Paul Vernon looks at the early days of the real Tango
and the birth of its record industry

I got deep-ended into the Tango during the early summer of 1988 when someone got me tickets to see Astor Piazzola at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. Because I knew nothing of the Tango's history, I was able to approach Piazzola's militantly angry music without the prejudice that Tango purists so vehemently held against him. Indeed, at that time, I knew nothing of it.

Impressed enough to investigate the subject further, I quickly learned of the schism that exists among Tango enthusiasts and why Piazzola was such a key figure. He was the turning point, the Charlie Parker of Buenos Aires, the 'destroyer' of the Tango - or, depending upon you point of view - its saviour.

When, a few days after the concert, I heard Piazzola's initial 1947 recordings and compared them to earlier examples of the genre, I began to understand what the fuss was about. I also came to the brink of understanding just how seriously the Tango is taken by aficionados.

In order to comprehend all the fuss, we have to draw back, look at a wider framework and gain some perspective. In other words, we have to start at the beginning.

The exact etymology of the term is still debated. Some say it is onomatopoeic, deriving from the Spanish word for TomTom or drum. Some claim a Castillian origin and point to the word 'tang' (to play). Others feel it to be a corruption of a generic African term for dancing. The theory you believe depends, to some degree, on whether or not you admit an African influence to the genre.

Astor Piazzola

It seems likely that the influences which shaped Tango were, partially at least, the Cuban Habanera and Danzon, arguably African in origin, albeit filtered through the Caribbean experience. However, some - including Piazzola - discount the African influence and point to European origins instead. Others claim a specific Italian strain, since rural Italian immigrants poured into Argentina in large numbers during the 19th Century.

However, linear historical thought, by pressure groups with axes to grind, is almost always both partially right and essentially wrong enough to be discounted as a single cogent theory. The final answer, if it really matters much, is probably that the Tango emerged from a cross-cultural soup including all these ingredients and perhaps more. What is certain is that by the 1880s the Tango was a reality, and one as gritty as Blues or Rebetika.

The Buenos Aires of that period was a city of turbulent growth. Promoted by some as 'the Paris of Latin America', it boasted broad tree- lined avenues, widespread electricity, complex transportation systems and a healthy economy that allowed many to grow wealthy quickly. There was, as there always is, an underclass that provided the labour. It was this social group, a mix of new immigrants and indigenous poor, that first took the Tango as its own. Buenos Aireans were one third of a composite group, the 'Rioplatensians', who jointly developed the early Tango. As an embryonic music it was also enjoyed and practiced by Montevideans across the River Plate, and by counterparts in Uruguay. That it came to be identified with Buenos Aires rather than Montevideo is an accident of history that probably has as much to do with geographical location as anything else. Buenos Aires was the port from which the Tango would emigrate and conquer Europe.

The period to 1920 is now regarded as the 'Old Guard' movement, when the instrumentation was simpler, the tempo slightly faster and the social context firmly set in the old barrios where 'disreputable' men would dance with each other in the streets for practice while awaiting admission to the taverns. The original Tanguista enjoyed the same notoriety as a Portuguese Fadista or an Athenian Mangas. Dangerous, picaresque, morally and sexually debased and generally colourful.

Their first period drew to a natural close between. 1916 and 1920 for a number of reasons, primarily the closing of the bordellos that were the Tango's first home, and its consequent migration to cafes, cabarets and dance halls. However, had the Tango simply shifted venues, and not developed as a result, it might have withered and died within a few years. By 1918 a few key composers were - writing original Tango lyrics, often as poetry rather than music. Picked up by a rising generation of new singers, the consciously masochistic tone of much of this new writing became a key component in what would become the 'New Guard' style, typified by Francisco Canaro, Julio DeCaro and, most especially, Carlos Gardel.

Sleeving 78s at the Odeon Factory, Buenos Aires, 1930s

The advent of recording in Argentina, around 1904, captured little genuine 'old guard' style. The gramophone companies did not aim their product at those who would rather spend their money on sex, narcotics and pistols. Early examples of the Tango are largely stiff, somewhat ersatz affairs, and the few genuine groups to record made little impact on the domestic front However, in the bizarre way that history often works, the first recordings crossed the Atlantic as early as 1907 and were immediately seized upon by a younger generation already jaded by Ragtime.

In Paris, around 1910, Camille de Rhynal, a dance teacher and producer, 'modified' the overt sexuality of the dance and promoted it as the new exotica. In England, the newly bowdlerised form was danced by Grossmith and Dare in a hit 1916 music The Sunshine Girl. Suddenly, all Europe was dancing the Tango. Or so it thought. In truth, it was simply following the latest dance craze, unaware of it true origins.

The 1914-18 war left South American society untouched and unmoved, free to follow natural social developments including the growth of New Guard Tango. By the time the Armistice had been signed, in 1919, and Europe began once again to look for entertaining diversions, the real Tango had matured into the classic sound that would dominate for the next twenty years. That the sound existed on record was due largely to the efforts of a German immigrant in Buenos Aires, Max Glucksmann.

