Pablo Aslan on tango music

Pablo Aslan


Pablo Aslan is a tango musician and musicologist who is very historically informed and clear thinking. He is working on his own music, with his NY band Avantango.

He is unfortunately not maintaining the history sections of his website, but I was able to find his excellent work using the way-back machine. Here it is:

A BRIEF HISTORY OF TANGO – by Pablo Aslan ©1997

Few words conjure up as many images as the word TANGO. Be it roses and castanets for some, street corners and a lost youth for others, the tango has been spreading its imagery throughout the world for a century. As far away as Finland, Egypt, and Japan, the tango has captured the imagination of widely disparate people. Born in Argentina, a nation of immigrants, of a mixture of choreography, music, and literature, the tango expresses the complexity of XXth century society in a single unified form. No one group can take credit for “inventing” the tango in the late XIXth century. Blacks, gauchos, criollos, Cubans, Italians, Spaniards, Jews, and Germans all contributed to this comprehensive expression of sentiment, the sentiment of Buenos Aires.

Tango historians have been preoccupied with the origins of the tango for over fifty years. Much has been written and yet the process was so complex that it still remains an awesome mystery. The ingredients were many: African rhythmic perception, European music forms, gaucho tradition, Spanish and Italian musicians, the search for an identity with a young city in a growing country, etc. Many traditions mingled until something called tango, danced a certain way to a new kind of music, emerged to capture the imagination of the dwellers of Buenos Aires. Most of this process took place in the outskirts of the city, where immigrants, freed slaves, and urbanized gauchos mingled.

By the early 1900’s tango was becoming popular beyond the marginal places where it was conceived. The choreography smoothed its lines, the music was incorporated into the repertoire of bands and amateur pianists. The greatest popularity for the tango was to come as an echo of its triumph in Paris, London, and New York. By the 1920’s, tango acquired its sophisticated image, and Buenos Aires, cosmopolitan and elegant, became one with the tango. The music was everywhere, in cafes, cabarets, theaters and later in silent movie houses. Dancing was elegant and seductive.

Poetry emerged to give birth to the tango-song. The early lyrics of the tango were as licentious as the world they inhabited. They often had descriptive or ambiguous titles such as “Dejala morir adentro” (“Let it die inside”).When the tango became formalized, writers started adapting lyrics to the songs of the time and by the late 1910’s a new form of song had emerged. Again, the creation of tango-song was a collective effort. The cultural mix of Buenos Aires provided many elements for its conception, such as gaucho literature, Spanish and Italian singing styles, local language, and a rich theater tradition. Another important element in the evolution of the tango at the time was the emerging media. Tango records were made as early as 1905, and by 1915 sales were enormous. The advent of radio was key to the popularity of many artists, as was the participation in film later on.

The early 1930’s were turbulent for Argentina. Affected by the world-wide crisis, its export-driven economy in turmoil, a military takeover (the first in a series) and ensuing moral crisis, Argentine society experienced a change that was reflected in the tango. Foreign music and film, mostly North American, invaded the city. The tango survived in the theater and in the nascent Argentine film industry. Carlos Gardel sang from Barcelona, Paris, and New York, and died tragically in Colombia in 1935. In that same year Radio El Mundo propelled the popularity of a new orchestra. The leader was Juan D’Arienzo, but the musical dynamo was Rodolfo Biagi, who introduced a renewed interpretation of the fast and steady tango of older times, which many orchestras were to adopt. With this style, tango dancing was rejuvenated and became a massive popular phenomenon. By the 1940’s people went out to dance to one of the many splendid orchestras that played throughout the city, sat in cafes listening to singers and orchestras, read the newest tango lyrics on specialized magazines like “El Alma Que Canta”, or danced in the intimacy of a cabaret. Tango was a way of life, it was everywhere.

The second life of the tango, which lasted well into the 1950’s, radiated from Buenos Aires and spread throughout Latin America, taking roots in Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Brazil.Uruguay, mainly Montevideo, a city with a rich tango tradition as old as the tango itself, remained the home of many important artists. Tango was a popular dance, a sophisticated music and had expressive lyrics that gave it a voice. The repertoire grew enormously with collaborations between the greatest musicians and poets, recorded by orchestras and singers and broadcast daily on the radio. But while the Argentine tango triumphed in Latin America, in Europe and North America the older style had taken root and developed on its own as sort of international tango. The new tango culture of Argentina was not noticed outside Latin America. Europe and the United States were preoccupied with war and swing during the 40’s and 50’s, and Latin music was to emerge in the form of Cuban, and later Brazilian, rhythms. The whole evolution and apotheosis of the tango in Argentina was to remain virtually unknown there for over three decades.

The late 50’s and early 60’s were another period of change in Argentine society. Foreign control of the media was influential in the decline of popularity of the tango. Deep political and economic crises and a search for a new identity mark these transformational times. The tango suffered from the onslaught of new dances and sounds. While it saw a rise in professionalism in music and dance, it lost its roots in the population, becoming almost a cult for those who retained an identity with the tango. Most importantly the tango had exhausted its creative impulse and progressed towards a classicism reflected in the recordings of the time. Singers were the main figures in this period, and with them, the old songs that remained frozen in time.

Curously, the tango, which had been a mass phenomenon throughout its existence, survived the crisis through the creativity of a single individual: Astor Piazzolla. The bandoneonist and composer revitalized the tango, injecting it with a contemporary sound that, while maligned by many traditionalists, propelled it into the late XXthh century as a living creative force. But for a few followers, disciples and imitators, Piazzolla was alone. Ignored in his own country he migrated to Europe and eventually triumphed there and in the United States. Meanwhile, Buenos Aires lived the tango as a thing of the past, and new generations looked elsewhere for their creative and entertainment needs. The surge of rock and pop music catalyzed the best talent in songwriting, while musicianship declined and the dancing public was diverted by foreign music.

The tango is now in another period of renaissance. The triumph of tango-revues such as Tango Argentino and Tango X 2 created a renewed passion for dancing, reviving the Golden Era music with a staged choreography. Echoes from the tango’s popularity in Europe, Japan and the United States have helped a new generation of Argentines to rediscover their deep connection with the tango. In Buenos Aires, tango dancing is ubiquitous and fashionable. Young musicians are exploring the creative capabilities of the tango, and it is only a matter of time before the tango finds a new voice through its poets. Once again, just like when Paris gave the tango its seal of approval, the world’s interest has given Argentines motivation to look inside in search of an authentic expression.

Musicality Part 1

One of the most rewarding experiences I have had as a musician is that of playing in a professional symphony orchestra. No matter how close to the orchestra your seats are, or how good your home stereo is, there is no feeling like being inside the music, with the brass announcing the climax, the strings lunging into a passionate run or the basses anchoring a moment of suspense.

