Breaking down the history of any musical genre is a daunting and near-impossible task. Genres of music are not like physical inventions that can be traced to a singular point in time. Rather, music is an amalgamation of moods, attitudes, social circumstances, emotional states and even geography.
It is impossible to pinpoint the birth of any genre because music is ultimately collaboration between people and it takes many shapes even in the infancy phase.
The History of Tango Music
So, what is Tango and how can its origins be traced? For this we must turn our attention to late 19th century Argentina.
Argentina is widely considered the birth country of Tango music as we know it today but the truth of the matter is that the genre owes its style to influences that stretch far beyond the borders of Argentina. Just upon hearing traditional Tango music, you will see what I mean.
You will be able to pick up on the exotic rhythms of Africa in the almost staccato nature of the 2/4 and 4/4 time signatures. Again, we may never know who incorporated African rhythms into Tango or how they were influenced by them but the infusion is undeniable.
Tango music also owes some debt of gratitude to Spain. Spanish musicians were simultaneously developing what would ultimately help to shape the definitive Tango style in their Flamenco Tangos.
Spain and Italy play a further role in the formation of Tango music in the 20th century when European instruments were introduced in Argentina and subsequently integrated into the Tango ensemble.
An Argentine by the name of Angel Villoldo is credited with the very first Tango recording. He played guitar and sang by himself and helped solidify the characteristics that we associate with Tango today. One might say that he is the Godfather of Tango but who knows who he borrowed from and was influenced by.
That was back in 1905. Somewhere around 1910, more instruments were being used to play Tango music which fleshed out the Tango sound and gave it a greater level of distinction as a genre of music.
The Music of the Lower Class
In the beginning Argentine Tango music was relegated to street hoods and young thugs. The music was often played in brothels and other unsavory establishments where the “riff raff” of society normally convened.
The upper class outwardly disdained the music as it was seen as a bad influence. This quarantining of Tango music to the poor and working class Argentine was not to last very long. By 1913, the influence and aesthetic appeal of Tango music had reached as far as France and what was once taboo among the blue bloods of Argentina was now an acceptable and much enjoyed form of entertainment.
Influential Tango History
As with any genre of music, Tango was helped along thanks to landmark songs, recordings and artists. Mi Noche Triste was a Tango song written by Pascual Contursi but sang by indelible Tango icon, Carlos Gardel. The song became the blueprint for subject matter in Tango songs: heartbreaking tales of love and loss.
La Cumparista is widely held as the most famous Tango song of all time and was written by Roberto Firpo back in 1916. To this day the song is recorded by Tango bands and orchestras and has been arranged in almost every conceivable style.
The history of Tango music shows us the mighty wave that Tango rode to popularity in the early 20th century eventually hit the shore and rolled back but it regained popularity once again in the 1980’s thanks in part to the TV show, Tango Argentino.
Today, Tango is experiencing a resurgence around the world as evidenced by radio stations, cable TV networks and new recordings dedicated to Tango.
Tango history intertwines itself with the history of Argentine culture. While the history of Tango music requires a greater study than what I can get into here, and while a definitive point in time can never be named “the birth of Tango” for any music lover, it is a labor of love to seek out the roots of this enticing genre of Latin music.