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11 “A Hellish Instrument” The Story of the Tango Bandoneón maría susana azzi Argentina’s most popular music genre, the tango, had already enjoyed a long history before the bandoneón became its quintessential instrument. Known as a danceablemusicgenre,tangoinvolveseverythingfrompoetry,song,gesture,and narrative to philosophy and ethical values. During the late nineteenth century, it was a vehicle that accelerated cultural integration, weaving aesthetic and other culturalfeaturesfromAfrican,SouthAmerican,andEuropeansocietiesintheRío delaPlataarea:mainlytheportcitiesofBuenosAires,Argentina,andMontevideo, Uruguay. Gauchos (fierce and nomadic horsemen of the Pampas of mixed Spanish and Indian descent), criollos (native-born “Creole” Argentines), European immigrants, and African Argentines participated in the formation of the genre. The word tango seems to be of Bantu origin, meaning “drums”1 or “a social gathering with dances.”2 Over the last two hundred years, “tango” has referred to many different forms of dance and music (in chronological order): tango de negros, tango americano or habanera, tango andaluz or tango español, tango criollo, tango rioplatense, tango argentino, and tango brasileiro. The dances performed by AfricansandAfricanArgentinesattheendoftheeighteenthandthebeginningof the nineteenth centuries, called candombes, tambos, and tangos, were prohibited by the viceroy and by the cabildo, or town council.3 In all these styles of dances there was no physical contact between the dancers; however, “the” tango of the late nineteenth century, and as we know it today, is a dance of embrace—a pose borrowed from the waltz. This tango style was born in the twin cities of Buenos Aires and Montevideo sometime between 1860 and 1890. 234 maría susana azzi During the period when the tango crystallized as an urban dance in the Río de laPlataarea,Argentinawasundergoingprofoundchangesinpopulation.In1778, AfricanArgentinesconstituted29.7percentofthepopulationinBuenosAires;by 1887 the percentage had declined to 1.8 percent, as the African Argentines were outnumbered by European immigrants.4 Between 1821 and 1932, Argentina was second only to the United States among nations receiving the largest number of immigrants, followed by Canada in the third place. The total population of Argentina grew from 1.8 million people in 1870 to 8.3 million in 1915.5 Immigrants came from all over Europe, as well as from Lebanon and Syria, with the largest number coming from Italy and the second largest from Spain. To secure land for ranching and agriculture for the rapidly growing number of newcomers, Argentina ’s president, Gen. Julio A. Roca, started a campaign to seize the vast plains, which further contributed to the transformation of the Argentine population: by 1879, the majority of the native Araucan people from the Pampas region had been decimated,6 immigration was strongly encouraged, foreign capital poured in, and the railway network was expanded. In 1880, the port city of Buenos Aires wasnamedthefederalcapitaloftheArgentineRepublic:“LaGranAldea,”or“The Big Village,” would soon become a metropolis. From the Conquest to the beginning of the nineteenth century, European dances entered the Argentine provinces by way of Lima. After independence in 1816, the port city of Buenos Aires became the center of dissemination. Until the mid-1800s, the European minuet, gavotte, counterdance, and quadrille had dominated Argentine dance floors.7 With the arrival of the popular waltz, polka, mazurka, and schottische began the decline of the brilliant Criollo choreography of former times.8 African Argentine dances and songs had been imitated on stage as early as the 1830s. Between 1856 and 1865, the compañías españolas de zarzuelas (Spanish operatic companies) performed bailes de negros and sang habaneras (tangos americanos).9 ThehabaneraisaCubandancein2/2timewithsyncopatedrhythm, and one of the main influences on the birth of the tango. Candombes performed by African Argentines on stage were already frequent during Juan Manuel de Rosas ’s government (1829–52). As George Andrews notes, “The vitality of African and Afro-Argentine dance could not be repressed by porteño [port city] society. . . . Comparsas [musical dance groups], marching and dancing bands, were first permitted in Buenos Aires during the Carnival of 1836. All the African nations fielded themselves to parade through the streets in brilliant costumes, each with its own drum corps and dancers. These black comparsas dominated the Carnival festivitieseachyear(except1844and1852,whenGovernorRosasbannedCarnival because of the excessive violence) well into the 1870s, when the white comparsas began to take over.”10 235 “A Hellish Instrument” Atthesametime,intheirsearchforsocialmobility,AfricanArgentinesbegan to imitate whites, incorporating the mazurka, the polka, and the waltz into their dances. Dance halls or academiasdebaile provided the meeting place for the candombe , the habanera, the polka, the mazurka, the milonga,11 and the tango. In the late1870s,AfricanArgentinesinBuenosAiresimprovisedanewdancewithsome similarities to the candombe...


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