Bearing in mind the hatred of anything European or “white” in much of academia and the media it’s not at all surprising to see attempts to show that tango has African roots which have been gentrified, whitewashed or, to use a freshly minted albeit racist-sounding Pomo neologism, whitened. This I guess means that tango has been culturally appropriated, ie., stolen, by evil racist whites while the unfortunate noble blacks were written out of its history. This is in keeping with the recent trend to rewrite European history generally. In considering what it would mean for tango to have African roots and then to be whitened we may be well advised to stick to fairly well established facts and agreed upon meanings of words and to avoid Marxist neologisms and political slogans.
South America has a black population that has significantly influenced the creation of the unique cultures of countries like Brazil where Afro-Brazilian culture includes things like Samba, Batucada and Capoeira. It’s 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 at least not mostly of blacks, or that least that what I saw when I was there. Does that mean that white Brazilians have culturally appropriated this practice from black Brazilians and that it has therefore been whitened? You could say that I guess, for example if you’re an anti-white academic and you see victimisation of blacks everywhere and if perpetually casting these sorts of aspersions pays your salary and attracts audiences to your lectures. But I think that 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 because Brazilian culture today is the product of 500 years of mixing and appropriating.
Uruguay is also said to have an Afro culture in the form of the Candombe, also a street marching band with drumming and free dancing, that you hear marching down the streets of Montevideo pretty much every week. Again, while Candombe has clearly Afro roots, 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 I had the bands march in front of my apartment weekly and I do not recall seeing a single black person in any of them so I guess we must say that that candombe is whitened if that means that it is practiced, hence appropriated, by white people.
Now the claim is that whites have appropriated tango from the blacks, ie., they haven’t merely appropriated the word “tango”, but the actual music and the dancing that goes with it that’s identifiably tango. I don’t really care what you call it, and if black Argentines want the word back I have no problem calling what today we call “tango” something else. The question we want to address presently is whether tango, or what we currently call “tango”, is either
- a characteristically Afro cultural form like Capoeira, Batucada, Samba or Candombe;
- a characteristically European cultural form that black people merely participated in; or
- a creole form that has a mixture of European and African elements, and then
- what is the relative contribution of the European vs. African cultures 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 tango is a creole form that comprises of mainly European elements with some Afro admixture. To begin with, the early tango orchestras identified themselves as orquesta criolla Argentina, hence as a uniquely Argentine form that was a mixture of imported forms. 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 culturally appropriating what was really an Afro form. To decide the matter we need to try to reconstruct the evolution of tango from the beginning to the end of the 19th century.
In thinking about this we might consider the characteristics of distinctly Afro vs. European forms of music and dance. You will notice that the Afro forms in Brazil and Uruguay are based on drumming rhythms and that the dancing to these rhythms is typically not partnered in any systematic embrace 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 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. On the other hand, tango as we understand it today is a musical form that utilises the Western tonality and harmony and is played on Western instruments. Furthermore, even putatively Afro dances like the Cuban partner dances can be traced to European origins in the English country dances and contradanza and not to any distinctly African or Afro form (see Tracing the origins of tango music to contradanza and habaneira).
Tonality is the arrangement of pitches and/or chords of a musical work in a hierarchy of perceived relations, stabilities, attractions and directionality. In this hierarchy, the single pitch or triadic chord with the greatest stability is called the tonic. The root of the tonic chord forms the name given to the key; so in the key of C major, the note C is both the tonic of the scale and the root of the tonic chord (which is C–E–G). Simple folk music songs often start and end with the tonic note. The most common use of the term “is to designate the arrangement of musical phenomena around a referential tonic in European music from about 1600 to about 1910”. … Harmony in jazz includes many but not all tonal characteristics of the European common practice period, sometimes known as “classical music”.Wikipedia
So then could distinctly Afro forms integrate within or fuse with the Western forms of music and dance, that is, tonality, melody, harmony and formalised partner dancing? In the case of capoeira instruments like drums and berimbau can be traced to Africa whereas American blues and jazz are played on Western instruments—guitar, piano, trumpet, bass, saxophone, etc.—which are all designed and played in accordance with a tonal system of music developed by Europeans. Blues and jazz are said to have Afro roots because they originate with African-American culture in the United States. It might then be argued that jazz was appropriated because it was subsequently played by many non-black musicians or by black musicians who conformed to musical norms that are Western, white or middle class (eg., Miles Davis and John Coltrane). So for example, I was once told by a teacher of American swing that it’s the culture of the blacks in the US which has been appropriated by whites, but when I asked her for her evidence the response was that it’s what her teacher (black I presume) told her and that it’s their “lived experience” and which presumably means that it’s wrong to question such unsubstantiated assertions.
Going back to Brazil we can look at the development of the Bossa Nova out of a Brazilian song form as an example of mixing African and European forms. Joao Gilberto was a singer from Bahia who was exposed to Afro-Brazilian samba rhythms and then created a way of playing the guitar that imitated some of those rhythms as well as the peculiar laid back vocal style. The 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, and the characteristic Bossa Nova singing style that he created departed from the prior traditional approach.
The other problem is that the Bossa Nova has been strongly influenced by classical and jazz from the outset. Antonio Carlos Jobim, greatest and most prolific composer in the form, was a classically trained pianist heavily influenced by Frederick Chopin. While some compositions in the genre, sometimes referred to as Afro-Sambas, imitate instruments like the berimbau (eg., Berimbau, Consolacao) most can be directly traced to Chopin or even J.S. Bach in their harmonic structure (eg., Insensatez, Meditacao, Corcovado). Then, the most recognisable recordings in the form are performed by the saxophonist Stan Getz and Astrud Gilberto in a West Coast American jazz style.
