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Guest Essay

The Violent, Seedy, Thrilling Roots of Tango

The Violent, Seedy, Thrilling Roots of Tango

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Our next guest essayist for Napster Latin Week 2012 is Jasmine Garsd, a Washington, D.C.-based Argentine journalist. She hosts NPR Music’s Alt.Latino -- a show about Latin alternative music -- and reports on Latin culture and current events for NPR.

Back in the early 1900s, as my father tells the story, his grandmother, a Ukrainian immigrant to Buenos Aires, attended a community dance. One of the partygoers asked the band to play a tango, and a couple started dancing. The whole thing lasted just a few minutes: The chaperones ordered the band to stop playing, and the young dancers were escorted out of the event. The way upstanding Argentines saw tango back in those days was not unlike the way many people see gangster rap today: lascivious, vulgar, degrading … and extremely catchy.

It's not a far-fetched comparison. Tango, after all, was born in the mean streets and brothels of Argentina and Uruguay. There is an inherent danger in its drawling melodies, which are surreptitiously punctured by moody staccatos. It's like having a conversation with a temperamental lover or a gangster, someone smooth like honey but prone to violent furies. Perhaps it reflects the pace of life of those who initially favored this music: lowlifes, women of the street and criminals.

The late 19th and early 20th century was a time of tectonic shifts in the culture of the River Plate. Immigrants from all over the world were flooding in, escaping the misery of their homelands. European music mixed with African rhythms; similar cross-pollination was happening with cuisine, dancing and language. And it makes sense that tango was the music of brothels: You may not read about it in more proper history books, but that's one of the most common places where people from all walks of life come together to literally and figuratively give birth to a new culture. A recently revealed family secret (which I find to be a delightful metaphor for Argentine history) is that upon arriving in the country, my great-grandmother briefly worked as a cook in a city brothel. The great tango musician Enrique Santos Discepolo once said that tango is "a sad thought put into dance form." I like to think that this Ukrainian woman, fleeing a pogrom that had decimated her family, heard a lot of tangos while working in that kitchen, and they helped her broken heart heal just a tiny bit.

The language of tango can be traced to this era as well. At that time, the tenement areas of Buenos Aires, known as conventillos, were veritable towers of Babel: You could hear Yiddish, Arabic, Polish, Italian and Galician on the same street. The very soul of Argentine and Uruguayan language, a dialect known as lunfardo, sprang from this mélange. In addition to being a potpourri of languages from around the world, lunfardo also playfully uses vesre (words whose syllables are switched around). It's a rhythmic, cocky language, always full of innuendo and trickery, allegedly initially created as a prison dialect to foil the police. Such tricks helped mask the adult nature of the stories told in the earliest tango songs -- lyrics that would make most rappers today blush with their tales of sexual exploits, gangster fights and prison life that spared no detail. And if dirty lyrics weren't enough to make Argentine ladies of good standing clutch their pearls, the style of dance -- the closeness of the bodies, the intertwining of the legs, the sharp heels dangerously grazing the male body -- was just too much. A dance style born in brothels can never be scrubbed clean of its sensuality.

Eventually, tango developed into so much more than brothel limericks for gangsters to chuckle at. In the '20s and '30s, when the music went mainstream and became popular in Europe, the lyrics were cleaned up and polished. French-Argentine singer Carlos Gardel is largely responsible for the acceptance of tango worldwide: His good looks and romantic lyrics won over the upper classes. In tango's golden age (from the '30s through the '50s), the masterful arrangements of composers like Osvaldo Pugliese, Anibal Troilo and the great Astor Piazzolla turned it into a celebrated, intellectual art form. And lyrically, the genre's various love letters to women, neighborhoods and even beloved dogs are incomparably beautiful. There is something in the heaving staccato of the music that always sounds to me like the honesty of a dying man's final words. Sample Julio Camilloni's "Estas En Mi Corazon" ("You Are in My Heart"): "Our love was this game of absences/ Of loving and arriving at the wrong time/ And when I returned, I did not find your presence/ Only your name, screaming without a voice."

Tango was not only a man's playground -- if it really was an early precursor to gangster rap, then its women were the Lil Kims and Nicki Minajes of their age. Known for their brazen sensuality, assertiveness and trickery, they remain an archetype within Argentine culture that is dear to my heart. Libertad Lamarque, Alba Solis, Azucena Maizani, and my all-time favorite, the queen of tango, Tita Merello, were undeniably street women -- confrontational and openly sexually aggressive -- who sang about conning men with a batted eyelash, being a tough neighborhood chick and running various money-making schemes.

A century later, the Argentina I grew up in resembled in many ways that world my Ukrainian great-grandmother once inhabited. Both my great-grandmother and I had bad timing -- we missed Argentina's economic golden era immediately after WWII. She came fleeing the horrors of Europe in the 1900s, straight into the arms of a yet-undefined country of impoverished immigrants struggling to survive. I existed at the end of that same century, in a country that had had its moment of glory and squandered it, a society at the verge of collapse. I too grew up in a neighborhood filled with brothels and soccer hooligans, and though I watched my tongue around my conservative parents, in the company of neighborhood friends, when trying to act tough, I'd light a cigarette and speak the slang of my ancestors, what unbeknownst to me was the language of tango. As Piazzolla himself said with a glint of sarcasm, "In my country, presidents change and they say nothing. Bishops, cardinals and soccer players change, anything. But not tango. Tango must be left as is: ancient, boring, always the same, repetitive."

Here's how I discovered tango and its marvelous women. I spent a lot of my adolescence cooped up in my grandmother's kitchen, under her watchful eye. She was a conservative woman who lived under the thumb of a dictatorial husband. Which is why I recall with such surprise the way she often belted out tango songs: In a world where divorce was impossible and the most adventure she could hope for was the trip from the market back into the kitchen, this was her revolution. Her favorite tango, "Se Dice De Mi" ("They Say About Me"), is the ultimate "haters gonna hate" anthem. It is one of the most confrontational, self-confident and bellicose songs I've heard a woman sing, with lines like, "Those who say I'm ugly ain't seen me in my nightie." Fascinated by this song, I asked my grandma who she was singing, and with a twinkle of rebellion and pride in her voice, she said, "That, my dear, is Tita Merello."

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