“Tango—previamente de ser arte—es una actitud”
[Tango—prior to being art—is an attitude] (Horacio Feerret)
The culture of tango, from its music and dance to its language and lyrics, offers a clear view into the class, gender, ethnic, and economic issues of Argentina since the late 19th Century. Through the decades, the tango has evolved from “a dance associated with the poor and criminal classes to a highly stylized dance form in which all social classes could participate” (Castro p. 6).
Tango emerged in the lower class neighborhoods of the port cities of Montevideo, in Uruguay, and Buenos Aires, in Argentina – both located on the Rio de la Plata estuary. For the purpose of this essay, I will focus on the evolution of tango in Buenos Aires and its journey towards acceptance by the Argentinean upper classes.
The disapproval of the tango by Argentinean high society is perhaps best exemplified by the words of Enrique Rodríguez Lareta, then Argentinean Minister Plenipotentiary in Paris, “when he answered complaints from both Argentines and Frenchmen as to why he forbade tangos from being played at embassy parties:
El tango es en Buenos Aires una danza primitiva de las casas de mala fama y de los bodegones de peor especie. No se baila nunca en los salones de buen tono ni entre personas distinguidas. Para los oídos argentinos la música de tango despierta ideas realmente desagradables. No veo diferencias algunas entre el tango que se baila en las academias elegantes de Paris y el que baila [sic] en los bajos centros nocturnos de Buenos Aires. [The tango is in Buenos Aires a primitive dance of houses of ill repute and of the lowest kind of dives. It is never danced in polite society nor among persons of breeding. To Argentine ears it awakes [sic] the most disagreeable feelings. I see no difference whatsoever between the tango that is danced in elegant Parisian dance halls and that which is danced in the most base night spots in Buenos Aires.]” (Zubillaga as cited in Castro p. 93)
In, The Argentine Tango As Social History, 1880-1955: The Soul of the People, Donald S. Castro describes the tango of La guardia vieja [The Old Guard], that is from about 1895 to the World War I, as “the dance and musical vehicle of the urban poor, the socially unacceptable, the disenfranchised, and the disinherited of the Argentine littoral” (pp. 89-90). In a process of selective-self-denied-identity mixed with European(or first world) cultural colonization typical of Latin America, the tango was only welcomed, in fact even considered fashionable among the middle and upper classes, “through re-importation form Europe in the period just prior to World War I” (p. 92). The changing lyrics and context of tango reflect its shifting status as it moved from bars and brothels in the poor neighborhoods of the marginalized city outskirts, to being associated with formal wear and downtown nightclubs. At the same time, the lyrical focus on economic frustrations shifted towards unrequited love (pp. 7-8).
Castro argues that through this process the tango also went from a folkloric form (spontaneous genre with improvised lyrics) to popular culture (with standardized dance steps, and published lyrics and music) (p. 7). However, he also argues that because it continued to be a product of the urban working and middle classes, the lyrics of published tangos continued to reflect the daily life and preoccupations of every day porteños (citizens of the port city, Buenos Aires, a term also used to refer to anything related to the city) (p. 7). He argues that these themes respond to a long lyrical tradition of social criticism that reflected the social discontent of the working class of Buenos Aires (p. 9).
The reality is that by the mid 20th Century, and in some places even earlier than that, tango had become the Argentinean national dance – whether because outsiders identified Argentineans with the tango, or because Argentineans had adopted it as such themselves, or a combination of both. However, it is clear that the use of tango as a metonym for Argentina by foreigners has never been completely free of assumptions, prejudices, and misunderstandings. Castro presents a perfect example when he mentions that “in the Hollywood films of the 1920s, Argentina was identified not only with tangos, but also with gauchos. In Paris at this time, these two images of Argentina merged with the appearance on stage and in cabarets of Gauchos dancing tangos” (p. 1). Almost a century later, I have been witness myself to tangos danced by men dressed as gauchos (the cowboys of the Argentinean countryside) – a mistaken impossibility, given that tango is the epitome of urban porteñidad (porteño-ness) and a cultural product of the city from the late 19th century to the present, while gauchos are an extinct incarnation of the rural Argentina before the late 19th century which now stands as the epitome of the rustic countryside life.
Baires is a colloquial shortening of Buenos Aires used to refer to the city mostly by its younger population. Because of its vernacularity, I feel the word would be part of the vocabulary of tango had it emerged in the late 20th century rather than one hundred years earlier. The matter of fact is that Argentinean tango is all about the city of Buenos Aires. In Argentina, popular culture is folklore in the countryside and tango in the city (Bayer and Canal-Feijóo as cited on Castro p. 5). Castro plainly states that tango “was and still is very much the dance of the port city of Argentina – Buenos Aires“ (p. 6) and further adds: “Indeed one might argue that the tango is less Argentine than porteño… a cultural expression of the sprawling port city …” (p. 8).
