First, a confession: I do not love the tango. That is to say, I do not love the dance known as the tango, with its showy steps and poses, its domineering male partnering and its ostentatious pauses. I do, however, have a soft spot for tango songs–the yearning melancholy of “Madreselva,” the aggressive cynicism of “Cambalache,” the cheerful resignation of “Adiós Muchachos,” the bitterness of “Mano a Mano.” These and other tangos are the inescapable soundtrack of daily life in Buenos Aires; you cannot be in that city for more than five minutes without hearing one playing in the background of a cab or cafe, or blaring from the radio of a construction site.
This personal preference should not be an impediment to enjoying Robert Thompson’s Tango: The Art History of Love; tango, after all, is both a dance and a musical form, and more than anything a cultural phenomenon with a long and rich history, as varied and curious as that of the country that produced it. But only a few pages into Thompson’s book, which is in many ways an informative–and surprising–account of the tango, it becomes clear that Thompson has no time for such tepid consumers of tango songs. In his view, “tango is action. That’s what the world loves, more than the text or the sound.” So much for the lilting strains of Carlos Gardel’s voice and the arch melodies of the bandoneón.
For Thompson the history of the tango is a history of the repression of its origins and meaning, the deliberate rubbing out of its African roots. His passionately argued, sometimes bullying, book tries to demonstrate the impact of “African and Afro-Argentine influences” on the “rise, development, and achievement of the tango.” He presents this work as a corrective to a field (tango studies) that has been “biased toward literature”–i.e., the lyrics of the tango song, written by and for white lyricists and musicians–and that, in his opinion, has fomented the false idea that “black influence, if present at the beginning, ha[s] long since disappeared.” His mission is to prevent the “attempt to destroy this black-enhanced heritage.”
Thompson’s convictions should come as no surprise. A professor of African and African-American art history at Yale, he has written countless books and articles, and organized large exhibitions, on the subject of African art and its influence on the culture of the Americas. Thompson, who is not the least bit African-American, has devoted his professional life to bringing to light and analyzing the vibrancy and impact of African art on the Americas. The New York Times described Flash of the Spirit, his 1983 study of African and Afro-American art and philosophy, as a “wonderfully enthusiastic book” in which Thompson acted as “part anthropologist, part art critic, part musicologist, part student of religion and philosophy, and entirely an enthusiastic partisan of what he writes about.” The same could be said of his new book, which exhibits a similar wide-ranging knowledge and enthusiasm, and an obsession with uncovering the “hipness,” “swing,” “cool” and “sass”–all, apparently, quintessentially black qualities–of the art form at hand. One suspects that his interest in the tango might be secondary to his desire to uncover African influences in yet another sphere.
This is not the book for the inquisitive neophyte, or one interested in the tango’s evolution, beginning with its murky birth on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, the famous arrabales. In these outlying neighborhoods, former gauchos, pushed off the land by changes in the agricultural economy, crossed paths with European immigrants, urban lowlifes, prostitutes and black Argentines, most of them descendants of Africans who had been brought to Argentina and Brazil as slaves. Thompson’s discussion of those first milongas of the 1870s and ’80s, woven from the waltz, polka, Cuban habanera, Afro-Argentine candombe and the improvisations of gaucho payadores (folk singers), is confusing and difficult to follow. Nor does he give a detailed account of how milonga became canyengue (an early tango style in 2/4 meter), or how the canyengue style evolved into the smoother tango in 4/4 meter, or the rise of the bandoneón (a cousin of the concertina) as one of its defining instruments, or when and why the song form of the tango, the enormously popular tango canción, became popular. It’s not to say that none of this information is in the book; much of it is, in some form, but you may have trouble finding it because the book is not organized chronologically but rather by loosely defined themes (“Tango in Hollywood,” “Tango as Text,” “The Cultural Preparation”), resulting in considerable repetition, as well as gaps, and a general sense of disorientation.