Let’s Dance

Let’s Dance

In Tango: The Art History of Love, Robert Thompson traces the dance’s roots in Afro-Argentine history. Tomas Eloy Martínez’s The Tango Singer appropriates its music to explore the recent past.


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.

To be fair, part of the reason for the confusion is the undeniable fact that there is not much documentation of the earliest musical and dance styles of the tango. But partly it is the result of Thompson’s extremely selective curiosity and attention toward his ostensible subject, and his fixation on uncovering the “authentic.” Why, for example, does he begin the book with a chapter about the movies in which the tango is depicted, commenting on which of these is closest to the “true” spirit of the dance? (For the record, Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris is an aberration, while Carlos Saura’s Tango, No Me Dejes Nunca is the “ultimate triumph” of tango in film.)

Someone with a less polemical approach to the art form would not give such short shrift to the European immigrant culture–especially Italian–that provided many of its composers, musicians and instruments. Thompson dismisses Enrique Santos Discépolo (1901-51), who wrote “Cambalache” (Junk Shop)–a pessimistic rundown of the first decades of the twentieth century, considered by many a kind of anthem–as a “darling of the intellectuals,” over whose tangos “the literary elite of Buenos Aires practice their existentialism, their Marxism, their postmodernism, their whatever.” This portrait would surely come as a surprise to the intellectuals of Discépolo’s day, who rejected him as a Peronist, and to Discépolo himself, who died abandoned by friends and colleagues. And what about the musicians and composers of Italian descent, like Julio De Caro, who developed the sophisticated tango style of the 1920s? Clearly, they inhabited a “world of formally trained men” in contrast with the “world of black improvisers,” whose “swing and spontaneity kept tango intensity from dissolving in refinement.” (Maybe Jorge Luis Borges would agree. He too disdained the “cleaned up” tango of the 1920s and ’30s, and despaired of “the perversion of the tango by Genovese immigration.”) Thompson’s tunnel vision means that Carlos Gardel, one of the most, if not the most, beloved of tango performers, gets only a few pages, as does the arrival of the bandoneón from Germany, and the influence of opera and operetta. Someone looking for a general history of the tango would be seriously misled by Thompson’s selective memory, and would be better served by Tango! The Dance, the Song, the Story, a picture book with excellent, cogent essays by Simon Collier, Artemis Cooper, María Susana Azzi and Richard Martin–all serious scholars.

So what is Thompson’s contribution to tango history? First and foremost, he provides a wealth of information on the black community in Argentina, a little-discussed and in some ways invisible element of the country’s history and society. In 1810 African Argentines constituted almost 30 percent of the population of Buenos Aires, a figure that dropped to a mere 2 percent by the end of the nineteenth century. Part of the explanation for this was the flooding in of hundreds of thousands of European immigrants (mainly from Italy and Spain) in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Some Argentines also say that many blacks were drafted to, and killed off in, the border wars with Paraguay in the 1860s, and that the rest succumbed to a yellow fever epidemic in 1871. Such explanations have become national myths, but the more likely reason, one that many Argentines still find difficult to swallow, is integration and intermarriage, as recent studies of the country’s population have suggested. As Thompson observes, there is something racist about the assumption that blacks have somehow simply vanished, and that therefore present-day Argentines cannot be descended from them. Thompson effectively debunks this myth and argues, sometimes over-energetically, that Afro-Argentines have continued to be a significant presence in Buenos Aires’s music and dance scene to this day. But even he is forced to admit that they have been a small minority–although he mystically insists that “there is a truth above statistics.” Thompson’s argument would be more forceful if he cut back on some of his effusive exclamations regarding “black stratagems” in Aníbal Troilo’s bandoneón playing, milonga as a “creole Esperanto of the night” and dancers translating “strong winds from Africa and Europe into maneuvers that lead to a creole safe harbor.” But it’s undeniable that even though there may not be many blacks in Argentina, and were already not very many of them by the late nineteenth century, their influence on the origins and to a lesser degree the later development of the tango was significant. Thompson’s argument would be better served by focusing on those aspects that truly illustrate this influence, and not forcing them to be the only, or even the most important, sources of inspiration.

The book really comes alive in Thompson’s discussion of the African community in Buenos Aires in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Hailing predominantly from the kingdoms of Kongo and Angola, these Afro-Argentines spoke mutually comprehensible variants of Kongolese–the source of the words “milonga,” “canyengue” and “tango”–and their native dances provided key steps like the corte (sudden stops to emphasize a position), the ocho (a pattern of eight drawn with the feet), the invasion of the partner’s space with a leg or foot (apparently derived from Kongolese bumbakana) and the pronounced lean of the man’s body over the woman’s seen in some tango styles (especially in the streetwise canyengue). Thompson vividly describes many of the steps, styles and meanings of Kongo dancing, as well as the birth of candombes, or Afro-Argentine dancing societies, in the mid-eighteenth century, where men and women danced in a highly rhythmic, showy and improvised style (though not in an embrace). Some elements of the dancing at the “candombes” were imitated by compadritos (street toughs) on corners and in whorehouses, and these compadritos became the protagonists of the milonga, and later, the canyengue style.