I bring this up because it relates to what I have heard many tango dancers speak of: dancing in the music as opposed to dancing to the music. I imagine that the feeling is similar to my symphonic experiences: you are one more instrument with a role to play and an awareness of all the others involved in the same process. Beautiful stuff.

I must confess that after over a decade of playing tango, listening to hundreds of recordings and watching dancers do their thing, I had very little idea of what goes on when a dancer interprets a piece of music. It all seemed unrelated to me. It wasn’t until I took a few dance lessons that I realize how deep the connection goes.

Don’t worry, though, I will not theorize in this column about the connection between dance and music, nor will I discuss aspects of dancing style. I simply want to give you some ideas about how to get in the music, how to play along with the band. The key to it is listening.

I propose to you a simple excercise, although at first it may appear impossibly hard to do. The idea is to sit down and put on a recording of your favorite orchestra and just…listen to it. At first you may have to hang on to your chair to keep you from dancing, but you’ll get the hang of it.

There are several things in the music that will merit your attention, and in most cases repeated listening will yield deeper rewards. It will all, I hope, be reflected on your dancing. For now let’s concentrate on two of the most basic aspects of a piece of music: rhythm and structure.

To get into the rhythm you have to find the beat, the pulse of the music. This should be the most obvious element, but I’ll give you a few ideas of where to find it in a tango orchestra. As you know, there are no drums in a tango orchestra, so the rhythmic role is played by other instruments. In fact even instruments that traditionally play a melodic role, like the violin, engage in rhythmic playing at one point or another in the piece. So, the first question to ask yourself while listening is: Where is the beat?. The second one is: Who’s got it?

We will explore these questions in future columns, but I want to bring up the notion of structure in music. Think of it as the architecture of a piece. As poetic and abstract as a piece of music may seem, most of the time a definite form underlies what goes on. The simplest way to get into it on a tango is to listen to the melody. First of all, how many different melodies (themes) do you hear? Most tangos will have either two or three. Give each theme a letter, A, B and C. In what order do they occur? Is it ABC? ABAC? When a melody repeats, is it being played the same way or has it changed? Which instruments are playing the melody and which accompany?

I hope I have given you enough things to do while you sit down and listen. I am sure that when you decide to dance to the piece you have studied, your potential for being in the music, for participating in the piece as another instrument, will be much greater.

Musicality Part 2

Throughout the years I have worked in situations where an impromptu dance exhibit is arranged and the dancers in charge request from the orchestra a particular tango. When this happens we say that they “dance titles”. See, what happens is that if you request a song by the title, a tango orchestra has still to choose the style in which it will play it. So, the requesting party may be expecting the fast and furious version of “Gallo Ciego” they practiced with at home, and the orchestra may give them a heavy, languid interpretation more akin to their taste. To avoid this situation, a safer way to communicate with the musicians is to discuss tempo and rhythm.

Last month, I drew your attention to the rhythm of tango as one of the keys to the musical experience. Identifying the beat in a tango orchestra may not be as easy as in a piece of, say, Cuban music, but it is there nonetheless. Of course, in some tango orchestras it is more apparent than in others, but the lack of a percussion instruments may cloud the beat just a bit.

The issue of rhythm in tango brings us into the realm of style. Just what do I mean? Well, tango rhythm is not the same in a 1912 recording of Juan “Pacho” Maglio than in a 1961 Piazzolla piece. While this comparison may make sense just by looking at the dates, when we get deeper into the discography of the tango, we discover that different orchestras had their own way of playing even within the same period. This applies to dancing since not all music will feel the same, and it would dictate a different approach. In talking to tango dancers, I have discovered that they prefer a certain style for certain steps. So, here is a little discussion about style.

In most milongas nowadays we hear music from roughly 1935 to, again roughly, 1960. This is a period that, give or take a few years, is known as the Golden Age of Tango. The popularity of tango in this period was enormous, as dance, as music and as song. In the proliferation of orchestras of this period, we can distinguish several trend-setting groups. Some of these may be familiar to you by now. Anibal Troilo, Carlos Di Sarli, Francisco Canaro, Juan D’Arienzo, Osvaldo Pugliese, and a few others, had a distinct recognizable style. In fact, the arrangers who wrote the music for these orchestras endeavored to give each ensemble a unique signature sound. Much of this distinctiviness was based on rhythmic characteristics.

A big change in tango style began in the late 30’s with the orchestra led by Juan D’Arienzo. Rodolfo Biagi, who played piano in the orchestra at the time, introduced a way of playing that would revolutionize the tango. Fast and short (staccato), with plenty of dramatic contrast and sudden stops. Dancing to this orchestra was simpler, and to this day many dancers prefer D’Arienzo over any other group. As the orchestra grew in popularity, fueled by their regular appearances on Radio El Mundo, other directors adapted some of these rhythmic characteristics to their style. Musicians of such different temperaments as Anibal Troilo and Carlos Di Sarli went through a period of fast and steady beats.

By the mid-40’s, the amount of orchestras was staggering. Great artists such as Troilo, Pugliese, Di Sarli, Miguel Calo, Angel D’Agostino, and many others, led orchestras which played regularly on the radio, dances, cafes, cabarets and made recordings. They played steady-beat dance music, and they regularly featured one or more singers who would weave their voices around the regular beat. The rhythm was different in each one of them, and they developed a following based on dancer’s preferences.

Towards the end of the Golden Era, as singers became more popular and the interest in dance shifted to other kinds of music, arrangements tended to have a more flexible rhythm. You can hear this in the 1960’s recordings of Pugliese, Troilo, Jose Basso, and, certainly, Astor Piazzolla. The beat is there, but it stops, slows down, dissapears or is only implied by the melody. You’ll find a lot of this music in the choreography of stage dancers.

So it is that when it comes to style you can distinguish among major orchestras and, across time, between the different periods of tango history. The same songs were done and redone over the decades and it wasn’t unusual for various versions of a new song to appear the same year. In fact, a lot of the instrumental repertoire was written before 1920 and keeps coming back reworked according to each interpreter’s style.

I hope this little discussion on style allows you to get further into the music. Unlike last month, when I urged you to take a break from dancing in order to focus solely on the music, the exploration of style can be done while dancing. In fact, you’ll start to discover that certain orchestras feel better than others. My guess is that you will find different approaches to dancing in each style. Maybe certain steps will only work with a particular orchestra, some will flow more than others, while in some cases you’ll have plenty of time for fancy stuff. It’s all about being in the music and responding with your body.

Musicality Part 3

This month we turn our ears to melody, and through it we will discover the structure, the form of the tango. A couple of months back I suggested that if you identify the different melodies in a song and keep track of their repetitions, you will have a picture of the form of the song. I went further into musical jargon and suggested that you label the different melodies in a piece so that you get forms such as ABACA or ABCAA. Well, its time to take a closer look at tango structures. I believe that in learning form your awareness of time in your dancing will begin to change.

