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 musicians who play tango. 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 on the other. The latter seem unable to communicate to dancers about music as it is related to dancing, that is, to movement and gesture. From the little I’ve seen online, the workshops run by musicians seem to focus on music theory and the way tango compositions are organised, but do not put the music in any historical context to provide us with some understanding of its origins. Nor 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 the supposedly dark origins. This is surprising given its apparent sophistication and effectiveness in 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 the 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 (see Beauty). 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 organization, 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, as with the various forms of 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 Chasteen’s 2004 book “National Rhythms, African Roots: The Deep History of Latin American Popular Dance” 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 ultimately to be ordered by dance departments and paid for by university libraries. In other words, in the present 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) 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:

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:

Screen Shot 2018-10-31 at 12.22.41 PM

Screen Shot 2018-10-31 at 12.23.08 PM

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.


To summarise, 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.

Beauty and interpretation: canonical tango recordings

A. Milongas in Buenos Aires play only Golden Era tango music.
B. But there is so much great tango music, why insist on playing those old scratchy records? The noise is so annoying. Modern orchestras are just as good or better.

There is a schism in tango concerning the music played at milongas. I am talking about  the question of Golden Era vs. post-1950s or modern tango music at mainstream milongas rather than that of electronic tango or non-tango music at tango nuevo events. The 1950s marks the transition from Golden Era tango recordings of tango dancing music to orcherstral recordings that were performed for a listening audience.* For the tango traditionalist the very concept of traditional Buenos Aires milonga culture is attached to the Golden Era music.

So the question arises what it is about these particular recordings that raises them to the status of canon that the more modern tango recordings are lacking? Why are post-50s recordings not allowed into the canon of traditional tango? This question is typically raised by those who view tango as a “living culture” which is continuously evolving, who therefore reject the idea that tango is defined by (what they view as) static, rigid definitions that prescribe a particular set of recordings as defining the culture. They view this sort of attitude as essentially reactionary because it rejects the possibility of improvement. They reject the idea that such old recordings, recorded on poor equipment on records that are a lot of noise, should be considered necessarily superior to more modern recordings which do not have noise, are recorded on better recording equipment by contemporary orchestras.

We can distinguish two groups of people who might engage in this type of argumentation. First, there are people whose knowledge is limited to contemporary culture, that is, who have very limited knowledge of art, music and literature before 1960. For these people the 1950s is the end of ‘pre-history’, an era of chauvinistic semi-civilised Neanderthals, whereas ancient history worth mentioning is defined by such personalities as Elvis Presley, The Beatles, John Coltrane and Miles Davis in music, Jack Kerouac in literature, and Maurice Duchamp and Andy Warhol in art. Anything prior to that is on par with Ancient Egypt, Greece or Rome, really the domain of archeology that has little relevance to contemporary life. These people see culture as constantly and instantaneously evolving and transforming. As soon as something is created it becomes obsolete only to be displaced by the next act of creativity. Culture is the realm of constant change, novelty, creativity, transgression and originality.

For these people, the desire to define and preserve cultural practices (representational painting, classical music, classical architecture) is puzzling and out of place in the modern world, a desire ascribed people who lack proper education in how the modern world works, who reject the current reality and live in some weird isolated realm outside of acceptable society. For these people seeing a Caravagio painting, or hearing Beethoven is an experience in the same order as going to Disney World, but of course nothing like seeing the true innovators and setters of cultural standards like the Rolling Stones or Pink Floyd: a truly deep and meaningful experience of the ‘old masters’.

Second, there are the actually educated people who do know something about the history of Western culture and do recognise that perhaps you cannot compare Andy Warhol or Jack Kerouack to Rembrant or Shakespeare. But they still believe that, great as they may be, the latter still belong to museal culture that is at a distance from current reality and therefore of limited relevance in the modern and post-modern world, consigned to academic curricula. These people can accept that there are those who will want to engage in outdated practices, but in recognising this they reject that such practices have any prescriptive or normative value. There is nothing better or to be recommended for doing so because to the post-modern intellectual all cultural expressions are fundamentally the same, so that there is no fundamental difference between Pergolessi’s Stabat Mater and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon.

