Bearing in mind the neo-Marxist bias and hatred of anything European or “white” in academia and the media it is not at all surprising to see attempts to show that tango has African roots which have been whitewashed or, to use a more freshly minted Pomo neologism, “whitened”. This I guess means that AT has been culturally appropriated (ie., stolen) by evil racist whites while the unfortunate noble blacks were written out of its history.
So let’s consider what it would mean for tango to have African roots and then to be whitewashed or “whitened”. In this we may be well-advised to stick to fairly well established facts and agreed upon meanings of words and to avoid emotive and politically charged neo-Marxist neologisms and politically charged slogans.
It is an incontestable fact that South America has a black population that has significantly and positively influenced the creation of the unique cultures of countries like Cuba, Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina. This is most obvious in Brazil where Afro-Brazilian culture includes things like Samba dancing, Batucada drumming and Capoeira dance/fight. Now, these are not specifically African but rather “Afro”. For example, while some elements of Capoeira can be traced to Angola, Capoeira in its modern form is Afro-Brazilian in the sense that it was created by African or Black people in Brazil based on forms that they brought from various parts of Africa but that did not exist in that form prior to their development in Brazil. In that sense it is unquestionable that the practices of Capoeira, Samba and Batucada have Afro-Brazilian roots and no one would question that.
It is also true that today these cultural forms are practiced by Brazilians of all colours. If you go to Sao Paulo you will see Batucada drumming bands called bateria (pronounced /bah-te-RI-a/) that you often see comprised mostly of whites, or that least that what I saw when I was there. Does that mean that white Brazilians have culturally appropriated/stolen this practice from the black Brazilians and that it has therefore been “whitewashed” or “whitened”? You could say that if you wanted I guess, eg., if you’re a neo-Marxist academic in a Western university and you see victimisation everywhere and these sorts of aspersions basically pays your salary and attracts audiences to your lectures. Except that most Brazilians would probably laugh you in the face and find this incredibly offensive and a slander of their country and you’d get serious pushback. Brazilian culture today is the product of 500 years of mixing or “appropriating”.
Uruguay is also said to have an Afro culture in the form of the Candombe, a sort of street marching band with drumming and free dancing, of which they are very proud and that you hear marching down the streets of Montevideo several times a week. The problem is that while Candombe has clearly Afro roots you see few black people in Montevideo and, as with the baterias in Sao Paulo, the Candombe bands are predominantly white as far as I could ascertain. In the 6 months that I spent there and having the bands march in front of my apartment regularly I do not recall seeing a single black person in any of these bands although I’m sure that there must’ve been some. So I guess we must say that that Candombe is “whitened” if that means that it is practiced (hence I guess appropriated, hence stolen) by white people. Go tell that to the Uruguayans.
So let’s consider Argentine tango. On my understanding the black population in Argentina has been decimated through war, disease and probably various state policies. So I would not dispute that they have been displaced and oppressed by whites, at least those in the government. As a libertarian I’m critical of all governments especially when they try to engage in social engineering and so I have no disagreement with neo-Marxists criticising governments, except that they want more government, not less.
So that’s not really the issue here because the claim is that whites have appropriated tango from the blacks. So the question is whether tango is either (a) an characteristically Afro or black cultural form like Capoeira, Batucada, Samba or Candombe; (b) a characteristically European or white cultural form that black people merely participated in; or (c) a creole form that has a mixture of white European and black Afro elements. If it is (c) then the further question (d) concerns the relative contribution of whites vs. blacks so that we an decide whether it is fair to say that one group created and hence owned this form as their cultural heritage or capital, and the other has appropriated or stolen it for themselves and has written the other group out of it.
There are several facts that suggest that Argentine tango is a creole form that comprises of mainly European elements with some Afro admixture. To begin with, you will notice that the early tango orchestras were referred to themselves as a creole orchestra or orquesta criolla. So from the outset the form was recognised as a uniquely Argentine form that was creole, a mixture of imported forms. However, the neo-Marxist may argue that already in those early 20th century tango recordings there was a move to appropriate and whitewash tango.