Let’s take a piece we all know, like “El Choclo”. There are three different melodies in this piece. I’m sure some of you can just run the tango in your mind and figure out the three themes, but if not, listen to a recording several times and hum along until you notice them. Ethnomusicologists label each theme with a letter, in this case A, B, and C. In tango we call them Primera, Segunda, and Tercera (First, Second, and Third). In the case of “El Choclo” the Primera (A) is the worldwide known melody, the one we all recognize instantly and that some people know as “Kiss of Fire”. The Segunda (B) is a contrasting theme. This is common in music: one strong melody followed by another one that while related, has a strong character of its own. In this case it is in what’s called the relative major key: A is in D minor; B is in F major. OK, stay with me, behind all the musical mumbo-jumbo all I’ve said is that so far we have two themes. We are barely half a minute into the song.

Now comes the Tercera. The C section is in the major key, what in music is known as the parallel relationship: the Primera is in D minor, and the Tercera is in D major. Again, I trust that you can pick out the melody from a recording, otherwise ask your local musician.

We come now to the subject of form and structure. In a tango such as “El Choclo”, with three sections, the musician has the option of arranging the sequence of melodies. There are in this case two often-used strategies: ABACA and ABCAA. So, armed with our three themes, we can see that in the first case we don’t hear the C theme until after a repetition of the A theme and that A returns at the end. In the second case, we hear the three themes in order and then A comes back twice. Again, this is a lot simpler than it sounds, and once you identified the three themes it’s just a matter of figuring out in which order they occur. Really, that’s all.

I’ll let you discover how the sense of structure in a tango affects your dancing. I suspect it will help you keep track of the progress the song and give direction to your improvisation. In any case, I’d love to hear about it. For the time being let me add that there are several more layers to this form business, which we will explore in future columns.

I’d like to leave you with another listening assgnment, for which I’ll give you some more information. The idea is to listen to other tangos and figure out the form. Identify the different melodies and keep track of their sequence. Beware that there are tangos that only have two melodies: Primera (A) and Segunda (B). Here is a list of other ABC tangos: “La Cumparsita”, “El Amanecer”, “Felicia”, “9 de Julio”. Some two-section (AB) tangos are: “Caminito”, “Don Juan”, “El Once”, “Uno”. Remember that tango orchestras often have a distinctive sound, so that if you listen to several version of a tango you will discover many things about style. Happy listening!

Music and Dance

New York City is one of the only places in the world where you can dance to a live tango band on a regular basis. Amazing as this may seem, a milonga featuring live music is a rare commodity these days. In Buenos Aires, most popular dance spots are run by disc-jockeys, who have become the musical stars of the moment. Similarly, throughout the US, DJ’s are proliferating. The absence of tango bands is due to many reasons, altough, as one may guess, the main reason is economics. Adding a band to the expenses of running a milonga can be prohibitive for some organizers. Many dance communities simply don’t have the numbers to justify hiring a band. But significantly, the problem is also that there are not that many bands to be hired to begin with. Over the last three decades, tango music has become a complex style, leaving behind the simplicity of the dance era in favor of intricate arrangements. And while the music has evolved, dancers still prefer the sound of 1940’s orchestras. As a consequence, the revival of tango dancing has not been accompanied by a similar phenomenon in music.

Tango music, by most accounts, was created to serve a new dance style developed in the late Nineteenth century in Buenos Aires and Montevideo. At first, dancers adapted their original moves to the music of the day: polca, mazurka, habanera and milonga. Tango music emerged out of a mixture of many of these styles, and by the first decades of the Twentieth century, became a distinct entity. The first recordings, made around 1911, demonstrate a simple style, guided by the rhythm of the guitar. The dance, meanwhile, was complex, virtuosic.

The popularity of the tango, and, more importantly, the acceptance of the dance in polite society, attracted many musicians and bandleaders. Tango music gained in sophistication as conservatory trained musicians formed orchestras that filled an increasing demand. Apart from the downtown cabarets and the aristocratic dances, tango was present in cafes and theaters throughout Buenos Aires. In silent movie houses, where some of the great musicians of the time found steady employment, audiences sometimes enjoyed the sound of these small orchestras more than the movies themselves.

As it continued to evolve tango music became a listener’s art. Starting with the 1920 recordings of the Tipica Select, and continuing with the seminal Julio De Caro sextet recordings of the mid-1920’s, a new style known as the Guardia Nueva (New Guard) propelled the music to a protagonistic role. The new music was complex, virtuosic, just like the dance that inspired it. It took two decades for the music to express in sound what the early dance pioneers had invented with their bodies.

The Guardia Nueva sound was supported by the rhythm of the piano, altough the violins would sometimes leave their melodic function and scratch away snappy accompaniments. The bandoneones, by now tamed and conquered by the early virtuosos, took on a prominent role in the orchestra. The roles of the instruments became more defined, and the arrangements better organized than in the older style. Yet some orchestras continued to favor the simple sound of the old guard. It was the beggining of a division among tango lovers: the innovators against the traditionalists.

With the advent of the tango-song, a new way of experiencing tango had taken roots. Singers were generally accompanied by guitars, but in the late 20’s some orchestras incorporated a singer in a limited role. The tango had become obligatory in staged productions, and many new songs were given their first performance in the theater. Recordings, radio and soon films, brought the singers into contact with their audience. It was mostly due to the song form that the tango survived the 1930’s Depression and the Hollywood invasion.

But the tango had many years of life ahead: in the middle 1930’s tango dancing became a massive phenomenon. Outside the restricted environment of the cabaret, dancing became a middle class, family-oriented activity. In social and sport clubs, in neighborhood associations, in the ever popular carnival dances, tango was once again all over Buenos Aires. The music that went along with this popular dance was a simplified rhythmic style more similar to the conservative old guard than to the sextets of the 1920’s. Fast and steady, propelled by the piano and bass, these enlarged orchestras played for huge crowds. The simplified style was a necessary change from the days of the cafe and theater. Musically, the focus was on rhythm, and every section of the orchestra engaged in this function in one way or another. Singers, which were now a regular feature in the orchestra, adapted their style to the steady dancing beat. So while the tango song remained popular, it was subordinated to the rhythmic structure of the dance style.

In the early 1940’s dozens of orchestras found work thoughout Buenos Aires. The city was a Mecca for talented musicians from all over Argentina. Regular radio broadcasts, dances, cafes, tours and recordings kept a large pool of musicians in constant activity. The leading orchestras refined their style searching for a distinctive sound. Dancers had their favorites among these orchestras and their featured singers. For the most part, the more simplified, old guard orchestras had a large following among amateur dancers. And once again, in cafes and cabarets, many orchestras developed a following of listeners more interested in the music and the song than on dancing. Some orchestras were able to bridge the two worlds, producing music that stimulated ears and feet alike.