In fact, the latter group of intelligentsia pay only lip service to equality and in the end view any attempt to conservation and preservation as an expression of oppressive bourgeois values. All culture prior to mid-20th century is viewed as tainted with oppressive bourgeois ideology and thereby fundamentally suspect. Therefore, any attempt to say that Western cultural tradition is not merely a personal preference of some people who go to concerts, but is actually in some more universal way preferable or superior is instantly accused of being an expression of racist, white-supremacist attitudes. These are expressions that are no longer allowed to state in public.

The anti-Western attitudes of the educated intelligentsia who occupy the professorial posts in the academy and the historical ignorance of their younger proteges have the consequence of narrowing of discourse concerning cultural criticism. As has been noted by the Sir Roger Scruton, cultural criticism is extremely important for culture to develop and flourish, and the loss of our ability to engage in critical thinking and discourse about culture results in degradation in the realms of art, music, and architecture.

Criticism, Conservatism and Reaction

While the progressives view all forms of conservatism as essentially reactionary, there is a possible way of defining the difference between conservatism and reaction. Roughly, a reactionary is someone who wants no change at all, whereas a conservative says: keep what works, change what does not work. That is, the conservative attitude is: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Conservatives view the established order of things as the hard won achievements that ought to be preserved and are easily destroyed to our detriment. They reject the progressive view that the established status quo is fundamentally bad and all progress is for the better.

To return to our original topic, the question then is whether the definition of a canon that defines the milonga culture is reactionary or conservative. In fact it can be both: there will be some who will reject any change at all and others who would accept some additions to the canon so long as they don’t upset the milonga culture. Notice that the reactionary attitude does not necessitate cultural criticism because once the canon has been established it just needs to be replicated mechanically without any alternations being allow and so no need for critical analysis of proposed additions or changes. In that sense it is similar to the sort of progressivism that uncritically prefers novelty and transgression. Only conservatism requires informed criticism of proposed additions in terms of how they affect the culture and therefore whether they should be allowed into the established canon.

How then could we evaluate tango recordings in order to decide whether they belong to the canon, and on what grounds might we reject modern tango recordings from the canon of traditional tango? I would suggest some aspects of music recordings that are relevant to this issue. I base my insights here on my own analysis of recordings of orchestral and classical guitar music. A recording of a piece of music is literally a record of a performance of a composition at a specific point in time in a specific place on specific instruments using specific sort of recording equipment. This recording will then be mastered in a specific sort of way by the recording engineer and finally it will be reproduced from a specific sort of recording medium on specific sort of audio equipment in a specific sort of space with specific acoustic properties. All of these aspects determine the final experience of the music being reproduced. We can then only evaluate a given recording by way of comparison: comparing different performances, recording equipment, mastering process and reproduction equipment.

To say that a given recording is canonical is to say that it represents a benchmark against which other recordings are to be evaluated. This means that given all of the elements that comprise this recording as a cultural product it is recognised as representing the highest achievement in the genre. That is, given appropriate reproduction of the recording it elicits the best possible experience in a properly informed listener. As with any form of art musical appreciation does require prior training and so the person experiencing the music must be familiar with the genre and understand its inherent values. A canonical recording will then be one that is representative of these aesthetic values and provide the highest possible expression of these values.

The basic method in critical evaluation of a product of art is comparative, that is, we take two examples that share the subject matter and listen to them attentively in order to decide which one is better and then what renders one better then the other. This then provides us with some criteria for evaluating recordings more generally. One may take two or more recordings of Pergolessi’s Stabat Mater, or Tarrega’s Capricio Arabe, and isolate specific elements that render some better than others. Given two or more recordings the listener will tend to prefer one over the other and so he will think about why that is.

