A Brief Introduction to Tango Music and its History

This is a reprint of an article I wrote back in 2006.  It’s slightly embarrassing reading over it again – funny how our thinking moves on …

Picture if you will the cultural and ethnic melting pot that was Buenos Aires at the beginning of the 20th century. European, African and indigenous influences combined to create the musical phenomenon which evolved into the music we recognise today as Tango. That said, there is evidence of ‘tangos’ being sung on stage in Buenos Aires as early as the mid 19th century (although we don’t know what they sounded like and it is questionable how much they would sound like tangos to us).

This poses the question – how do we recognise a piece of music as Tango? This is actually quite hard to answer. Early tangos were in 2/4 rhythm – the 4/4 rhythm, as well as strong syncopation, came later. The beat is strong with clear resonances of the “Cakewalk” and “Ragtime” forms that were popular at the time. (If you listen to Scott Joplin’s music you may well recognise the similarities – at least rhythmically – to the early tangos).

The first great tango was written around 1905 by Angel Villoldo. It was El Choclo, one of the two tunes that almost everyone will instantly recognise as Tango. (The other is La Cumparsita). In El Choclo another influence is clear – the Habanera. Without going into musical notation to show the rhythm, the easiest way to describe it is to count out loud from 1 to 8, but emphasising or clapping the numbers highlighted:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

At a medium to fast speed, this gives a bouncy feel which later became the hallmark of the Milonga. For a slower example, listen to the Habanera from Bizet’s Carmen. Talking of Milonga, it should be said that whilst both Milonga and Vals stand alongside Tango as part of the overall group of ‘Tango dances’, it is specifically Tango itself that is covered in this article.

Tango rhythms – especially in later tangos – are often syncopated (ie. with emphasis on the off beat). Using the same system as above we can see that the downbeats fall on the odd numbers, the even numbers are the up-beats or off-beats. So, we can indicate this use of syncopation with another typical tango rhythm:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

This is sometimes called a 3,3,2 rhythm because of the way the bar is divided up. It was much loved by Astor Piazzolla who used it extensively in his compositions (of which more later).

Given the melancholy nature of much tango music, another giveaway is the frequent use of the minor key. The combination of upbeat, syncopated rhythms and the melancholy laments of many tango melodies is particularly distinctive and contributes to Tango’s sensual quality.


The final ingredient has to be the orchestration, in particular the use of the bandoneon. The bandoneon, the emblematic instrument of Tango, arrived in Buenos Aires around 1910. It had been invented as a cheap, portable substitute church organ around 1850 by a German musician, Heinrich Band. However, once the instrument fell into the hands of sailors and immigrants, a more profane future for the instrument was assured. Despite being incredibly difficult to learn – there is no apparent logic which button plays which note, there is no consistency between the left and right hands or between the notes played whether you are pushing or pulling – it has attracted innumerable devotees, doubtless because of its extraordinarily haunting and heart-wrenching sound.

By 1912 Tango had its first real recording star, Juan Maglio, “Pacho”. His success in Buenos Aires was huge, and the position of the bandoneón as Tango’s key instrument was confirmed.



Whilst many different grouping of instruments were used to play Tango – largely a question of what was available – a classic line up of instruments evolved as the “Orquesta Tipica”, largely due to the pioneering work of Roberto Firpo (right). The rhythm was played on piano and double bass, melodies on the bandoneon and the violin, with strong counter melodies and variations. It was Firpo who made a “hit” of La Cumparsita, having obtained the score from a young Uruguayan composer whom he only knew as Gerardo. Years later Gerardo Matos Rodriquez was to spend over twenty years in court battles trying to regain his rights as the author of the most famous tango in the world. He did eventually earn some royalties from it.



Another early master of the Orquesta Tipica was Julio de Caro, who brought a new complexity and elegance to the music, slowing the pace a little. His father, who taught music, wanted Julio to be a doctor, and threw him out of the house when he found out that he had begun playing in a tango band. Julio went on in the late 1920s and early 1930s to have one of the most important and influential tango orchestras of all time. The technicians at Victor, his record label, created a cornet violin for him. This had a small gramophone horn to amplify the sound, so that
live performances could be heard better in the absence of electric amplification.

