Tracing the origins of tango music to contradanza and habaneira

The tango is the result of a combination of the German Waltz, Czech Polka, Polish Mazurka, and Bohemian Schottische with the Spanish-Cuban Habanera, African Candombe, and Argentinian Milonga. … The music derived from the fusion of various forms of music from Europe.

Wikipedia entry on Tango

This month, our popular Musicality Workshop is back “Dance to D’Arienzo”.

Workshop announcement

Tango is a feeling.

Tango Teacher

Apart from the Female Technique Workshop another popular type of class one sees commonly advertised is the Tango Musicality Workshop. I don’t recall taking one of these but in those classes where the topic is the music one would expect to find the exhortation to listen to and to feel the music. I have serious doubts whether exhortations of this sort have much effect since there is no system for teaching how to feel the music if one doesn’t already. When there is an actual attempt at systematic teaching the focus is often on the different interpretation of different orchestras. These workshops are typically taught by dancers who have little or no knowledge of music beyond dancing to it: they neither play music, know any music theory nor have any knowledge of ethnomusicology. The standard ethnomusicological story is like that we see on the Wikipedia entry: tango spontaneously emerged out of a fusion of various European and African genres in the back streets of Buenos Aires due to the intermingling of European migrants and African slaves.

Occasionally one does see announcements of musicality workshops conducted by tango musicians. From what I see these go into technical detail that is more relevant to the craft of the musicians themselves rather than helping dancers interpret the music in their dancing. Instead of looking at the historical antecedents of the music and providing an understanding that helps dancers listen to it, interpret and be moved by it in their dancing, musicians are mainly concerned with the form of the musical score that is written down. There is an apparently unbridgeable divide between musically illiterate dancers and teachers on the one hand, and musicians who seem unable to communicate to dancers about music as it is related to dancing, that is, to movement and gesture. Workshops run by musicians don’t put the music in a historical context that provide an understanding of its historical origins, or do they break down the music into those of its components that are relevant to movement and gesture. In fact, judging from the fact that most contemporary tango orchestras play in a way that is at best barely danceable it seems that contemporary tango musicians themselves have little understanding of the aspects of tango music relevant to dancing.

The apparent lack of serious inquiry into the historical origins of tango seems to be due to the prevailing assumption that tango is sui generis so that it is neither necessary nor fruitful to inquire into its supposedly dark origins. This is surprising given its apparent sophistication and effectiveness at inviting movement. The reasoning seems to be that, unlike the European tradition in which there are obvious and studied continuities from the Renaissance to Baroque, Classical and Modern periods, tango is more akin to popular or ethnic genres that spontaneously emerge from the natural creativity of the common folk. This is largely a myth which has the unfortunate consequence of creating the sort of confusion and misunderstanding that propels the contemporary dancer into fallacies such as that tango is a “living culture” that is constantly and randomly evolving by adapting to the current circumstances.

The task of gaining a proper understanding of tango music is especially urgent for those who want to preserve traditional tango practice. It can be safely said that there is a general lack of understanding of music in general, and tango music in particular, among tango dancers as with the wider public. This lack of understanding means that people do lack the ability to listen to tango music and make informed judgements. It may be what is behind the many tango fads and kitsch nuevo forms. If we could find a way of teaching people to understand the underlying structure of tango music and to appreciate it this would go a long way towards bringing back the primacy of danceable traditional tango and reversing its degeneration into vacuous cliches that we see on the dancing floors of most milongas outside of Buenos Aires today.

One of the problems that we encounter here is a communication gap between those who understand music and those that they are trying to teach. Musicians are comfortable communicating to other musicians or to music students who are willing to invest time and effort into understanding the intricacies of music. However, the rule of pedagogy is that things need to be simplified to the level of the student so as to then bring the student up to a level where the knowledge gained is useful, as to do otherwise is to lose the student. Musicians tend not to understand this necessity to simplify in order to bring people along, the result being that musicality is taught by people whose background is studio dancing but who have inadequate understanding of music as a form that cannot be picked up in the dancing studio but that is written and has its own sort of structure.

Myths of diversity and popular culture

The cliches that we hear in Tango workshops and read online is that tango emerged in Buenos Aires in the latter part of the 19th century out of a mishmash of European and African genres, out of the intermingling of immigrant workers from Europe with African slaves practicing Candombe rituals, in the back streets and the brothels of Buenos Aires. It gives the impression of a cultural form emerging spontaneously out of the creative spirit of the lowest strata of society generating something truly spectacular and transformative.