In classical or pre-contemporary music the goal of art has always been beauty, which means an aesthetic and emotional response, a feeling. Here it is generally recognised that some feelings are real or authentic and others are fake or inauthentic. A work of art may aim to elicits certain authentic feelings and be more or less successful in doing so. Alternatively, it may actually be successful at eliciting feelings but do so in a shallow and inauthentic way. Kitsch art such as garden gnomes, Walt Disney characters, and even some works of high art which play on our emotions are considered inauthentic. They elicit a feeling or emotion without putting us in touch with a higher, universal or transcendental reality that offers consolation and satisfaction, but offers only transient, consumable feelings of pleasantness. Thus, an authentic work of art is one where the artist has no only the skill to elicit an aesthetic response in the viewer or listener but also aims to elicit an emotion, or image of beauty, which is authentic and transcendent.

Here we can see that both the intention and the skill of the artist—and in the case of recorded and reproduced music, also those in charge of recording, mastering and reproducing the music,—determines the success or failure of the work of art. An artist might seek to elicit authentic feelings and represent transcendent beauty and yet be limited in his skill to do so. A lot of medieval art sought to capture divinity but could do so only in limited ways that depended on the recipient to add the necessary ingredient of religious belief in order to project the transcendental value on the object. As artistic genius developed however great masters were able to achieve the skill to produce an aesthetic experience that communicated divinity. However, this meant also that some artists were able to use their skill and technique but without transcendental beauty in mind. The experience of beauty did not move one out of the realm of ordinary, profane reality and at least in that sense the feelings generated were not authentic, not a matter of higher transcendental truth that we seek in works of art.

So when we look at the canonical Golden Era tango recordings the idea is that these express the aesthetic values of milonga culture which are in some sense ultimate, authentic and permanent. They elicit aesthetic experiences that transcend the disposable and consumable emotions generated by mere kitsch art. Some say that such music is transformative in some fundamental ways. That means that these artists aimed to represent transcendental beauty in these compositions, and also had the highest level of skill in achieving this aim. It also means that the latter recordings either do not aim to transcendental truth or if they aim in that direction, they fail to achieve this effectively. They might speak to some who project those values on those works but they lack the sort of universality capable of speaking to anyone.

Sound is a complex phenomenon and in evaluating recordings we need to attend to nuances of interpretation, instrumentation, orchestration and ambience. A recording done on different instruments, constructed in a different era, providing a different sort of tonality, performed in different sort of acoustic environment, and recorded on different sort of equipment will make for a radically different rendition of the same composition. I’m a learner of classical guitar and ambitiously decided to learn Tarrega’s Capricio Arabe which is a classic composition for the instrument. I listened to two recordings, one by a young Russian virtuoso who played the piece fast, slurring over many notes, and another by David Russell who played more slowly. Listening to the first recording I nearly gave up on the piece as it seemed flat and hollow, but then listening to Russell’s rendition I understood the emotional and aesthetic depth in the piece that was completely absent in the first version. The virtuoso guitarist was exhibiting great skill but was running through the piece without the sort of understanding of what it was about that Russell exhibits.

Any piece of great music has many layers that both the musician and the listener discovers over time and then projects on the musical moment. The piece must touch on certain feelings that provide for consolation, redemption or atonement by connecting us to universal truths or values. Those who listen to tango music and hear crackling noise and poor recording, but seek shiny new polished recordings by modern orchestras are not attuned to these sorts of values. They are aware neither of the emotions that the musicians seek to express with greater or lesser success to inject into the music, nor of the nuance and ambience created by the material reality of the space, the instruments and the recording equipment that are all aligned to create the recording and that are captured in it. These material aspects are the canvas and the paint that provide the texture of the recording that cannot be replicated in any other ways.

That does not mean that one cannot capture authentic aesthetic values with different instruments or using different recording equipment. The issue is the assumption that innovation is either always better or, if one is a relativist, its neither better or worse just different. Take for example the emergence of classical guitar. Bach composed pieces for the lute which was the main instrument in his time. The guitar came into prominence at a latter date so that pieces composed for the lute had to be re-arranged for the newer instrument. The lute pieces performed on a lute versus guitar sound quite different. Yet guitarists like John Williams seek to retain some of the ambience and texture when playing Bach’s lute pieces that is characteristic to the lute while also maximising the contribution that the guitar can make. There will be difference but also continuity in the relevant respects that render the guitar performance satisfying.

