardel stands as a symbol of the city - its ports, its slums, its unsavoury nightlife; at the same time, he stands for the city's other side, its refined taste - evening dress, the Colón Opera House, Parisian travel, champagne, and beautiful women. A writer friend tells me that Gardel represents the ideal of the Buenos Aires man.

Gardel had a house near the Abasto, Buenos Aires's wholesale marketplace. It still stands, today owned and exploited by a consortium whose head is a Japanese concertina player and impresario who takes tango groups to play in the night clubs of Tokyo. There is a two-block-long street by the Abasto named for Gardel.

Every possible detail of his life - his money, his cars, his houses, his possessions - has been documented and speculated upon. Did Gardel wear glasses? Did he play he guitar? What brand of hair pomade did he use? Did he have grey hair? False teeth? Play the horses? Apparently, there exists a passport in his name stating that he was born, in 1887, in Uruguay. Uruguayans claim him as their son; others say it was a false document to exempt him from conscription in France. Gardel had quite a following of women, but he never married. His mother lived with him. She died, in Buenos Aires, in 1943.

 

The Forties and After

This is the last valuable decade in the tango's history. The outstanding figure of the period was Aníbal Troilo, an orchestra leader and concertina player, who was to the music of the tango what Gardel was to singing. Troilo has been called the Duke Ellington of the tango.

In part, the tango's decline is due to the impact made by phonograph records from abroad, which introduced new music into Argentine life and challenged the tango's popularity. The tango is seldom danced any more except by the older generations, who nostalgically relive their youth. In the citys' centre, places to dance the tango are no more. Night spots where the tango is still played, such as the Viejo Almacén, could not exist if it were not for tourists.

One lone figure, Astor Piazzola, goes on composing. An old man, he is the last link with the tango tradition. His compositions have been likened to chamber music.

Natural attrition is also responsible for the tango's decline. The tango reached its height in the Twenties and Thirties and simply could not be bettered. The sentimentality slipped into vulgarity.

 

Summary

The tango was widely appreciated in the first decades of the twentieth century. The dance-song reached its culmination in Buenos Aires. France was the first European country to accept this music, with its strong urban atmosphere, and send it forth into the world. It was no mere accident that the tango should take root in a country of immigrants and in a mixture of diverse cultures. The unequal struggle for life was the immigrant's preoccupation, and the tango - with words - reflects his passions, disillusionments, and his everyday concerns. This dance-song, in tango tempo, expressed the sentiments of a people. Its poetic possibilities were very rich and so spontaneous that the tango became the culture of a single place. Around it grew up an urban folklore.

1984

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