Glucksmann had started in the record business by taking an agency for the German- owned Odeon label around 1907. Still thinking in Imperial terms, the Berlin based record company preferred to appoint resident Germans as overseas agents whenever they could. Glucksmann's contract allowed him to market imported Odeon product exclusively, and wholesale it to smaller dealers throughout his given territory. By about 1914 he was also actively engaged in recording local artists, and he had persuaded Odeon to finance a processing and pressing plant in Buenos Aires rather than having masters shipped to Berlin for pressing. It would be cheaper in the long run, said Glucksmann, because he was utterly convinced that he could sell vast quantities of 'national' records - by which he meant Tangos. Berlin agreed and, in an unusual move, built Glucksmann a processing plant in the Belgrano area of Buenos Aires, a well-heeled and leafy suburb. They also installed a Berlin-trained engineer, a Mr. Kruger, as resident recorder.

Glucksmann set about recording and marketing the Tango with verve and energy, and by the time the New Guard was emerging, around 1916, his operation was well-honed. In a move that was almost a prototype of later music-business practices, the enterprising Glucksmann sought out new local talent and signed them up, paying considerable advances, not only for performers, but also for exclusivity of new songs.

Then the unexpected happened. With the European war becoming increasingly more desperate, Berlin was unable to keep tabs on Glucksmann's activities. Normally, this would have spelled disaster for an agent, but since Glucksmann already had his own engineer and pressing facilities, he simply went ahead and operated without reference to his embattled head office. His discs appeared not on Odeon, but on Disco Nacional. He recorded the last of the old guard as well as the first of the new guard. He became, in short, an independent producer and distributor, certainly the first in Laatin America and arguably the first in the world to successfully concentrate upon a specific format.

When the war ended Odeon began releasing Glucksmann's Tango recordings in Europe with great success. To European ears, this 'new' Tango was a revelation. Tighter and more aggressive than the often ersatz examples they had previously heard, it reflected a sophisticated, world-weary, implicitly sexual attitude that evidently caught the mood of a society traumatised by war and determined to celebrate survival. 1920s Europe, often referred to as a 'Jazz Age' scenario was at least as much in love with the Tango.

The demand for the music, fuelled by exposure to genuine imported recordings, led quickly to live performances in cafes, dance halls and cabarets. It spawned a good number of fake bands, those whom purists would reject on grounds of nationality, but it also meant work for any Argentine national who could play competently.

In consequence, a variety of bands were to be found either in residence or touring Europe's capital cities. Some were completely genuine Argentinian groups, others were entirely bogus, others yet featured key Argentinian players supported by local musicians. The Filipotto-Ariotto bands, based during the early 1920s in London, were partly Argentinian supported by local professionals. In Paris, during the 1930s, Pedro Maffia, a genuine Buenos Airean and one of the great bandoneon players, broadcast every day over the radio. In Athens, Berlin, Madrid and Lisbon, local artists recorded the Tango in their own language for local consumption. Like the revivalist jazz bands of 1950s England, they were filling a gap in the market.

In many cases, European singers adapted the form to blend with their own musical heritage. Thus, in Lisbon, Maria Silva and Maria Alice, classic Fadistas usually associated with saudade-drenched songs of the Alfama, both recorded 'Fado-Tangos'. These songs were a mix of the Tango's rhythm and meter with the emotional approach and instrumentation of a classic Fado.

Rosita Quiroga

The Tango influence also produced some deeply odd records. In 1927, Adalbert Luter, a German singer, combined it with another contemporary Euro-fantasy, Hawaiian music, to produce Dort In Hawaii a Tango sung in German about the pleasures of Waikiki, complete with Hawaiian guitar accompaniment, evidence that World Music fusion is nothing new.

Back at home, the Tango had become the national music by the mid-1920s. It was everywhere, often thanks to the efforts of Glucksmann. His empire also controlled the silent movie theatres, employing pit orchestras that played Tangos during the intervals and even as accompaniment to the films. Sheet music sold in vast quantities. The emergence of radio curtailed record sales initially - although they eventually recovered despite panic inside the industry - but the new media essentially served to promote the music rather than dilute it. By 1935 there were over a dozen radio stations operating in and around Buenos Aires, broadcasting live Tangos by resident orchestras.

1935 was a key year for the Tango. Always a sucker for themes of tragedy, the genre suffered deep trauma in December when Carlos Gardel, the premier Tango singer, matinee idol and cultural icon lost his life in a plane crash at the height of his popularity. By an odd twist of fate, Buenos Aires' weekly fashion-and-lifestyle magazine, Caras y Caretas had, only the previous week, run a lavishly illustrated feature on Gardel. In it, they cited his international influence as indicative of Argentina's growing world profile.

Gardels' death elevated his profile even further. Cynics within the music business have long said that death is a good career move, and it certainly did Gardel's record and film sales no harm. What also happened was that the Tango now had a martyr to focus upon. The style that Gardel had helped to foster, a smooth New Guard masochismo, became the motif for most post-1935 recordings.