From this point of view it seems that the issue with the post-1950s performances and recordings of tango music is not that it couldn’t achieve the level of the canon but rather that they typically do not attempt to do so. This is for a number of reasons. In some cases such as Astor Piazzolla they move on from the canon and seek to innovate without continuity. Also, tango orchestras stopped playing music for dancing altogether and instead redirected their efforts toward listening audiences in the music hall, at home, on TV or the radio, so that the music was no longer relevant to dancing at all. In many cases the music was simply recorded or remastered for the purpose of producing a cleaner more up-to-date sound using more modern recording or mastering equipment. What is lacking, however, in such recordings is the ambience and texture which give canonical recordings their immediacy and warmth. We get a very sanitised sound with added reverb and compression that is so characteristic of contemporary recordings in all genres. Finally, and what is probably the main issue, the interpretation and feeling that you get in orchestras used to playing for live audiences that have to get people dancing is lost and replaced by the approach of the big concert orchestra whose task is to squeeze out emotional highs.


In order to develop critical appreciation of music we need to both know the history of art and view it as important and relevant today. Then through a method of comparing different works we can discern the extent to which they aim to achieve authentic, lasting, transcendent beauty, and also succeed in doing so. We can then try to identify the specific aspects of the art work that are operative in providing or failing to provide the experience beauty. Unfortunately, the contemporary discussions do not even attempt to do so, mainly because our schooling in art elevated modern and postmodern art which merely seeks to be ‘creative’, ‘original’, transgressive and interesting. This has resulted in the situation in which we have effectively lost the skills and the language that we need to assess the value of cultural products so that we can preserve what has value and improve on it without destroying it.


* This is a rough designation as there are some recordings up to 1953 by Biagi and Di Sarli that are included in the canon.

Authenticity: why dance only to Golden Era music

A. In Buenos Aires traditional milongas only play Golden Era tango music.
B. Why be so prescriptive? People can dance to whatever music they like.

Insisting on using only music from the Golden Era organised in a particular way apparently seems to lack any justification. Those who insist on following a particular canon risk being viewed as inflexible, dogmatic, reactionary. After all, we are dealing with musical tastes and there is no accounting for taste. If people today dance to non-traditional tango music what might be the grounds for criticising this? It’s all tango music after all.

Even those who do insist on a particular sort of traditional music take a self-consciously relativist stance and say that traditional milongas play this sort of music, and that this music is preferred by a particular group of people, namely, the traditionalists, and they have a right to hold on to their traditions. In other words, we are dealing with a particular group of people in a particular period of time who have a particular set of musical preferences. There seems, however, no way of justifying why this set of preferences should be in any way better than non-traditional ways of doing things.

Still, it does seem that those who defend the traditional tango music feel that the traditional way of doing things is somehow correct, and that the innovations are somehow worse. But there seems to be no way of expressing or articulating the reasons for this feeling other than to say that this is not our tango or how we do it, or how it’s traditionally been done.

Perhaps we can view the situation in tango as just a special case of the wider phenomenon of the difficulty associated with the criticism of contemporary music, and of art more generally. Many people feel that contemporary music is degraded and in fact worse than older styles of music, and that contemporary art is no longer really art, in particular, it is not beautiful or dignifying but is ugly, puzzling, kitsch and often enough degrading and disgusting. Yet the critics appear to endorse this art and so it fills up museums and commands high prices.

Although there is still a distinction between pop music and classical music, contemporary classical music that is being funded by government art institutions is often atonal music that few people actually want to listen to. Again, critics have come out against tonal music as full of clichés and therefore no longer art and found a way of justifying the funding, composing and performing music that no one wants to listen to.

The question is whether these wider developments in contemporary culture have any relation to the increasing presence of non-traditional tango music and non-tango music at milongas, and what it can tell us about its effects.

The philosopher of aesthetics Roger Scruton has written extensively on art and music addressing questions of art criticism. I believe that his writings are very relevant to the issues in tango and I want to draw attention to a number of points on which his ideas can illuminate the discussion.

Scruton asserts that much of what passes for culture today is a culture of “fakes” or “kitsch’” that is, a culture of inauthentic emotions. Art and culture, he says, has throughout history provided a source of truth and meaning, and of authentic feeling. At a certain stage, however, people have noticed that certain artists produce works that play on our emotions in an inauthentic way, that the emotions that are elicited in us are somehow fake.

