The history of Argentine Tango

Story | History | Rita Horne | 9 May 2013 | 0 comments

Argentine Tango was born in the streets of Buenos Aires (Argentina) and nearby Montevideo (Uruguay) somewhere in the very late 19th Century. Tango was influenced by many cultures; the African candombe, Cuban habanera, the Austrian waltz and many other folk dances. Here is a short account of how all these cultures influenced tango and how tango has since evolved and spread to every corner of the world.

History of tango: Milonga in Buenos Aires

Where did it all begin?

In the dance halls of that bygone time of economical severity, young and old sought respite from the hardships of daily life, an escape through music and to be occupied meaningfully. Because there weren’t many options – from the 20s right through to the 40s – the dance halls became quite the social occasion, indeed, an irreplaceable rite. Tango had all the connotations of an epidemic. A new movement had begun.

Any open space good enough for dancing was used for dancing tango. Any house with a back yard or patio, big enough to accommodate the milongueros was taken up. Any small club in a suburban neighborhood, or even a smart candy store became fit for Tango. Milongas were everywhere. In the more deprived quarters, the music was mostly played on vinyl records. Some could afford to hire small ‘orquestas tipicas’, of which some, over time, reached a respectful level of skill and popularity.

Tango was perhaps the purest and most intimate form of dance the world had ever known at that time. Its premises were based on escapism and because it satisfied an innate need for human connection. The daring act of embracing another and giving oneself over completely to instinct, movement and music was irresistible. Indeed, Tango became embedded in Argentinian society.

History of tango: Waltz or Tango Vals

To waltz or vals?

There are 3 musical genres, Tango, Vals and Milonga, which are collectively known as Tango. In general terms, Tango’s ancestry is a blend of the Vals, the grandmother, and the Milonga, the grandfather, from which grew the Tango. One of the earliest references to the Waltz was made by the French philosopher Montaigne, who wrote of a dance he saw in 1580 in Augsburg, “the dancers held each other so closely that their faces touched”. Waltz, a country dance in 3/4 time, was the first dance which broke the distance barrier between men and women in the ballroom.

Shocking as it may have been at that time, it slowly made its way into the higher social classes of Vienna at around 1780, and subsequently, its popularity spread into other European countries and eventually throughout the whole world, diversifying in styles and fashions as it evolved.

But what about Tango? The Argentinians referred to their own version of the Waltz as the Vals Criollo. The Vals was a new beat, a diversion from the known Waltz. Later, people would call it Tango-Waltz because of its orchestration and the Tango aggregations. Prior to this, however, the Milonga scene was developing in its own right and especially in the popular quarters of Buenos Aires. To understand how the Milonga and Vals combined gave birth to Tango we first need to acknowledge what was taking place in Argentina toward the middle of the nineteenth century.

History of tango: Immigrants Buenos Aires

The tango mixing pot

Argentina was becoming the crucible for an unprecedented mix of ethnics and cultures. An influx of merging immigrants poured into Argentina unlike any movement the world had seen before. The governors of this country, very rich in natural resources but lacking in population, were actively encouraging the arrival of pioneers from every corner of the globe. They attracted masses of immigrants – mostly single men from Europe and especially from Italy – with promises of land and wealth.

Enchanted by the promise of good fortune, hundreds of thousands of immigrants poured across the borders. They eventually outnumbered the local population of Buenos Aires, which, up to that point, was a city of two parts, the larger “far-west” and the sad remainder of a Spanish colonial town. It was this multi-ethnic, uprooted, wistful and lone male population who frequented the “bailongos” or social dance floors – not just the brothels as some of the Borges writings seem to indicate – but also the backyards and patios in family homes, or small suburban social clubs, at the end of the nineteenth century.

The fusion of this enormous cultural-genetic overflow; this great mixing of music-dance elements brought by the many small immigrant communities, with their violins, flutes, accordions, and a full bag of traditions and dance styles, forged the Porteños identity, and gave birth to Tango.

History of tango: Candombe

The milonga drum

The Milonga, as a dance form, takes a part in this story all of its own. To appreciate how the Milonga materialised we need to first talk about the Camdombe, a dance style from Africa. Centuries before the birth of Tango, millions of African slaves were brought to South America by the new Spanish colonizers. It’s particularly fascinating that although Tango ‘orquestas tipicas’ do not use percussion instruments, the African Candombe, and finally the Milonga dance, are drum-based.

In fact, the African slaves called their drums and the places where they danced the Candombe: Tanbos, of which the Spanish word for drum comes from, Tambor. Later the name Tanbo became Tango. When slavery was thankfully abolished in 1853, the large African population in Buenos Aires, of course, remained. As these new liberates gradually integrated into society, the Candombe began to flourish in the suburbs. The former slave generation eventually passed away, but their descendants continued dancing Tanbo. Influenced by the local Gauchos, they tweaked their dancing style, adding the abrazo, the embrace, and therein giving rise to what is now known as the Milonga.