The lyrics of tango songs had generally been humorous and sometimes bawdy. For example, it is not widely known that the lyrics of A Media Luz are a catalogue of the best brothels in Buenos Aires, whilst El Choclo (corn on the cob) has been said to be a phallic reference. However things were due to change. In 1917 Mi Noche Triste was recorded by Carlos Gardel. Gardel (pictured left) was already a famous folk singer, and sang the story of the abandoned lover with passion and pain, as though he meant every word. The triumph was immense. Tragic love became the backbone of the tango repertoire, and Gardel himself went on to become a huge icon. His rags to riches story, his warm personality, his compositional talent, his tragic death in a plane crash at the age of 44, and, of course, his glorious voice, made him one of the world’s great popular heroes, and an enduring symbol of Buenos Aires. Another Tango legend is that he sang Adios Muchachos on the aircraft steps just before the fateful flight and since then many Argentine musicians consider it bad luck to play it.

In 1930, a sudden military coup in Argentina ended the citizens’ right to vote, and thus largely silenced Tango as the cultural voice of the people. During this time, a very pessimistic philosopher/singer of Tango emerged, Enrique Santos Discepolo. He is famous for the line, “The 20th Century is a trash heap. No one can deny it.”

Tango revived in the mid 1930′s when the people regained a good measure of their political freedom. They celebrated their social rise with the Tango, which became a symbol of their national identity and part of their daily life. The period from 1935 to 1955 has been described as the Golden Age of Tango and during this time new musicians emerged who took the form in new directions. It was a period of great creativity both musically and in terms of the dance. Very many orchestras were prominent during this time. Here are a few of the most celebrated orchestra leaders of the time:

Originally from Uruguay, Francisco Canaro was born into extreme poverty but showed a great attraction towards music from an early age. Taught a few guitar chords by a neighbour, it was the violin that became his passion. Unable to afford one, he made his own from an oil can and a piece of wood. Through hard work, he eventually became one of the most successful and wealthiest musicians, undertaking a variety of endeavours including producing musicals. His tango music often has an open texture – listen for the musical dialogue as the melody is passed between the instruments in Sentimiento Gaucho, for example). Whilst Canaro rose to fame (and fortune) before the main Golden Age period, his long career spanned several decades and hundreds of recordings.

Carlos Di Sarli  is renowned for elegant, expressive tangos and very beautiful melodies. Bahia Blanca, named after his home town is one of his finest and best loved numbers. He studied classical piano as a child, but at the age of 13 he started touring with a zarzuela company visiting several Argentine provinces, playing popular music and tangos, much to the disgust of his teacher and his father. Shortly after he debuted as soloist at a biógrafo (cinema) and at a tearoom in the city of Santa Rosa. In 1919 he assembled his first orchestra to play at a tearoom in Bahia Blanca, marking the real beginning of a long and celebrated career as a band leader. In 1923 he arrived in Buenos Aires with his brother Roque, where he joined the band of bandoneonist Anselmo Aieta. After playing with a number of other bands, he formed his first sextet in 1927, performing at different tearooms and the following year he signed his first contract with RCA-Victor. In a career spanning several decades his peak as a composer and leader was probably in the 1940s, although El Señor del Tango (The Lord of Tango) received wide acclaim until the end. He made his last record for Phillips in 1958, two years before his death.

Another violinist turned band leader, Juan D’Arienzo started performing in 1919. However, his rise to fame came in 1935 when Biagi joined his band as pianist. Under Biagi’s influence the band re-established a strong 2/4 time which became know as the “electric rhythm.” Immensely popular, this style was said “to give tango back to the dancers.” D’Arienzo’s light staccato highly rhythmical style is still one of the most danceable. Notable numbers are Pensalo Bien, El Flete and Organito De La Tarde. Biagi left to form his own band in 1938, further developing his own style which was less melodic than those of his contemporaries, placing more emphasis on the rhythmic elements. He enjoyed enormous success and popularity until his death in 1969.

The 1940s and 50s saw the rise of Osvaldo Pugliese who continued the trend of strong rhythm but with even more insistence and intensity. He developed a unique orchestral sound, regularly arranging his own works to feature the bandoneon of Osvaldo Ruggiero, with whom he collaborated for almost three decades (1939-1968). He would often alternate a section of strong downbeats with very pronounced syncopation. This is well illustrated in one of his most famous compositions, La Yumba – even the title is an onomatopoeic reference to Pugliese’s heavy dragging marcato beat (Yum-ba, Yum-ba, etc.). The first 12 bars are marked by this characteristic downbeat; then in bars 12 to 16 there is a total contrast using the syncopated pattern 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8. Listen also to Recuerdo and Gallo Ciego for further examples of his style. Pugliese was extremely well loved and respected by his musicians. When he was blacklisted during the later political upheaval his orchestra would leave a single red carnation on the empty keyboard to honour his absence. During these troubled times he used to wear his pyjamas under his tuxedo in anticipation of arrest. La Yumba was played at his funeral in 1995.