The term kitsch from Yiddish came to be used to refer not merely to cheap decorations that produce a transient consumable emotional response of the sort characteristic of Disney characters but also of putative works of art that only succeed by being pretty and eliciting a shallow aesthetic response. A pastel-coloured picture of two young boys playing on the beach, an exemplar of contemporary art at the end of a tour of the Prado Museum in Mardrid comes to mind here.

Scruton follows Plato in the view that art succeeds when it is able to idealise beauty and make it transcendent. Art should aim to present us with transcendent meanings and ultimate values that are beyond mere utility of transient consumable feelings.

We can understand much of modern art that rejects beauty as a reaction against kitsch and cliché, and insistence that a work of art must present us with a novel and transgressive way of seeing things. In a reaction against artistic clichés and mere technique, now to create a work of art you need to do something completely new that has never been done.

Scruton argues that in reaction against repetition and artistic clichés (like the painting of two boys on the beach) contemporary art has in fact produced an endless set of “postmodern” clichés. Artworks today are really just an endless variation on Marcel Duchamp’s urinal.

Parallel developments are seen in classical music where tonality has been declared obsolete and atonality as the only way forward irrespective of whether people want to listen to atonal music or not.

On the other hand, in the realm of consumable pop music the degradation of taste and general dumbing down of the consumer has not escaped any intelligent observer. The music is now electronically produced with an endless repetitive catchy beat, dumbed down lyrics and ever more simplified melody. As Scruton remarks, in the song “Poker Face”, Lady Gaga mostly sings in a single note.

Scruton argues that people are dimly aware that pop is dumbed down and is not really all that good for their mental state but they can’t really say why. He suggests that one way to helping young people to learn to understand music is to teach them to play a musical instrument. They then can start developing a way of talking about music. I have noticed that at milongas which play particularly bad music the participants seem not hear the music at all. The music seems to be just background noise that vaguely coordinates their movements but often enough they hardly respond to it in their dancing. When asked they usually have absolutely nothing to say about it.

Scruton’s argument is that at some level people do make judgements about music even in the case of Pop, it’s just that they are the wrong ones. One typically needs to have some way of thinking about music by way of a comparison. There must also be the idea that listening to bad music is literally bad for you and that listening to good music is good for you, that what you listen to has consequences for learning and state of mind, eg., that it succeeds or fails in satisfying our needs beyond the transient feeling.

One does come across people who play classical music who nonetheless hold that same belief that music is just a consumer choice, who refrain from making judgements and implicitly do not see that the experience of music really matters. Classical to them is just as valid as pop. One sees this at outdoor music concerts where people come with picnic food and wine to listen to a symphony pumped through large speakers in sub-optimal listening conditions, distracted by the cheese, crackers, drink and conversation.

Although this is putatively classical music, it is hardly a case of sustained focused listening that is required to actively engage with the work. In some places people regularly check phone messages during a concert. Clearly, while playing an instrument and attending classical concerts can provide with a way of becoming more articulate and intelligent about music and making judgements about music, there are additional beliefs about listening and its significance, namely, you need to take it seriously as a source of authentic feeling and not merely view it as another consumer choice.

It seems to me that many, perhaps most people who come to tango are sort of like the musicians and audiences of classical music who view it as merely another consumer choice. They might feel that it is somehow ‘better’, that is, classical music is better than pop, or tango music is better than other latin music, or traditional tango is better than non-traditional tango, and they might even be able to provide some reasons.

These people would nonetheless struggle to move beyond mere cultural relativism or personal taste in justifying a preference for this rather than that. They still do not view the music as a source of authentic feeling which is intrinsically more satisfying and transcendent. For it is this move that is required in order to be able to say that the difference is that between art and kitsch, between authentic and fake feeling, between ultimate and utilitarian values. Without that distinction we are merely dealing with different consumer choices. This seems to be the current state of tango: it has been turned into a market of consumable fake emotions.