So the next question is whether in this these musicians were already culturally appropriating and “whitening” what was really an Afro form. In order to decide this issue we need to try to reconstruct the evolution of tango from the early 19th century to the beginnings of the 20th century. That’s about 50-100 years of evolution. First, lets consider the characteristics of distinctly Afro vs. European forms of music and dance. If you consider the Afro forms in Brazil and Uruguay you will notice that they are heavily based on drumming rhythms and that the dancing to these rhythms is typically not partnered in an embrace of any sort but is either individual or separated and rather free form.
Afro forms utilise complex rhythms that probably originate in various parts of Africa and instruments that are predominantly if not wholly percussive. The Berimbau utilised in Capoeira can play several notes that can be replicated on a tonal instrument like the guitar but it’s hardly a melodic instrument. By contrast, it is an incontestable fact that tango as we understand it today is a musical form that utilises the Western tonality and harmony and is played on European instruments: guitar, flute, bandoneon, piano, violin, double bass, etc. As for the dancing, even putatively Afro dances like the Cuban partner dances, these can be traced to European origins in the English country dances and contradanza, and not to any distinctly African or Afro form (see Musicality: tracing the origins of tango to contradanza and habaneira).
So the question is whether distinctly Afro forms could integrate the Western form of music and dance, that is, tonality, melody, harmony and partner dancing? In the case of Capoeira the instruments like the drums and the Berimbau can be traced to Africa whereas if you look at forms like the American Blues and Jazz, these are played on Western instruments: guitar, piano, trumpet, bass, saxophone, etc. These are designed and played in accordance with Western tonality and theory of music that has evolved in Europe over centuries since the Middle Ages. So can we then say that Blues or Jazz has Afro roots because it originates with African-American culture in the US? And should we say that jazz has been appropriated or “whitened” because it was subsequently developed by many non-black musicians and in terms of musical form it is placed within the Western musical tradition.
Going back to Brazil, we can look at the development of the Bossa Nova out of a Brazilian song form. Joao Gilberto was a singer from Bahia who was exposed to the Afro-Brazilian rhythms and then created a way of playing the guitar that imitated those rhythms and the singing style that is peculiar to this form. The only problem is that, apart from those rhythms being imitated on the guitar, everything else is white: Joao Gilberto was a white man from an upper middle class family who played the Spanish guitar which is a European instrument and used the standard Western tonality and harmony. Moreover, the greatest and most prolific composer in the form Antonio Carlos Jobim was a classically trained pianist who was influenced by the European romanticist composer and pianist Frederick Chopin. Then the most recognisable recordings in the form are performed by the saxophonist Stan Getz and Astrud Gilberto, all white.
What might irk the neo-Marxist sensibility even further is that the Bossa Nova has been identified with upper middle class Brazilian culture, ie., gentrification from the start. This is not to say that there are no black performers of the Bossa Nova. The most accurate characterisation is that it is a modern form that originates in Brazil, and so has Brazilian roots. Nonetheless, the neo-Marxist must absolutely abhor the Bossa Nova and run with disgust the moment they hear it. Indeed, one of the greatest exponents of Bossa Nova singing became disillusioned with the gentrified form and became a Communist turning to screechy protest songs instead.
So the question about Argentine tango is whether it is more like Capoeira which clearly has Afro roots, or more like Bossa Nova which has some elements to an Afro rhythm but otherwise is within the Western musical tradition and is gentrified and whitened from the start. If you look at the claims made by the neo-Marxist what you always see is some pictures of Afro-Argentinians participating in a Candombe ritual where people are engaging in what might be partner dancing to some rhythmic drum music and presumably singing, and then they might bring out a performance by an Afro-Argentinian demonstrating a Canyengue sort of street tango. The argument is that the “salon” approach is a whitened version of the original or authentic thing which was “street” and “Afro”.