As the dance boom subsided, towards the early 1950’s, the tango once again survived as a song form. This was truly the era of the singer. Many compositions that had been recorded during the dance days, were now redone with rhythmic liberties that allowed the melodic and lyrical content to come to the foreground. Free to pause, to slow down, tango arrangements became elaborate poems in themselves. As the dancing public shifted their interest to other music, tango became a marginalized cult of things past. By the 1960, with very notable exceptions, the popular art form of Buenos Aires had lost its life blood. What remained was a recreation of the repertoire, which for the most part had been written before 1950. Some recordings of the time, though, are among the best ever made: the concert style of 1960’s tango brought life to many pieces that had not been suitably interpreted in the dance era style. Once again, it seemed that tango music had acquired a dramatic choreography and turned it into sound and poetry.

The revolutionary style of Astor Piazzolla, resisted and maligned by traditionalists, in effect extended the life of the tango. A fierce opponent of the dance style, Piazzolla treated rhythm differently and extended the form of his compositions by introducing slow sections. His pieces were meant to be listened, and those who dared dance to it, did so with modern choreography only marginally related to salon style tango. This New Tango had may followers among musicians, but its popular appeal was reduced to a devout following of music lovers. Yet, by incorporating influences from Jazz and Classical music, Piazzolla created an audience for tango outside Argentina.

The revival of tango dancing in the last decade has created a paradoxical situation in music. Dancers prefer the simple style of the 1940’s, and recordings from that era have replaced live music in most dance salons. Musicians resist going back to a style considered old fashioned, and have not been able to come up with a suitable, contemporary replacement. While concert tango still continues to attract audiences, and the style pioneered by Astor Piazzolla has been adopted by many musicians worldwide, the absence of live music in today’s dance events is conspicuous. Part of the problem is that the wide gap between the last generation of traditional tango musicians and the new bands now starting to appear, is making the transition harder to negotiate. Since a great part of tango performance is disseminated via oral tradition, the new musicians lack the necessary knowledge to perform, let alone innovate, on the dance style. The only key to the past is buried in these same recordings that are keeping musicians away from the dancing public. And once again, the tango will renew its life, feet first, when the music follows the dance.

The Evolution of Tango Music – by Pablo Aslan 

(adapted from “Tango Stylistic Evolution and Innovation”, UCLA Masters thesis, 1990

While there are differing opinions on the origins of the word tango, researchers agree that it was used in America to denote a gathering of the black population for social purposes. Jorge Novati in “Antologia del Tango Rioplatense” traces these meetings to the late eighteenth century in Buenos Aires. Alejo Carpentier in “La Musica en Cuba” mentions that the tangos took place in Cuba as well.

The black population in America adapted European forms for their entertainment and rituals. In this process, the musical and choreographic material they came in contact with was transformed by the addition of rhythmic elements characteristic of African music and dance. These transformations were in turn adopted by the white population, first as an imitation of black culture, and later as established forms. This crucial process was to give origin to various new forms of music and dance throughout America and is a key to the development of the Argentine tango.

One of the most influential genres in the development of the early tango was the Cuban habanera. Acording to historian/writer Alejo Carpentier, the habanera developed in Cuba from the mixture of African rhythmic influences and the French contredanse. The habanera became a sensation and was imported back into Spain, where it was referred to as the tango americano. The habanera arrived to Buenos Aires in the late nineteenth century and became very popular there too. The tango americano came from Spain as part of the zarzuela, a type of light opera, and was a stylized version of the Cuban form.

Musicologist Jorge Novati, who continued the pioneering investigative work of Carlos Vega, points out that the habanera had a popular, lascivious version and another, more decent one, which coexisted in late nineteenth century Buenos Aires. The popular version was danced by the African-American population at their gatherings (tangos). In these meetings the habanera, and other popular forms of the time acquired a rhythmic emphasis that soon spread to the white population, first as mockery and then as imitation. The more acceptable version, meanwhile, was danced in the salons.

By the last decades of the nineteenth century, a distinct dance form of dance had developed, which incorporated the inventions of the Afro-Argentines: the corte and quebrada. The corte refers to a sudden stop in the general walk of the dance. During this stop the dancers would perform different figures that added to a new dance vocabulary. The quebrada was an undulation of the hips, and gave the new dance much of its erotic character. The dance became so popular that it began to influence musicians, who also incorporated rhythmic variations into their music. The music they played was a mixed repertoire of European popular dance forms, such as the mazurka ans schottisch, habaneras, and milongas.

According to Novati, the milonga had a short but decisive existence in Buenos Aires, and is the precursor of the tango criollo or early tango. It was originally a rural poetic form but in the urbanized version it resembled the rhythmic patterns of the habanera and became the key ingredient in the creation of Argentine Tango. Musicians began consolidating their repertoire and the first composers of Spanish-tinged tango-milonga and gaucho-influenced tango-criollo appeared at the end of the 19th century. The musicbecame known outside its seedy places of origin thorugh the repertoire of wind bands and organ grinders, and eventually through piano sheet music.

Two events at the beginning of the twentieth century that were crucial to the development of the tango. The first one shaped the history of music throughout the world: the invention of the phonograph recording. The second one was unique to the tango and gave it its distinct rhythmic and melodic character: the arrival in Buenos Aires of the German concertina-like instrument known as the bandoneon. The bandoneon completed its paradoxical journey from the German church, for which it was invented, to the suburban underworld of Buenos Aires. No reliable documentation exists about how the bandoneon arrived in Buenos Aires, but it is impossible today to imagine the sound of the tango without its languid voice and the rhythmic impulse of its bellows.

In the hands of the first competent performers, the bandoneon defined the characteristic sound of the tango orchestra. In the early groups, the rhythmic support was given to the guitar, while flute and violin played the melody in unison. The bandoneon took over both melodic and rhythmic roles, ultimately replacing the flute and guitar. According to many tango historians the bandoneon’s technical difficulty forced orchestras to slow down the tempo of their performances. In addition, there were expressive changes in tango around that time that account for the slowing down. The strong influence of italian inmigrants brought a melancholic character to the music that was missing in the early repertoire. Tango rhythm moved away from the original habanera influence and into a steady four-beat pattern. By the end of the 1910’s, the addition of piano and bass to the early tango orchestras was to complete the development of the instrumentation.

Juan “Pacho” Maglio (1880-1934), led a very popular quartet in the first decades of the new century. His quartet, consisting of flute, violin, guitar and bandoneon, recorded prolifically and their interpretations were very popular. Another important musician was pianist Roberto Firpo (1884-1969), who was also one of the first composers of tangos. Firpo studied with pianist Alfredo Bevilacqua (1874-1942), one of the earliest teachers of tango and author of a tango method book. After performing in small groups in different establishments throughout the city, Firpo formed his own orchestra, which would in turn be the launching pad for many other important careers. Other early composers and performers of tangos were the picturesque Angel Villoldo (1868-1919), author of the celebrated El Choclo; Francisco Canaro (1888-1964), composer and bandleader of long and fruitful career; and the “Tigre del Bandoneon”; Eduardo Arolas (1892-1924), himself a very prolific composer. Arolas, Canaro and Firpo, along with Villoldo, Vicente Greco (1888-1924), Rosendo Mendizabal (1868-1913), Agustin Bardi (1884-1941) and Arturo de Bassi (?-1950) created the first popular tangos.