So in order to justify preference for Golden Era music over non-traditional tango music, other than on either culturally relative grounds or in terms of mere personal choice, one must say that traditional tango music is a source of authentic feeling and aesthetic experience in a way that non-traditional tango music is not. This requires on the one hand some understanding of how music is constructed in terms of rhythm and tonality, and on the other hand the idea that there is a difference between art and kitsch, between authentic and fake emotions, and that this difference is important.

You may understand music and say why Lady Gaga is not as good as Wagner, but still not see why that is important, so that you go to Wagner’s concerts and view that as a mere personal preference and consumer choice rather than as a source of transcendental experience and authentic emotion, so that you’re just as satisfied with a symphony in the park with ample quantities of white wine. Scruton points to opera producers who do a postmodern take on the material. Presumably these people understand music and how it works and they proceed to desecrate it nonetheless.

So there are two elements that seem to be necessary in order to resist the onslaught of kitsch in tango: informed judgement and consecration. You need to have some way of thinking about the material, a basic vocabulary about music and a systematic method of some sort. Also, you must see its importance as a source of authentic or fake feeling, as sacred or sacrilegious, as real or fake, as art or kitsch.

The assumption must be that there is such a thing as the sacred and the transcendent. That is, one must reject the cynical view of art as essentially an expression of originality and novelty through transgression and therefore as proceeding by way of desecration. Also, while kitsch objects such as plastic statues of saints common among some Catholics can be imbued with sacred meaning art succeeds in creating a language to communicate the transcendent experience of the sacred that has appeal beyond the simple devotee. In other words, we must assume that the experience of the sacred is real and important and that art is a medium through which we can experience it.

While it is not easy to articulate exactly which elements in art allow it to be a source of authentic meaning and emotion a comparative method offers a systematic way of trying to figure out what these elements might be. Scruton employs this method to discuss the difference between classical and modern architecture, and by virtue of which design elements the former succeeds and the latter fails to provide buildings that serve as desirable living spaces, such as the use of vertical vs. horizontal elements.

This comparative method can be used to similar effect in isolating the effective elements that provide for success or failure in art, music and dance. We may ask how tango music of the different periods differs, which feelings it arouses, what makes it more or less successful, authentic or fake. Similarly, we may compare different ways of dancing tango and ask whether the feelings and values that it expresses are more or less real and whether it provides for an authentic or meaningful experience or relationship, whether it’s in the realm of utility or of ultimate ends.

Tango music in historical context

Many people believe that tango music is just whatever falls under the genre Tango. As with Classical, Rock or Jazz, such a category is too general to be of much use. People decide that they like the sound of some random tango music and that they  want to dance to it, assuming that tango dancing is just dancing to whatever tango music with whatever tango steps. As with the other genres, education in music requires breaking down the genre into historically meaningful sub-categories.

For our purposes we only need to know that at a traditional Buenos Aires milonga tango is only ever danced to music recorded during the Golden Era or Epoca de Oro, that is, music recorded by around 20 orchestras in the period 1930-1953. In order to learn traditional Tango Estilo Milonguero this is the only music you need to listen and dance to. To put this in some context it is useful to look at the history of tango in terms of rough periods of its development:

Prior to 1800

British country dance spreads throughout Europe to be known as contradanse and contradanza. In Cuba a swinging rhythm from African music is added to the contradanza and this augmented form returns to Europe now known as the Habanera (see also Musicality).


Contradanza/Habanera forms the basis of many folk dances including the milonga danced in the region Rio de la Plata between Montevideo and Buenos Ares. The main instruments used are guitar and flute. The bandoneon originally intended as a portable organ for small churches arrives from Germany around this time. Argentina invites a large influx of European migrant workers who comprise half of the population of Buenos Aires by the end of the century.


Tango is crystallizing as a new local creole form of music and dance. First ensembles devoted uniquely to tango emerge known as Orquesta Tipica Criolla. These early ensembles are quartets comprising guitar, flute, violin and bandoneon.


Tango gains acceptability with the upper classes and moves to cafes and salons in the city centre. The first recording studio is established in Buenos Aires. There is a tango craze in Europe and the US with tango orchestras led by Francisco Canaro touring France. Tango ensembles grow larger adding more bandoneons and violins. The guitar and flute are replaced by piano and double bass for a bigger sound.


