360° Analysis

Tango: A Metaphor for Argentine Culture


September 20, 2012 15:59 EDT

Tango has had a phenomenal influence, not only in Argentina, but around the world. 

“… Guajira-style flamenco music gave its melody for the milonga’s birth; the habanera, its rhythm; the black tango, its dance. That milonga, morphed by this triple influence, was called “tango” because of its mix of black and Andalusian tango.”

—José Gobello

The Tango’s Genealogy

“A tango is a sad thought that dances.”

—Enrique Santos Discépolo

In the 1880s Buenos Aires underwent a radical transformation in its architecture, language, show business, entertainment, clothing, and food.  The tango was born out of its effervescent socio-cultural setting – the suburban murkiness of a city that took in millions of immigrants: “creoles”, workers, artisans, sailors,  and textile workers. This was a colorful, transitory world where lonely men went to brothels and dances in search of leisure and distraction.

The tango’s roots make it a song for marginalized people. Most great tango writers come from the working class. The tango’s vibrant beat fuses traditions of European immigrants, South-American natives and descendants of African slaves. The tango is the product of a concrete historical process: a biological and cultural mix that took place in the urban suburbs of Buenos Aires from the end of the nineteenth century until the 1960s. The soul of Buenos Aires is expressed through this song. The tango reflects its inhabitants’ way of being and its folklore.

Upon arriving in South America, millions of European immigrants felt helpless in their new continent, and melancholic about the old one. They abandoned their sorrow to this music that became the world’s symbol for Argentina, and Argentina’s symbol for Buenos Aires. It is important to clarify that Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, was also a pioneer of tango. The tango’s rhythm followed the development of Río de la Plata’s culture on both sides of the river.

To analyze the tango phenomenon we must understand the cultural womb of its society. Río de la Plata’s culture was marked by successive waves of massive immigration, creating extraordinary diversity when mixed with the native culture.

Understanding Argentine Identity Through Tango

“Tango (…) The people of Buenos Aires recognize themselves in it absolutely.”

—Jorge Luis Borges

Many tangos use the lunfardo, a stunning mixture of expressions from the late nineteenth century. The lunfardo came from the expressions of millions of immigrants of different nationalities, all piled up in the working neighborhoods of Buenos Aires.

Javier Barreiro defines lunfardo in his book “El Tango”. Essentially syncretic, this jargon takes vocabulary from the Spanish gipsies, indigenous languages (particularly Guaraní), French, English, Portuguese, and especially Italian dialects. It is also abound with vesres (the inversion of syllabic order), puns, apheresis, prolepsis, metaphors and other devices. Despite its century-old birth in the immigrants’ jargon, many of these terms now form part of the regular language of Buenos Aires’ inhabitants today.

Enrique Santos Discépolo (1901- 1951) is considered the greatest poet in tango. He was inclined to use many of the words and expressions of the lunfardo, as heard in his immortal tango, Cambalache, a fierce social critique of Argentina in 1935. Though many years have passed, his assessment remains pertinent to today’s world. Here lies his immortal significance.

Paradoxically, Discepolín’s tangos were badly received from 1927 to 1935 when they first came out. They later enjoyed vast success, even starting a true revolution. For the first time, a thoughtful, protesting, opinionated, bitter, satirical and ironically humorous song had emerged.

The Tango Conquers Paris

“Whistling old tangos about the melancholic destinies of coming and going is one of my many ways of feeling like I’m still in Buenos Aires.”

—Julio Cortázar

The tango docked in Paris in 1908. Paris’s tango emerged in a different social context than in Buenos Aires. It appeared in the brothels of Montmartre as the erotic dance to “set the mood” for clients. Nevertheless, tango fever soon overtook the saloons. “Academies” for teaching tango abounded – even prestigious men of letters and academics took over its instruction. Enrique Santos Discépolo, tango’s greatest poet, captured the phenomenon when he affirmed that “the tango’s spell plunged into the soul of Paris as if it were part of its vitality.”

As for the tango’s meteoric ascension from suburban Buenos Aires to the City of Light, Discépolo said, “The tango was born on its feet. It was a dance. But it began winning over the port’s soul until it got to the flower of its lips. It acquired a grand wealth of expression. It turned into song. And in the simplicity of a spontaneous thing, it was perfect. But it did even more. It crossed the pond and got to Europe. It triumphed in Paris and other cities, and now it’s here for good.”

In 1913, Paris was in the midst of tango fury. Even the color “tango” appeared: a vibrant tone between orange and yellow. Tango suits for men hit the streets – long-cut, Argentine-style tuxedos that allowed greater movement in the arms and shoulders. The tango-blouse for women became popular too. It had the new tango color and billowing sleeves for easy movement. Tango dinners, tango on ice at the Palais de Glace, tango contests and even a Paris-Deauville train called “Tango”swept Parisians off their feet. Tango fever did not stop in Paris. The tango phenomenon spread across Germany, Holland, Belgium, Spain, the ex-Soviet Union, Japan, and even Northern Africa.

Carlos Gardel, The Eternal Myth of Tango

“Tango gives honor to the Argentine people.”

—André Gide

The prodigious Carlos Gardel, known as the “Argentine thrush” or the “dark-skinned man from Abasto” (Abasto is the Buenos Aires neighborhood of knife-duelers and tango-folk) encarnates the tanguero myth. He is the biggest myth in Argentine culture – greater than Ché Guevara, Juan and Evita Perón, Maradona, and Messi, because they produced a wavering love-hate sentiment, while Gardel is idolized by all, regardless of social, geographic or generational differences.

As if to seal his mythic status, Gardel tragically died at the epitome of his career in an airplane accident in Medellín, Colombia. By then, he had already become a true idol in many Spanish-speaking countries, Europe, and the United States. He was even hired by Paramount to star in nine musical films (five in New York and four in Paris), which bolstered his fame to unprecedented levels. A popular phrase from Río de la Plata immortalized him with the saying, “Carlitos Gardel sings better every day.”

The Tango’s Poetry and Myth

“One tango, a life.”

—Louis-Ferdinand Céline

The most common themes in the tango’s verses are the place where one belongs, the neighborhood’s warmth, identity, the cabaret, love (either a mother’s love, or a tale of romantic frustration), the man-woman relationship, the lost woman, the pure woman, masculinity, solitude and death. It’s common to hear songs about a stud who suffers because a woman won’t pay attention to him. Songs about men who abandon women and later realize they made a fatal mistake also abound.

In colloquial Argentine and Uruguayan speak, an infinite amount of vocabulary and phrases actually come from old tango anthologies from the first half of the twentieth century. Interestingly, most people know the meanings of these lunfardo phrases because they use them every day. Yet, many are unaware that these phrases are extracts of tango’s Golden Age.

In 2009, UNESCO included the tango on the list of the world’s Intangible Cultural Heritage.

*[This article was translated from Spanish to English by María Cristina Fernández Hall.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

The image used in this article is the property of Shutterstock. All rights reserved.


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