In a nutshell this page deals with the history of tango.

Text and compilation: Arjan Sikking, 2013


Argentina is a country of immigration. Between 1860 and 1930 the population increased from 1.5 million to 12 million. This massive immigration comes especially from Spaniards and Italians from the poor areas of their country. But also common immigrants from many other European countries, all countries with ancient cultures, set off to the promised land.

The industrial revolution will end the world of the gaucho, the cowboy of South America. His world with his philosophy of life, disappears. He seeks shelter in the suburbs of Buenos Aires and Montevideo.

These suburbs are urban areas, a hotbed of national and regional cultures.

In this unknown adventure, with the unusual confusion of tongues, knowledge and habits, an unexpected society springs up with unusual habits and art, and herein Tango sounds, is dreamed, danced and sung.

The blending of so many styles of music has a sound which was actually already heard in the hubbub in the stores, the clicking of shoes, the cries of the card players, the call of merchants, the guttural sounds of two compadres as they fight out their duel amongst themselves. In short, life in the towns on the Rio de la Plata.

Early twentieth century the tango interprets par excellence the national feelings of the porteño (urbanite) at that time, because it really is from Buenos Aires itself. All those immigrants have contributed something.




Early Tango

Between 1895 and 1900, the tango as a distinct musical art is born with four compositions:

  • El Talar – 1895 by Aragón
  • El Entreriano – 1897 by Mendizábal
  • Don Juan – 1897 by Ponzio
  • El Sargento Cabral – 1899 by Campoamor

The black element (habanera and milonga) disappears almost entirely from the tango, in tango instrumentation there are no drums or other percussion. However, there is still a wooden panel on the bandoneón.

The first groups of musicians from the suburbs and slums of Buenos Aires are often trios. The rhythmic accompaniment of the tango is played on the lowest strings of the guitar, as with the milonga and the Cuban habanera. The violin takes care of the melodies, accompanied by the flute. These harmonies are inspired by ancient Italian and Spanish music examples.


_el-entrerriano-b      _el_entrerriano-muzieknoten-b


After a dormant existence of 30 years, the bandoneón in Argentina entered the tango at the beginning of the 20th century. In the song Bandoneón Arrabalero (Bandoneón of the Slum) of Pascual Contursi it is made clear in a soulful manner what role is reserved for the bandoneón; it is the voice of the tango.

In the video Carel shows how Bandoneón Arabalero sounds translated into music. He plays in a very special location, namely the old factories in Germany, where the bandoneóns formerly were made.

The Orquesta Típica ( still  described as Criolla – native), consisting of bandoneón, violin, guitar and flute, will be the base of the evolution in the tango.

The entry of the bandoneón changes in a short time all aesthetics, feelings and focus of the orchestral tango, with its enchanting sound, and its performers soon become the stars of the tango shows.

Because bandoneonists at that time only have an elementary control of their instrument, they play the fast cheerful ‘ staccato’-melodies of the tango slower than was previously the case. This affects the character of the tango: the habanera-rhythm is played more and more slowly, until a 4/8th time is reached in which each eighth note is emphasized in equal measure. Due to this change, violinist, composer and orchestra leader Francisco Canaro, gives the tango a tighter and more regular rhythmic character.


Bandoneón Arrabalero – Carel Kraayenhof


Genesis tango dance

The three main elements that contribute to the genesis of the tango dance are:

  • the habanera
  • the candombe
  • the milonga

The habanera develops in the early 19th century in Cuba, and stems from the Spanish contra dance. It is a couples dance and a song form. In the mid-19th century habanera arrived to the Río de la Plata.

The candombe is the Black musical element: strongly rhythmic and grounded. It is danced by negroes, especially during carnival parades.

The milonga is structured in a musical sequence of eight 2/4 beat, with a faltering  and complaining tone. The milonga is a modified version  taken from the  compadres, Argentines of the older generation and second generation immigrants who brought their own music culture from Spain. According to the dictionary from that time this dance is only practiced by people of low origin.

The dance forms fuse. In the old tenements, under one roof with the negroes, the compadres do not have their ancestors – the gauchos of the countryside – as an example, but the negro with his African rhythms.

This accelerates the rhythm of the milonga. Two cultural forms fuse. This urban variant is played much faster,  livelier and with strong accents, and it is  danced in the same way.