In this, however, we are no longer in the realm of facts but rather of interpretation. It is an established historical fact that there were Candombe ritual parties common in Buenos Aires in the 19th century, and it is said that they were referred to as “tango”. But then we have to reconstruct the connection from these to the musica criola and associated dance form, the so-called tango Canyengue, that emerged toward the end of the century. You need to reverse engineer the form to figure out how much of that was Afro in origin and how much European. That’s difficult to do and so you need to engage in pure speculation to establish the Afro component vs. the European component. Only then can you say with any degree of certainty whether tango an Afro form like Capoeira which has been “whitened”, or whether it is more like Bossa Nova which has some Afro elements but is otherwise within the Western musical tradition.
Now I don’t discount that some neo-Marxist academic who hates anything Western or European will view Bossa Nova as having Afro roots and a form of hateful cultural plunder. But I assume that the reader is not a radical leftist ideologue University professor on a mission to destroy Western culture but actually wants to get a reasonable and appraisal of the situation based on the available facts. It is, in my view, far more plausible to say that tango even in its early stages of development as practiced by Afro-Argentines was a European from practiced by blacks. My argument is based mainly on the fact that tango music is essentially Western or European music, as is any music that uses the Western tonal system.
We can attempt to reconstruct the early history of tango’s evolution from the early years of the 19th century towards its form at the turn of the 20th century. Let’s say that early on you had these Candombe rituals. Then it would have been mainly drumming music. Was that recognisably Argentine Tango at that stage? Then some instruments would have to be introduced. The two instruments that are characteristic to tango are the guitar and the bandoneon. The modern guitar was invented in Spain around 1860. That was also the time when the bandoneon, invented in Germany, was brought to Argentina. This was precisely the time when large numbers of immigrants were arriving in Argentina and Uruguay. What we do know is that the milonga is a derivation of the Habeneira, a European dance form that incorporates an African rhythmic form called the tresillo.
So what is left of the Afro element of tango is the idea of a ritual dancing party and the rhythmic element, the tresillo, of the Habanera form. The other aspects: the idea of partner dancing, the instruments, the musical form are all European in origin. Sure, we can agree that blacks participated in this process of evolution, but they were part of the process of intermingling of forms, some of which were Afro. But they were crystallised into the musical and dance form that we see today only because of the formal structure of Western tonal music and partner dancing.
In other words, it seems to me more plausible to say that tango was “creole” from the outset and that was preceded it, some sort of a proto-tango would not be recognised as tango at all. Moreover, if it has been “whitened” or gentrified, what was whitened was not an Afro form but a creole form that had some Afro elements and that was practiced by both white and black Argentines within a largely Western form of music and dancing. The prior form of Candombe was not recognisably tango any more than the samba is recognisably Bossa Nova, even if Bossa Nova incorporates it. One way of putting the issue is to say that the neo-Marxist academics are committing the fallacy of composition:
The fallacy of composition arises when one infers that something is true of the whole from the fact that it is true of some part of the whole (or even of every proper part). For example: “This tire is made of rubber, therefore the vehicle of which it is a part is also made of rubber.” This is fallacious, because vehicles are made with a variety of parts, most of which are not made of rubber. (Wikipedia)
There are some elements in Tango that can be traced to Afro-Argentine roots. But even the idea of a dancing party is not uniquely Afro in origin even if the dancing parties in Buenos Aires at the time were Candombe parties. Neo-Marxist talk as if Europeans have never engaged in social dancing until they came to Argentina. It’s a level of historical ignorance that is just astounding, but if you know any neo-Marxist academic you will know that they pride themselves on their lack of history, or on some weird neo-Marxist version of it in which everything that Europeans have or do has been stolen from the noble savages.
A more reasonable and realistic view of the matter is that Afro-Argentines have been a part in the development of tango but that tango is a uniquely Rioplatense form that arose out of a combination of a number of elements, in particular, the habanera musical form and the practice of partnered social dancing. It was a creole form from the start and if anything the tango de salon is a “whitened” and gentrified form of what was already predominantly a white and gentrified form to begin with, the Afro contribution notwithstanding.