This notion of emergence may sound plausible to those who are exposed to the fads of Pop and Rock that apparently create something novel each decade. In fact, Pop is based on an extremely limited musical vocabulary and what makes up for this poverty is for the most part the addition of an ostinato rhythm added by the drum kit or electronic drum machine. This phenomenon, which causes the addiction of the mass of consumers of pop and rock is quite new in music. Prior to pop, rhythm emerges out of the music itself rather than being added externally by the drum kit. As Roger Scruton points out in Understanding Music, without this external addition, much of pop would lack its impact. Scruton writes:

There is an extreme case of ostinato phenomenon, in which rhythm seems to become detached from harmonic and melodic organisation, so as to be fired at them from outside, as it were. I refer to rhythmic ‘backing’, as exemplified by a certain style of pop.

To see how the ostinato rhythm is external to much of pop music compare Genesis “No Son Of Mine” (1991) with an acoustic version (here and here) which struggles to maintain the momentum generated by the drum kit in the original. When played on acoustic guitar with no drums much of the impact of the original version is lost and the result is a rather low energy song.

The apparent novelty in pop music generally is spurious, as the songs are built around rather short chord progressions repeated cyclically with little internal rhythm generated melodically or harmonically but imposed by an artificial beat. The reality is that music of any sophistication or complexity is a fairly technical skill that is hardly the domain of the poor and the illiterate. Most complex musical genres emerged over extended periods of time passed on from one generation to the next. Music that requires any sort of orchestration, ie., that has several musicians playing different instruments playing in concert has to be written down. It is more likely that, in Rock novelty is just variation within a genre, namely, Blues and American Folk, much as Funk, Soul and RnB are variations on jazz.

While it is common to find musicians who play in Rock or Pop bands who don’t know how to read music or know music theory, this is possibly only because much contemporary music is a variation on the American Blues, so that they use a standardised cycle of basic chords (either triads, power chords or 7th’s). Tango music, especially the danceable variety, is more complex, more on the level of the jazz of Miles Davis or John Coltrane. While Carlos Gardel might have run through a chord progression on his guitar while he sang, a tango formation of four or more instruments playing for dancing is already a complex affair that is unlikely to have spontaneously and organically emerged out of the back streets of a port city. It is much more likely that, as Rock is but a variation on the 12-bar Blues, Tango is a local variation on a more permanent tradition that has a longer and wider span.

The view currently in fashion is influenced by a sort of relativist anthropology, emphasising diversity rather than commonality, seeking to find the ‘roots’ in the oppressed underclasses rather than privileged culture. My view, by contrast, is that music of any complexity involves cumulative development and technical training of some sort and is unlikely to emerge spontaneously out of an illiterate oppressed underclass. We are not talking here about banging out a rhythm with a couple of sticks. The construction and the playing of instruments such as guitars, flutes, violins and bandoneons demands high-level technical skills and materials that do not come easily or cheaply. I suspect that the idea that illiterates can play tango music is significantly due to the fact that a lot of modern music such as Rock seems to be played by semi-literates. But as I said, much of modern “guitar” music is based on the 12-bar blues and a fairly average 12-year old can probably learn to play a blues tune in a handful of lessons, after that it’s all pretty much the same.

The standard sort of anthropological readings of the history of tango are politically correct in that the current academic fashion is to stress the lowly origins for popular culture, diversity, difference from the formal European tradition, and the transgressive aspect whereby these forms challenge the mainstream or acceptable culture, where white Europeans intermingle with dark women in seedy locales. Thus, a reviewer of “National Rhythms, African Roots: The Deep History of Latin American Popular Dance” (Chasteen 2004) writes:

Dance could unite people across boundaries of class, race, and – since the dances under study are couples dances – obviously gender. Yet precisely because popular dance ruptured those boundaries, elites, the state, and the Church all considered dances with African cultural influence transgressive to the social, political and sexual order of things. … Chasteen argues that the story of transgressive popular dance is one of race mixing, a reason official culture so long opposed it. Indeed Chasteen posits that Church and state never succeeded in repressing transgressive dances since powerful men enjoyed the “privileged sexual access to poorer, darker women” (p. 204). The full extent of the sexual politics …

We can see how these sorts of narratives are spun by academics following the current fashion in political correctness and ‘radical discourses’, with plenty of transgression and oppression to get the book accepted by academic publishers and ordered by dance and sociology departments and paid for by taxpayer funded university libraries. In the current climate of academic culture studies this is the kind of thing you need to say for the book to be accepted by predominantly female, leftist, probably lesbian and certainly radical feminist dance department and sociology academics: a narrative of the appropriation of exotic African cultures and oppression of poor dark women by powerful white men.

