Tango has been called many things by many people. It is “the soul of Buenos Aires”, managing to be simultaneously “vertical sex” and “the three minute love affair”. George Bernard Shaw referred to his tango teacher as “the only man who ever taught me anything” just as Jorge Luis Borges remarked “tango can be discussed and we do talk about it, but like everything genuine it conceals a secret”.
If the latter is indeed the case then perhaps tango’s most zealously guarded secret is its origin. The music’s fusion of styles reflect the cultural diversity of Argentina and the hand of many immigrant populations can be found in its complexion – from African rhythms to the minuet-style of European mazurkas, Cuban habanera to Uruguayan candombe.
Equally, tango bears testimony to the social hierarchy of early 20th century Buenos Aires. Although now universally popular, tango was initially frowned upon by porteño high society as a sleazy, licentious dance. Instead, tango’s first shoots appeared in the shady cafes, rudimentary dance halls and brothels frequented by the urban lower classes.
This changed around 1913, when a watered-down version of the dance took off in capital cities around the world. Tango’s sensual and provocative moves were modified to suit the strict sexual morality of European audiences into ‘ballroom tango’. The Buenos Aires upper classes reappropriated the salon music style as another Paris trend, and the world developed a class-transcending crush on Carlos Gardel.
Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity
The latest twist in tango’s convoluted tale took place on 30th September 2009, when the form of expression was inscribed on Unesco’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The Committee agreed that tango is “considered one of the main manifestations of identity for the inhabitants of the Río de la Plata region,” officialising the cultural worth of a popular urban form of entertainment which encompasses music, dance, poetry and singing.
As tends to be the case with tango, instead of unifying Buenos Aires in cultural pride, reactions have been mixed. El Indio, teacher at La Catedral and a self-proclaimed dancer of “popular tango”, is adamant that the Unesco inscription is “mere propaganda”. He relates it to locations enshrined as world heritage sites which have since become overrun with Western-style hotels. In his opinion the initiative is all talk, and until they put their money where their mouth is – funding schemes to introduce tango into poorer barrios, supporting the “many dancers, musicians and composers who can’t make a living” or free lessons in schools – the inscription is condemned to mere “hypocrisy”.
This is a point reiterated by Hernán Greco, owner of serious tango venue Torquato Tasso, who believes that the Buenos Aires government “does not protect tango”. Both lament that such a small proportion of the state budget should be dedicated to culture, and echo the frequent accusation across the board that Buenos Aires mayor Mauricio Macri emphasises appearance over action. Greco illustrates this point in reference to a recent tango festival that was give 48 hours’ publicity, compared to the 15 days the government devoted to lauding the Unesco nomination.
Many tangueros opine that the genre does not need what they feel is an empty gesture to revitalise it. “It’s on the up” declares El Indio, just as Greco informs “tango is in no danger of dying out”. For El Indio, the reasons behind tango’s failure to occupy a prime place in contemporary Argentine cultural life are economic. The average Argentine simply cannot afford to pay the prices extracted from foreign pockets. El Indio believes “the reason why milongas are full of foreigners is because they have the money to pay for them. Whenever the government organises free shows, they’re full of Argentines”. He insists that a lot of people would like to see or learn tango but simply cannot afford it, and so it remains a “bourgeois habit”.
From Map to Milonga
Perhaps more than the preserve of the bourgeoisie, tango has become the domain of the tourist. It is something of a Lonely Planet rite of passage to attend a dance class or dinner show. Meanwhile, there is a common perception that many Argentines have minimal interest in what they perceive as an outdated art form. US Bandonéon teacher and musician Ben Bogart asserts that “less than 25% of milongas would exist if it were not for tourists.” Similarly, Greco describes much Buenos Aires tango as “for export”, designed to appeal to the fetishised vision of old Buenos Aires with which so many visitors are enamoured.
An Update for the 21st Century
Bogart, however, believes that among the serious musical community this trend is reversed : “most people I know got into Argentina through tango”. He views tango as having departed from its Buenos Aires origins, opining that a lot of the tango practised outside Argentina – free of the tourist industry’s creative confines – is more musically interesting. He attributes tango’s demise in Buenos Aires to the dictatorship’s prohibition of gatherings of more than three people in the 1950s, which crushed the social dance scene. Furthermore, former president Juan Perón’s previous promotion of tango as a nationalist symbol meant that the regime specifically targeted musicians and dancers.
Beyond a specific musical community, tango is something of a lost art in much of Europe and the US. One of the popular new forms to have become common currency in global culture however is electro-tango. Names such as Gotan Project, Tanghetto and Bajo Fondo form part of a market which Bogart estimates “is probably growing faster” than the traditionalist groups which tend to play existing songs albeit with new arrangements.
Nonetheless, many serious tango musicians are deeply conservative, however, viewing new forms and fusions as practically sacreligious. “Tango is based in melody whereas electro is not, it’s repetitive” retorts Greco to the suggestion that electronica has revitalised a dying genre. Electro is musically appropriate for what he perceives as the heavily industralised, technology-driven societies of countries such as Germany. Teutonic techno does not sit easily alongside the warmth and vitality of the porteño cultural identity. Furthermore, “fusion implies dialogue, so electro-tango is not a fusion because tango doesn’t even speak”.
It Takes Two to Tango
Regardless of Unesco’s failure to bolster the inscription with any practical applications, tango deserves to be commemorated as an internationally recognised symbol of ríoplatense cultural identity. El Indio perceives dance as a means of connecting with other cultures on a visceral level, which transcends dialogue. The key feature of tango is the embrace, something which in many visitors’ cases echoes their enthusiasm to immerse themselves in another culture.
Tango is hard to pin down and in Buenos Aires, a city that seems almost soundtracked by the genre’s signature swirls of bandonéon, it comes in many different guises. First glimpses of tourist dance classes and overpriced dinner shows soon give way to locals’ milongas, explorations in electro-tango or the consummate musicianship of Orquesta escuelas. Tango is in glitzy theatrical shows in La Boca’s Caminito, Boedo’s esquina Homer Manzi, the colourful façades of tango shops and schools in Abasto or every other establishment in San Telmo. Perhaps tango’s elusive identity really is “the soul of Buenos Aires.”