Another great Brazilian musician who fails to fit in with the anti-gentrification Marxist narrative is the guitarist Baden Powell who, while not black is hardly white either, but who is whitened to the boots in both, his name and in the fact that he mixes traditional afro themes with Bach. Talk about self-imposed gentrification! What might irk the cultural Marxist sensibility even further is that the Bossa Nova has been identified with upper middle class Brazilian culture, ie., gentrification from the start. Of course there are great black composers and performers of the genre like Jorge Ben, but it is really a modern and very middle class form that has Brazilian roots. So I expect that the Marxist academic must run with disgust the moment he hears it. Indeed, one of the best Bossa Nova singers Nara Leao became disillusioned with the bourgeois form turning to screechy communist protest songs.
So the question about tango is whether it is more like capoeira with it’s obvious Afro roots, or more like the Bossa Nova which incorporates an Afro rhythm but is otherwise completely within the Western musical tradition and which is gentrified from the start. If you look at the claims made by the cultural Marxist what you 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 tango de salon 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 speculation and interpretation. It’s an established historical fact that there were Candombe 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 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. This is difficult to do and so you need to engage in pure speculation to decide whether tango is an Afro form like capoeira which has been appropriated, whitened and gentrified or whether it is more like Bossa Nova which has some Afro elements but is otherwise middle class from the start.
I don’t discount the possibility that some Marxist academic who hates anything Western or European will view Bossa Nova as having Afro roots and therefore as evidence 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 (talk about self-sabotage) but actually wants to get a reasonable appraisal of the situation based on the available facts. It’s far more plausible to say that what would today be recognisable as tango at in its early stages of development was a mainly European form possibly practiced by some blacks.
My argument here is based in part on the fact that tango music is essentially Western music as is any music that uses the tonal system, so that the American Blues which utilises the standard guitar tuning and tonal arrangement of chords and scales is Western. I’m less sure about the Spanish flamenco which uses a standard guitar tuning but the harmony doesn’t seem to follow the standard tonal cadence to a tonic chord, and Middle Eastern music which seems to be played on a fretless guitar and utilise micro-tones, meaning notes that do not occur in the Western diatonic scale. Similarly with Chinese and Indian music which seems to depart from Western tonality. My understanding that the Indian raga music has never been written down and Wikipedia informs us that it “has no direct translation to concepts in classical European music”. None of this is true of tango music which follows standard structures of Western music, as does Jazz and Blues, Afro roots notwithstanding.
We can also attempt to reconstruct the evolution of tango until the turn of the 20th century. Let’s say that early on you had these candombe rituals, which would have been mainly drumming music, but that would not be recognisably tango, because tango is not candombe. Some tonal instruments would have to be introduced, and the two instruments that are characteristic to the early tango are the guitar which was invented in its modern form in Spain around 1860 and the bandoneon which came from Germany around the same time. This was also the time when large numbers of immigrants were arriving in Argentina and Uruguay, and it would not surprise me to find that it was these very migrants who brought the guitar and the bandoneon. We do know that the milonga is derived from the habaneira, a Cuban form of music and dance with European roots which incorporated an African rhythmic form called the tresillo and which subsequently became popular in Spain and other parts of Latin America (see Tracing the origins of tango music to contradanza and habaneira).
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 whereas the other aspects: the idea of partner dancing, the instruments, and the tonal system of music, 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 which 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 what preceded it, some sort of a proto-tango, is not tango as we understand it today (even if it was called “tango”) any more than Samba is Bossa Nova.
It’s pretty clear that the Marxist academics are doing either of two things or both. Either they’re saying that tango de salon is a gentrified form of an Afro form because the word “tango” originates with some Afro-Argentine event and subsequently started to be used to refer to any event at which there was dancing to creole music types. They’re also 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
The idea of a dancing party is obviously not uniquely Afro even if the dancing parties in Buenos Aires in the 19th century were Candombe parties which were called “tango”. Marxists talk as if Europeans have never done partner dancing until they came to Argentina and met blacks. It’s a level of historical ignorance that is just astounding but if you know any Marxist academic you know that they pride themselves on their lack of history, or on some weird Marxist version of it in which everything that Europeans have or do has been stolen from the oppressed blacks.
Whether we like it or not we have to accept the fact that tonal music of any complexity, whether it’s classical, jazz or tango, is inherently middle class simply by virtue of that complexity. Tango music needed to be composed, written down in musical notation and played on a variety of instruments—guitars, bandoneons, pianos, basses, violins, flutes, etc.—all of which have to conform to the tonal system of music and demand a fairly high level of knowledge and of skill in playing together in harmony with each other, not to mention to build and maintain. I’m not saying that drumming isn’t complex and doesn’t require skill, but its a different sort of thing and until recently as far as I know the rhythms were never really written down (but I could be wrong about that). It’s therefore far more plausible to say that Afro-Argentines have probably been a part in the development of tango but that tango is a distinctly rioplatense form (ie., characteristic of Buenos Aires and Montevideo) that arose out of a combination of a number of elements including the habanera rhythm and the practice of partnered social dancing, and that it was gentrified from the beginnings by virtue of its musical form.