Bandoneonist Eduardo Arolas, who was a member of Firpo’s orchestra from 1913, introduced the use of both hands playing melodic octaves or thirds. He was influential in the development of the instrument, serving as a model for a whole generation of players. He is credited with inventing the arrastre, a technique that consists of striking the notes before the beat and articulating them with the bandoneon’s bellows on the downbeat. A self-taught musician, Arolas was a prolific composer as well, and his tangos are played by orchestras even to this day.

While the tango continued to be dance music, it gradually developed an audience that was captivated by its melodic and lyrical richness. Recordings, theaters and cafes gave young musicians a place to develop their style. As more conservatory-trained performers started joining the ranks, the level of musicianship rose. Towards the second decade of the century, the tango had gained popular acceptance. However, it wasn’t until the international success of touring performers that the tango was adopted by the greater part of the Argentine people, with a mixture of pride and identification. In certain sector of society, the dance was stripped of its more lasciviuos moves, and the resulting choreography became known as tango liso (plain tango).

By the early 1920’s, young composers and instrumentalists began writing and performing in a style that became known as the Guardia Nueva (New Guard). Chief among them were violinist Julio De Caro (1899- 1981), pianists Francisco De Caro (1898-1976) and Juan Carlos Cobian (1896-1953), and bandoneonists Pedro Maffia (1899-1967) and Pedro Laurenz (1902-1972). They also revolutionized the orchestral style, by incorporating arrangements that went beyond the simple doubling of the melody under a steady-beat accompaniment. Their arrangements paused, breathed, shifted and became rich in orchestrational variations with bridging passages in the piano, melodic coloration by the violins and bandoneones, unaccompanied solos, all sorts of percussive effects and even whistling. The ensembles, which a standardized instrumentation consisting of two violins, two bandoneones, piano and bass, were known as Sexteto Tipico.

The Sexteto Tipico led by pianist Juan Carlos Cobian brought together some of the most important musicians of the time. The first bandoneon was Pedro Maffia, second violin was Julio De Caro, and the bass player was Humberto Costanzo (?-1947), individuals who were influential in the development of new techniques for their respective instruments. A conservatory-trained musician, Cobian had worked in Buenos Aires accompanying silent films. He went on to form a trio with Eduardo Arolas and violinist Tito Roccatagliata (1891-1925), and later performed in a group with another prominent bandoneonist, Osvaldo Fresedo (1897-1981). He was also the author of several tangos that incorporated sophisticated harmonies and broad melodies that are sometimes refered to as tango romanza. In 1924, Cobian left Buenos Aires abruptly but the core of his group went on to form the most influential Sexteto Tipico of all times, led by Julio De Caro, with his brother Francisco taking over the piano and most of the arrangement duties.

The 1920’s were a very exciting time for Argentina, with a robust economy and an active cultural life. The creative fervor of the times was catalyzed by De Caro, who was at the center of a musical movement of high sophistication. The immediate availability of steady employment for De Caro’s and other orchestras was undoubtedly central to the development of the music. Musicians were employed at cafes, dance halls, as accompaniment for silent pictures, and in parties given by the aristocracy. In addition to their daily performances the musicians rehearsed and recorded continuously. In their recordings one hears a constant flow of ideas, and of striking instrumental effects extending the expressive range of the tango. When comparing the early recordings of De Caro’s sextet with other contemporary recordings, one is struck by the flexibility in the rhythmic treatment and the resourcefulness in the orchestrations: the contrapuntal treatment of the second violin part, the solo passages by the bandoneones or the piano, the virtuosic runs, and the use of embellishments such as mordents, trills and chromaticism. The compositions by the members of the ensemble were of much more complex structure and harmonic and rhythmic sophistication than those of other composers of the time. Tangos such as Mala Junta, Boedo, Flores Negras and Amurado incorporated the group’s innovations into a body of work that continues to be performed today.

Bandoneonist Pedro Maffia was driven to the bandoneon after hearing “Pacho” Maglio perform. He adapted the piano methods used at the conservatory to learn bandoneon. After participating in various groups, he decided to play solo, and went on the road throughout the Buenos Aires province. As a soloist he developed his own style and started composing melodies. In one of the small towns that he visited, he was heard by Roberto Firpo, then on tour with his orchestra; Firpo invited him to join his orchestra in1917. Maffia brought into Firpo’s group his own sense of pacing, a slower and heavier rhythm, and a longer legato sound. He was to remain associated with Firpo until 1927, participating in many recordings. In 1923 Maffia was a member of Juan Carlos Cobian’s seminal orchestra, joining De Caro’s sextet the following year. Maffia’s own group was formed in 1926 and it included two important figures in the future development of tango: violinist Elvino Vardaro (1905-1971) and pianist Osvaldo Pugliese (1905-1995).

The slower and languid phrasing that characterized Maffia’s playing was to characterize the De Caro sextet’s sound, and in turn influence the playing of every major bandoneonist henceforth. He was also the author of the first important method book for the bandoneon and created the first bandoneon chair at the Conservatorio Municipal Manuel De Falla in 1954. Another of De Caro’s bandoneonists, Pedro Laurenz, was a significant contributor to the style, particularly in the strength and volume of his playing. Together, Maffia and Laurenz formed a solid bandoneon section that extended the range of expression of the instrument. Both musiciasn systematized the playing and composiing of variaciones. A variacion is a running sixteenth-note (ie, double-time) passage played in the last section of an arrangement, providing an exhilarating climax to the piece. Maffia and Laurenz’s performance of variaciones exhibit a precision in the execution of these difficult passages that would become the standard for all other orchestras.

