Learn more about Argentine Tango watching: “Tango, bayle nuestro”
“Tango, Our Dance” (English Subtitled)
Interviews with milongueros, Argentine Tango masters and performers in 1987.
Director Jorge Zanada spent years researching and recording the Tango’s place in Argentine culture.
The sensuality and stylized ritual of the tango are captured in this illuminating documentary.
Most riveting are the milongueros-the amateur dancers who preserve the pure, traditional steps.
Their intimate stories about their personal experiences reveal the intensity that feed their individual Tango styles.
Numerous tango aficionados, including actors Robert Duvall and Juan Carlos Copes (star of Broadway’s TANGO ARGENTINO), make special appearances. A passionate valentine to what Martha Graham called “the most beautiful dance of this century.”
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How did the bandoneon become the instrument of Tango?
Invented in Germany, the bandoneon is an instrument from the concertina family.
Concertinas were conceived as an improvement of the accordion: the first concertina, invented in 1829 in England by Sir Charles Wheatstone, and 1834 in Germany by Carl Friedrich Uhlig, had five buttons on each side of the box, where each button can play two different notes when opening or closing the bellows.
The concertina’s sound was conceived to blend in with violins, to encourage its use in chamber orchestras.
The bandoneon is a musical instrument that resulted from the evolution of the concertina, invented by Carl Friedrich Uhlig (1789-1874) in 1839, inspired by the accordion, and conceived as a portable version of the harmonium (a type of pump organ).
The bandoneon is part of the hand-held bellows-driven free-reed category, sometimes called squeezeboxes.
The sound is produced as air flows past the vibrating reeds mounted in a frame.
The name comes from Heinrich Band, a musician, who in 1846 started selling an improved version of the concertina that he designed, with 28 buttons (producing 56 tones). He later added more buttons, reaching a total of 65.
It is worthy of note that Heinrich Band never patented the bandoneon, since he saw his instrument as an improvement of the concertina.
It got its name from Band’s customers calling it ‘Band-o-nion’.
Heinrich Band died at 39 in 1860, and his wife continued the production of bandoneons.
The factory where the bandoneons were produced was owned by Carl Zimmerman.
He emigrated to the US and kept producing his instrument, which became popular among Irish immigrants and also invented another stringed instrument known as the autoharp and sold his factory in Germany to Louis Arnold.
The son of Louis Arnold, Alfred Arnold, who worked in the factory since his childhood, eventually developed a bandoneon with 71 buttons with two notes each (producing 142 tones).
His version, called “AA”, became the preferred bandoneon of Argentine Tango musicians.
After the Second World War, Alfred Arnold’s factory, which was located in what became Eastern Germany, was expropriated, and ended the production of bandoneons to become a diesel engine parts factory.
Arno Arnold, Alfred’s nephew, was able to escape from Eastern Germany and opened a bandoneon production factory in Western Germany in 1950.
This factory closed after Arno’s death, in 1971.
Because the bandoneon was not patented, there was never any information recorded about the materials used to construct one, like the precise alloys of the metallic vibrating reeds that are different for every note.
Today, several individuals and companies in Germany have partnered together using the latest technology to study the historical AA bandoneons and produce them again.
From these bandoneonists, there is a primitive tango, or “proto-tango”, “El Queco”, very popular at the time.
“Unión Cívica” of Domingo Santa Cruz, by Juan D’Arienzo y su Orquesta Típica, recorded in 1938.
The bandoneon was not immediately accepted by Argentine Tango musicians and dancers.
The original music band formations of flute, violin and guitar played a staccato, bright and fast rhythm.
The bandoneon, with its “legato”, with its low key notes, which were favored by its players, who would constantly insist to its German producers to add more low key notes, seemed to not belong to Tango.
But in fact, it gave Tango what Tango was missing until the integration of the bandoneon, and the bandoneon found the music it seemed to be created for.
The bandoneon, contrary to other instruments of Tango, like the violin, the flute, the guitar, the harp, and later, the piano, had no traditions to refer to.
It was a blank piece of paper on which anything could still be written.
There were neither maestros nor methods for it.
Everything had to be created from scratch.
The culture of gauchos and compadritos, of self-reliance and readiness for adventures, was apt to receive an instrument that nobody could tell you what to do with, and in which you could become a total creator.
Perhaps the similarities between its sound and the sound of the organitos that disseminated Tango everywhere, helped its acceptance.
In the earlier years of Tango music, the “organito” (barrel organ), had a major role in the initial spread of tango music throughout the city of Buenos Aires.
It was made of tubes or flutes and a keyboard which is operated by the cylinder, enabling the passage of air to produce different notes.
Air is generated by bellows which are activated simultaneously with the cylinder by rotating a handle.
The “organito,” like the organ and the bandoneón, is a wind instrument.
The sound of the “organito” prepared the ears of the Porteños for a natural transition to the bandoneon in Tango, when it finally arrived in 1880.
It is around these “organitos,” where men were seen dancing tangos in the street, practicing “cortes y quebradas.”
Juan Maglio “Pacho”
(1881 – 1934) was essential to the acceptance of bandoneon as a musical instrument of Tango.
He started playing as a professional at the beginning of the 1900s, first in brothels and then in cafés, until, due to his rising prestige, he was convinced to play at the very famous Café La Paloma, in Palermo, in 1910.
In 1912 he started to record for Columbia Records.
His success was so great that the word “Pacho” became synonymous with “recordings”.
“Armenonville”, recorded by Juan Maglio “Pacho” in 1912.
In 1910, Casa Tagini, managers of the branch of Columbia Records in Argentina, produced the first recordings of a musical formation dedicated exclusively to playing tangos and including the bandoneon.
