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Home > Articles > Patricia Paz > Argentine Tango History Articles

Patricia Paz

Argentine Tango History

2006/01/06
”A brief description of the music and dance of the Rio de la Plata”

by Patricia Paz (Translated by Barbara Bill)

The origins of the Tango come from the end of the last century, around the year 1880. What it is now considered to be one of the most exquisite and deeply moving musical forms of expression, began as short, catchy melodies played by improvisational musicians in the brothels of Buenos Aires, Argentina. The most popular melodies were requested frequently and in that manner they were committed to the memory of the musicians and the audience. These melodies were played in places other than the brothels, because in those times the musicians did not have just one place to play their music but had to play in many different places to make a living.

It is also believed that the first movements of the Argentine Tango appeared in the same way. It is true that the tango was a dance that originated between men, because of the necessity of practicing the steps. But remember, it could not be danced with decent women: this was a brothel dance. A bit later, it became a kind of erotic dance that man and woman performed perhaps as foreplay of a sex night in the brothel; at this time, the tango was not a dance performed by two dancers connected by close embrace.

Unfortunately there is no sheet music of these melodies and no way to know which were the first tango dance movements or steps. Improvisational musicians and costumers were the protagonists of what would become one of the world’s most popular dances.

The closest style of music to the incipient tango music would be a “Habanera Cubana” and a “tango Andaluz”. This last one is a product of the mixture of the music that sailors from Cadiz took to Cuba and the Cuban music. If you have the chance sometime to hear this music, you will find reminiscences of our Argentine Tango.

The Tanguillo espanol, arrived in Argentina through the Spanish Thespian companies that brought “cantaoras flamencas” (Flamenco Singers) in their troupe. So, we could say that the Argentine Tango has its roots in these two musical expressions and finally in the “Milonga campera Argentina” (Argentine country Milonga) and the “Payada”, this was a kind of song that the “Gaucho cantor” (cowboy) sung with his guitar improvising music and lyrics.

Now, we said how the tango began in the Rio de la Plata. From there, the music and dance grew very quickly; it became music, not just for lonely men but also for those with a wife and family. These men also visited the brothels. Through them, the tango reached into the family anteroom. And then eventually to the salon.

The tango became accepted in Argentina and was danced in the salon for first time around 1914 after an official group was sent to Paris, France to dance for the Pope. Paris was the city that regulated international arts and the culture in those times. The Tango and the dancers had a warm welcome and the dance was accepted by the Parisian populace. Of course, what the dancers danced and what the Parisians and the Pope saw had nothing had to do with the real Argentine tango that was being danced in Buenos Aires. What they saw was a dance stripped of its eroticism and soul.

Many of the first lyrics of the Argentine Tangos had a “pornographic” or sexual connotation. However, with the arrival of the new century and the huge wave of immigrants that arrived in the port city of Buenos Aires, there was a change in the population that brought a feeling of melancholy, solitude and nostalgia for the homelands they had left to escape the wars. Pascual Contursi wrote “Mi noche triste” (My night of sadness”) and with this tango introduced a new thematic tone of the tango lyrics, that was called, “sentimental tangos”.

“The moment I did surrendered my heart to you, I remember
with love and kisses so tender,
you promised you never lied,
knowing that my heart was lonely
and your promises were only,
an excuse to get my love...
and since then my life is broken
and I find myself just walking
never knowing where to go.”*


The 1920’s found Argentina in a financial crisis that we can also see in the tango lyrics. The main exponent of this time is Enrique Santos Discepolo. His most emblematic tango is “Cambalache”:

“That the world was and it will be filth,
I already know...
In the year five hundred and six
and in the year two thousand too!
There always have been thieves,
traitors and victims of fraud,
happy and bitter people,
valuables and imitations
But, that the twentieth century
is a display of insolent malice,
nobody can deny it anymore.
We live sunk in a fuzz
and in the same mud all well-worn...”*



The 1950s are called the “the Golden Age of Tango”. The orchestras of that time were magnificent; the music that they recorded is still played today as the music of the Milongas (social dance). Among the most famous orchestras are the ones directed by Armando Pontier, Osvaldo Pugliese, Anibal Troilo, Julio de Caro, Horacio Salgan,.
Mariano Mores, Astor Piazzolla, Carlos di Sarli and many more.
Among the poets and lyricists are: Homero Manzi, Alfredo Le Pera, Celedonio Flores, Homero Exposito, Horacio Ferrer, Catulo CAStillo y Pascual Contursi, some of a long list.

In the last thirty years, the dance has regained lot of world-wide importance. “The Compania de Tango Argentino”, revived the tango with a magnificent show that toured around the world during the eighties. “Forever Tango” continued this tradition and is still playing on Broadway today. These shows served to showcase the tango “fantasia” that has entranced so many people by its beauty and elegance.

The United States, particularly, is one of the countries that holds a rapidly growing and vibrant tango community, tango foundations and tango organizations with many American teachers that have embraced this dance as their life and livelihood. The Argentine Tango doesn’t require one to be Argentine to fall in love with it; it will seduce anyone.

The Argentine tango, is not just a dance, but a living history of the city of Buenos Aires and its population. It is part of the Argentine Folklore because it has already 150 years of life and also because it represents Argentine culture and tells the story of who and what we really are.

*Translations by Alberto Paz http://www.planet-tango.com/letras.htm
Patricia Paz: Patricia Paz is native of Argentina and teaches Tango and Salsa Rueda. You can visit her on her Website: http://salsatangoson.com

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