Guardia Vieja or The Old Guard refers to the first large professional tango orchestras led by Canaro, Fresedo, Donato, De Caro, Lomuto, etc. that give us the first dancable recordings with a more traditional sound. These recordings are characterised by a slow steady beat. These recordings are usually played early at Buenos Aires milongas.


Juan D’Arienzo’s orchestra with Rodolfo Biagi arranging and playing the piano revolutionise danceable tango, playing tunes with a strong driving beat. They produce the most important set of classic recordings. It marks the early phase of the Golden Era and an important turning point in the emergence of tango as a popular form. All traditional milongas play sets of tangos from these recordings.


The middle of the Golden Era with around 20 orchestras making hundreds of studio recordings that comprise the bulk of traditional milonga DJ-ing to this day. They are smooth, romantic and sophisticated. The main orchestras are led by Di Sarli, Troilo, D’Agostino, Tanturi, Calo, Laurenz and Pugliese. The singing style is strongly influenced by the dramatic style of Carlos Gardel.*


Later part of the Golden Era with tango becoming smoother, more intense and sophisticated with more complex arrangements. This music is more challenging to dance to but reaches new heights of emotional intensity. Because of the less pronounced beat and complex arrangement this style requires a smoother style of dancing and higher skill level. These tangos are played toward the end of the traditional milonga DJ set.


The end of the Golden Era as tango orchestras move from being medium size dance hall ensembles to large concert hall orchestras.** This music is for large concert hall audiences. The style of singing also changes moving away from the dramatic style of Carlos Gardel to a deeper style exemplified by the later recordings of Roberto Goyeneche. Also, many Golden Era recordings originally released on shellac records are remastered adding reverb and re-released on vinyl with the bigger sound imitating concert hall orchestras.


Astor Piazzolla who played bandoneon in Anibal Troilo’s orchestra trains in classical music composition in France and creates a new genre called Tango Nuevo which is a fusion of tango with jazz and classical. He leads classical orchestras as well as jazz ensembles featuring electric bass, electric guitar and the drum kit.


Tango stage musicals comprising larger orchestras fronted by acrobatic tango choreography tour the world starting a new tango craze. The big sounding orchestras and acrobatic choreography is now strongly associated with tango music and dancing outside of Argentina, but in Buenos Aires it is rejected as Tango por export.


Orchestral tango and stage choreography becomes formalised as a new globalised hybrid of Salon Style Tango. Meanwhile the new genre of electronic tango emerges building on the sound developed by Piazzolla or mixing tango samples with electronic beats. Gustavo Naveira formalises tango choreography in a way that is compatible with this new genre in what comes to be also called Tango Nuevo, which is popularised in the 1997 movie The Tango Lesson.


While traditional Buenos Aires milongas retain an established DJ repertoire comprising at least 70% Golden Era tango music, due to the influence on popular culture of tango musicals and Piazzolla’s Tango Nuevo, non-traditional milongas outside of Buenos Aires play mostly a mixture of post-1950 music hall tango, Tango Nuevo, Electronic Tango, and contemporary tango recordings that suit the Salon Style Tango choreography. Tango classes almost never focus on tango music and its history.

Tango music at milongas today

Currently the vast majority of milongas outside of Buenos Aires are Salon Style Tango (see Styles) that play mostly non-traditional post-1950 tango music, or play a random mixture of traditional and non-traditional tunes. A select few tango events outside of Buenos Aires play traditional tango music and follow the traditional tango cultural norms (style of dancing and etiquette). So in most cases a milonga outside of Buenos Aires will be a Salon Style or Tango Nuevo event and therefore typically little or no Golden Era tango music will be played.


*Carlos Gardel was a singing idol and movie star in the 20s and early 30s. He tragically died in a plane crash over Colombia in 1935 sending Argentina into nationwide mourning.

**The only tangos recorded after 1950 that are played at traditional milongas and are counted as Golden Era tango are the early 1950s recordings by Carlos Di Sarli at Music Hall, and by Rodolfo Biagi y su Orquesta Tipica.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.