Celebrating Black History Month: The Roots of Tango

In honor of Black History Month, one of the parents at my son's school has been sending out emails about famous inventors and innovators who were African-American. I didn't know that Lewis and Clark's French translator was a slave named York. I didn't know that the first doctor to operate successfully on the human heart was African-American.  I didn't know that the imaging X-ray spectrometer was invented by a Black man named George Alcorn. Wow! Why do we only get taught about Rosa Parks and M.L. King, Jr.?

Tango's African roots often are ignored or downplayed in the same way. When I was researching my thesis on tango, only a few people even mentioned tango's non-European roots at all. I would like to include several summaries of work that I have not heard many tango dancers discuss. All of this information is from the articles noted below (not my own work!). I have left the citations in, so that you can follow up for yourself if this interests you. I will try to put more of these up for Black History Month.

Andrews, George Reid.  1980.  The Afro-Argentines of Buenos Aires, 1800-1900.  Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press.

According to Andrews (1980), the milonga and the tango are elements of Argentine culture that demonstrate the contribution of African culture to Argentine culture (Andrews: 219).  The Afro-Argentines had a small presence in Argentina compared to other former slave-holding territories in the New World because the main products of Argentine (cattle and grain) required less manpower to produce than the cotton, sugar, and other products of other slave-holding areas.  However, the Afro-Argentine presence was much stronger than documented in Argentine official history.  In Argentina, class is stressed rather than race (Andrews: 215).  Thus, there has been an emphasis on tango developing in the lower classes, but the contributions of Afro-Argentines to this process has been significantly downplayed (Andrews:165).  

After the end of slavery, the African-Argentines worked mostly as manual laborers (dock workers, laundry women, construction workers) and crafts people (Andrews: 178).  With the immigration boom from  Europe in the mid-1800s came a decline in jobs available to Afro-Argentines because the immigrants would work for less money (Andrews 181-83).  Afro-Argentines switched over to the service sector, government jobs, and entertainment (Andrews: 184).  Relatively large percentages of musicians, dancers in the academias de baile, etc., were Afro-Argentine.  Therefore, they had a strong effect on the music and dance of Buenos Aires, and were key in the development of milonga and tango (Andrews: 184).

Both the new immigrants and the Afro-Argentines lived in the poorer areas of Buenos Aires.  There was a high rate of Italian-Afro-Argentine intermarriage, especially in La Boca (Andrews: 217).  The immigrants and the Afro-Argentines also mixed in the academias de baile.  In the 1870s, some dance hall owners sought to segregate dance space, but the liberal white press made such a commotion that the owners were forced to bow to public pressure and continue holding dances where black and white Argentines danced together (Andrews: 196-97).  This social mixing of cultures and races shows both in the people and the dances of those neighborhoods.

As Africans were brought to Argentina continuously until the end of slavery in 1807, African culture was continually influencing the Afro-Argentine community and culture.  The Afro-Argentine community was divided into social organizations that claimed connections to specific tribes and areas of Africa.  By the 1760s, the different nations were holding public dances, called candombes (Andrews: 157). 

The whites were aware that the candombes were occasions at which the Africans performed their national dances, calling up memories of their homeland and recreating, even if only for an afternoon, a simulacrum of African society in the New World. (Andrews: 162). These dances were banned in 1822, and reinstated in the 1840s and 1850s (Andrews: 160).  So many dances were hosted that the black press scolded the Afro-Argentine community for the amount of time and money spent on "frivolous" activities (Andrews: 189).

Until 1850, there were enough Africans to maintain separate dance traditions within these organizations.  Gradually, the traditions merged into a single Afro-Argentine dance form, the candombe (Andrews: 163).  Candombe "borrowed elements from a number of African dances" (Andrews: 163).  The dance consisted of four parts that featured lines of dancers (men and women) approaching each other, couple dancing (male/female), and exuberant solo dancing (Andrews: 163-64).  As late as the 1880s, there is documentation of candombe being danced (Andrews: 164). 

In the 1860s and 1870s, young Afro-Argentines "abandoned the candombe in favor of such imports as the waltz, schottishe, and mazurka" (Andrews: 195).  In reality, the music that was played for these dances still retained African elements.   However, these dances brought the dance embrace (man and woman touching) into the African mixture that already existed, and led to the development of the milonga.

The milonga grew out of the intermixing of the Afro-Argentines, the working class creoles, and the European immigrants in the academias de baile, or dance halls, of the working class neighborhoods in Buenos Aires (Andrews: 166).  These dance halls provided a social focus for poor neighborhoods where the various ethnic groups met to drink, gamble, and dance (Andrews: 166).  The milonga was a dance that the poor whites did to imitate and/or mock the candombe of the blacks (Andrews: 166).  However, the main elements of the dance were Afro-Argentine.  In 1883, a writer noted that "[milonga] has the same rhythm and movement as the drums of the candombe" (Andrews: 166).

As the tango developed out of milonga, its African roots are firmly established.  The first tango is said to have been written by an Afro-Argentine accordionist in 1896 (Andrews: 165).  The tango is a slower, smoother version of the milonga.

When the couple locks bodies tightly together and sways back and forth, we are seeing the lineal descendant of the first stage of the candombe, in which the swaying is interrupted by the bringing together of the bodies for the ombligada [touching of the navels].  Or when the partners move rapidly across the floor, first the male leaning back at a sharp angle, then the female, it clearly derives from the third stage of [candombe].  The steps of the tango form a kinetic memory of the candombe.  (Andrews: 166-67)