So consumed are the tango lyrics with evoking the Buenos Aires mood that Gobello and Bosso felt compelled to write: “… en la letra del tango no se busca tanto el placer de la poesía como la emoción de la porteñidad” [“in the lyrics of tango one does not look so much for the pleasure of poetry as for the emotion of ‘porteñoness’”] (as cited on Castro p. 6). Even as the popular rhythms have varied from tango to rock, contemporary Argentinean musicians continue this tradition by writing to and about Buenos Aires, as does, for example, Fito Paez. Buenos Aires streets are commonly mentioned in his lyrics. He even has a song titled Buenos Aires in which he does not fail to mention tango, and continues the tango tradition of expressing his frustration with the urban problems in Buenos Aires while somehow also expressing worshipping fascination with the city at the same time.
The lyrics of tango document the marginalization and struggles of Buenos Aires’ lower classes with their portrayal of la vida orillera (orillero refers to anything pertaining to the slums and outskirts of the city; orilla means margin, coast or border) in the suburbio or arrabal (the poorest neighborhoods characterized by tenement housing, high crime rates, poverty, and immigrants) (Castro p. 8). The social criticism present in tango lyrics did not call for revolution and social justice, simply portraying instead a painful reality. Castro brings up the concept of the tango portrayal of life as pain and suffering , by citing the tango “Cambalache” (1935) [Pawnshop] in which “life is described as a porquería [a nasty mess] where it does not matter what you do, or whether or not you are good or evil, it is all the same“ (p. 78). To me, this shows the hopelessness people found in their precarious situations. Here are some lyrics of tangos copied from Castro’s book that speak for themselves (pp. 72-3, translations my own):
“Sentencia” [“The Judgement”}
Yo nací, señor juez , en el suburbio,
suburbio triste de la enorme pena,
en el fango social donde una noche
asentara su rancho la miseria.
[I was born, Mr. Judge, in the slums,
sad slums of enormous pain
in the social morass where one night
misery set up its house.]
El sol es el poncho del pobre que pasa
rumiando rebelde blasfemias y ruegos
pues tiene una horrible tragedia en su casa,
tragedia de días sin pan y sin fuego.
[The sun is the overcoat of the poor man
who passes by
rebelliously chewing blasphemies and pleas
‘cause at home there is a horrible tragedy,
a tragedy of days without food and without fire]
Sus pibes no lloran por llorar
ni piden masitas ni dulces. ¡Señor!
Sus pibes se mueren de frio
y lloran hambrientos de pan
[His kids don’t cry for crying sake
nor do they ask for cookies or cake, no sir!
His kids are dying of cold
and cry of bellies aching for bread]”
Tango lyrics often evoke its alleged cradle, an underworld of brothels clearly shaped by the sexual dominance of the male in which “women are secondary characters who, as chinas [low class women or prostitutes], or prendas [“skirts”], are little more than hembras [female animals]” (Castro p. 9). The tango lyrics are full of words connected to brothels and prostitution (p. 38). In fact, Castro argues that the slang word “mina” (now utilized to mean any woman in Argentina) comes from tango lyrics where it referred to women as sources of wealth exploited by pimps (the verb minar means to mina or extract) (pp. 37, 57).
At the same time men are often portrayed in tango as arrogant womanizers. Tango lyrics and the culture from which they emerged also held men victim to a gendered expectation of competition over street-smart skills. Men who were ridiculed by others were referred to by another slang term that survives to the present, “gil” [fool]. Castro states that “to be made a fool was the greatest ill that could befall a person” and even asserts that it was to a “porteño worse than castration” which clearly marks its association with masculinized traits (p. 79). Tango lyrics are also sometimes filled with self-adulation used as a tool for affirming and defending one’s reputation or challenging someone else’s (Cara p. 451). Other than lady’s men and smart assess, men in tango lyrics were also sometimes victims of women’s betrayal. In any case, it is rare to find a romantic tango lyric or one that portrays men of character or admirable women, except perhaps for the figure of the mother.
Although tango is often described as a male dominated dance, dancers of social tango describe it as a mutual dialogue between a man and a woman, rather than simply a leader controlling a follower. When learning to tango, particularly the home tango style, a couple learns to read each other’s bodies and respond appropriately in a conversation without words Cara refers to as kinesthetic conversation (p. 454). Men learning to lead are encouraged to pay close attention and “attend” to the women, inviting her to perform certain steps or move in a certain direction, rather than forcing their way. In fact, women never like to dance with men who are not attentive and seem to be dancing as if they were by themselves. On the other hand, for modern independent women, who have learned to be weary of men, it is often difficult to achieve the necessary state of relaxation and trust.
