Blesok no. 70, January-February, 2010
To Live Is To Dance Tango
The dance is exterior and interior artistic form, psychological and physical motion whose expression transfer, shifts and send messages in a very intensive fashion. Philosophical law of the motion, the dance is also an aesthetic metaphor of acknowledging life and knowing the world. But much beyond that: the dance knits whole historical époques giving birth to authentic cultures such as the Argentine tango.
The story about tango begins in the second part of the nineteen century. Its origins has however controversial debates. The word “tango” in the Royal Encyclopaedia of Spain in 1803 was defined as “Party and dance of the black people of Africa and the people of South America”. According to some historians the word has actually African origin deriving etymologically from the words “tam-tam”and “kandombe” used in some African dances. In the Boza dialect the idiom “toka tango” was often referred to the beginning of the dances. A part this the African slaves in Argentina used to call “tango” the place where they were gathering often. Other theories highlight that this dance assumes its authentic form in the period of the European immigration in Argentina, around 1800, when mainly masculine population enhances needs of brothels. Near Rio de la Plata boats bringing Italian, German, Russian, English, Polish, Jewish and Spanish culture are smashing already existing dances and movements of the Argentine gauchos, African Candombe and Cuban Habanera. This fantastic sublimate of dancing expressions will create a new dance: Milonga – fusion of poetry, immigrant sadness, Polish mazurka, vals and Cuban habanera. The Milonga will become the dance of the poor.
The tango was born on the street, in dark and suspicious districts, in bars with bad reputation as consolation of the migrants, which dreaming of wellness were facing street delinquency, criminal and butcheries. That is the reason why the first tango was danced by the so called ‘compadritos’, the local gangsters which were dancing on the cobbled streets with street musicians, in dark sides of the city called ‘arrabal’ shimmering between the sound of the violin and the bandoneon. Man dancing with man, because the woman were not allow to dance in public places, or actually they were not allow to dance at all if belonging to classes upper then the middle one. Only later the tango moves to the brothels where for the first time in the history of tango woman start to tangoing. This is the reason why the soul of this dance is sensual and erotic. Because throughout the rhythm we can feel uncontrollable feelings such as erotic desire, jealousy passion, fury, infidelity, lust for power. From purely male code, the tango turns into female magic of seduction: the man leads the woman and she seduces him.
This existential history, this competition amongst man conquering woman, but also status in the red light districts, in the suburbs of Buenos Aires, is evolving throughout the bitterness and grief of the aborigines and the dolefulness and mourning of the immigrants. Dark machismo and masculine ethos are interfering in the rhythm of this music. That is why amongst the initial figuration of this dance very often we see the emblematic figure, the Argenyien gaucho with bended eyes and knife in his hands dancing with another gaucho, provoking destiny and death. Borges in his novel “The Intruder” analyses this brutal machismo dominant in the rural parts o Argentine. The tango is interpretation of primeval surviving instincts of the raw existence, of the one’s basic need to be, to trace its own trace in order not to disappear. Today that culture does not exist anymore or fades away with the death of the first tango maestros. But the memory remains still alive.
We are living in a sophisticated and civilized world, that is to say neo-tribal and neo-capitalistic world (and the tango today is “consumed” by elites). But that world that is giving birth to the tango was raw, wild, cruel and poor. In that world secret voices of fate are coming to live: even though its haunt was the brothel, still it is thanks to the Buenos Aires’s fathers, whose have had the courage to breed authentic creations of being and to challenge time, tango captivates the world today.
The first tango was composed by laic maestros, that did not have any knowledge of musical theory or music sheets: Angel Viloldo and Eduardo Arolas in two-quarter tact were composing hilarious and cheerful rhythm, with verses written in the dialect of the working class, called lunfardo. Later on the bigger maestros of tango music would start composing complex music composition for dance. Not anymore the dark parishes but the colorful parts of Buenos Aires, like Boca and San Telmo will become brand-mark of the tango. For the first time courageous and proud woman start singing tango, amongst which Nelly Omar and Susana Rinaldi. The golden age of the tango starts with the violinist Juan D’Arienzi, the bandoneonist Anibal Troilo, pianists Carlos Di Sarli and Osvaldo Pugliese.
The tango will become well known worldwide with the song “Yira yira” which tells us about the street, nomadic roaming without direction or a goal, without sense and target. This song was sang by Carlos Gardel. Actually the tango music becomes known around the world with him: in Paris, the first European city where the tango is danced, Gardel sings together with Josephine Baker. In1904 for the first time the tango will be danced on the stage of the Opera in Buenos Aires. In Argentina the tango will glow in the cabarets and the theaters where high quality orchestras, singer and dancer are performing tango.
