This past spring, I found myself backstage at the Phoenix Theatre in Soho talking with Julian Rowlands, a prominent bandoneónplayer in the UK. He was performing in a touring show called “Midnight Tango”, showcasing stars from the popular UK dance show “Strictly Come Dancing” and he happened to spare a few minutes to talk with me about tango and play a bit as well. This is Julian performing a piece called “El Marne” byEduardo Arolas.
In the 19th century working-class neighborhoods of Buenos Aires, a dance of simple movement but with great intensity was born. It was a combination of different cultures melting into one, when at that time millions of immigrants were arriving in this port town to find a better life. Italians, Spaniards, and other Europeans met with mestizos and children of former African slaves, sharing their unique music and dances such as milongas, polkas, waltzes, mazurkas, and the habañera. All of these dances are seen within the tango and express the feelings of the working class at that tumultuous time.
The first tango ensembles comprised of flute and guitar, sometimes with an accordion as well. This lasted until the arrival of the bandoneón (a reed instrument similar to the accordion) from Germany around 1865, from then on becoming “the” instrument of tango. The tango orchestras then began to change as tango spread out from the city, from being the voice of the people in the slums to the popular music of the barrios (neighborhoods) and eventually to the middle class. Tango represented their yearning and often their solitude, with most immigrants being single men or men who had left their families behind.
From this period onwards, tango has evolved in many ways, from the dancer’s posture to the music itself. However, I will highlight the concept of tango that has remained essentially the same… the rhythm.
There are different rhythms that can be used in tango, depending on which dance the performers have chosen. Tango music is based on placing accents (playing one note stronger than the others) within a constant pulse which the dancers can play off of.
Count from one to eight, clapping along and placing strong emphasis on the numbers that are capitalized.
Mercado rhythm (the most basic, emphasizing the downbeats of a pattern)
ONE two THREE four FIVE six SEVEN eight
ONE two THREE four FIVE six SEVEN EIGHT
ONE two three FOUR FIVE six SEVEN eight
3-3-2 rhythm (tresillo-over-two)
ONE two three FOUR five six SEVEN eight
See if you can identify which of these rhythms are used in the later examples.
Now I will try to break down some of the different styles of tango, not so much to show the varying styles of the dance, but how the music and instrumentation varies as well. Throughout all of the dances, tango musicians must have a strong sense of pulse but also be confident in their ability to switch between playing long, melodic phrases and also providing a rhythmic section as well.
Tango canyengue – One of the earlier forms of Argentine street or “lower-class” tango, the music of tango canyengue is very rhythmical and is matched in the strict steps in tempo by the dancers (hence the afro-origin name of “canyengue”, meaning cadence walking). It has a playful nature to it, with the dancers in a very close embrace with knees bent, and the ensembles playing are more traditional (bandoneón, violin, piano). This dance is not in any way structured and is usually improvised, but the dancers do not stray from the beat, providing a very sensual but fun show of a dance.
In this example, notice the informality of the environment and the dancers themselves. The ensemble shows the influence of the early 1900s big band sound, with the addition of what sounds like a tuba and clarinets in the ensemble of bandoneón, violin, and guitars.
Roxina Villegas & Adrian Griffero: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aZHNQqdMI7w
Tango milonguero – This dance is performed with the dancers in a close embrace throughout, with the leader leading with his chest. Keep in mind that this dance is improvised on the spot and the leader must be extremely confident and clear with his intentions. The music emphasizes heavy accents and an often quicker tempo, which the dancers seem to float on top of. Notice how the violins and bandoneón have a more rhythmical, scratchier edge to their sound in this music. This type of rhythmic playing of milonguero was coined as the “ric-tic-tic” rhythm.
Javier Rodriguez & Andrea Misse: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XxjbSIVIN7I
Tango de salon – This term is used to generally describe all tango that is performed in a salon or ballroom-type atmosphere. The music, as compared with tango canyengue, is varied depending on the venue, but tends to be slower and more complex in rhythmical accents. Therefore, the dance tends to be varied as far as dancer positions and style of steps are concerned. The follower in the dance has more freedom and space to express themselves through their moves, but the space of the dance can be limited due to the amount of people in the salon, so this dance is very improvised and respectful to the space of others.
