Tango: Argentina's Trademark Music and Dance
Described as Argentina's number one cultural export, tango is both a dance and a type of music. The dance shook the world at the dawn of the 20th century, and remains a mainstay of global pop culture.
Although tango often brings to mind elegance and refinement, its roots are firmly planted in the working class slums of Buenos Aires. In the late 1800s, tango was one of many dances enjoyed by the city's mostly male immigrant population. Accompanied by the bandoneón, a variation of the accordion brought to Argentina by German immigrants, men would often dance with men for lack of female companionship.
By the turn of the century Buenos Aires was rolling in wealth and had become a fashionable city of the world. Young Parisians looking for a new dance found it in a sanitized version of the Argentine tango; Paris was the first foreign city to experience the tango craze, but it soon spread to London, New York and elsewhere. This international version of tango, now known as ballroom tango, involved less contact than the Argentine variety and included distinctive "head snaps".
Carlos Gardel: The Creole Thrush
With international approval, tango suddenly looked more acceptable to the Argentine middle and upper classes who had initially written off the dance as pedestrian and even vulgar. It was the twenties, and tango's moment was ripe. As if on cue, Carlos Gardel stepped out into stardom, putting tango music on the map for good.
Traditionally, tango's musical accompaniment was instrumental. A typical group consisted of bandoneón, piano, violin, and upright bass. Carlos Gardel added his voice and sentimental lyrics to the mix, creating an instantly classic form of music—the tango canción. Even the stodgy elites of Buenos Aires couldn't resist.
Gardel's charms were successfully adapted to the big screen, and he became as popular in Latin America and Europe as Elvis or Sinatra was in North America. In 1935, just when it seemed his meteoric rise couldn't last any longer, he died tragically in a plane crash. His legendary place in history had been sealed.
Astor Piazzolla: The Duke Ellington of Tango
If Carlos Gardel brought tango to the masses, Astor Piazzolla earned it acceptance among music critics the world over. Although a masterful bandoneón player, Piazolla was above all a brilliant composer who showed the world that instrumental tango music could be much more than simple accompaniment to dance or song.
With a background in classical music and jazz, Piazzolla shook up the tango world in 1955 when his octet performed his instrumental tango compositions without the distraction of a singer or dancer. He continued to experiment over the next three and a half decades, fusing tango in new ways with jazz, classical, and avant-garde forms
Tango remains popular in Argentina, and there has been something of a revival lately. In Buenos Aires, porteños young and old frequent milongas, informal dance clubs where a lesson starts the night off and is often followed by a live performance. There's at least one radio station dedicated to tango in Buenos Aires, and mark your calendar for the annual Buenos Aires Tango Festival, where you can attend free lessons and watch tons of performances. The Official Buenos Aires Tango Site is an excellent resource for finding tango performances, milongas, and classes in the city.