Tango’s First Steps

How the Great Depression, Juan Peron and the brothels of Argentina influenced the creation of one of the world’s most vibrant forms of music
Shyamant Behal is a classical guitarist and teacher who has performed across the country
Life & Letters
THE GREAT REVIVAL  Astor Piazzolla (foreground) created a new Tango sound that came to be known as Nuevo Tango

It began with a recording on a scruffy looking T-Series tape I was given by my guitar teacher, who in turn had acquired it from another student of his. I was about 16 at the time, and I knew neither the guitarist nor most of the compositions on the album. I went home and put the cassette in the deck and pressed ‘play’. The guitarist was obviously excellent, and it was the sort of music I loved: Latin American with all its varied rhythms and melodic genius. I looked at the cover more carefully. The guitarist, it turned out, was Manuel Barrueco, and the album was Cantos y Danzas. I listened, entranced. The music was breathtaking, the playing was spectacular without being technically perfect, and I felt I would never ever be able to play like that.

Once side A had finished, I quietly went to dinner. I was moved and excited. It felt like I had been shown the portal to a new secret musical world. I finished dinner and went on to side B of the tape. The first thing I heard was a flute. It was bright, it was sunny, and the guitar tune that began a few seconds after was the perfect counterweight to the lightness of the flautist. I didn’t know it then, but I was listening to the music of Astor Piazzolla, the piece was Histoire du Tango, and it was by far the highlight of the album.

Astor Piazzolla’s grandparents on both sides of the family were four of hundreds of thousands of Italian immigrants who moved to Argentina in the 1880s. The country was becoming incredibly rich at the time, and, with the Great Depression looming over America and Europe in the gloom between the two World Wars, it was the seventh richest in the world. The migration was to have a profound influence on the culture of Argentina, a country that already had a fair mix of immigrants.

The music and dance that grew out of this happenstance became the Tango, and came from a mix of the Cuban Habanera, the Milonga of Uruguay, and especially the Waltzes, Polkas and Mazurkas making their way across from Europe. The Tango flowered at the turn of the century in Buenos Aires and in Montevideo in Uruguay, and like jazz, was the music of the poor.

I met Daniel Youlis at a guitar-maker’s workshop in a suburb of Paris. He is an Argentine guitarist and teacher. Thrilled and a bit intimidated at having found a real Argentine musician in front of me, I bombarded him with questions. He was at least my equal in enthusiasm, and answered everything I could think of and gave me an earful besides. I mention him because he had an interesting theory on the origins of the Tango. “It’s just a cliché, the Tango being born in the brothels of Buenos Aires. The truth is, one doesn’t really know where it came from. All that happened in the brothels was that the richer lot first heard the music.” There was an acute shortage of women in the country at that time, with young men being sent off to Argentina for work while their families stayed back in Europe. Tango bands played to keep customers in brothels entertained while they awaited their turn. And so the music spread to other parts of the country and then to Europe, which went through a Tango craze in the 1910s and 1920s. Argentine sailors arriving in Marseille taught it to the girls there, and the rich young men of Buenos Aires who were often sent off to Europe for the grand tour did their bit as well. They were probably responsible for the Tango’s introduction to polite society in Europe at a time that it was definitely not an acceptable high-society dance back in Argentina. The dance caught on rapidly, and was soon the rage in the capitals of Europe—and in Paris in particular.

So the Tango was now firmly a part of Argentina and especially Buenos Aires. The radio was a revolution for music in general, bringing music into the daily lives of people. The Tango slowly became more respectable and the lyrics of the songs therefore began to be written by writers and poets. Some of the finest poets have composed music for these songs, especially in the 1920s. Carlos Gardel, the first superstar of the Tango, sang some of the best-known and loved numbers, and with his good looks also acted in a number of movies. He gave concerts all over Latin America and then later in Paris, Madrid and Barcelona. He was also the one who created the ‘tragic lost love’ image that the Tango still has.

The golden years of the Tango were in the 1930s, after which there was a decline on account of an economic depression. During Juan Peron’s years in Argentina, the Tango was actively encouraged, but soon after he was overthrown, the military put a complete stop to the dance, and practically speaking, outlawed it to the extent they could, more or less because Peron had been a Tango fan. The tango went underground, and a number of musicians emigrated abroad. The military junta, in a very effective manoeuvre against the Tango, decided to encourage rock-and-roll music. This, at a time when most of America and Europe was busy discouraging the younger generation from it.