Unlike mainstream perceptions that associate tango with sexiness and sexuality, the art of improvising as a couple while dancing tango socially is mainly about achieving a deep intimate connection (Cara p. 453) – which I have heard referred to as a trance, and experienced it as such myself. Furthermore, women are not passive partners, they have independent will and opportunity to add valued embellishments, set the mood and tempo, and provoke sudden changes or particular steps. Cara states that a female tango dancer can “in fact, lead, if she is an extremely well-versed dancer” and goes on to state that the proverb “it takes two to tango” holds true – as “the conversational nature of the dance requires a give-and-take, an invitation to dance and a response” (454).
Lunfardo is the word most often used to refer to the vocabulary utilized in tango lyrics. It has long been considered to have come from a secret language, or argot lunfardo¸ utilized by criminals of the early 20th Century – or at least, it was so labeled by the police. Castro, however, points out contemporary doubts that the speakers of lunfardo determined its existence and labeled it as such themselves, and rather that it was “outside observers of this linguistic phenomenon [who] determined what it was, and who were the speakers”. It is possible that the Argentinean upper classes confused a criminal argot with simple urban slang and a creole slang of immigrants (especially Italian, since the majority of the words were of Italian origin, with some coming from Spanish and just a few from Portuguese [p. 40]). By doing so members of the upper classes made “all these porteño social types into one generic group which these outsiders considered to be lunfardo.” As Castro points out, this generalization reflects the disdain of the upper classes for the urban poor and the immigrants. Furthermore, it explains why tango was rejected as a cultural expression of that world and a vehicle for the condemned linguistic phenomenon (p. 41). The confusion of lunfardo as a criminal argot and lenguaje orillero or caló porteño (simple urban slag not used by the upper classes but part of the popular vocabulary) reflects that the upper classes of the time “made no distinction between criminal groups” and “the various non-criminal elements within the urban popular classes” (p. 38).
The upper classes were so opposed to the use of lunfardo in tangos, particularly after it reached the radios in the 1930s, that they even enforced censorship (Castro p. 84). For example, when the military seized power in 1943, new cleaned versions of by then classical tangos were made in order to preserve the “correct language” (that is the pure Castilian Spanish, by changing words such “vieja” for madre and “piba” for muchacha). These versions remained in use despite popular opposition until early 1950 (p. 86).
It is also important to point out that the urban slang has enjoyed a continued usage from the first decades of tango to the present. Castro argues that “the decision to use elements of popular speech was done consciously by the tango poets who attempted to associate themselves with the popular and middle classes” (p. 87). Even as tango artists became popular and wealthy, as tango left the streets and entered the stages, musicians and dancers alike have chosen to remain street-wise, to utilize urban slang, to dress the part, often even to impersonate the brothels of years past, in an attempt to continue an urban marginal identity that has become no longer a source of national shame but rather self-exotized pride – not to mention profitable show business and tourism largely based on staged spectacular versions of tango performance.
Ana C. Cara points out in her article “Entangled Tangos: Passionate Displays, Intimate Dialogues”, that many Argentineans find their shared ethos, attitudes, emotions, and identity encoded in the essence of tango or tanguedad [tanguicity], which can be best experienced only through the body (p. 453) and which “embraces the many social, historical, geographical, and cultural dimensions that have made tango possible, indeed necessary, in the lives of Argentines for more than a century” (pp. 438-9). Tango is not just a fixed music and a dance genre, but a particular performance style and a way of dancing, embodying, and enacting tango – that is, tango steps without the proper attitude are not tango norr are the notes of a tango score played without the right feeling; nonetheless, movements and music that are not per se tango can be tangueados [tangoized] (pp. 455-6). Cara also points out, however, that tango also shifted from a social to a performance dance, and Argentineans clearly recognize the difference between two kinds of tango at the ends of a spectrum – the intimate, modest, and authentic home tango, vs the sexualized, flashy, acrobatic translation for the stage (which is both a product of appropriation and co-optation by the colonialist gaze, as well as a narrative of self-representation turned into a marketable commodity) (pp. 441-5).
Cara, Ana C. (2009). “Entangled Tangos: Passionate Displays, Intimate Dialogues”, in Journal of American Folklore 122(486):438–465
Castro, Donald S. (1991). The Argentine Tango As Social History, 1880-1955: The Soul of the People. Edwin Mellen Press
Bayer, Osvaldo, Bernardo Canal-Feijóo, et. al. (1974). El populísmo en la Argentina. Buenos Aires: Editorial Plus Ultra, pp. 91-92
Gobello, José and Jorge A. Bosso. (1979). Tango, letras, y letristas, 2 vols. Buenos Aires: Editorial Plus Ultra, Vol. I, p. 7
Zubillaga, Carlos. (1976) Carlos Gardel. Madrid: Editorial “Jucar”, p. 18.