As a violinist, De Caro contributed to the style with his phrasing, use of portamento, rhythmic effects (such as percussive playing over the wrapping of the strings near the tailpiece) and pizzicato strumming. He and Manlio Francia (1907-?) started the work that Enrique Francini (1916-?), Elvino Vardaro and Alfredo Gobbi (1912-1965) would later develop to new heights. The violin school in the tango is based on nineteenth-century European styles of playing, in great part due to the teaching methods in Argentine conservatories. The role of the piano also evolved within the tango orchestra during the Guardia Nueva. Julio De Caro’s brother Francisco, was an innovative pianist who followed in the footsteps of Cobian, and a prolific composer as well. Both pianists created a style of harmonizing that adapted the instrument to a new function of accopmaniment within the sextet. The piano became the connective tissue between the other sections of the orchestra, supporting the harmonic and rhythmic function, underlying the melodic role of the violins and bandoneons and serving as a bridge in between phrases and during long notes.
The bass players of Julio De Caro’s sextet included Leopoldo Thompson (?-1925), Humberto Costanzo and Enrique Krauss (?-?). Unfortunately, the limited range of the early electrical recordings (the record industry had changed from acoustical to electrical methods around 1925) makes it nearly impossible to discern the bass from within the orchestra. It is clear enough, though, that the bass was a rhythmic support and that it played along with the left hand of the piano. The bow was commonly used to play time as well as being a generator of rhythmic effects. In El Monito and El Espiante, for instance, the bass can be heard doing a descending glissando of strong rhythmic character. Another effect that was created at the time consisted of a percussive use of the bow in combination with a hit on the body of the bass with the left hand.

Julio De Caro’s sextet gave birth to what tango historians refer to as the escuela decareana, an innovative style that continued to be influential throughout the century. Many musicians, composers, and bandleaders, molded their style after De Caro’s, specially those who considered themselves in the vanguard. In contrast, several band leaders opted for the old fashioned steady-beat tango now known as the Guardia Vieja. The split between vanguard and conservatives was to remain a heated subject for decades.

Alongside the development of the tango as an instrumental form, the tango-song form started gaining popularity in the mid-1920’s. Many of the first tangos with lyrics were included in the popular theater form known as sainete. Singers, both male and female, adopted these new songs into their repertoire. They were mostly accopmanied by guitars. Among the most popular singers of the first generation were Carlos Gardel (1890-1935), Ignacio Corsini (1891-1967), Agustin Magaldi (1901-1938) , Azucena Maizani (1902-?), Rosita Quiroga (1901-1984), Mercedes Simone (1904-?) and Libertad Lamarque (1909-1999), all of whom were very popular and recorded prolifically. Gardel was not only to become a legendary performer but was to shape the style of tango singing. He started out performing a repertoire which included several forms of popular music. He found in the tango a perfect vehicle for his tenor voice and his peculiar way of phrasing, incorporating the speech patterns of the porteño, as the people of Buenos Aires are known. In Gardel’s style one finds a mixture of quasi-operatic lyricism and a phrasing style that rushes ahead of the accompaniment. He recorded hundreds of songs and created some of the most beautiful renditions of classics such as Volvio Una Noche, El Dia Que Me Quieras, Tomo y Obligo, Madreselva and Mi Buenos Aires Querido. He was to become very popular throughout Latin America by the exposure provided by the new media of radio and film.

The tango had its first crisis in the 1930’s. Argentina, after enjoying more than a decade of popular democracy, was victim of the first in a series of military takeovers that would plague its history for much of the twentieth century. In addition, the world-wide Depression robbed the Argentine economy of its export-driven prosperity. The ensuing crisis of morals and economies brought with it a cynicism that was reflected in the lyrics of the time. Enrique Santos Discepolo (1901-1951) was the poet who best represents the era. In tangos such as Cambalache, Infamia, Chorra and many others, his lyrics chronicle an era of disillusion.

The advent of sound in film displaced orchestras from movie houses, and the economic crisis closed down many theaters and other places of entertainment. In addition, Hollywood and jazz competed, for the first time, with the native forms. Some band leaders, most notably Francisco Canaro and Julio de Caro, turned to a style plagued with Hollywood symphonisms, enlarging their orchestras by adding wind instruments in a style that was not well received by tango-lovers.

One of the orchestras that remained active in the 1930’s was a sextet led by two of the most important figures in the history of the tango, violinist Elvino Vardaro and pianist Osvaldo Pugliese. The group also included players who would later play a prominent role in the development of the style, namely violinist Alfredo Gobbi (1912-1965) and bandoneonists Ciriaco Ortiz (1908-1970) and Anibal Troilo (1914-1975). The Vardaro-Pugliese sextet represented a continuity of the De Caro school. Unfortunately the group never recorded, but it is considered by many musicians have been highly influential ensemble.

Towards the mid-1930’s the nascent Argentine film industry and, most importantly, the radio were to provide the incentive for the regeneration of the tango’s popularity. A new Golden Era of the tango that continued into the 1940’s and early 50’s came about through the dance form, which had lost its popularity during the 1920’s. The most influential orchestra was led by Juan D’Arienzo (1900-1976), who’s sound was in large part given by the influence of its pianist Rodolfo Biagi (1906-1969). Biagi created a quick and steady style which was to become extremely popular with the dancing public from the rising middle class.

Emerging from the worlwide crisis, Argentina once again became a prosperous country, finding its place in the world economy as primarily a food exporter, and also as an emerging industrialized nation. This prosperity gave birth to a large blue collar middle class. By the late 1930’s, D’Arienzo’s orchestra capitalized on this phenomenon with his simplified and easily accesible style of tango. His orchestra became very popular when it was featured on daily radio broadcasts, expanding its reach beyond the downtown cabarets where they normally played. The radio was very important in the popularity of thango throughout the 1940’s, featuring live orchestras daily and organizing events and contests of wide popular appeal.

Many of the old-style tangos were revived, including the compositions of Arolas, Greco, and Firpo. The massive popularity of the tango gave rise to enlarged orchestras, with up to five bandoneones, four violins, piano and bass. Some select groups continued to perform in cafes and cabarets, and recordings were plentiful, mostly on the RCA Victor and EMI lables. The music publishing industry also benefited from the boom, and they churned out sheet music and full orchestra arrangements that circulated among professional and semi professional groups around the country.

One of the characteristics of 1940’s tango was the importance paid to the distinctive interpretive style of each major orchestra. Some of the most important orchestras of the time were those led by Anibal Troilo, which distinguished itself through its succesive pianists, the elastic phrasing of the bandoneon section, and the individual style of its singers; by Osvaldo Pugliese, another orchestra rich in soloists, but most importantly with a definite rhythmic style of its own, which would in a way presage the Nuevo Tango of Astor Piazzolla; by Miguel Calo (1907-1972), who led an ensemble of great soloists; and by Carlos Di Sarli (1900-1960), whose simple arrangements left room for his ornamental piano style and was deemed one of the most danceable orchestras.

Osvaldo Pugliese’s work represents the continuation of the Julio De Caro style. He started his career during the time when De Caro’s sextet was the center of attraction for most young musicians. Pugliese had worked as a pianist at cafes and silent movie houses, performing with, among others, Pedro Maffia. It was during this early period that he composed Recuerdo (1924), a tango of unusual beauty in its modulating melodic line and that includes a virtuosic variacion at the end. The composition was first recorded by Julio De Caro’s sextet, and Pugliese, who was only 19 when he wrote it, followed De Caro’s arrangement faithfully when he recorded it in 1944. As we have seen Pugliese participated in the formation of the most influential group of early 1930’s: the Pugliese-Vardaro sextet. In the 1930’s he also played in Pedro Laurenz’s orchestra, thus completing a clearly “decarean” schooling.