We cannot move on without reference to Anibal Troilo. He was spellbound by the bandoneon when he heard its sound at cafés in his neighbourhood. He was ten when he persuaded his mother into buying one for him. They got it for 140 pesos, to be paid in 14 instalments, but after the fourth payment the shopkeeper died and no one ever claimed the rest. With that instrument he played throughout almost his whole lifetime. Enormously popular, he had tremendous rapport with his audiences and his orchestras consistently topped the popularity polls voted by the aficionados of Buenos Aires. A gifted bandoneonist, he also had a knack of acquiring the best singers and instrumentalists. In 1938 a young bandoneon player called Astor Piazzolla joined his recently formed band, later becoming the band’s arranger. Troilo tutored Piazzolla, but also trimmed his wings to keep him within the confines of his style and the people’s listening capacity. This limitation on Piazzolla’s creativity was to prove impossible to resolve. Piazzolla left the band as his arrangements were too unconventional, even for Troilo who was himself a highly creative and original musician. Troilo developed a musical style with a full, intense string sound playing in close harmony. Notice the change of styles between different sections of the same piece. He also took the use of tempo rubato (slowing then speeding up the tempo) to a new level of subtlety (for dance music) adding a whole new dimension of possibilities for artistic interpretation by dancers. All of these elements are beautifully illustrated in Danzarin.

The Golden Age could not last forever. In 1955 the coup that ousted Perón brought a very different political climate in Argentina, which was to hit Tango hard. The new regime, instantly suspicious of anything that implied nationalism or support of Perón, disapproved of Tango. It promoted the importation of Rock and Roll to the young of Buenos Aires. Meetings of more than three people were banned, partly for fear of political agitation, partly to discourage Tango further. (Rock and Roll gatherings of many people stayed strangely unchallenged.) Tango went underground and for a few years became a persecuted fringe activity, with many great artists being blacklisted or imprisoned for their Peronist connections. The horrors of this time have been well documented elsewhere, and it was not until the early eighties that the repressive military regime finally fell following the Malvinas or Falklands conflict.

In 1950 Piazzolla left Buenos Aires for Paris to study classical composition with Nadia Boulanger. Her advice was essentially “Stop trying to be like Stravinsky or Bartok, Tango is your true voice”. Taking elements of Tango, the Jazz that he had heard as a child in the USA and classical ideas, Piazzolla created what he called Tango Nuevo, New Tango. Determined that his music should be listened to rather than danced to, Piazzolla composed with jazzy rhythms that were very different from what dancers were expecting. When Piazzolla’s Tango Nuevo was first heard in Buenos Aires it caused outrage, with many people saying that it was so far from the tradition as not to be Tango at all. But the cross fertilisation with North American and European forms created something accessible and appealing to people not brought up with the Tango tradition, and Piazzolla’s huge success in the rest of the world softened opinion at home. Both musicians and stage dancers found the freer rhythms appealing, and with the near disappearance of social dancing, much new tango music followed Piazzolla’s lead. However inspiring to listen to, some of his music is very difficult to dance to. Some of the more danceable Piazzolla numbers include Los Suenos, Oblivion, Vuelvo Al Sur & Libertango. Listen out also for the distinctive 3,3,2 rhythms mentioned earlier. Piazzolla’s personal life was as turbulent as his musical career: the unique personality of such a genius was not easy to live with. As his son put it in a recent TV documentary“ I admire Astor Piazzolla but I do not admire my father.”

The fall of the military junta in Argentina in 1983 and the phenomenal success throughout the world of the hit show Tango Argentino, premiered the same year, thrust Tango back into the spotlight. Young people wanted to learn Tango and began trying to piece the dance back together as best they could. Dance venues that had been operating underground came back into the open, and people who hadn’t danced for twenty five years or more gradually began to dance again.

The new interest in the dance created a demand for the tango music of the Golden Age, which began to be re-released. Bands such as Color Tango (left) continue the largely traditional approach with renewed vigour. (Their leader, bandoneonist Robert Alvarez, played with Pugliese). A new generation of dancers and musicians, brought up with Tango Nuevo or without Tango at all, rediscovered the tradition.

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