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The black origin of Tango

From the ships came down European immigrants and also enslaved Africans who were shaping the cultural miscegenation that today we are the Argentines.


The African presence in the Argentine Republic, it is known, was invisible and soundproofed for centuries. White history, centered on Europe, populated textbooks and official stories. However, in the last two decades the silenced history of Afro-Argentines from the colonial trunk (Argentines descendants of enslaved in this territory) began to emerge giving an undeniable presence, which forms part of our roots as a nation. Such is so, that even one of the symbols of Argentine identity such as tango, has in its DNA blackness. This is the black history of tango...

While stereotypes associate tango with the figure of  Carlos Gardel, the conventillo of immigrants, the incorporation of the bandoneon and a dominant history centered on whites, the word tango appears since the eighteenth century always linked to music and dance practices of afros.

The oldest written document in which the word “tango” appears dates, casually, from November 11, 1802 and is a ticket to buy a “sitio de negros” in the neighborhood of La Concepción (today Constitution).

Pablo Cirio, anthropologist at the Carlos Vega National Institute of Musicology, found this document in his eagerness to understand the origin and development of tango from a multi-ethnic and multicultural perspective. 

European immigrants enriched, complicated and made tango evolve into what we know today. But the genus was, in its origin, black, linked to urban milonga and this with candombe and other less known Afroporteños genera. They all have the same afro matrix. When you hear the candombe of Buenos Aires, which always has lyrics, which is danced, which has lyrics, and you analyze the cadence of the melody, the harmonic structure that supports it, you begin to hear structures similar to those of an ancient tango. But it happens that listening is cultural and we have been educated to not see or listen to black people. When you listen to tango and milonga with an ear open to diversity, you start hearing it black.”

Did anyone hear Afro-Argentineans tell the story of tango?

Pablo Cirio states that the official history was written by consulting sources investigated by white people, from a naturalized scientific racism of neutral. The anthropologist has been interviewing different generations of Afro-Argentineans from many parts of the country for three decades, and affirms that it is possible to build a history of tango from that oral memory, its documents and testimonies.

Afro-Argentines from the colonial trunk never stopped playing, composing, dancing, gestating places to share their traditions. While for long periods they did it outside the public space, they can trace their presence at every milestone moment of tango.

Official sources place “El entrerriano” (1897), by Afroporteño composer and pianist Anselmo Rosendo, as the first formally created tango, giving it the beginning of the period known as Guardia Vieja (1897-1920).

Cirio has identified 40 Afro-Argentine composers (with about a thousand compositions, published and unpublished). While they are mostly unknown, some became unavoidable pillars of the evolution of the genre.

 Gabino Ezeiza (1858-1916) was born in San Telmo and was the one who introduced in 1884 in a café
in Barracas that still exists, the milonga in la clowada. She also encouraged the participation of women in the clown, such as her natural daughter Matilde Ezeiza.

At the height of tango in Europe, which is handled by Carlos Gardel and his musicians (between 1920 and 1930), appear the figures of two of his guitarists and composers: Afro-descendants Guillermo Barbieri (1884-1935) and José “el Negro” Ricardo (1888-1937).

“La pulpera de Santa Lucía” (1929), one of the most recognized Argentine waltzes, was composed by Enrique Maciel . The same happened with the well-known romanza tango “Margarita Gautier” (1935), whose author is the afro-descendant Joaquín Mora. 

The great Afro-Argentine from the colonial trunk Horacio Salgán (1916-2006) marked with “A fire
simmer” (1955) the beginning of a new style that nourished Astor Piazzolla.

Unknown to many, afro double bass player Ruperto “el Africano” Thompson (1890-1925) introduced what was called “cayengue style”, a label of modern tango, which is based on giving small blows to the instrument as if it were a drum.

 “ Black people reworked their music together with the immigrants who began to arrive and with the Hispanic world, with whom they lived together centuries ago. And so tango was emerging in a very slow way. That they are afro, does not imply that all their production is, but if we don't know Afro-Argentinian music we can't judge which parts of these music have features of blackness. If I do not have the auditory and bodily sensibility of Afroporteño musical and dancing, I cannot fully understand melodies as beautiful as “El ciruja”, tango of the entrerriano Ernesto Natividad de la Cruz (1898-1985) which, since his friend Gardel
recorded it, is emblem of the lunfardo”,
 argues Cirio.

The social ties of memory

“When we stop talking about a subject with the passage of generations, the bond that keeps that memory alive is cut, and then those issues go into oblivion, or rather, it is replaced by another memory, in this case that of hegemonic groups. That's what happened with Afro-Argentines,” explains Pablo Cirio.

Despite the fact that in 1778 46% of the Argentine population had African origin, the result of the 72 thousand slaves that entered the port of Buenos Aires and Montevideo between 1777 and 1812, and currently around 2 million people of African descent live , according to the organizations which include Africans and Afro-descendants, the dominant narrative stopped talking about the afro theme or reduced it to small mentions in books, some picturesque photos or the acts of May 25 where they were always represented in subordinate roles.

 Alberto Castillo show with afroporteños candomberos. Rosario (Santa Fe), ca. 1970. Photo Carlos Gomez. The afros -almost all still alive - are from the Garay, Cordoba and Lamadrid family in whose house, in Flores, it operated until 1952 Recreational Center La Armonía, founded in 1917. Tango from the Guardia Vieja was danced there

 The Generation of the '80 built a narrative that gave the Afro-Argentines of the colonial trunk as missing from history. At the same time, in turn, social disciplines, sociology, anthropology, musicology began to form. And those disciplines did obedience due to that dominant narrative, they did not question it. Carlos Vega, the father of Argentine musicology, closed the subject of the belonging and relevance of a possible Afro-Argentine music. In an article published in the newspaper La Prensa in 1932 he sentenced 'Everything went forever when the eyes without light of the last authentic black closed the aging and remote vision of African panoramas. That day there ceased to exist Africa on Silver. '” 

Cirio reflects that the Generation of the '80 denied the black theme because their parents had been slave owners. “ That Mitre, Sarmiento, Roca, Alberdi, Avellaneda, recognize that Argentina was an accomplice and direct beneficiary for 350 years of the slave trade, is to recognize that their patrician families were slave owners, to the point that today, many Afro-Argentines have the surnames of their former masters.” 

Afroporteños therefore called themselves social silence for more than 100 years, and shared their touches and dances inside. Wounded by the institution of slavery, humiliated when they were free (1861) by whites who mocked them imitating their dances and painting their faces for carnival, coupled with contraventions that, since the end of the eighteenth century, forbade them to play drum under the penalty of 200 lashes and a month in prison. The events provoked such a great offense in Black people that they had to remove their candombera practices inside their homes from the public scene. And because they have been wisely disobedient, it has remained in force uninterruptedly.

National Tango Day is celebrated on December 11. The date was proposed by Ben Molar in tribute to the birth of two greats of the genus, Carlos Gardel (Toulouse, 1890 or 1897) and Julio de Caro (Buenos Aires, 1899). And “casually”, it was on December 11 but 1802, the oldest mention of the word tango in Buenos Aires.

Returning to the roots, the meaning of the word Tango in kikongo (one of the
African languages spoken here until the middle of the 20th century), seems to put white on black (or black on white) on this topic: “It's time to talk about our thing” (tango fueni kia songa kinkulu kieto).


Publication Date: 07/06/2019

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By: Moisés Loaiza C 09 June, 2019

Excelente artículo, hace honor a la realidad.

By: Dardo Rojo 01 June, 2020

Muy bueno. No tenía idea de todo lo informado. Son importantes las raíces. Gracias

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