So, the only place for young men to meet young women was in rock-and-roll clubs. An entire generation of people in Argentina grew up not knowing how to dance the Tango at all. It was only after the fall of the military regime in 1983 that a huge Tango revival took place.

Piazzolla’s story is an interesting one. His influence on the Tango, I suspect, will be the one that goes furthest because he dared to move away from the Tango as one knew it, and created something new, exciting and different, something that has spawned generations of new musicians inspired by it. Born in Argentina in 1921 in the Mar del Plata region, he moved with his family at the age of four to New York, where he grew up. He lived there until the age of 14, when the family decided to move back to Mar del Plata. It was days of prohibition and the mafia in New York. Piazzolla grew up listening to Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway and other jazz greats by hanging around the doors of various clubs they played in. He took piano lessons with Bela Wilda, a disciple of Russian composer and pianist Rachmaninov, from whom he got his love of Bach. His father bought him a second-hand bandoneon when he was eight. The bandoneon is an instrument much like the accordion, except that it has buttons for both hands, unlike the accordion, which has buttons on one side and keys on the other. It came to Argentina from Germany in the 1880s, and despite being a difficult instrument to play, became integral to the Tango because of its melancholic sound. Piazzolla, upon his return to Argentina, moved to Buenos Aires, and already being a virtuoso on the bandoneon, managed to get a job in Anibal Troïlo’s band. At the same time, he continued his studies with Alberto Ginastera, who was to become a renowned composer. Though the difference in ages of the two was only about five years, Piazzolla always referred to Ginastera as ‘Maestro’.

Piazzolla got his own band together in 1946, and used it to experiment with new rhythms and harmonies. It was not a success and was disbanded soon after. He formed another string orchestra, and that too failed. He then went on to study further in Paris, and there he met Nadia Boulanger, one of the most famous teachers of all time.

Piazzolla played his ‘classical’ compositions for her. She was not particularly impressed. She asked him to play her music that was more personal to him, music that he would play for himself. He played her a tango number that he had composed. She listened, and at the end of the piece told him that this was the sort of music he should compose, music that was part of him, music that came to him naturally. This meeting and conversation changed the history of the Tango, with Piazzolla coming to terms with his own musical voice and creating what would come to be known as the Nuevo Tango, the ‘new tango’. Tango in Argentina is part music and part religion, and there was no space for dissidents. Piazzolla’s music was rejected by traditionalists, and actually created two factions, one half anti- and one half pro-Piazzolla. I encountered this once.

After a concert where I played La Muerte del Angel by Piazzolla, an aged gentleman came up to me and asked me why I bothered playing Piazzolla, which he felt wasn’t true Tango. To him, it wasn’t even music. I could not think of anything much to say, though in retrospect I should have asked the gentleman to invest in a new set of ears.

On the other hand, I have had others coming up and saying it was wonderful that an Indian guitarist had heard of and was even playing Piazzolla, and that the tide had turned towards a new golden age. It was only in the 1980s that the debate calmed somewhat—especially after Piazzolla had made a name for himself and been accepted abroad—and he was finally accepted in Argentina.

Another guitarist friend of mine, Georges Troly, while working on a piece of Piazzolla’s, Compadre, got into a heated discussion with our professor, Geneviève Chanut. He had stated that Piazzolla was a genius, and she felt that he was a very good musician and composer, but not a genius. I was on Troly’s side: Piazzolla was a prolific and flexible composer who took a well-established form of music, changed it from something that often took two forms—dance music or nostalgic and sentimental ballads—and turned it into a kind of music at once cerebral and passionate, music that could be disturbing, difficult, moving, rhythmic, always accessible but never boring. He had his share of difficult times, and was resilient and also stubborn. At one point he was playing in a bar called Michelangelo in Buenos Aires practically every night of the week, and had an audience of perhaps only two or three people at a time, which can be horribly discouraging for a musician. He believed in his talent and his own voice, and was eventually proven right.

The Tango has come a long way from the brothels of Buenos Aires and Montevideo. It has been played in the most well-known concert halls of the world, and in the lowest dives as well. YoYo Ma the cellist and Gidon Kremer the violinist play the Tango and so do Gotan Project and Tanghetto. People still put on records of Carlos Gardel much like they do of Muhammad Rafi. For me, as a musician, the Tango has as much to do with nostalgia as it has to do with truth, guts, drama and musical genius.