Culture and national identity: how Argentine is tango?

I was listening to Victor Davis Hanson’s lecture on the disappearance of the Greek city states in classical antiquity. One reason he gives is that the Greeks did not develop a concept of a nation state, meaning, a community based around common language and culture (religion, ritual, custom), and this prevented them from evolving their approach to warfare. Even though they had a common language and culture their identity remained rooted primarily in the local city state. He argues that it is the Romans who developed the concept of a universal state which is based in language and culture. This way Rome was able to assimilate a diversity of people and expand in a way that the Greeks could not.

This raises the question of how far we can say that a given cultural product such as tango is specific to a particular localised group of people. Europe and the West is a specific geographical area that is distinguished from the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, etc. It is also internally diverse. It has recently been divided into nation states which are identified in terms of language, culture and religion. Nonetheless, the West has a certain cultural unity which means that these diverse groups share something in common that is different from the rest.

Cultural products of the West can be categorised as those that are specific to some local group of people, things like Flamenco, pizza, perhaps kind of beer, and various European folk dances. Others, however, even though localised, are considered to transcend these local distinctions: Bach, Mozart, Vivaldi, Chopin, Debussy, classical ballet, etc. Classical high culture is said to be universally Western rather than specific to the nation that produced it.

The difficulty seems to arise with respect to forms of culture that are, one might say, middle-class. An example here might be jazz. The birth of jazz is the United States. But it’s hard to say today that jazz is strictly American music because so many contributions to the jazz canon are from outside the US, in particular, from Europe and Latin America. If you were to eliminate the contributions of musicians from Europe, Latin countries and Brazil the canon would be substantially reduced.

Now, the countries of Central and South America were imperial extensions of Spain and Portugal, much as Anglophone countries were imperial extensions of Great Britain. In order to attain the status of a nation they had to develop a unique identity so that they could claim that they’re no longer just such an extension.

However, the whole business of the nation state has been problematic from the outset, in the sense that it is really always an artificial construction. The claim is that there is some reality between grouping these people together because of common history, language and culture. But the motivation behind this is really to gain power, in particular, to motivate people to feel that they have something in common so that they pull together and do things like fight wars and pay taxes.

If you look at the new world generally and Argentina specifically it is fairly clear that there’s not that much that would distinguish them from the other parts of the Latin world, meaning that they’re not really that distinct from other Latin countries. On the other hand, it is not clear that they’ve had all that much internal homogeneity, cohesion or coherence. But that is what is required to have a strong national identity: they’re similar to each other and different from the others.

This is highly questionable. They’re pretty much indistinguishable from Uruguayans, Chileans, or Europeans for that matter. They’re the product of heavy immigration from Spain, Italy, France, Germany, and Eastern Europe, even going by their family names. And so on and so forth.

So perhaps it’s tango that is uniquely Argentinian. Well, that’s really not that easy to argue. Because Latin American musical and dance cultures are the product of a lot of cross-pollination, and can all be traced back to European music and dance primarily via the Spanish and French colonies or Cuba and Haiti. Sure, there was a local variant of that called the milonga that then evolved into tango, but even that was not uniquely Argentinian but rather uniquely Rio Platense, meaning characteristic of Buenos Aires and Montevideo.

Once it evolved it then spread throughout the world the Europe and the US, and it is only after that event that Argentinians started to pay closer attention to it and to develop it into what we now know as tango. In other words, it’s not uniquely Argentinian, and it did not developed locally in isolation, in some sort of regional cultural bubble that is the case with something like Flamenco. If Argentinians started to identify with it it’s probably for other purposes of creating a national identity as a social construct.

The way I look at the situation is that there are localised cultural products, that are themselves the result of cross-pollination, so that they’re neither just localised instances of mainstream or high culture, nor purely spontaneous cultural expressions, but some combination of a tradition and local flavour. These then become absorbed into and developed in terms of the wider musical tradition.

This is the case with classical music, jazz, bossa nova, European dances, and tango. Bossa nova songs talk about Corcovado, which is a place in Rio de Janeiro, but they’re enjoyed as much in Brazil as outside, and they’re played by musicians all around the world. It is probably considered as middle class culture in Brazil and many Western countries, in the sense that it will appeal to the tastes of mostly middle class people. Similarly, I’d say that tango is best identified as Western (meaning, European and new world) middle class culture.

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