Even though this dance will soon attract the attention of the upper classes of Buenos Aires, this south-American jazz will be forbidden by the government but also by many otjer religious and state institutions and will be defined as shameful, indecent, immoral and non-Christian. Extreme left wing and right wing movements in Argentina will refuse to give to the tango the role of a synonym of the Argentine culture because it was a mix of the Cuban habanera and the new Milonga and also because it has reduced the woman to work as prostitute in the brothels instead of working in the factories. They will also forbid the tango language, the ‘lunfardo’ because they considered it “dirty”. They will even try to control the texts and the form of expression of this music. This serious threat for the identity of this dance will create danger of deformation of its authenticity and will change the flow of its history. Exclusively during Evita and Juan Peron the tango will be considered as national pride. Even though the political conditions will change it, notwithstanding the tango will survive as symbol of resistance, rebellion and revolution. Because during the big economic depression and in such circumstances of repression and control, strong movements of avant-garde, in the post-Peron period, will gather in the undergrounds dancing tango in small rooms, escaping the post-Peron nationalistic movement.
Despite all those attempts to destroy this form of expression, tango arises again in 1960. Gloria and Eduardo, Elvira and Virulazo, Juan Carlos Copes and Maria Nieves, Antonio Todaro and many more enhanced and anchored the truth about tango, which will follow its own creation. For them tango is not an exotic pastime, for them tango is the life itself, fusion of everyday habits and passions, play, family, gathering, street, company. The meaning of tango, for them, is to have luck even when we do not have luck, to be rich even when we do not have a coin in our pocket. Elvira and Virulazo will say that tango is “feeling and fatherland„. The tango is a possibility to enjoy short minutes of fortune and happiness because to live is to suffer every day; tango is to live a life totally and completely, to grasp the moment despite its transience, to feel not only the good but the sad as well, to love and to suffer, to be happy and to cry, to cherish the justice, the honesty, the beauty, the simplest things, the fairness. Finally, for these dancers, to live is to dance tango. Through this vital enthusiasm and faith to this dance-philosophy and thanks to the courage and faithfulness of these masters, the tango will survive for ever.
The cultural exchanges with Europe will imprint hidden desires, sleepy passions and recognition of identities as well as new connections between the new and the old continent. The tango comes to life through cultural fusion and transversal creation of different blood origins. What is that inner strength of survival and perpetual self-definition? Thinking the authentic roots we may face myths and legend, but knitted by real tango maestros; distant and precious dimension and values of existence. The most common images of tango came spontaneously, from the natural flow of the entities, from the existential need to escape reality and forge a filter of energetic changes, new moods and powerful emotions. Not only the tango as complex codified dance, but the biographies of the maestros, the tango poetry and the tango music are values imprinted in the future of our cultural output.
After the 1940s, when actually the most fertile music era of tango is born (and then the Golden Era of the 60s), especially with the orchestras of Juan D’Arienzi and Francisco Canaro, big change in the musical history of tango will take place in 1955. Actually with Astor Piazzola (born in New York) new interpretation of tango music is arriving. Fragmented and irregular rhythm will lead towards contemplative tango melody for listening, and not for dancing traditional tango. A sort of camera music! With this breaking point, new wave will take place, the ‘Neotango’: tango music influenced by jazz and electronic music, without fixed rhythm and tact. The irony sill be bigger but the harmony between music, dance and poetry will vanish and this new music will become nearly elitist. With his octet “Buenos Aires” in Paris, Piazzola is performing tango music filled with variations of rhythm and bandoneon and long silences. Even though Piazzola knows very well the rules of Troilo, he broke up with the tradition. Some say that just because of that the time in tango history is defined as ‘before’ and ‘after Piazzola’. With his famous song, “Libertango”, the first ‘tango nuevo’ is being performed.
The new music groups such as Gotan project, Bajofondo, Tanghetto, Narcotango, Otros aires will become serious brand worldwide of this Argentine art. Gotan Project is composed of Parisian musicians. Some of them originate from the “south-American Paris”, Buenos Aires, but live and create typically Parisian culture. These are the fathers of this new tango wave: music whose basics are within the traditional tango, in the spirit of Anibal Troilo, but created in electronic sound. Their first song is entitled „Returning to the south/Weird capitalism’ and their first album „The big return of tango” in 2001.
