The tango lives on in Paris and Paris in tango..
If there is something that historically seduces Argentine men, it is listening to a French woman speak, and much more so if it is in our ears, or at least that’s what’s unconsciously in the minds of men in Buenos Aires. And this seems to have been happening to tango enthusiasts in our country for many years, that’s why there is an incredible number of tango songs named after French women. The streets, neighbourhoods and squares of Paris are also part of the tango repertoire, as are expressions or phrases in French.
Tango arrived in Paris in the early 1900s and soon the French fell in love with it, but it seems that the “metejón” (crush) was mutual, because tango stayed to live in Paris and Paris stayed to live in tango.
Paris was a special place in the 1900s. The French, from the aristocracy to the proletariat, were open to incorporate into French culture, all kinds of art that would help to embellish the European past generating a period which was called La Belle Époque. This movement imposed new values on Parisian society. The expansion of capitalism and faith in progress and science were beneficial to the society. The Belle Époque was noted above all in the architecture of the boulevards, in the cafes and cabarets, in the workshops and art galleries, in the concert halls and in the halls frequented by a bourgeoisie and the middle class. In this context, tango entered Paris and was accepted as a social and cultural expression both by high society and the brothels.
In the first decade of the twentieth century, the first tangos began to arrive in Paris and the French were particularly fond of them and began to demand them in the dance halls. Dozens of Argentine musicians and dancers travelled there, orchestras and tango ensembles were formed and academies were assembled all over Paris. The tango was in two different contexts at that time, in Buenos Aires it was despised by society and the Catholic Church. It was the music of the low society, the band music and the brothels, seasoned with the lunfardo vocabulary that was developing in Buenos Aires among so many immigrants living in the same city. In the other context, tango in Paris was accepted and loved by Parisian high society. The comments of those triumphs arrived quickly at the Rio de la Plata and, the Argentine high society that had despised it, began to look at tango with different eyes and enjoy that arrabalero (suburban) dance that now returned home with a patent of cultured music.
Historians say that in 1900 tango arrived at the French brothels in the hands of the sailors, the white traffickers and the smugglers who anchored in Buenos Aires and Marseille. When the First World War, the crisis and the hunger arrived in 1914, perhaps these same white traffickers, began to bring to Buenos Aires many of these French women who worked in the brothels of Paris, to work in Buenos Aires with the promise of a better future, and made them work in Buenos Aires brothels. It should be noted that by that time Buenos Aires society was largely composed of immigrant men without women. Society had grown exponentially from 1880 to 1915 from 200,000 to 1,500,000. All these men needed at some point in their days to meet some women and they did it in these dating houses, where many of these women were French.
Obviously these women could not have an unconditional love with a single man, for that reason I think they have written so many tango stories of disappointment, betrayal, abandonment of a man in love with a woman who shared her love with other men.
Until then, there were tangos dedicated to the women of the Río de la Plata, such as La Morocha, La uruguayita Lucia, La Paica Rita, Estercita, Malena, Ay Aurora, Rosarina linda, La pulpera de Santa Lucia, Estrella, María and many more, but suddenly, the French arrived and changed the direction of the tango songs, dozens of them were dedicated to these women, such as Ivonne, Margot, Margarita Gauthier, Museta, Mimi, Manon, Ivette, Gigi, Lilianne, Vivianne, Claudinette, Renee, Ninon, Arlette, Gricel, Rosicler, Marion, Lucienne, were those inspiring muses of so much poetry.
Enrique Cadicamo describes in the tango Madame Ivonne, a story that surely was similar to many of these women who travelled to South America, to Buenos Aires to look for a better future:
Mamuasel Ivonne was a girl
that in the neighborhood post of old Montmartre,
with her brave face of cheerful griseta
animated the party of Les Quatre Arts.
She was the dish of the Latin Quarter
who knew the points of the verse to inspire …
But it was that one day an Argentine man arrived
and made the French woman sigh.
