Tango Music - History and Characteristics of Tango Music
is a distinctive style of music that originated in late 18th and 19th
century among the
European immigrant and African slave populations of Argentina
during the development of the modern tango dance. The styles that
influenced this famous musical style have come from sources such as
flamenco, polka, mazurika, hanabera, contradanse, valso criolo, milonga
, while the most typical instruments are guitar, bandoneón
(also known as “Tango accordion”), piano, violin, flute and double bass. The traditional and
tango music can be played both with a solo instrument, or
an ensemble orchestra (orquesta típica) that usually
flute, piano, double bass, and at least two of both violins and
While solo guitars and clarinets are rare, they are often a part of tango
music ensemble band, and the same holds true for a vocalist.
The rhythm of the modern tango holds the 2/4 or 4/4 beats per measure with
two upbeats and two downbeats, with frequent use of accented notes,
nostalgic lyrics, sudden changes in dynamics, use of slides (glissandi),
often use of staccato (march-like phrases), intense but melancholic mood
and freedom for improvisation that is fueled by its old jazz origins. It is
very rare to find tango music that consists only of beats. Traditionally,
the more “romantic” or “sensual” the tango song is, the musical ensemble
will prioritize melody over the underlying beat and rhythm.
Every five sections of tango music are made out of 4 phrases, which consist
of 4 measures or 8 single-time beats, thus enabling each section to have 32
sing-time beats. Structure of almost every tango song fits neatly to the
form of five distinct parts of alternating verses and chorus. In almost
every tango song, the outro of the song piece includes similar melody as in
first two verses, but with the addition of an instrumental solo or an
addition of another musical instrument. The energy of the outro can also go
up, leading to the final crescendo which is called “chum-chum” (the final
two notes of a song).
The tango is known as one of the most versatile musical and dancing styles
in the world, being able to morph quickly with the changes in musical
styles, social environment or even changes in clothing fashion! In recent
years tango music evolved into many new styles, including Tango Nuevo,
Electro Tango and other.
Origins of Tango Music
Since the origins of the tango style are closely tied with the mix of
influences from immigrants and slaves located in Argentina and Uruguay
(most notably port cities of Buenos Aires and Montevideo), the exact form
of tango music changed widely over the years. Most probably, the original
tango music that was played during early “conventillos”
(gatherings of immigrants, poor and working-class people in communal dance
halls or open fields) could not be easily identified today as a tango. That
early tango community eventually became known as "Guardia Vieja"
(the Old Guard), but their efforts eventually paid off. During those early
years of tango music history, bandoneons (large square-shaped
concertina/accordion that with bellows played by pressing buttons or keys)
became highly popular in Argentina and Uruguay. That early tango community
eventually became known as "Guardia Vieja" (the Old Guard), but
their efforts eventually paid off.
As the tango became more popular in lower classes, authorities inevitably tried to limit its spreading, but
thankfully they were unsuccessful. As the popularity of tango music rose,
it eventually reached the core of Buenos Aires where it started being
played in higher end dance halls and theater stages. During that same time,
first compositions started capturing the minds of the upper classes of
people across entire Argentina and Uruguay (such as one of the first tango
“El Entrerriano” by Argentine pianist Rosendo Mendizabal in 1890s and the
first tango recording made in Paris by Angel Villoldo) which were by that
time experiencing sudden increase of national wealth. Younger generations
of wealthy nobles became ambassadors of tango dance and tango music beyond
the borders of South America.
Argentine Roots of Tango Songs
heavily influenced by already present musical styles of Argentine and
, such as Payada, Milonga, Pampas and Candombe, many of
them drawing heavy influences from African slaves who brought with them new
sounds and rhythms that were unknown to native settlers of South America
and European immigrants.
One of the earliest tango songs that became widely popular in Argentina was
tango-candombe called "El Merenguengué" that was performed
frequently on Afro-Argentines carnival that was held in February of 1876.
The mentionings of the word “tango” in historical records were
rare by then, and earliest findings point to 1823 Havana Cuba, an 1866
newspaper and 1789 government proclamation that banned the “tango”
gatherings of slaves and lower classes in the port areas of Buenos Aires.
The first organized “group” of tango musicians started operating in Buenos
Aires between the early 1870s and early 1890s, consisting from two
Afro-Argentines Casimiro Alcorta and Sinforso who played violin and
Before 1900, Argentine became home of the dozens of popular tango songs,
“Andate a la recoleta”
Lino Galeano’s “El queco”
Gabriel Diez’s “El Porteñito”
Jose Machado’s “Tango Nº1”
Juan Perez’s “Dame la lata”
Prudencio Aragon’s “El Talar”
Eloísa D’Herbil’s “Y a mí qué” and “Che no calotiés!”
All these songs were almost exclusively performed live, but that era came to the end with the arrival of the recording equipment to Argentina or with the ability of Argentinian composers to travel to more developed parts of the world (usually Paris) where they could record their music. Some of the earliest recorded tango songs in Argentina were:
1889 - “La Canguela”
1896 - Rosendo Mendizabal’s "El entrerriano”
1903-1907 - Ángel Villoldo’s "El choclo", “El Pimpolla”, “La Vida del
Carretero” and “El Negro Alegre”
1905 - Higinio Cazón’s “El Taita”
1905 - Gabino Ezeiza’s “El Tango Patagones”
Carlos Gardel as Symbol of Tango
The history of Tango music would not be the same without the presence of
some of its earliest stars, and out of them all the shiniest one was
without the doubt Carlos Gardel who quickly rose from folk singer tointernational tango music sensation, film star and sex symbol, only to attract even more fame
after his sudden death at the age of 44.