Perhaps most provocative is his argument that canyengue not only survived through the dancing of black performers at neighborhood dance “academies” in the early decades of the twentieth century and in Buenos Aires’s black nightclubs (the existence of which will be a surprise to many porteños) from the 1940s through the 1970s, but that canyengue has been passed down to successive generations of both black and white dancers. In 1983 the tremendously successful international show Tango Argentino, with its virtuoso canyengue numbers performed–in its original cast–by unglamorous, middle-aged dancers, inspired a resurgence of interest in the tango both internationally and in Argentina itself. Thompson maintains that “although not a single black face appeared onstage in Tango Argentino, Afro-Argentine influence was felt nonetheless: many of the star couples had mastered canyengue, the early black mode of the tango…hence everyone’s taste for offbeats, hipwork, and stops.”

Since so many of those who originally danced canyengue were not of African origin, some might find fault with Thompson’s definition of it as a “black mode”; others might argue with the notion that the virtuoso footwork seen in Tango Argentino and other shows like Tangox2 is truly an authentic representation of what would have been danced on a street corner or in a house of ill repute in the late nineteenth century. Then again, Thompson might suggest, there is a truth above facts.

Thompson’s mission of restoring the Afro-Argentine legacy of tango is not limited to the dance. He praises the careers of several important black and mulatto artists who helped shape the tango from its earliest days, like the payador Gabino Ezeiza (1858-1916), the lyricist Celedonio Flores and the pianist, composer and bandleader Horacio Salgán. Unusually, he sees the payadores (who improvised lyrics and music on the guitar, engaging in contests with other payadores) as forebears of the early tango musicians, and considers their competitive payadas to be precursors of the showdowns between canyengue dancers. And he emphasizes that some gauchos were black, like the payador Ezeiza–he was popularly known as “El Negro Ezeiza.” Flores, the famed lyricist who wrote the words to many of Gardel’s songs, was also known as “El Negro Cele,” even though he was, according to Thompson, extremely light-skinned.

More curious is the case of the virtuoso Salgán, a key figure in the musical transformations of the 1950s and ’60s who was so light-skinned that many would be surprised to learn that he is part black. Most tango histories do not mention his race (although most discuss how he was influenced by jazz), and Thompson is perhaps justified in listing that oversight as part of the “attempt to destroy [the] black-enhanced heritage” of tango. He traces Salgán’s roots, finding that his mother was a light-skinned black woman and his father was a white man of Catalan descent.

To dispel any doubts as to Salgán’s blackness, Thompson quotes the musician’s words to a biographer: “There’s also a black dimension to my music. It’s not casual, nor flagrant, but part of my origin…my style, and my truth.” Horacio Salas, in his book El Tango, wrote that “the main characteristic of the Salgán sound lies in the leading role played by the piano, which is played in a manner… that reveals the direct influence of jazz musicians.” That influence did not come from Argentina, much less Africa, as Thompson would have us believe, but from North America: the jazz of Art Tatum and Duke Ellington. This conflation of African-ness with blackness shows just how slippery Thompson’s idea of “African-ness” is, since in his hands it can apply to anything and everything he finds appealing in the tango.

It’s a good point, but Thompson, not surprisingly, takes it too far. He insists that in Saura’s film Tango, one can hear Salgán “scatting” under his breath as he plays the piano. I am tempted to say that many if not most pianists “scat”–or vocalize along with, and in counterpoint to, the notes their fingers are playing–at the keyboard, including Lang Lang when he plays Rachmaninoff! Yet again, Thompson’s enthusiasm for a particular kind of performance–which he defines as inherently, exclusively “black”–seems to trump a nuanced reading of the music.

If much of what has been written about the tango is “biased toward literature,” as Thompson claims, then the Argentine novelist and journalist Tomás Eloy Martínez’s new book, The Tango Singer, is yet another example of this bias, for in his novel the tango as a dance does not exist at all. Eloy Martínez left Argentina during the military dictatorship and has since lived in Paris, Venezuela, Mexico and, most recently, the United States. A professor of Latin American literature at Rutgers and a frequent contributor to the daily La Nación, he is best known here for his novels Santa Evita and La Novela de Perón. He is an obsessive collector of stories and cultural myths. Santa Evita is a compendium of all the weird tales that have been told (mostly true) about what happened to Evita’s corpse in the years after her death. In addition to recounting the myths of the past, he is a collector of the troubling realities of the present (poverty, street children, corruption), which he chronicles in his perceptive and deeply empathetic articles about the state of Argentina, and which later become the gritty backdrop of his novels. The Tango Singer is no different. For Eloy Martínez, tango is a pretext (the search for a dying tango singer), a setting (the clubs, cafes and streets of Buenos Aires) and a voice through which to sing the woes of this extremely troubled country.