It’s all very exotic, radical and titillating, but whether there is any truth to it or not (which is questionable, see Why tango is not an Afro dance stolen by evil whites) pretty much useless from the point of view of a person wishing to learn how to dance tango as a form of self-improvement and personal development. On the contrary, I suggest that the understanding of tango in terms of the evolution of the structure of tango music, rather than giving us spontaneous diversity of local musical forms, provides us with an understanding of what they have in common and the connection between them. While perhaps less radical and titillating, and more boring and bland, showing connections and continuities with established mainstream culture provides, in my view, a more useful way into the form for the student.

The basis of danceable tango: the habanera rhythm

I suggest that tango is actually a part of the evolution of partner dances that can be traced all the way back to British country dance in the Renaissance. My suggestion is, instead of reading the standard ‘radical’ accounts of the origins of tango in the back streets of Buenos Aires, a better way to gain insight into the origins and structure of tango music is to read the Wikipedia article on the Cuban Contradanza, subsequently known as Habanera. Cuban Habanera is the key point of connection between the English country dance and European contradanse on the one hand, and Tango and the other latin folk dances on the other. The key contribution that Habanera makes to European contradanse is the addition of an African rhythm.

I propose that in order to understand the basic rhythmic structure of tango we need to trace it back to its roots in the habaneira rhythm and to understand (i) what the habaneira rhythm is, (ii) what are its varieties, (iii) where it originates, and (iv) how it influences dances such as tango. In addressing these questions in the simplest way possible my primary source for the time being is going to be Wikipedia. So I will cite the Wikipedia entry on Contradanza and insert my comments. The roots of tango trace back to English country dance, subsequently known as Contradanza. Wikipedia informs us as follows:

Contradanza (also called contradanza criolla, danza, danza criolla, or habanera) is the Spanish and Spanish-American version of the contradanse, which was an internationally popular style of music and dance in the 18th century, derived from the English country dance and adopted at the court of France. Contradanza was brought to America and there took on folkloric forms that still exist in Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, Panama and Ecuador. In Cuba during the 19th century it became an important genre, the first written music to be rhythmically based on an African rhythm pattern and the first Cuban dance to gain international popularity, the progenitor of danzón, mambo and cha-cha-cha, with a characteristic “habanera rhythm” and sung lyrics.Outside Cuba the Cuban contradanza became known as the habanera – the dance of Havana – and that name was adopted in Cuba itself subsequent to its international popularity in the later 19th century, though it was never so called by the people who created it.

So here we can see that what became known as the Habanera in the 19th century was derived from the English country dance that traces back to the Reneissance and contradanse of the Baroque period. This form subsequently became rhythmically based on an African rhythm in Cuba and came to be known as Habanera which forms the basis for many folk dances in South America. Let us continue:

The contradanza was popular in Spain and spread throughout Spanish America during the 18th century. According to musicologist Peter Manuel, it may be impossible to resolve the question of the contradanza’s origin, as it has been pointed out by Cuban musicologist Natalio Galán in humoristically labeling the genre as “anglofrancohispanoafrocubano” (English-French-Spanish-African-Cuban).

The most conventional consensus in regard to the origin of this popular Cuban genre was established by novelist Alejo Carpentier, in his book from 1946 “La Música en Cuba.” In that book he proposes a theory that signals the French contredance, supposedly introduced in Cuba by French immigrants fleeing the Haitian Revolution (1791–1803), as the prototype for the creation of the creolized Cuban Contradanza. However, according to other important Cuban musicologists, such as Zoila Lapique and Natalio Galan, it is quite likely that the Contradanza had been introduced to Havana directly from Spain, France or England several decades earlier.

The earliest Cuban contradanza of which a record remains is “San Pascual Bailón”, which was written in 1803. Certain characteristics would set the Cuban contradanza apart from the contredanse by the mid-19th century, notably the incorporation of the African cross-rhythm called the tresillo. The habanera rhythm can be thought of as a combination of tresillo and the backbeat.

The basic habanera rhythm is most familiar from Bizet’s Carmen. It is made up of a Tresillo as demonstrated in the following visualisation (if video doesn’t load follow the link:

This basic rhythm gives tango music the swing that invites people to dance. Play the same tango more legato and it becomes listening music. This is the reason the post-1950 tango recordings that are predominantly arranged for the listening audience are not danceable. In the same vein, you can not dance to traditional tango unless you are able to hear and respond to the underlying swing of the habanera rhythm, or more specifically, the Tresillo beat, that is implicit in all danceable tangos. Conversely, once you are able to discern this rhythm dancing to traditional tango becomes fairly straightforward.

