Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Origins of Tango


Early Bandoneon, ca. 1905
Early Bandoneon, ca. 1905

The real origins of tango music are as complicated as tango itself. The French colonists in the Dominican Republic around the 18th century made their slaves play for them while they danced "la contre dance", a French type of music where the tango's "counterpoint rhythm" originated. These slaves played also for their own pleasure, travelled around and received important influences from Cuban music and the Spanish zarzuela, that has similar musical aspects.

The first Tango ever recorded was made by Angel Villoldo and played by the French national guard in Paris. Villoldo had to record in Paris because in Argentina at the time there was no recording studio.

Early tango was played by immigrants in Buenos Aires. The first generation of tango players was called "Guardia Vieja" (the Old Guard). By the end of the 19th century, this blend of salon, European and African music was heard throughout metropolitan Buenos Aires. It took time to move into proper circles: in the early 20th century it was the favorite music of thugs and gangsters who visited the brothels, in a city with 100,000 more men than women (in 1914). The complex dances that arose from this rich music reflects the habit of men to practice tango together in groups, expressing both machismo and sexual desire, leading to the distinct mix of sensitivity and aggressiveness of the form. The music was played on portable instruments: flute, guitar and violin trios, with bandoneón arriving at the end of the 19th century. The organito, a portable player-organ, broadened the popularity of certain songs. Eduardo Arolas was the major instrument of the bandoneón's popularization, with Vicente Greco soon standardizing the tango sextet as consisting of piano, double bass, two violins and two bandoneóns. Like many forms of popular music, the tango was associated with the underclass, and the better-off Argentines tried to restrict its influence. In spite of the scorn, some, like writer Ricardo Güiraldes, were fans. Güiraldes played a part in the international popularization of the tango, which had conquered the world by the end of World War I, and wrote a poem ("Tango") which describes the music as the "all-absorbing love of a tyrant, jealously guarding his dominion, over women who have surrendered submissively, like obedient beasts".

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