Tango was born on the banks of the Río de la Plata in the port cities of Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Montevideo, Uruguay, in the late 1800s. It gradually grew into being from a unique mixture of people and the musical traditions they brought with them. At this time, both port cities were growing rapidly as they received huge waves of immigration. As their populations became more diverse, Argentinian and Uruguayan musical styles (which were already a fusion of local indigenous and Spanish music) blended with a broad range of influences ranging from African candombe and Spanish-Cuban habanera to European waltz, polka, mazurka, schottische, and flamenco, giving rise to new musical genres: first milonga, then tango.
Tango began with the urban lower classes
, including former slaves, immigrants, and the poor and working classes. The music and the dance began taking shape in the streets and in conventillos
, where many people lived together in close quarters with a common area for people to socialize. La Boca neighborhood in Buenos Aires was one of the places where tango flourished. In the early days, the sensual dance was famously danced in brothels, although it was often danced between two men. In any case, tango had a bad reputation and was scorned by the upper classes.
This would all change after the turn of the 20th century, when the first copies of written tango music traveled across the Atlantic. Tango became wildly popular in Europe
after the end of the World War I, especially in Paris, and even the bourgeoise started dancing it. Since Parisian and European culture was exalted by the upper classes in Buenos Aires, tango began to be seen in a different light, and a genre that had previously been considered vulgar was embraced by the general population.
As for the music itself, the earliest tango was purely instrumental. The first tango bands were composed of portable instruments: flutes, guitars, and violins, but this configuration later evolved into the orquesta típica
, which includes violins, piano, double bass, and bandoneons. The bandoneon
, invented in Germany and brought to Argentina by European immigrants, became the quintessential tango instrument in the late 19th century. Tango singers did not appear until the early 20th century, when they began to put words to the music, including lunfardo
: slang words heavily influenced by immigrant languages — especially Italian — that became part of the Spanish spoken in Buenos Aires.
The first generation of tango musicians, who played from the late 19th century until the 1920s, was called the Guardia Vieja
. They created an identity and structure for tango as a musical genre and began using the orquesta típica
. Some of the most famous names in tango at this time were Franciso Canaro, Roberto Firpo, and Ángel Villoldo. To get a taste of this early style, try listening to El Entrerriano, Unión Cívica, La Morocha, El Choclo,
or La Cumparsita
first appeared on the scene as a tango singer in 1917, when he sang Mi Noche Triste
. The legendary Gardel is known for inventing the tango canción
, and his famous voice played an important role in popularizing tango. He became a soloist in 1925 and was an international superstar until his tragic death in a plane crash in 1935. Some of his most famous songs include Volver
, Por una Cabeza
, Mano a Mano, Adiós Muchachos
, and Mi Buenos Aires Querido
Gardel and the emergence of tango canción
marked the transition between the Guardia Vieja
and the Guardia Nueva
, which lasted from around 1917/1920 to 1955 (tango scholars disagree about the exact dates). Julio de Caro, Carlos Gardel, Sofía Bozán, Aníbal Troilo, Rodolfo Biaggi, Carlos di Sarli, Robrto Goyeneche, and Francisco Lomuto are representative of this generation. The later part of this period, when tango enjoyed mass popularity, was called La Edad de Oro
, or the Golden Age, coinciding with an important political moment with the rise of Peronism in Argentina in the 1940s.
Tango clubs began closing one after the other in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when rock music captured the hearts and imaginations of music lovers around the world and tango was pushed out of the limelight. One tango artist, a composer and bandoneon virtuoso named Astor Piazolla
, reacted by reinventing the genre, creating a new type of tango called nuevo tango
, influenced by jazz and other styles. Many purists criticized Piazolla, saying that he had murdered tango, but today Piazolla is recognized as one of the world’s most famous tango artists and one of the most important composers of the twentieth century.