This new generation of whites and mulattos is  recognizable  at all dance parties  by their behavior, their taste, their  clothing and their provocative, swinging gait.

An old description of the habanera-dancers gives an idea of the dance at that time.

The milonguero’s – these are the dancers – are recognized from their cadence and aggressive way of dancing. Without losing the beat, tenacious to their own improvisation with its intricate and difficult running figures, the man takes his partner at the waist and leads her zigzagging or in tight line, looking for the unpredictable. 

While he dances, without breaking, with erect body, he stops suddenly to show off his skills of improvisation. Thus, the corte, a demonstration of virtuosity is born.

She, the dance partner, is dragged along by the impulses that come to him during the dance, and she needs to be very careful not to lose the beat. The female dancers develop the gift to guess the movement, while she is directed forward, is shuffled back and forth, seated  on the  thigh  of the man, or  bent backwards.




Old tango / Jorge Firpo & Aurora Lubiz


One of the most important innovations of the milonguero’s is that the established figures and steps are not accepted: their originality is based on the skill of the man to indicate with his right arm the course to be followed in the improvisation, and on the intuitive feeling of the woman to guess this.

The dancers of that time know the other dances such as the chotis, the polka, the French gavotte, the Andalusian tango and Cuban habanera, and they know the figures belonging to these dances. The dancers use figures of other dances, but cling to the embrace to mark the improvisation.

“Then, while they dance the tango – a two four-time – they suddenly stop their steps and perform  a kind of miracle by fitting in those figures.

Without breaking the embrace, they place their legs just far enough apart to perform a giro or ocho, figures which are performed in  other dances with the bodies completely separated while  only the hands still keep in touch. “

In the early days of  trio’s and  lighter instruments – guitar, violin, flute – one dance nimbly, with pleasure, and with a down-to-earth quality associated with common people.

The musicians often follow the wishes of the dancers .

A short example of the old tango dance (and also the only one that exists) is by the legendary El Cachafaz (the Mask) from the first Argentine sound film Tango, from 1933. He is already a professional dancer in the years 1910s and dies  in 1942.



Cachafáz & partner

Sung tango – Gardel

The first sung tango is reputedly the song Mi Noche Triste (My Sad Night) by Pascual Contursi and sung by Carlos Gardel. But of course there were singers  before that time in tangos.

The texts in the early days by  the common people are coarse and vulgar, and cannot pass muster, especially  by music publishers.

The personification of the sung tango is idol Carlos Gardel. When he appears on stage in 1917 and the guitarists play over the heads of an audience of hundreds of attendees the intro to Mi Noche Triste, it creates a dead silence. When Gardel starts singing, traffic in Calle Corrientes comes to a standstill, the long famous street in Buenos Aires that never sleeps. In the song Gardel sings about his sad night. His wife has left him at  the best time of his life, although she knew he loved her. He gets drunk  in order  to forget. His room is full of  memories of her.

 “And the mirror is dimmed with moisture, like she has been crying to the absence of your love”.

If he goes to sleep, he leaves the door open, his guitar still hangs in the cupboard.

“And also the lamp in our room has felt your absence, she did not want to light up my sad night”.

Gardel creates the tango fully with the color of his voice, the intentions, the heart, the accents and the nuances. In a short time he becomes the most important interpreter of the tango song, with his excellent voice, his sensitivity and his charm.

One of the main themes in the tango is the frustrated love.

The man or woman who has been abandoned tells why he or she ended up in a loveless situation. In Tomo y Obligo (I drink and I oblige you to drink), a tango about a hard, strong man, it is said:

“A real man should not cry …” 

but this is pure swank because he cries though. The paradox is, that men in tango do cry. In tango, there is the possibility of tenderness, the weakness occurs as balance to the power, there is the possibility of passion and above all the ability to see and recognize that all of us are people who can make mistakes.

Carlos Gardel dies in 1935 in a plane crash at the age of 45.  According to many the tango dies that day.



Carlos Gardel – Tomo y Obligo

Arrival of the deceased Gardel in Buenos Aires

Sexteto típico

The orchestras playing an international mixed repertoire of dance music are gradually ousted from the cafes of the capital by the specific tango-ensembles. The tango begins to conquer the Centre and is becoming more professional.