History of tango: Gaucho and his Horse

The gaucho’s ride

Yet another key element remains. Argentina’s prodigious Pampas or, “large grassy plains”, used primarily for livestock, were divided up and given away to high society property owners and wealthy European immigrants. The new government provision of fencing the land into individual properties forced the Gauchos – similar to the American cowboy or Australian stockman – who drove their cattle throughout the Pampas – to move closer to the city of Buenos Aires and settle around the poorest residential outskirts.

The Gauchos, unsettled and forced into an urban environment, often turned to lives of crime and by their reputably aggressive nature, were called ‘Compadritos’. This nickname, conveyed by the Italian immigrants, held a similar meaning to what they called the mafia bosses back in Italy.

The Gauchos organised Payadas (song competitions) in open spaces. Several African slaves, who worked in the estancias or rural farms attended but without understanding what was being said. The Africans began calling these competitions Milongas, which comes from the African-Brazilian term Mulonga, essentially interpreted as “word”. So, gradually, those Payadas events came to be known as Milongas and were far more popular than the Payadas.

History of tango: Cuban Habanera Orchestra Band

The cuban influence

We wouldn’t have the whole story without mention of the Cuban Habanera. The distinct dance pattern of the Milonga and later on, the Tango, must pay some due to the influence of Habanera. The Habanera infiltrated Argentinian music via the sailors who worked in the Argentine merchant fleets sailing between the Rio de la Plata, the Antilles and especially to Cuba. As they went up and down these sea routes, past Uruguay, the villagers on the River banks became acquainted with their beautiful Cuban-Spanish dance.

The Habanera upheld strict figures of dance, by which the dancers had to perform specific movements according to the directions of the ‘bastonero’ – who decided the number and location of the dancers. This ‘bastonero’ would dance whichever movements or figures desired, and the remaining dancers would, in turn, attempt to imitate. This dance, with its defined choreography, along with the African Candombe and other influences, by trial-and-error, adaptation and experimentation all finally became the Milonga dance as we know it today. In turn, the Milonga became the real forerunner of the Tango genres.

The merging of these societies, the Argentinian Gauchos, the African population of Buenos Aires and the Cuban sailors created the extraordinary magic vital for the development of Tango. The African’s open embrace, the Compadrito’s closed embrace and the Cubans defined dance figures and sequences integrated to form just one dance; Tango.

History of tango: Tango Vals and Milonga Sheet Music

The humble tango

The earliest form of Tango, which began as a humble social dance of the suburbs of Buenos Aires, was, in fact, the Milonga. Later on, Tango established itself as a real musical genre all on its own.

The Milonga survived, independent of the Tango, which remains to this day a typical Argentinian musical sophistication. Then there is also the Tango-Milonga, also called Milonga Urbana, which has a faster pace and is harder to control.

For those who know a little about music, both Tango and Milonga are generally in a four-four musical pattern, however, Milonga is played at a faster tempo. Tim Sharp (Tango Musician and Pianist) explains:

Both milonga and tango are typically written in two-four, ie they both have 2 crotchet beats to a bar and should both be ‘felt’ in 2. Four-four is rarely found in pre-1955 tango, but can be found from then on. The differences between tango and milonga are not to do with time signature. Milongas are faster but that doesn’t mean you don’t count fewer beats in a bar. It is easy to confuse two-four and (ie to count 4 rather than 2 beats per bar). You can quite easily count 4 beats to classic tangos – it just means you are probably counting 2 bars worth of two-four, which isn’t really going to effect your dancing that much. On the other hand if you are counting double time (meaning the pulse is twice as fast) that is more worrying but very unlikely as you wouldn’t be able to do a walking step at that speed. You can find wonderful old sheet music of tangos, valses and milongas on You will see that most is written in two-four and as a consequence the music has lots of semi-quavers. This is a bit tricky for beginners to read and modern publishers realise that this puts a lot of potential customers off. They therefore often prefer to write in what is known as ‘cut’ time. This is written with 4 crotchets to a bar (ie semi-quavers now become written as quavers) but although it has the appearance of four-four (common time), the ‘C’ for common has a vertical line through it, meaning it is ‘felt’ with 2 beats (effectively two-two or 2 minims) per bar. Sometimes in modern compilations you will also see classic tangos written in four-four. This isn’t how the music was originally written and is misleading.

The challenge in Milonga is to keep pace with the tempo. This means that the Milonga struggles for spare time and by the nature of the sound, even the inclination, to incorporate the wide variety of embellishments and figures that over time became available to Tango.

Loosely speaking that is. Tango is a social dance and also open to the musical interpretation, environment, ability and strength of partnership between the dancers. “There are no mistakes in Tango”. The fundamental characteristic of the Tango-Milonga is the presence of the basic pattern of the old Rural Milonga, but the technical details are more complicated and beyond the scope of this article.

History of tango: Dancers at Milonga

Tango is…

Each dance, the Milonga, Vals and Tango, are distinctly different in musicality and choreography. And yet.. they are born of the same spirit. For the Argentinians, and now for many communities and cultures around the world, Tango is an expression of life, freedom, joy, hope, loss, love… It is so many different things to so many different people.

Some might say Tango is simply an eclectic, cultural mix of music and dance reflective of a poignant and historical time of great change in Argentina…?

Perhaps… But for those who dance?

Tango is a remedy for the soul.


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Published: 9 May 2013 @ 07:13


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