Besides the traditional salon tango, this music will imply new techniques and figures in the tango-nuevo dance through improvisation, axis control, contemporary dance elements and contractions.
Tango was represented in many movies amongst which the musical “Tango” by Carlos Saura; “Tango Lesson’ by Sally Poter with Pablo Veron: this is a story of an English story-writer whose passions are revealed when she sees a couple dancing tango. Learning tango with this dancer, i.e. Pablo Veron, will lead her to discover the truth within: how to fight with yourself and not thinking of fighting with the Other? How to feel and follow the Other without pushing his life? How to witness the death and not only the life? How to tango?
Then “Tango assassination” by Robert Duval; „Naked tango„, by Leonard Sharder with Mathilde May and Vincent de Onofrio. The naked tango is a symbol; moving story about immigrations in Buenos Aires in the thirties and the birth of the cruel world on the streets. The street hero, Cholo, is seducing Alma, teaching her how to dance tango naked with bended eyes on the streets, in brothels. It is actually a description of the danger within tango arising from the passionate, primordial, instinctive and genuine love within. “The scent of a woman” by Martin Brest with Al Pacino; the famous tango song in this film is “Por una cabeza” composed by Carlos Gardel is also soundtrack in other movies like “The Schindler’s List”, “Delikatessen”, “True lies” and “Frida”; the story of this song is about a man between two fires: his passion for horses and his fatal attraction by a woman. This song is actually a metaphor alluding to emotions such as hopes, beats, promises, risks, defeats, sadness, desires, passions and thrills both in the races and in love.
Tango is a fashion of living. Irrefrangible cultural image of Argentina, identity, challenge and authentic artistic experience, the tango expresses the human condition, the spirit of the “porteños” – the citizens of the Goddess of Rio De La Plata, Buenos Aires. Tango will become way if talking, dressing, communicating, living. A part from the vals, the milonga, also a subcategory of tango, will unify music and poetry. Moreover the milonga is traditional Argentine dancing evening where people dance with different partners, man inviting woman. The salon tango arises because contains a social dimension of the city, its vitality and non-lacerate human condition and strength of the tangueros and milongueros. The Argentine tango maestros say: “For us the tango is everyday life and that is the reason why we dance tango, whilst the Europeans dance tango to find the passion in everyday life”.
It is a culture, a code, a denotation, a being transmitted from generation to generation.
Nowadays dancers perform tango in the Colon theater in Buenos Aires, but also at Carnegie Hall in New York, at highest dance academies in Japan, all around Europe. In 2009 the United Nations protect tango as world cultural heritage, even though according to some tangueros “the tango is an Argentine identity and must not be subject to globalization”.
It is of an utmost importance to say that the tango is not a classical Latin-American dance, pastime: the tango is an existential philosophy; tango is football and Borges at the same time; tango is sadness and melancholy, but also a wisdom and deep resignation with the impossibility to witness justice in this world.
Jenny Scott in New York Times will write: “tango is a dance of power and vulnerability. Dance and metaphor, if captures you it will surely become your obsession”.
Quintessence of passion, nostalgia, battle, wisdom and esoteric language, the tango is also a code of communication between man and a woman; code that reveals secrets and allusions to a life of a couple, marriage, love affair, erotic game, chasing each other in circular motion despite time. It is also a code that imprints a complex dancing technique: whilst the shoes with leather sole and the under body are moving pushing the floor, the upper part of the body throughout various distortions remains still, the bodies walking in direction opposite of the clock.
Even though the tango is a sublimate of complex dancing figures, the basic of the tango is walking. The woman is abandoned to the man, she believes him, follows him, feels him and with great intuition realizes each step that he is leading. But in tango the woman is strong near the man.
Some say the tango was a dance of the pimp and the ladies of the night, but it become dance of the gentleman that wants to conquer the lady he likes, dance of a father and daughter, mother and son, brother and sister, boyfriend and girlfriend, stranger and nameless woman.
The rhythm is following the heart-beating: tango is intuition, inner journey. The couple is dancing circular, obsessed with the corporal coordination and the feeling of space and floor, in sensually, vitally and sharply. The sound of the bandoneon reveals the desire to perpetuate youth of the first tango maestros, whose testimonials reverberate through the streets of Buenos Aires; but also reveals an ardor for the past but still alive love.
This dance incorporates male and female principals: the man is dancing with the soul of the woman and she dances with his heart, in circular, interior motion of time.