For the first example, we have a more traditional ensemble with violins, bandoneón, and piano. Notice how there is more freedom for the dancers within the rhythm and the woman’s steps are becoming more spatial up and down as well as side to side (this could also be considered a milonguero).
Stefano Fava & Alexandra Wood: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=02EknkTIBbY
This example I included to show an actual live ensemble, which is surprisingly not as common as you would think when going to dancehalls or milongas (tango dance events).
Alice Gaini & Andrea Bassi: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ncnGlYjvlQ8
Tango nuevo – Though this is considered a more loose term to describe the evolution of tango and its music since the 1980s, I would like to use this as a name for dance that combines the aspects of tango with other styles of ballroom and contemporary dance. The music of this evolutionary period was influenced heavily by Astor Piazzolla(I will be playing one of his pieces in my concert project), in which he added elements of jazz and classical style into his compositions. The dance, in turn, responded to these new sounds with new moves, allowing the follower greater freedom of improvisation/spatial movement and more experimentationwith arm and upper-body movement between the couple.
This couple is dancing to Piazzolla’s work entitled “Oblivion”. The rhythm throughout the piece is obviously tango, but without the conventional harmonies that one might expect in a salon. Observe how the dancers carry themselves and respond to the music in comparison to the previous examples.
Claudia Miazzo & Jean Paul Padovani: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GBXckflFSDs
Tango fantasia and Tango escenario – Tango fantasia began in the 1940s as entertainment during the breaks of a milonga, and the dances emphasized the flair of costumes and quicker, more intricate footwork. The music, therefore, is much more dramatic and usually requires more instrumentalists than the traditional ensemble. It is said that tango escenario, or “show tango”, grew out of this form. Tango escenario is a choreographed tango that is performed for entertainment, using everything that any othertheatrical performance would require – flashy, often provocative costumes, lighting, and full use of the dancefloor provided. Moves become much more dramatic and often acrobatic in nature. This type of dance is most often not performed with a live ensemble due to the dancers needing complete confidence in the rhythmic tempo and nuances in the music.
This tango fantasia is danced to an orchestral piece of Jacob Gade’s famous tango,“Tango jalousie”. The spatial movement of the dancers is quite large since this dance would not be performed in a tango salon and the leader now moves his partner up and down instead of just across the dance floor.
These two examples of tango escenario are performed using the same famous tango, “Tanguera” by Mariano Mores.
Miriam Larici & Leonardo Barrionuevo: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kkjBLmM6KEg
Sebastian Arce & Mariana Montes: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NvYegLQ40sI
The Argentine tango embodies the tension between passionate love and yearning… a result of the undeniable amount of emotion confined in the dancers which is restrained with an upright, seemingly restrictive posture. The music evokes this push-and-pull feeling with a strict, structured rhythm but with solo instruments floating on top of this, which requires a tango musician to be absolutely comfortable with rubato playing (Julian Rowlands also highly stressed this when I talked to him about tango musicianship). This style has been especially difficult for me, coming from an environment where I am expected to play pieces in a certain way. Hopefully my interpretation of Piazzolla’s Tango Etudes will do this amazing music justice!
Enjoy the great music of Argentine tango and I would highly recommend going to observe/participate in a milonga if there is one in your community… it is really a fun experience! As always, I have added more pieces to listen to. My post on Japan will hopefully be up tomorrow as well, as time has been moving a lot faster than I expected!
Patricio Touceda & Carla Chimentowith a live ensemble – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bXhQNRsH3uc
Claudia Miazzo & Jean Paul Padovaniperforming tango nuevo – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5K7uwngHVTM
Here are some tangos found in musicals/film, showing how tango is used to show tension and drama –
Moulin Rouge (“El Tango de Roxanne”) – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F9XGsp8FpOQ
Chicago (“Cell Block Tango”) – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qrrz54UtkCc (sorry for the Dutch subtitles)
Rent (“Tango Maureen”) – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D0QfCIQgD94(again, subtitles)