A Guest Post
By Alfredo Minetti
In this brief note I will touch on the surface of something that goes incredibly deep. It seems that we are experiencing a renaissance of tango, or better, of some isolated elements of the tango universe. Are we witnessing the establishment of a new paradigm for what tango is? Too early to say, perhaps, but it is not too early to notice that there is something missing in the picture. Different from some cultural spheres, Platense Tango (using the term here to determine not only the geographic scope of the tango we are discussing but to link both margins of the mouth of the Plate River) became a universe in itself. Not a sub-cultural phenomenon, as some argue, but a whole culture within a culture, without the prefix “sub” which makes it sound like “secondary” or “subordinate” to the main culture. Not the case with tango, it actually came to influence the mainstream culture. But, as any living entity, it had its life cycle. Or so it seemed, as it turned out to be incredibly resilient.
In its roots tango was part of the same mid 19th century pan-American phenomenon that saw the origins and establishment of so many musical styles, which became genres, throughout the Americas and especially around the main harbors, namely Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Rio de Janeiro, Port-au-Prince, La Havana, New Orleans, and many others. All these cities with their constant influx of peoples from all over the world started to brew local traditions which syncretised mainly African, European, and Indigenous traditions into local and regional ones. Tango in Argentina/Uruguay, and Choro in Rio de Janeiro are a testimony to that. But the tango, which first saw light in Buenos Aires, is not the tango that we practice nowadays. That was a habanera-like, duple meter, upbeat music, primarily for dance, played by ensembles of guitars, flutes, violins, and accordions. Something happened at the beginning of the 20th century in Argentina and Uruguay that changed that tango radically and forever.
And that was namely the successive waves of European migrants that made it to Buenos Aires and Montevideo at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th. Italians outnumbered the other nationalities, as males outnumbered females in those years, especially during the first migrations. Social conditions were way bellow acceptable standards; people were crammed together in tenement houses called conventillos, they could not keep in touch with their families back home, and the chances that they would ever get to see them again were very slim. Psychologically and emotionally Buenos Aires was in trouble. There was no place for an upbeat dance. The mood that pervaded the city pulsed at a different pace.
But to make a very long, complex, and fascinating story short. Tango moved from the feet to the lips and to the head – as simple as that! In other words, the tango that we practice today is not only tango, but rather Tango-Canción. And the second word is the one that gets overlooked, taken for granted, and sometimes forgotten altogether. Canción in Spanish means song, meaning a musical composition with poetry/lyrics and singing. In that sense, tango stopped being a music primarily for dance, and started being a music primarily for reflection and catharsis, which happen to have several other arts associated with it: dance, the fine arts, and so on. Tango was now played in four tempos and with a much slower pace. The lyrics became, starting in 1917 with Carlos Gardel’s rendition of “Mi Noche Triste”, the core of the new tango. In three minutes or less they talked, considered, reflected, and touched on every single aspect of human existence – longing, love, successes, defeats, injustices, friendship, life, death and so many others. Again, this was the product of a population which was in search of a new identity, longing places and people; this music and these lyrics ended up reflecting the sadness, melancholy, cynicism, irony, and nostalgia that pervaded the social fabric. And the great poets of tango managed to do what philosophers and anthropologists like myself could only do in lengthy dissertations, to summarize and entire existential situation or question in the three minutes that a song lasted. It was and still is a remarkable and insanely beautiful accomplishment.
There was and there is a tango for every single situation! My grandparents when teaching me about life, more often than not, quoted tango lyrics. As a matter of fact, and quoting Macedonio Fernandez, people became so dependent of these literary pieces, that if a particular situation was not contemplated by a tango (something almost impossible), and friends would discuss it and make their points, someone would say: Where is that opinion expressed? Which tango says that? While there is no tango addressing that…In other words, if something was not explained in the lyrics of a tango, either it didn’t exist or it was false (citing Gerardo Dirié a friend, intellectual, and composer, with whom I constantly brainstorm the dilemma that is tango).
The dance of tango started to promote the proximity of people in a place in which people where “alone” and lost. The encounter was mystical and magical…the embrace, a sensual and religious experience of communion. All this promoted by the poetry, the music, the way to dress, the codes of ethic, and a whole social landscape pinpointed by solitude, nostalgia, melancholy and resentment. Tango became a rational, emotive, passionate and surreal way to see, interpret, and reflect the world. It allowed for catharsis, it replaced so many century old social institutions dedicated to that.
Concluding this very brief brainstorming, it seems that in the dilemma that is tango, a lot of what is missing is being either lost in translation, or not understood, as it should be, in the first place. Is language an obstacle to communication as some researchers argue? Are Tangueros around the world nowadays really willing to engage with the world through tango? Or, as a tango says, we are all disoriented without a clue as to where to go? It seems to me that while we disregard the “canción” in tango, our feet, our hands, and our minds are operating without a purpose. Tango is, after all, as the great Enrique Discépolo said, a “sad thought that can be danced.” What is that thought?
Alfredo Minetti offers an intensive web-based tango program with individualized instruction where students can learn more about the culture, music, and history of tango. Check out his website for more information.