By the middle of the 1930s, the Tango was also firmly established worldwide. In many cities, especially Paris, it appeared to be the dominant dance style. French record companies issued up to four new Tango 78s every week, mixing imported recordings with local efforts by both genuine and fake bands. The careers of such 'real' Tanguistas as Pedro Mafia, Francisco Canaro and Osvaldo Fresedo were flourishing: so were those of groups like the Varaldi and the Rio Grande Tango Band, musical aggregations nailed together to play the popular style without much reference to, or real understanding of, the genuine rhythms, timings and nuances that make a good Tango.

Women Tango singers also came into their own during this period. Whilst there had been a limited number of women singing the style since the mid-1920s, most had appeared as representatives of a simpler solo-guitar accompanied style. The great Rosita Quiroga, a pure-voiced, selfaccompanied performer of legendary shyness had been in the vanguard of this movement, The advent of the sound film promoted women to stardom, and Libertad Lamarque, Mercedes Simon and others appeared fronting large Tango orchestras, challenging what had often been a male dominated genre. Through the success of their films, the women also toured abroad, visiting Chile, Uruguay, and other Hispanic cultures. Lamarque especially was deeply loved in Chile.

Whilst war in Europe interrupted appreciation of the Tango during the first half of the 1940s, events in Argentina continued untramelled. A 'post-new-guard' style was starting to gain ground, pioneered by Anabal Troilo, an extraordinary bandoneon player who increased the size of the classic Tango orchestra, and introduced a new level of aggressiveness that laid the foundations for the Neuvo Tango style of Piazzola. This new sub- style occurred roughly parallel with the emergence and duration of the Peron dictatorship, politicising the Tango, and creating even wider divisions between aficionados. By 1955, when Peronism was collapsing, and American culture was infiltrating ever deeper into Latin America, the Tango suffered the double-whammy of being politically incorrect and definitely unhip. Rock 'n' Roll was invading Latin American culture just as it was West European. Young Argentines abandoned the bandoneon in favour of a welter of Elvis imitators. By 1960 the style was confined to the backwaters of Argentine culture.

However, some, and Piazzola especially, kept the faith. Angered by social and political events, intensely patriotic, deeply committed to the rescuing of 'National' music, Piazzola continued playing, often outside his native land, and when the time was right, and old grievances had healed to an acceptable degree, he came back. Still a controversial figure, opinions about his style and approach raged around him until his death in 1992 and continue to this day. His collaborations with jazzmen like Gerry Mulligan, his austere, pare-military approach to playing, have often alienated as many as they have pleased.

Yet, perhaps, without him the current revival might be much less cogent than it is. Coming full circle, Argentinians have rediscovered their musical heritage. A 24-hour Tango radio station in Buenos Aires attracts and influences an increasingly large audience, and the old records are now reverentially made available in CD packages. Whatever twists and turns of fate the Tango may have suffered in its 100-year history, the central vitality and relevance as a cathartic expression of Argentine emotion remains essentially untainted. Like the Blues, it's a survivor.

With thanks to: Bruce Bastin, Ruth Edge, Peter Mayer, National Sound Archive, Pat Robson and especially Jeff Richardson who got me interested in the first place.

Photo Credits: Bruce Bastin, EMI Archives and Pat Robson.

Recommended Listening

There's a lot of Tango on CD, but not all of it is easy to find. Start with those you should be able to pick up either at major record stores or through your favourite specialist.

Harlequin CD34 Tango Ladies
Harlequin CD45 Instrumental Tangos Of The Golden Age
Music Memoria MH10001 Historia Del Tango
Music Memoria MH10016 Anabal Troilo
Music Memoria MH10037 Creat Voices of Tango

Plus a trawl through the racks should net at least one compilation by Carlos Gardel - there are many including budgetpriced issues.

You might also get lucky and turn up the Swedish Phontastic Tangos Por Aficionados which is an excellent starter kit. Dig deeper and you may find the El Bandoneon label, an Argentine import, which has issued at least eighteen volumes dedicated to individual artists including Troilo, Piazzola, Charlo, Osvaldo Pugliese, Robert Firpo and a chronological Gardel set of eight volumes. If you really have money to burn, try finding the Japanese EMI ten-CD History Of Tango set. Plus look for an Astor Piazzola section - there are lots of CDs currently available, including a new Music Club issue, Key Works, 2984-89.

Vinyl collectors should look for the Phontastic CD as a pair of albums, and also try to turn up Japanese EMI 40011/40012 by Francisco Canaro.

If you feel like just dipping a toe in the water, then a pair of cassettes, price £6.00 each are available, one featuring Francisco Canaro's Orchestra, the other Carlos Gardel. Get them from H. Wilkins, 15 Queens Road, Brixham, Devon TQ5 8BG.

This article was originally published in the magazine FolkROOTS.
Copyright belongs to the author.
Electronic edition by Lars Fredriksson, April 17, 1997