Tango has been ubiquitous, but one voice continues to stand out above all: that of Carlos Gardel. The fact that Eloy Martínez’s “tango singer,” Julio Martel, should have a voice like Gardel’s (only better) is fitting, since Gardel is the ultimate symbol of the tango. (There was a real tango singer named Julio Martel, born in 1923, but he seems to have no relation to Eloy Martínez’s character.) Buenos Aires’s greatest export, Gardel’s image was indelibly set in the heart of many porteños by an early death (in an airplane crash) and by repeated, continuous listening to his recordings. Seventy years after his death, people still say that “cada vez canta mejor” (he sings better every day).

Julio Cortázar wrote in his essay on Gardel in La Vuelta al Día en Ochenta Mundos: “Gardel must be listened to on a victrola, with all the distortion and flaws imaginable…. In his voice, the voice of the compadre porteño is reflected, as in a sonorous mirror, an Argentina that it is no longer easy to conjure.” Eloy Martínez makes his Martel a disembodied voice, like the voice from the Victrola, that “glitter[s] on its own, as if nothing else existed in the world, not even the accompanying bandoneón in the background.” Eloy Martínez uses the tango singer’s voice as a device: Martel sings in seemingly obscure spots around the city to conjure up the terrible events of the last century, or, as Eloy Martínez puts it, “the itinerary of crimes committed with impunity in the City of Buenos Aires.” He sings at the spot where a Jewish center was blown up in 1994, killing eighty people; he sings across from the Club Atlético, where hundreds of people were tortured and killed by the militares; he sings in the Palacio de las Aguas, a huge, baroque waterworks built in the city center in the late nineteenth century, in which a young girl was murdered, and so he awakens her ghost. As protagonist Bruno Cadogan searches for Martel, he lives through Argentina’s more recent disgraces: the financial crisis of December 2001, the resulting protests in which several people were killed by the police, families of beggars living in the streets. Martel’s tangos become the city’s funeral dirge, its memory, its conscience.

The Tango Singer also links tango to two other themes from Argentine literature–Cortázar’s mandala from the novel Hopscotch and, more important, Borges’s “Aleph.” Both are symbols of the entirety of experience: The mandala is a Hindu or Buddhist symbol of the universe, which Cortázar’s book replicates in its forms and themes, and the aleph is a single place that contains all the other places in the universe, seen from all angles. In this novel, the tango is an aleph, or mandala, of the Argentine experience.

Eloy Martínez said in an interview in the Argentine daily El Clarín that The Tango Singer had two starting points: a request from Liz Calder, the editor of Bloomsbury, to write a book about Buenos Aires, and a dream in which he went to Buenos Aires to seek out a tango singer. In the same interview, Eloy Martínez described Bruno Cadogan’s research project into Borges’s writings on early tangos as a plot device and said that tango music was not an important element in his life until he left Argentina. He ended the interview by concluding that Buenos Aires is the worst and the best of Argentina (he was actually born in Tucumán, in the north of the country).

All of this is very revealing, and explains to a great extent what one experiences as a reader of this novel. Neither the plot nor the tango theme nor the characters have any real weight. They are disembodied symbols, a literary framework on which to hang the very compelling stories Eloy Martínez wants to tell about the brutal and bizarre things that have happened in the country he was forced to leave behind in the mid-1970s. These stories–the assassination of President Aramburu, the life and death by torture of a guerrillera–take on a life of their own, dragging our attention away from Bruno’s search and Martel’s spiritual mission, and making them seem spectral and pale in comparison. Eloy Martínez’s sense of truth, his compulsion to tell and retell the stories of torture and death in a country that wants to forget them, is what is most compelling about the novel, but it is also the greatest stumbling block to his story. Who are Cadogan and Martel compared with the victims of the picana (the cattle prod used in torture sessions)? Alongside these bloody stories, Eloy Martínez’s bits and pieces of lore, like the names of Buenos Aires bars, cafes, theaters and landmarks that he sprinkles throughout the book, augment the feeling that one is reading a kind of cultural and historical guidebook, a series of lists of high–and low–points in the city’s past. Perhaps the book’s conceit is not strong enough for a novel; perhaps it would have been better as a short story, or a collection of short stories. In any case, it rings false, for all its moments of engrossing storytelling. The book does not read like a novel but like a collection, a compendium hung on a flimsy structure of tango and Buenos Aires lore. Its characters are flimsy and easily forgettable; as soon as Eloy Martínez delves into history, they vanish from our memory. Perhaps it is true, after all, that when the tango drifts too far from its roots and becomes the subject of literature, it loses its soul.

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