One of the most important innovators is the man who, in 1917, will arrange La Cumparsita, the pianist Roberto Firpo. The piano  make its definitive appearance through him. The style of Roberto Firpo is melodic in nature and rich in dynamic contrasts. The separate voices In his arrangements are melted into a single orchestral sound, where the future tasks of the various instruments begins to distinguish themselves:

– the piano leads the whole and ensures the rhythmic basis;

– the bandoneón is in the foreground and usually plays the main theme;

– the violin as a second voice fills this theme, and strengthens it.

The problem of a dominant piano during recordings is solved by Francisco Canaro (another major innovator) by expanding  the trio with a second bandoneón and violin. Furthermore, he brings in the double bass as reinforcement for the rhythmic base.

Double bass player Leopoldo Thompson develops the way the double bass in the tango is deployed. He doubles the bass line of the piano and develops the ‘ golpe canyengue ‘: the bassist beats on the strings with the wooden part of the bow.

The sexteto típico is complete and will be the model for more than twenty years

Julio De Caro is the most important person for  the renewal in  the arrangement. In the tango one talks about the period before Julio de Caro and after Julio de Caro. Among others the great Maestro Osvaldo Pugliese is greatly inspired by him.



Julio de Caro

Music and dance

To meet the acoustic requirements of the huge dance halls the tango-ensembles are extended. The former sexteto típico becomes the orquesta típica, which now consists of four or five bandoneóns, several violins, a viola, a cello, a piano and a double bass.

This new strength also makes possible new forms of musical elaboration. In tango, as well as in jazz, often the same melodies are used. In order to remain recognizable stylistically and musically (that is distinctive, of course there was also competition between the orchestras) it’s a matter of how these melodies are arranged.


Aníbal Troilo

Dancers are returning

A new branch to the tree announces itself in 1934 when Juan d’Arienzo with his orchestra debuts in the cabaret Chantecler.

Characteristic of this Rey del Compas – King of the Beat, as he is known, is the strong beat, the rhythmic playing of his pianist Rodolfo Biagi and the staccato passages of the melody instruments.

D’Arienzo’s repertoire consists of compositions from an earlier time, which are suitable for the traditional style of this orchestra. His music succeeds in again evoking the interest of the public for the tango dance, and thereby giving a new, very important, boost to the tango.


Juan d’Arienzo

Singer in orchestra

Master bandoneonist Aníbal Troilo, known for his velvety sound, the technical virtuosity and the art of phrasing, integrates in the early forties the singer Fiorentino into his orchestra. Until then, the tangos are instrumental or the role of the singer is limited to chorus vocals.

Long time it has been usual in the tango that the vocals, just as in the rural folklore, are accompanied on guitar only. Troilo breaks with this tradition and takes  the singer Fiorentino into his ensemble ‘as an additional instrument’.



Osvaldo Pugliese

The pianist, composer, orchestra conductor and music trade union activist Osvaldo Pugliese ranks as one of the pioneers for the modern tango; his compositions are decisive for multiple styles (stages) of the tango music.

Shortly after the decease of the meastro Carel Kraayenhof wrote a comprehensive article on Osvaldo Pugliese.




The beloved Osvaldo Pugliese

Text in tango

A famous lyricist is Homero Expósito. He is intelligent, adventurous and so controversial that it leads to scuffles in the street. But he is also second to none.

An example from Naranjo and Flor (Blooming orange tree):

First you must learn to suffer, then love, then leave
and finally walk on mindlessly.
The scents of a blossoming orange tree,
the vain love promises
that were carried on the wind.

Later … Oh well, what importance has later!
All my life is one yesterday
that stands still in the past
eternal, old youth who has made me so anxious
as a little bird in the dark.

In addition to the important issue of the frustrated love, you come across just about everything from life in the tango song.

The transience of life is often measured by the wife.

The woman is here used as a metaphor (i.e. example in metaphorical sense).

Click here for some lines from: Esta Noche me Emborracho  by Enrique Discépolo


_homero-exposito-b     _enrique-discepolo-b

Esta noche me emborracho

Dance changes

Around the turn of the century the musicians still follow the dancers, but because of the changed spirit of the time and, the music, the dance changes as well.

The trio and quartet become sextet, and are then extended with more bandoneóns and violins until it becomes an  orquesta típica. This also changes the music. The sound is heavier, slower and more flowing. It invites to a new art of dancing

Of influence is also the changed elegance of the clothing under the influence of the participation of the middle class, such as the 2-and 3-piece costume, the clothing of the women, the hair styles.

