Tango Emerges

Here is the second of a series of short extracts from books in the Reverb Series: from Mike Gonzalez and Marianella Yanes (May 2013) Tango: Sex and the Rhythm of the City. From the second chapter, ‘A City Divided’ – in this section, Mike and Marianella look at the impact of the bandoneon, the large accordion (featured prominently in the ‘Finale’ from Astor Piazzola’s Tango Apasionado, which you can hear by watching the clip posted below – the music starts at about 1:04mins) and how it, through the music it helped to define, helped tango to migrate from the barrios into the theatres of Buenos Aires …


[Ángel] Villoldo deserved his reputation as the troubadour of the changing immigrant community. But he was also part of the first generation of tango artists whose renown spread beyond La Boca and Nueva Pompeya as the city expanded. The prelude to tango’s emergence from the darkened streets down by the docks was musical, a moment both symbolised and in some sense made possible by the arrival from Germany at the end of the 1880s of a new instrument: the powerful large accordion first developed as a substitute for the harmonium in religious services.

Aníbal Troilo

And the bandoneon has since become emblematic of the tango itself – its notes the defining sound of the modern tango – from its first appearance to its flowering in the hands of virtuosi like Aníbal Troilo, Pedro Maffia and Ástor Piazzolla in later days.

[…] The arrival of the bandoneon produced an immediate change in the dance. The guitar and flute had accompanied the fast, dramatic and erotic original steps of the original dance – the ‘ruffian’s dance’ (the tango rufianesco). Its frankly sexual gestures and movements shocked and repelled the respectable middle clases, yet they were not immune to the impact of the music, nor to its seductions. The way in which the bandoneon was played added drama and passion to the sound of tango, but it was slower and more sensual, its undulations more melancholy and provocative. And its arrival coincided with tango’s first tentative steps towards the new elegant cafés and cabarets around the well-lit streets of the city centre, places like Lo de Hansen or El Velódromo, whose names would soon appear in tango lyrics and circulate among enthusiasts.

The music itself began to become acceptable in the more elegant if slightly more liberal salons, though dancing was still forbidden in most of them, and a new generation of performers found audiences (and wages) beyond the barrio when they gave exhibitions in the more adventurous venues. Rosendo Mendizábal was an accomplished pianist whose ‘El Entrerriano’ became one of the best known of the new tango concert pieces – music, in other words, to be listened rather than danced to. Only the most daring middle class woman around 1900 would be prepared to venture into the areas near the docks in the afternoon to seek out the handsome young men who offered themselves as dance partners. But they could enthusiastically attend the exhibitions given by the new generation of professional dancers, chief among them Ovidio José Blanquet, known as ‘El Cachafaz’, the Insolent Kid.

El Cachafaz

Tango was creeping across the border, or at least gaps had been opened that allowed some communication between the two worlds of the city. The marginal quarters remained, from a middle class point of view, places of danger and forbidden pleasure. And the estimated 20-30,000 prostitutes in Buenos Aires confirmed both the availability and the variety of the erotic. Traffic was, of course, predominantly one-way. If the women of the middle class approached in the afternoon light, their husbands slipped into the port area under cover of darkness. But tango’s best known artists now made increasingly frequent incursions into the gleaming halls of the city centre. And in the theatres (attended by and large by the middle class) the world of tango began to be referred to in the comic operas (sainetes) and musicals (zarzuelas) that were popular at the time. It is true that the theatrical representation of the immigrant at the turn of the century was still largely comic, grotesque and caricatured – but tango music too was played in the same theatres. Though it might be publicly derided and reproved by the bourgeoisie, their fascinated response to its seductions made that rejection hypocrtical at best.

Tango was making its way into the bourgeois world, albeit slowly and hesitantly. The rite of passage was largely completed during the first decade of the 20th century. But it was a process fraught with contradictions. The numbers of immigrants had leapt once again in the 1890s, fuelling the anxieties of the middle classes. The growing working class was beginning to organize and forge the early trade unions, radical in their predominantly anarchist ideology and increasingly militant in their actions. The discontent at living and working conditions was rising, reaching a critical point in the 1907 rent strike in the conventillos when, for the first time, the human beings pressed into the overcrowded shacks and shanties of the dock districts took on their landlords. It was commemorated in the sainete ‘Los inquilinos’ (The Tenants), which included a tango with the same title:

Señor intendente,
los inquilinos
se encuentran muy mal
se encuentran muy mal
pues los propietarios
o los encargados
nos quieren ahogar.
Abajo la usura
y abajo el abuso;
arriba el derecho
y arriba el derecho
del pobre también.