Pugliese founded his own orchestra in 1939, giving it a distinct rhythmic personality, even to the extent that one could speak of an “apugliesado” way to interpret the tango. This style is synthesized in Pugliese’s composition La Yumba. Yumba is a word that Pugliese invented to describe the particular rhythmic approach that he developed for his orchestra (yum-ba, yum-ba) stressing the first and third beats, while the weak beats are played softly with a lone bass note on the piano. Another characteristic of Pugliese’s approach to rhythm is the accentuation of syncopations, and the use of rubato, alternating slow and fast passages. These techniques, as well as the solo passages in the bandoneones, the sharp au talon rhythmic playing and the portamento of the violins, were introduced originally by Julio De Caro’s sextet. At the same time, Pugliese’s orchestra was a favorite among dancers and had a devoted following.

The absence of drums in Argentine tango orchestras is perhaps the most salient feature of the style. The rhythmic role is shared by all the instruments in the orchestra. The bass, sometimes doubled by the left hand of the piano, provides the backbone. The bandoneon, which is played over the players leg, is helped by the up and down motion of the bellows in synch with the leg to provide a beat. The violins participate in creating rhythm with short staccato down-bows. The rhythmic role is also emphasized by off beat syncopations in the different sections of the orchestra, with the piano providing comments and bridges sometimes emphasized by the bandoneones. A middle layer of short patterns, sometimes derived from thematic material, contributes to the composite rhythm. The underlying pulse is what tango musicians refer to as the marcato, the basic four-beat pattern of the tango. Each individual orchestra had a particular way to interpret this pattern, varying the lenght and stress of the strong beats. This was aided by the peculiar characteristics of the bandoneon, which allowed the players to articulate the note first with the keys (on the upbeat) and then with the bellows (on the down beat), an effect known as arrastre. Similarly, the bass slides (portamento) into the first beat and the piano simulates a slide with groups of grace notes (pique). Contrasting with the marcato is a rhythm pattern commonly known as the sincopa. This pattern places emphasis on the upbeats of the fourth and first beat (hence its name: syncopation). The emphasis on the sincopa differed from orchestra to orchestra. The third family of rhythms belongs to those derived from the original tango-milonga and habanera patterns, with emphasis on the upbeat of the second beat.

The 1940’s also saw a rise of the tango-song form that was propelled by a new generation of singers, most notably Roberto Goyeneche (1926-1994), Alberto Podesta (1924- ), Francisco Fiorentino (1905-1955), Alberto Castillo (1914- ) and Angel Vargas (1904-1959), to name but a few. Their work was aided by the sophistication of the arrangers, who emerged either from the ranks of the orchestra or as independent musicians who lent their services to the many popular leaders of the time. Some singers even formed their own orchestras for the purposes of recording and performing under their own name. The repertoire was expanded by composers and lyricists who emerged in the 1940’s as true poets of the time. Some of the most famous lyricists were Enrique Santos Discepolo, Homero Manzi (1907-1951), Catulo Castillo (1906-1975), Homero Exposito (1918-?) and Enrique Cadicamo (1900-). Their lyrics went beyond the traditional theme of love and dissapointment, creating portraits of life and philosophy. Among the hundreds of titles one must at least mention Uno (Discepolo, with music by Mariano Mores), Sur (Manzi-Troilo), La Ultima Curda (Castillo-Troilo), Malena (Manzi-Demare) and Los Mareados (Cadicamo-Cobian). The most famous songwriters had their works recorded by the major label orchestras almost as soon as they were written.

Some orchestras continued to play mostly for listeners, and while they were not as popular with dancers, their recordings are some of the most intricate and advanced forms of tango. Such is the case of Alfredo Gobbi, who played in an eminently rhtyhmic style but perhaps due to his lack of business acumen, did not gain wide popularity. Another great interpreter was pianist Horacio Salgan (1916- ), whose short-lived orchestra played mostly at cafes for audiences composed of other musicians and tango connoisseurs. Salgan developed a particular rhythmic feeling, which he called “balanceo” (swinging) or “umpa-umpa”. In its most pure form, the umpa-umpa emphasizes the upbeats of the second and third beats of the measure (2 AND 3 AND) and the fourth beat is accented and slides into the first. He recorded tangos from the Guardia Vieja, such as those by Agustin Bardi (Gallo Ciego), Vicente Greco (Ojos Negros), Eduardo Arolas (El Marne) as well as classics from the Guardia Nueva: De Caro’s Mala Junta, Boedo and Tierra Querida, Pugliese’s Recuerdo and Cobian’s Los Mareados. His own compositions demonstrated his complex approach to the phrasing and rhythmic subdivision of the pulse, as in the case of his masterpieces Don Agustin Bardi and La Llamo Silbando.

Salgan formed his own orchestra in 1944. From the beginning his intention was to perform in his own style regardless of the prevailing trend towards the danceable rhythms, at the risk of losing work and popularity. After working at various radios and tea rooms (confiterias), Salgan dissolved his orchestra in 1947, unable to secure a recording contract. For a number of years, he mainly studied and taught music, until he reformed his group and recorded its original repertoire in 1950. He later formed a duo with guitarist Ubaldo De Lio (1929- ) and the Quinteto Real. Both ensembles continue to perform in Buenos Aires to this day. Salgan’s orchestrations highlight the virtuosity of the piano and are full of special effects and chromaticism, all within a context of strong syncopated rhythms. Salgan utilizes the violin effect known as lija, produced by playing on the string wrapping adjacent to the tailpiece, in rhythmic patterns that add to the characteristic swing of his orchestra. The influence of jazz is felt in the bass, which is played pizzicato during most of the piece, in conjunction with the left hand of the piano and in some instances reinforced by a bass clarinet. Salgan uses a syncopated pattern consisting of a strong accent on the upbeat of the fourth beat and another softer note on the upbeat of the first beat, leaving the downbeat of the measure empty. These characteristics add up to a unique style within the development of the tango although Salgan is a direct musical descendant of Julio De Caro.

The apogee of the tango in the 1940’s took place during the rise of Juan Domingo Peron. Peron rode on the prosperity of the early part of the decade and used the country’s richness to propel his populist government. His social policy favored the rising blue collar middle class and helped this wide part of the population to become prosperous, which in turn helped fuel the boom of the entertainment industry. In addition to the increase in musical activity, the film and radio industries grew enormously during this period. However, by the beginning of the 1950’s the economy could not sustain the lifestyle that Argentines had become accustomed to and the Peronist regime started to crumble. By the time Peron was deposed in 1955, Argentina was in a deep economic crisis that in turn affected the tango by closing up the many venues where it had thrived. In addition, popular taste shifted towards other genres, most notably folkloric music which reflected the background of most Argentines outside of Buenos Aires and those who had migrated to the city. The big record companies and their Argentine subsidiaries had shifted their production to the popular rock music from the United States and its local imitations. Tango orchestras were disbanded and the dance craze subsided. Most groups were reduced in number and the tango moved to night clubs and other places where the focus was on shows geared towards a passive audience.