In the city Center you find big cabarets and entertainment centers for the higher society. A large ball in the Palais de Glace  clears away the last reservations of the middle class against the tango. Offensive dance steps from the early days of tango, the so-called cortes and quebradeas, are replaced by figures that are simpler and more proper: the salon dance is born.

The next images show the elegant tango dance, danced now for years in the salons. The essential characteristics of the tango, the embrace and improvisation, have remained.

The tango dance is a social dance of the people, intended for everyone. It is not a higher form of art like the ballet, which is intended to be executed in front of an audience.

Thousands of people have contributed to the development of the tango. This has protected the dance from an elitist character; it is accessible to all.


Elegant tango in tango salon in the eighties, Buenos Aires

Tango salons in Buenos Aires around the turn of the centuary

Tango on stage

The tango dance has successfully reached the stage. In the twenties of last century it is already danced in the cabarets, and for years demonstrations are given in the tango salons by the better dancers.

In the 1980s the first major tango dance show for stage Tango Argentino takes place.

It comes to Paris as a big triumph  in 1983.
Juan Carlos Copes and María Nieves were the main couple and Copes took care of the groups choreographies and some more solo dances.

This results in a continuous series of performances on Broadway for  more than six months. By  1992 thirty-five cities in Europe, North America and Japan are visited by the tango show.

Tango is danced with an orchestra as has been  done  over the past decades: so the orchestra of Osvaldo Pugliese has as regular dance couple Alejandro and Vanina, who accompany the orchestra  to The Netherlands in 1989.


Vanina & Alejandro with Pugliese

Tango on street

In the 1990s they begin to organize illegal dance parties in the streets on the day of the tango: 11 December – the birthday of Carlos Gardel and Julio De Caro. Under the influence of the growing tango tourism,  the city of Buenos Aires now organizes Street tango festivals around the day of the tango.

Here is a video of an illegal dance party on the day of the tango in the very busy street Boedo.

It takes more than an hour before the police chief in charge is on the spot. After another half an hour, the party has to stop. But even the chief constable does not like to stop the tango  on this special day. Who knows, perhaps he is also a tango lover?

So, the circle is round, the dancers are dancing on the street again.


Dancing in the street

Astor Piazzolla

Astor lives a part of his youth in New York. In his eighth year he gets a bandoneón from his father. But Astor prefers, like the other children in the neighbourhood, roller skates. Astor is especially intrigued by the music of Bach, which he is trying to convey on the bandoneón.

In 1938, back in Argentina, Piazzolla chooses to become  a professional bandoneonist. Catalyst  is a performance by the tango orchestra of Miguel Caló, that makes a very deep impression on him.

He leaves for the capital, where he is working hard in the cabarets for little money. He spends every night in the Germinal listening to Aníbal Troilo and his orchestra. He may join when one of the bandoneonist gets ill and he continues to play for Troilo.

Own style

But Piazzolla is ambitious and leaves in 1944 the orchestra of Troilo. He develops his own style that he performs with his own ensembles in the years that will follow.

The 35-year-old bandoneonist includes in his arrangements everything he has learned so far – from counterpoint through fugal themes to new harmonic forms. However, they sound far too modern for the radio or at dance parties and don’t catch on.

Astor wins a scholarship at the Paris Conservatoire with one of his compositions; he travels to Paris. There he studies with Nadia Boulanger. After some time she advises him to develop something new from the music of his people, something wonderful, and to find  his way in the tango. There she hears  the real Astor Piazzolla, therein lies his strength.

Astor forms his octet by extending the orquesta típica with a drum kit and electric guitar. The tango nuevo is born. The tango audience does not know what to do with his new music. In 1956, his octet is disbanded, and he decides to turn his back upon his homeland.

Europe receives a new introduction  to the tango in the 1970s, this time, through  Astor Piazzolla.


Astor Piazzolla

The most important reference works:

El Siglo de Oro del Tango, Horacio Ferrer, ISBN 950-9517-69-0

Tango, Arne Birkenstock & Helena Rüegg, ISBN 90 295 0428 5/NUR 660

Tango – Creation of a Cultural Icon, Jo Bain, ISBN 1-800-842-6796

El Arte del Tango, Horacio Ferrer & Wouter Brave, ISBN 90 8021 28 1 4