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Tango,mythology,Argentina,Finland,Tango history,tango evolution,Tango Argentino

Has Tango anything to do with Argentina now?

It’s odd how myths get fixed in our minds. There is a generally accepted notion about Tango that it was created in Buenos Aires around 1900 and is all about Gauchos and prostitutes. To some extent, this view has been kept alive by vibrant and entertaining stage shows that tour the world but it is as mythical as the Rudolf Valentino movie that showed him in Gaucho costume holding at one point a rose between his teeth. That too was a fantasy but it was such a powerful image, some people hate to let it go.

The reality is that Tango evolved on both banks of the River Plate and may have been just as important in Montevideo as over the water. The ingredients were an unique mixture of racial and cultural influences so often seen in dockland areas throughout the world and one other vital ingredient; too few women. At this time, Argentina was deliberately attracting immigrants, predominantly from Europe and in particular, Italy, to power the fast growing meat industry. There is so much fuss made about immigration nowadays but we might ask ourselves, what must it have been like for the original, Spanish speaking inhabitants around the River Plate to be eventually outnumbered 40 to one by outsiders? What a dangerous melting pot it must have been! Worst of all, the immigrants were almost entirely male. Their emotions would have been forged by nostalgia for homelands, frustration and testosterone-fuelled violent competition.

Men lived together by necessity, in ‘conventillos’ and only half of them could hope to find a spouse and create the stability and support of a family of their own. They would meet in ‘academias’ places to eat, drink, do business and buy a dance with a waitress and maybe even more. Very few of them would have been Gauchos; most would have been abattoir and factory workers. The prostitutes were authentic enough and very necessary, under the circumstances. Tango was often the only way a man could get into the arms of a woman. For some men, even today, that is still the case. There’s a lot of testosterone hanging about modern Tango and I don’t like it.

The music evolved alongside the dance. In the beginning, those immigrants who had travelled with their own portable instruments would form bands and played in the streets as musicians still busk to this day. Later, they would play in the ‘academias’. To begin with the instruments were flutes, guitars and violins and the music would have been a mixture of the tunes brought from the countries of origin. Once the bands left the streets, the piano was added but what is always interesting about Tango music is the absence of drums.

It may be that the biggest single influence on the sound and style of the music was the addition to the ensemble of the bandoneon. This too was portable and was brought to the mix by German immigrants. Marketed by a man called Heinrich Band though not as often stated, invented by him, this was in its earliest form, a fairly simplistic squeezebox, like a melodion but unlike the accordion in very important ways. The bandoneon does not have a keyboard like a piano but buttons. Those on the right are pitched higher than on the right and the two sides have no relationship to each other. When the bellows move the air in and out, the sounds produced are different, very similar to a harmonica. In the more primitive models, this might have made the instrument easier to play but as extra notes were added and the instrument became more sophisticated, it became a nightmare. This is one of the many instruments I have failed to master and I have immense respect for those who can play them.

The biggest difference between the bandoneon and the accordion is the way it’s tuned. Each note is sounded by a reed, riveted at its base to a zinc plate and reeds are set in pairs, one an octave above the other. More importantly, the reed pairs are tuned so that there is as little difference between the note as possible. This means that, unlike an accordion, a bandoneon note has no vibrato. I don’t enjoy it when I hear tangos played by accordionists. It just doesn’t sound right to me. That’s a bit purist, I know, but there it is.

What I want to convey by digressing this way is to show how so many mixed European influences came to bear as Tango evolved. It was not thought up by a committee or invented by one genius overnight. It happened to find a home in Argentina and Uruguay but could have happened anywhere. There is one other serious point that must be considered. Who were the musicians? They were often classically trained in Europe. Tango music has folk roots but the Tangos we love from the so-called Golden Era were written in a classical format, similar to Sonata form. It’s a high culture that was promoted as pop music, much as Italian Opera was.