Mr Mayor / the tenants / are in a very bad way / in a very bad way / because the landlords / or their agents / are drowning us. / Down with usury / down with their abuses / long live justice / long live justice / and long live the rights / of poor people too.

The inclusion of these issues in the popular music of the day testifies to the way in which the newly emerging tango lyrics had moved from the simply provocative or plainly obscene to becoming a narrative of the life and experience of the barrios – its housing, its resistance, its desires and frustrations, and to a very limited extent, its experience of work. It remained the voice of the barrios, its streets and communal life. And it retained as its central character the isolated young man, living the life of the streets, whose strutting and preening in the dance conceals a deeper sense of continuing marginality and exclusion.

“As he protects himself with a facade of steps that demonstrate perfect control [the male tanguero] contemplates his absolute lack of control in the face of history and destiny.” [1]

Tango-featuredWomen are very rarely heard in tango’s early lyrics. There were some who made their name in this world despite their suppression – singers, dancers and madams. But it was always a dance led by men, danced with other men or women, but only very rarely by women with one another. The game of seduction it enshrined was not conducted between equals. When the first women tango singers emerged at the beginning of the Golden Age, they dressed in men’s clothing.

But at this time, the majority of tango writers and musicians were part-time artists whose main source of income was elsewhere. Agustín Bardo worked in a shop, Vicente Greco sold newspapers, Juan Maglio was a mechanic – though they would later find an adequate living from tango. But first, tango would need to win the battle for acceptance.

And for that to happen it had first to wrestle with the suspicion that tango still aroused and the very different visions of the dance.

“The room fills with happy people; everywhere one hears phrases that could make a vigilante blush. In the background a group of petty criminals from the barrios with improvised disguises, in the theatre boxes handsome men and even more handsome girls. Suddenly the orchestra begins a tango and the couples begin to form.The china and compadre join together in a fraternal embrace, and then the dance begins, in which the dancers show such an art that it is impossible to describe the contortions, dodgings,impudent steps and clicking of the heels the tango causes.

The couples glide energetically to the beat of the dance, voluptuously, as if all their desires are placed in the dance.In the background, the people form groups to see figures done by a girl from the suburbs, who is proclaimed the mistress without rival in this difficult art, and the crowd applauds these prodigious figures, drawing back scandalized when the the dancer’s companion says ‘Give me the pleasure, my little “china”‘.[2]

Douglas Fairbanks and Lupe Vélez dance the tango in The Gaucho (1927)

The Scottish writer Robert Cunninghame Graham, however, seemed slightly more shocked by what he saw.

“They were so close to each other that the leg of the carefully pressed trouser would disappear in the tight skirt, the man holding her in such a close embrace that the hand ended up by the woman’s face. They gyrated in a whirlwind, bending down to the floor, advancing the legs in front of each other while turning, all of this with a movement of the hips that seemed to fuse the impeccable trousers with the slitted skirt. The music continued more tumultuously, the musical times multiplied until, with a jump, the woman would throw herself into the arms of her partner, who would put her back on her feet.” [3]

Clearly such antics would horrify the ladies of Palermo and reinforce their resistance to the tango’s incursions into their lives. Conservative writers like Leopoldo Lugones and Manuel Galvez looked upon the tango with barely disguised racial arrogance, ‘the product of cosmopolitanism, hybrid and ugly music … a grotesque dance … the embodiment of our national disarray.’ There were persistent attempts to close down the brothels – eventually new ordinances to control the bordellos were passed in 1915. And the wealthy districts were becoming increasingly nervous about the rise of anarchist groups which they associated with prostitution and criminality.

In the end their resistance was to no avail. Tango won its right to exist, but only after tangomania hit Paris.


1 Julie Taylor, Paper Tangos (Durham, NC, 2003), p. 11.
2 Goyo Cuello, quoted in J. Baim, Tango: Creation of a Cultural Icon (Bloomington, IN, 2007), p. 1.
3 In Marta E. Savigliano, Tango and the Political Economy of Passion (Boulder, CO, 1995), p. xiv-xv.


By John Scanlan

John Scanlan is the Series Editor of Reverb with Reaktion Books.