These French women were so desired by Argentines that, finally, Argentine women began to want to look like them. Enrique Cadícamo knew about that and portrayed them in Muñeca brava, a native of Villa Crespo
Che madam that parlás in French
and pull two-handed ventolín,
what do you chill well?
and you have gigolo bien bacán.
You’re a biscuit, with very arched eyelashes …
Brava doll, well priced.
Sos del Trianón, from the Trianón de Villa Crespo …
Milonguerita, second-hand toy.
Before the French influence, the tango songs spoke of the neighborhoods of Barracas, La Boca, Boedo, Parque Patricios and a hundred Buenos Aires neighborhoods as the Waltz says. Now appeared Montmartre, Montparnasse, the Latin Quarter. The pimps were the gigolo and the macró. The drinks were champagne and pernod. The cars were the voiturette and the limousine. The bulin was the garçonniere and the places of entertainment were the cabarets and the café-concert, which were called Chantecler, Armenonville, Pigall, Bataclán, Palais de Glace, Sans Souci.
That is to say that the metejón was mutual: just as France had fallen in love with tango, tango had also fallen in love with France. Then the tango lyrics were flooded with French identity signs and they were collecting scraps of Paris, the French language and French culture.
It is very strange what was going on at this time in Buenos Aires, something happened that there is no equivalent in any other popular music, anywhere in the world, in which some pieces that represent it take their title in a language other than its own. We dance and sing, with all naturalness, tangos called Chiqué, Comme il faut, El Marne, NP (No Placé), Palais de Glace, Pas de Quatre, Sans Souci, Place Pigall.
This high Parisian society escapes the First War and France, then built their Paris with their architects in Buenos Aires. Just enough to take a walk around the Island, a Recoleto neighborhood of eight blocks with a roundabout as the center, the capital area with more Parisian air. The Avenida de Mayo made its way cutting the blocks built from the Plaza de Mayo to the west according to the idea of the architect Buschiazzo inspired by the project that Baron Haussmann had imposed in Paris decades ago. The public buildings and especially the new residences adopted the canons dictated by the French Ecole de Beaux Arts. The house of the Ortiz Basualdo family, today embassy of France, is another expression of the same art. The one of the Central Post Office, the Palace of Courts or the new National School Buenos Aires are projects designed by architects of that nationality. Between 1890 and 1920 140 palaces were built on Avenida Alvear trying to replicate Paris, but with larger buildings.
Argentina of these times had two presidents who were elected as such, when they were ambassadors in France, Marcelo T. de Alvear and Roque Saenz Penia.
But there were also Argentines anchored in Paris. To the piba of Chiclana, who changed the calico for petit-gris and has a mishé who pays the trip, he says: Sos from the neighborhood of Chiclana, which will not be able to engulf anybody:
Today I knew that Paris
you go with a mishé
and, with your gigolo,
how happy we are …
When you parade there, by Longchamp,
the girl here will say when she sees
your pretty picture: “Milonga pur sang!”
It’s your Chiclana, there’s nothing to do.
Now the wealthy of the Buenos Aires society travelled to Paris to study, and to live, obviously in love with the city and with the Parisian women, as the tango gay garret of Paris says:
Attic that was a poem
in front of the waters of the Seine,
the snow that fell incessantly
painted a sad picture in the city.
And there in the Latin Quarter
the voice of an Argentine tango
and those sad eyes of Mimi
crying the day I left.
Buenos Aires and Paris, mutual love.
French women, inspiring muses of the tango of 1900.
As our great Argentine composer Enrique Santos Discépolo said:
“Once and for all, the tango crossed the seas… and in a pernó mixed Paris with Alsina Bridge.” (Tango El Choclo)
This article was first published on Wall Street International magazine in Spanish and has been very kindly translated by Jorge Acevedo, London. Note that the songs have been translated literally for the sake of clarity and therefore may not imply the true intention of the songwriter. A great many thanks to Jorge for his time and expertise!
Singer / Songwriter, Social Dancer from Berlin in Germany