Below are some more videos with examples of the Habanera rhythm as well as some discussion of the rhythm in relation to tango. Unfortunately the latter are all in Spanish with no available subtitles.

The Wikipedia article on Contradanza tells us that the habanera rhythm’s time signature is 2/4. An accented upbeat in the middle of the bar lends power to the habanera rhythm. This can be written as follows:

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This rhythm can be heard in the bassline of these examples of habanera. In the first set of examples we can hear how the habanera rhythm is incorporated into what is otherwise European music by the Cuban composer Manuel Saumell (1818-70) who was trained and worked in Havana and was one of the first to introduce Cuban folkloric musical styles to a classically-grounded genre. In the first interpretation we can hear a transition from what sounds like European dancing music to distinctly Cuban habanera when the double bass and shaker comes in with the habanera rhythm:

In the following sample the piano plays the habenera rhythm with the left hand which gives the pieces a swing:

The  bassline in the following samples sounds very close to Bizet’s Carmen:


Syncopated cross-rhythms called the tresillo and the cinquillo, basic rhythmic cells in Afro-Latin and African music, began the Cuban dance’s differentiation from its European form. … This pattern is heard throughout Africa, and in many Diaspora musics, known as the congo, tango-congo, and tango. … The syncopated rhythm may be vocalised as “boom…ba-bop-bop”, and “da, ka ka kan.” It may be sounded with the Ghanaian beaded gourd instrument axatse, vocalized as: “pa ti pa pa”, beginning on the second beat so that the last “pa” coincides with beat one, ending on the beginning of the cycle so that the part contributes to the cyclic nature of the rhythm . . . Carpentier (2001:149) states that the cinquillo was brought to Cuba in the songs of the black slaves and freedmen who emigrated to Santiago de Cuba from Haiti in the 1790s . . .

Contradanza subsequently formed the basis for variations in Cuba and elsewhere, such as danza habanera, danzon and danza:

although the contradanza and danza were musically identical, the dances were different . . . A danza entitled “El Sungambelo”, dated 1813, has the same structure as the contradanza – the four-section scheme is repeated twice, ABAB (Santos 1982) and the cinquillo rhythm can already be heard.

Habera rhythm in tango

The habanera rhythm forms the basis of the early tango and continues in some form throughout:

The Argentine milonga and tango makes use of the habanera rhythm of a dotted quarter-note followed by three eighth-notes, with an accent on the first and third notes. To some extent the habanera rhythm is retained in early tangos, notably El Choclo and “La Morocha” (1904). . . .

In 1883 Ventura Lynch, a student of the dances and folklore of Buenos Aires, noted the milonga was “so universal in the environs of the city that it is an obligatory piece at all the lower-class dances (bailecitos de medio pelo), and … has also been taken up by the organ-grinders, who have arranged it so as to sound like the habanera dance. It is danced in the low life clubs . . .

Here is an example of a habanera El pañuelo de Pepa by Manuel Saumell we can almost hear a danceable milonga in the bassline, played either by the Viola in the first video, the left hand on the piano, or the guitar playing the rhythm in the trio in the second video below:

What is interesting is that the 1-2 pulse of the milonga emerges out of the more complex habanera rhythm which can be counted 1 and-2-and 1 and etc.


Musicality workshops that focus on different tango orchestras, and that are taught by studio-based dancing teachers who merely point out how they interpret a given piece of music or orchestra, can’t teach students how to listen to music. On the other hand, musicians who understand certain technical aspects of music are often unable to explain how this relates to movement and gesture. Another major barrier to musical understanding is the fact that most people nowadays are constantly exposed to Rock and Pop which does not demand active listening and which generates energy and drive through the addition of a loud ostinato drum-beat that is external to the music itself, such that without this external beat the music itself has little drive or energy. When such ostinato drumming is absent learners seems to be lost as to how to hear the underlying beat or pulse of the music. Finally, adding to the confusion is a faux anthropology that insists that tango music was created, and not merely enjoyed, by the lower classes in Buenos Aires.

The proper approach that I propose is one that is historical and musicological. That is, it exhibits tango in its proper historical context as derived from Habanera which forms the pivotal connection between European Contradanza on the one hand and Argentine milonga and tango on the other. When we recognise this important historical continuity we can begin learning how to listen to, and to understand, tango music. We can start to understand how the different tango compositions are elaborations and layerings on a basic theme of the Habanera and how this basic rhythmic theme provides the driving energy that invites and sustains movement and gesture. Such a proper historical and musicological understanding is the necessary basis of education in musicality for tango and a foundation for further study of the tango orchestras.