The tango, which is a popular, globalized dance, fails to be examined on the basis of its origins. The tumultuous history of the Argentinean tango involved the pervasion through social classes. The origins of the Argentinean tango are based upon the evidence of several theories, one of which, is the theory of African slave descent, is widely accepted by the music community. Also, the dance itself did not appear immediately, but rather its elements were derived from dances such as the polka, mazurka, habanera, and milonga.
Tango music is inextricably linked to the historic foundations of the dance itself and foreign cultural influences. In order to elucidate its roots, there must be an examination of the development of the tango’s intricate musical and cultural history. Various dances contributed to the formation of the tango dance. Its history is bound in the popular dances cited within Argentinean history. Argentina’s economy was dependent on business transactions with Europe. The importation of textiles, machinery, and luxury goods were valued, as well as the exchange of fashion, music, and dance.
Such influences, music and dance of Europe in particular, were pivotal in the invention of the tango. In 1816, the first new European dance, the waltz, was introduced in Argentina. The Argentinean elite held this dance as the proper, appropriate way of dance within their social class. This was followed years later by the polka, mazurka, and the schottische. It is the habanera and the polka, which were designated as the factors that lead to the formation of the milonga, a local Argentinean dance.
The milonga is cited to be “the embryonic form of the tango before the new dance was given a name” (Nouzeilles 2002:197). Both the milonga and the habanera are apart of the tango’s ancestry. It has been observed that the tango derived, “…exaggerated movements and abrupt suggestive pauses” (Collier 1992:97) from these dances. Although the milonga and the habanera were observed to be significant contributions to the formation of the Argentinean tango, it must be recognized that several theories suggest Portuguese and African descent, as well as onomatopoeia elements.
It must be noted that the African slaves were first brought to Argentina in the 1770s to either serve as domestic servants in Argentinean homes or to carry out hard labor. From this, a theory surfaced, that the term “tango” is associated with the slave trade. It is inferred that at Sao Tome (in the Gulf of Guinea), an important slave-trading center, the Portuguese used this term among the slaves and the slaves took this the word from their captors. The onomatopoeia theory holds that tango sounds like a drumbeat due to its syllabic structure. However, this theory is generally dismissed.
One theory in particular cites that the tango is of African descent. This conjecture proves its relevance in the exploration of the tango’s cultural origins. This widely accepted theory is based upon findings of Ricardo Rodriguez Molas, who stated, “…in certain African tongues that word tango means ‘closed place’ or ‘reserved ground. ’” (Nouzeilles 2002:197) He also remarks that the word “tango” can be found in both Angola and Male. Many Spanish American Empires referred to the word “tango” as a place where African slaves assembled for dancing purposes.
This is directly correlated to the Argentinean usage of the term in reference to black dances. Jose Gobello, a well-respected historian of the tango, mentioned information about the conception of the tango. In 1913, he explains that within the first Buenos Aires circulating newspaper that Viejo Tanguero wrote the article in the Critica claiming that in 1877, “…the African Argentines of Modongo…improvised a new dance, which they called the tango…couples danced it apart rather than in an embrace. (Nouzeilles 2002: 198) Due to the incorporation of conspicuous features from the milonga, many viewed this new dance as a new way to perform the milonga. Also, at this time, the dance itself spread throughout the various districts within Argentina. The tango began as a dance that was practiced by those of the urban poor and was viewed as socially unacceptable by the upper echelon of Argentinean society. It emerged during a time of urbanization, “…a time when the ephemeral culture of the outer barrios reflected both native/immigrant and city/countryside contrasts and tensions. (Collier 1992: 94) Also, the dance was viewed as extremely sexual, and thus was viewed with much disdain from the upper class of Argentina. Although the population of Africans was declining in Buenos Aires since the time of the slave trade, there continued to exist communal celebratory festivals in which these dances took place. The tango became distant from the association with the urban poor and was noted to have “movements employed in the tango…viewed as a measure of respectability. (Kinney 1914: 292) Such a transition came to be due to white imitations of black dances in these festivals. Participation in these festivals led to a successive integration of the imitation of the tango into their dance halls and saloons. The tango did not become truly respected and of the middle and upper classes until the Argentine prime minister in Paris, a novelist named Enrique Laretta, encouraged the dance. This then sparked a chain of events, which propagated the tango throughout European capitals to be viewed as worthy of their attention.
It was not until this prime minister endorsed the tango that the dance pervaded the social hierarchy in Argentina. A combination of artists, cultures, and the introduction of instruments are included in the musical origins of the tango. During the 19th century, the earliest evidence of tango music was an ensemble performing with a guitar, violin, and flute performing on the stage in Buenos Aires, Argentina. At the end of the 19th century, the bandoneon, the tango accordion, arrived from Germany and was integrated into the rhythmic sounds of tango music.
The bandoneon is noted as, “a distinctive feature of most tango ensembles” (Miller 2008: 207) and as “…a concertina, whose popularity was spread by the tango. ” (Olsen 1998:2) In the 1890s, the oldest tango, which is still in the repertoire of tango orchestras, was written by Rosendo Mendizabal, a pianist working in a club, and was named, after one of their regular clients who came from the province called Entre Rios. In the early 1900s, a number of bands were playing in cafes of La Boca and barrios within Argentina.
La Boca is the city, which is referred to as the place of “…the real musical birthplace of the tango…the consolidation of the archetypal tango sexlet (two bandoneon, two violins, piano…” (Collier 1992: 98) Later, in 1905, a guitarist named Angel Villoldo wrote another tango, named El Choclo. Also, it must be mentioned that at around the turn of the century, a massive immigration waves of Italians arrived at Buenos Aires, Argentina. They introduced a more lyrical style of violin playing, a characteristic of tango music.
This musical influence is cited as the “Italianization of the tango, as it has been called, also meant the introduction of new instruments – accordions and mandolins…” (Nouzeilles 2002: 207) The Argentinean tango is a fusion of a history of people and cultural components that are undocumented in the minds of those who remain loyal watchers of the dance. The historical African roots, the modification of the milonga and habanera, and the spread of the tango through various social classes are significant factors in the development of the tango.
The tango is rich in eclectic rhythms, movements, and sounds. Due to such an abounding amalgamation of elements, it cannot compare with other forms of dance and music. The musical and cultural origins are distinct and continue be clandestinely shown to its audience. The theories of the tango are of substance and prove it to be a phenomenon that must be uncovered and understood. Its influence will continue and is felt in Argentina, as well as in the media, cities, and countries around the world.