The sad thing for Tango was that it became a political football. It was promoted by Juan and Eva Peron, who were very keen on it. During their era, whole families would go out to the Milonga. No Tango Schools existed nor were there formal classes given. Instead, people were taught be friends and relatives, one to one. Young men first learned to be followers as older men used them to practice moves and hone their skills. A man could be judged by his elegance and control more than flashy movements. Sadly, when the Peron regime fell, in the 1950s, so did the popularity of Tango. A scared and authoritarian military junta banned large gatherings and dance halls closed down and bands moved abroad. At the loss of the Malvinas in the 198os the regime fell and many freedoms were restored. Tango had been kept alive by a very few people and had been taught as before, one to one. As people were allowed more freedom, they started to go out to evening classes of all sorts. One young man who had only learned Tango a few months decided to teach what he knew and advertised a tango class. Imagine his shock when 200 people turned up on the first night!

While Tango was being side-lined in Argentina, replaced in the lives of the younger generation by Rock and Pop from the USA, an odd thing was going on in Finland. Tango had taken hold and was to undergo quite a different evolution. It changed in many ways, both in the appearance of the dance and the music. The music underwent a transformation simply because new tangos were being written by bands that toured the country and could make a living playing for dancers, just as had been the case in Argentina. The more new material that was written, the more different it became. Back in Argentina, the Golden Era was preserved in aspic in recorded form and even now, new bands struggle to offer something fresh. Somehow, Tango Nuevo doesn’t quite do it for so many dancers who still adhere to what they perceive to be authenticity. What was preserved as a living thing in Finland was more vitally, the social dimension of Tango and you can see this today in towns and cities all over Europe. People use Tango as a social glue. It works but it is heady stuff, this connection and intimacy business.

So, from the 1980s, Tango has spread once more and this time more widely and permanently. I was taught by a man who was a refugee from the military junta and set up a Tango school in London. He had suffered imprisonment and hard labour in Argentina and died prematurely but, while he lived, he was one important link back to the past and I feel privileged to have known him. His take on Tango was that it was about subtlety and intimacy between a man and a woman. He knew that teaching these skills to those with Anglo-Saxon reserve was an uphill task but he always felt a sense of pride that we would share his passion. For him, Tango was too important to be messed with by flicks and kicks. They just interfered with the serious matter of connection.

I feel saddened that, for some people, Tango is confused by the antics of stage shows.For years, I tried to pass on the teachings about elegance, intimacy and the music to many pupils who really wanted to learn flamboyant sequences. They were usually overweight middle-aged people with scant balance skills yet, for some reason wanted to become ballet stars. I noticed how popular were the pretty touring dancers, many of whom struggled to teach under the handicaps of language inadequacies. I watched an excellent visiting German Tango teacher assess a group before pitching his lesson at teaching them to walk properly. He could see at a glance that they had tried to run before they could walk. He was honest and could have made such a material difference to their dancing. They turned a deaf ear. How dare he teach them how to walk? These clumsy old fatties wanted to learn the secret of flying. They were all perfectly capable of becoming competent tangueros in the strictest sense but they had a warped idea of Tango from stage shows and preferred a dream to reality. I doubt whether many visiting Argentinian dancers have grasped this but, from what I have seen over the years, they make a good living pandering to it. The evidence for this is to be seen in poor floor craft in Milongas everywhere.

Tango, for me, is not a stage show. Learning Tango is not about being judged in competitions or learning a shopping list of complex moves that only serve to stand between a dancer and their partner. Tango is an intimate body language which allows connection at a deep level between two people. The music, with all its subtlety, drives us, as a couple, prepared for a short time to sink our individuality, to create a dance that is as different each time as our moods dictate. This is an intense and probably, potentially dangerous state which we are able to maintain only for the moments of the song. Once you have experienced it, you never want less. The song ends and it seems as if both of you have forgotten to breathe and have been transported to quite another world. It sure as Hell wasn’t Buenos Aires..

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