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Guides to Tango for Social Dancing

Article by Ian Whitcomb


The distant origins of the music behind the tango lie with the French colonists of the Caribbean Islands in the 18th century. Here slaves were made to play for their owners as they performed the "contre danse", providing the music with it's strange contrapuntal rhythm. It also picked up some of it's Spanish flavour at this time.
The music entered Buenos Aires in the latter part of the 19th century at a time when the male population hugely outnumbered the female. This led to the development of the complex, aggressive, sexually-charged dance associated with the music as men danced with each other or in groups as they waited their turn in the brothels of the city.
By 1910 it had become a craze, particularly in the salons of Paris, from where it spread to London and New York, at the same time as another vibrant musical form, ragtime, was moving centre stage in the United States. As well as being linked in time, these two musical forms are also similar ( and opposite ) in the fact that both employ a marked syncopation ( of the rhythm in tango, of the melody in ragtime ).
The classic tango sound is often associatied with a unique musical instrument, the bandoneon, a concertina / accordion hybrid invented in Germany in the 1920's, the breathy qualities of which help to give the music a kind of fatalistic sadness.
Tango's most famous melody is probably "La Cumparsita", written in 1917 by an architecture student named Gerardo Matos Rodriguez. It's chief rival is the equally dramatic "Jalousie", which, quite surprisingly, was written by a Danish composer, Jacob Gade, in 1925. Vera Bloom put lyrics to the melody in 1931.
A third famous tango is Vincent Youmans' superb composition "Orchids In The Moonlight" ( lyrics Gus Kahn and Edward Eliscu ), written for the Astaire / Rogers movie "FLYING DOWN TO RIO" in 1933.
Tango's Golden Age is said to be 1930 to 1945, an era exemplified by it's most famous artist, Carlos Gardel, who wrote several classic tangos, including "Volver", "Por Una Cabeza" and "Mi Buenos Aires Querido" with Alfredo Le Pera before their tragic deaths in a plane crash in 1935.

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Prominent songwriters

Gerardo Matos Rodriguez
Jacob Gade
Vincent Youmans
Carlos Gardel


audio : Tango compilations

books : about Tango


audio : Tango

books : about Tango