In this new, reduced environment, the tango song became the most important part of the genre. Many of the pieces that had been written in the previous decade were reinterpreted in a style that, free from the tyranny of the dance beat, allowed for an expressive palette that included out-of-tempo passages and plenty of indulgence on the singer’s part. This was a tango style that relished the melodic and created pauses and capricious phrasing that would have been unacceptable to the dancing public. While the tango continued to exist in the city, its most important legacy from the late 1950’s and 60’s is in the recordings. The major orchestras continued to perform ocassionally, but most bandleaders formed smaller gropus, sextets or quartets, more suitable for the night clubs where they found work.

Astor Piazzolla’s music represents the most important evolution in the last fifty years of development of the tango style. Piazzolla’s creative genius led him to a musical style that, while deeply influenced by De Caro, Pugliese and Troilo, incorporated elements from jazz and classical composers such as Bach, Stravinsky and Bartok. As ayoungster, Piazzolla lived in New York for many years, and it was there that he first picked up the bandoneon and he started his musical studies. Upon returning to Argentina in the mid-1930’s, he was exposed through the radio and recordings to the music of Julio De Caro, Pedro Maffia and Elvino Vardaro. In the late 1930’s, he became a member of Anibal Troilo’s orchestra while continuing his composition studies under the supervision of Alberto Ginastera. After five years as bandoneonist and arranger in Troilo’s orchestra, he formed his own orchestra and accompanied singers Aldo Campoamor (?-1968) and Francisco Fiorentino. During the early 1950’s he worked mostly as an arranger for Troilo, Calo and Francini-Pontier; his first compositions are from this period. In Preparense, Triunfal, Contratiempo and Contrabajeando, one detects the influence that De Caro, Cobian, Bardi and Arolas on his approach to tango rhtyhm and orchestration. The pieces have strong rhythmic themes, contrasted with a second theme of melodic characteristics, played at a slower tempo. He also composed for chamber and symphonic ensembles, which led to his obtaining a scholarship from the Paris Conservatory to study with Nadia Boulanger. When he returned to Buenos Aires and formed a string ensemble to accompany his bandoneon featuring violinist Elvino Vardaro. Vardaro was one of a handful of violinists who developed a tango school of violin playing, derived from De Caro’s work as an instrumentalist and incorporating aspects of romantic technique. Piazzolla’s bandoneon playing at the time was formidable; his phrasing and speed, as well as his choice of notes, distinguished him from his contemporaries. He also formed an octet, with which he developed his revolutionary style. The orchestration was based on the Sexteto Tipico, and adding a cello and an electric guitar. The formation was inspired by the modern jazz orchestras that Piazzolla had heard while in France, and represents a break with what he perceived to be the prevailing monotony in traditional tango orchestration and arrangements. The octet recorded original compositions by its members, a tango by Salgan (A Fuego Lento), and older tangos by Arolas (El Marne) Cobian (Los Mareados) and Rosendo Mendizabal (El Entrerriano), all of them treated in a modern conception incorporating jazz improvisation and scoring techniques, as well as techniques derived from Bach (fugue and pedal points) Bartok (quartal harmony), Ravel (orchestrational resources) and Stravinsky (extended and juxtaposed harmonies). Piazzolla expanded the formal aspects of the tango by developing thematic material through modulations and solos.

Between 1958 and 1960, Piazzolla lived in New York, where he arranged and recorded, experimenting with a fusion of jazz and tango. Upon his return he formed the first of his quintets, composed of bandoneon, violin, electric guitar, piano and bass. It was through this formation that Piazzolla would mark a new era in the evolution of the tango style. Piazzolla’s prolific compositional output constitutes a body of work comparable to that of any major composer. His pieces continued the trend that he had started in the previous decade and developed with the octet, namely extended forms, with contrasting rhythmic sections and adagio cantabiles, in addition to remarkable fugues built on tango themes. Pieces such as Adios Nonino, Decarisimo, Verano Porteño, Buenos Aires, Hora Cero and Fugata are examples of a new type of tango. Many conservative musicians and critics refused to identify Piazzolla’s music with the evolution of the style that started with Julio De Caro, and consequently the label “Music of Buenos Aires” (rather than tango) has been used to describe it. In addition, Piazzolla was the victim of deep hostility that highlights dramatically how seriously the tango is regarded in Argentina. However, the fact that Piazzolla’s music was so advanced in relation to that of his contemporaries by no means separates it from the style from which it evolved. Rather, his contribution represents a new phase as distinct as the Guardia Nueva was from its predecessors, confirmed by the wide influence that it has had on all tango musicians ever since it came into being. Every major tango musician since then has inevitably been touched in one way or another by Piazzolla’s music. Such is the case of major artists such as Leopoldo Federico (1927- ), Rodolfo Mederos (1940- ) and Anibal Binelli (1946- )

One could argue that the tango as a creative force died in the late 1960’s, and what has followed, except for the astounding contribution of Piazzolla, is a continuation of a once thriving style. The popularity of Argentine Tango touring shows, such as Tango Argentino and Forever Tango, has helped acquaint the European and North American public with the music and dance of Buenos Aires in the 1940’s and 50’s. The dancing has become stylized and adapted to the stage, but the success of these shows helped develop new aficionados for the tango as a social dance. The music, both in the shows and in social dances, harks back to classic 40’s and 50’s styles, with a little of Piazzolla’s music included in the mix. In turn, the popularity of tango dancing in North America and Europe has resonated with the Argentine public, and porteños are once again enjoying a revival of tango as a dance. This revival has not been reflected in music, since most dancers prefer to use old recordings and few orchestras play strictly for dancing, favoring a more contemporary, Piazzolla-influenced sound.

One musical tendency that is showing some promise of creative renewal is the preoccupation of some tango musicians with incorporating improvisation and jazz into their arrangements. Musicians and bands such as Pablo Ziegler (who worked with Astor Piazzolla’s quintet for most of the 1980’s), Raul Jaurena (a Uruguayan bandoneonist who leads New York-Buenos Aires Connection), Argentine saxophonist Hugo Retamosa and the Argentine jazz pianist Adrian Iaies, have created stimulating works that point in a new direction while retaining the flavor of tango. In an era of globalized access to culture, it is inevitable that many hybrids of tango with other genres will emerge, and Argentine musicians have to juggle the need to master the essence of the traditional interpretations while keeping the form open to other influences.


copyright 2002-Pablo Aslan


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