Carlos started his career as a singer of folk songs in
Buenos Aires, first as a solo singer and then as a part of a singing trio.
His first moment of true fame arrived with the production of the “ Mi Noche Triste”, a first tango-canción in 1917 that mixed the
Pascual Contursi’s lyrics about failed love with the popular existing tune.
The triumph of that song enabled Carlos Gardel to become an international
superstar and one of the national heroes of Argentina. His influence on
Tango history was immense because he served as a bridge point between the
origins of tango as a music of lower classes ( tango was even described then as “gangster music”) to the
music that was appreciated by middle and upper-class dancers and audiences.
His most famous tango song was “El día que me quieras“ from 1935.
During the height of his popularity, he toured South and Central America,
successfully performed in all the major entertainment hubs of the world
(most notably New York, Paris, London, Barcelona, and Madrid), and he
filmed numerous films for Hollywood studio Paramount that showcased his
singing and star appeal.
In addition to incredible repertoire of tango music (where he often
collaborated with music composer Alfredo Le Pera), Gardel found much of his
fame because of its sex appeal toward his female audience. To achieve this
status, he hid away from the public his personal relationships with several
Carlos Gardel and several of his music associates died in an airplane crash
in Medellín, Colombia on 24 June 1935. His death triggered a period of
mourning not only in his native Argentina but also in entire Latin America.
His body was presented for respects in Columbia, New York, Rio De Janeiro,
Montevideo and Buenos Aires. He was buried in in La Chacarita Cemetery in
After more than 2 decades in the spotlight of the international audience,
death of Carlos Gardel led to the end of the “traditionalist”
period of the tango history, enabling the arrival of the “ golden age of tango” which put more emphasis on
big tango bands than individual singers.
Golden Age of Tango Music
Death of Carlos Gardel brought a divide between traditionalist tango supporters such as
Rodolfo Biagi and Juan d'Arienzo and evolutionists like
Aníbal Troilo and Carlos di Sarli. Evolutionists eventually won, managing
to popularize arrival of big band era (usually consisting of bands that had
over dozen performers) that lasted from 1935 to 1952. The most popular
bands from that era of tango music history were those of Juan d'Arienzo
(also known as “King of the beat”), Francisco Canaro, Mariano Mores and
Fame and sales were achieved by dozens of big bands, including those of
Osvaldo Pugliese and Carlos di Sarli who managed to popularize piano and
stringed instruments over the traditional sound of bandoneón. While di
Sarli’s music was easy to dance to, Osvaldo Pugliese's approach to Tango
music was much more experimental, with a rich, complex and discordant sound
that prevented easy dancing (but it was possible to be a base for the
creation of dramatic choreographies).
While this new focus of tango bands was contained in Latin America, this
movement eventually managed to find fame in North America and Europe, where
many bands adopted tango tunes which were enhanced with new instruments
such as clarinet, saxophone, accordion, electric organ and many others.
During this time, tango really managed to become a worldwide dance, with
the popularity that equaled those of slow tango, foxtrot, and rumba.
The golden age of tango came to the end between the early 1950s and early
1960s with the rise of rockabilly (popularized by Elvis Presley, Johnny
Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis) and
British rock and roll (Beatles).
Of course, tango music did not disappear when rock-n-roll stormed the
world, but it just took a new form. The evolution of tango
music in the 1950s was fueled with the exploits of Ástor Piazzolla, whose
song “Adiós nonino” became one of the most influential tango songs
ever created. The musical style of Tango Nuevo breaks the conventions set
by the traditional tango rules, which instantly caused irritation in old
performers and lovers of traditional tango sound who did not want changes,
even the adoption of new musical instruments such as electric guitar and
saxophone, and dancing moves taken from ballroom, swing, and salsa.
Tango Nuevo incorporated many Jazz influences, complex harmonies and
elaborate arrangements from 1970s Buenos Aires scene, and that style was
popularized by Litto Nebbia, Siglo XX and Buenos Aires 8. In the 1990s,
Tango Nuevo scene was changed once again with the exploits of the pianist
and composer Fernando Otero.
Some of the most notable composers of tango nuevo music were Osvaldo
Pugliese, Ariel Ramirez, and Juan Carlos Cacere.
NeoTango is a movement of tango music that incorporates electronic
influences into what has become known not only as NeoTango but also “electro tango” and “ tango fusion”. The addition of electronic
instruments and computer edited vocals have enabled tango to reach the
brand new sound that was very appealing to early 21st century audiences.
New Tango Songs
Tango changed once again in the last years of the 20th century with the
arrival of NewTango, which borrowed orchestra-based influences of early
tango history and mixed it with the lyric style that was focused on
contemporary themes. The most notable performers and bands of this new type
of tango music are Julian Peralta, Orquesta Rascacielos, Altertango, Ciudad
Baigón, Victoria di Raimondo and Pacha González.