In need of an appropriated label for this musical formation, the term “Orquesta Típica Criolla” was born.
(1888-1924), was the conductor and bandoneon player in this musical formation.
“Rosendo”, recorded by Vicente Greco y su Orquesta Típica Criolla in 1911.
Another advantage of the bandoneon was its portability.
(1892 – 1924) is the greatest bandoneon player in the history of this instrument in Tango music:
He created the octave phrasing, the passages harmonized in thirds played with both hands, the “rezongos” played with the bass notes (a particular effect that makes the bandoneon sound like grumbling), and with Juan Maglio Pacho, perfected the bandoneon legato technique, all elements which became essential to Tango.
“Rey de los bordoneos”, recorded by Eduardo Arolas y su Orquesta Típica in 1912.
(28 August 1899 – 16 October 1967)
He found in the bandoneon those dark sounds which separated the bandoneon from the flute forever, which in the beginning the bandoneon replaced and tried to imitate.
It is not known what secret gift made him find in the core of the bandoneon sounds that nobody had discovered before.
“Un capricho”, recorded by Pedro Maffia y su Orquesta Típica in 1929.
(5 May 1897 – 18 November 1984)
Born in Buenos Aires to a wealthy family seems to have influenced his art: his orchestra, refined and aristocratic, was the favorite of upper circles.
However, despite Osvaldo’s father was a rich businessman, at the age of ten, his family moved to La Paternal, a neighborhood somewhat away and humble, with flat houses in a popular surrounding which had its effect on his destiny.
It was there where he started playing the bandoneon.
“Arrabalero” Osvaldo Fresedo y su Sexteto Típico, 1927.
(30 October 1903 – 31 May 1957)
A bandoneon virtuoso, wrote a method to learn to play the instrument that is still in use.
He was one the precursors of the virtuoso stream in bandoneon playing.
He was a great technician but also with great gifts for interpretation. His arrangements were complex.
He wrote an outstanding variation for his tango “Mi dolor”.
He possessed a high technical command, an amazing fingering, and an overwhelming speed in his running variations performed with mathematical precision.
It was his the iniciative of systematizing the solos played with both hands.
“Mi dolor” by Carlos Marcucci y su Orquesta Típica, 1930.
(10 October 1902 – 7 July 1972)
He continued the way Arolas played by incorporating the “compadreadas” that he liked much.
He was a bandoneon player of great techniques, skilful with both hands (high and low-pitches), superb in sound, energetic in performances and vehement in phrases.
He was the founder of a performance school, composing outstanding tangos and wrote exquisite variations.
“Arrabal”, recorded by Pedro Laurenz y su Orquesta Típica in 1937.
(5 August 1905 – 9 July 1970)
He was a bandoneon player noted for his phrasing and ability to make the bandoneon sing.
It would be absolutely impossible to transcribe in a music sheet what he plays in his instrument.
What he contributes is the way of phrasing, of dividing the melody, of finding nuances, of harmonizing.
“Alma de bohemio” by Ciriaco Ortiz trio with guitars, recorded in 1935.
It is a style with reminiscences of the guitar plucking of the milonguero criollo, which even though it has had no followers it may have much influenced Aníbal Troilo.
(11 July 1914 – 19 May 1975)
He was one of those few artists who made us wonder what mystery, what magic produced such a rapport with people.
He integrated all of these approaches into his way of playing the bandoneon, taking something from each of them, while being a master of personality and feeling in his expression.
In Anibal Troilo’s orchestra, his bandoneon is the instrument at the center of the musical arrangements.
“Quejas de bandoneón” by Anibal Troilo y su Orquesta Típica, 1944.
Bandoneons make the flesh of the songs in Juan D’Arienzo and Osvaldo Pugliese’s orchestras.
“El marne” by Juan D’Arienzo y su Orquesta Típica. 1938.
“La Yumba” by Osvaldo Pugliese y su Orquesta Típica, 1946.
In Carlos Di Sarli’s orchestra it blends a shade of color, perhaps realizing the intention of Ulich (the inventor of the concertina) of giving a particular nuance to a chamber orchestra.
“Y hasta el cardo tiene flor” by Carlos Di Sarli y su Orquesta Típica, 1941.
The bandoneon is an instrument of exceptional expressivity, which made it perfect for a musical genre that intends to communicate all the rainbow of possible emotions.
In addition to its great sound range -at least 142 notes (compare it with a piano which has 88), the character of its sound changes depending of the actions of opening (smooth, airy and sweet) and closing (ruff, strong and throaty).
Although this never happened before in our life time, I have a personal story to share with you, in which you may find some similarities with the situation we are all dealing with regarding the place that Tango has in our lives.
In the early 1990s I decided to go full-time into my professional Tango dancer career. I had a busy job in the hotel industry, but I was not feeling it was what I wanted to do, although it was very convenient for me because I earned a good salary and the flexible schedule allowed me to study in college and to dedicate a lot of my time and energy to Tango.
I had been working for a year and a half with a great partner. She was a very skillful dancer, a great person, a very dependable friend who loved Tango as much as me. We were winning competitions, training hard, taking classes with the best Maestros, and performing at festivals, conventions, corporate parties, restaurants and schools. We got so busy that our schedule started to conflict even with my very convenient and flexible work hours.
Not only that. At that point, our gigs were providing me with more income than what I earned with my salary.
You guessed it… I decided to quit my job and dedicate all my time to Tango.
Within less than a week after that decision, I received a call: my partner had been in a car accident.
Long story short, she was fine, but she was not going to dance the way a performer should for at least three months.
Life often presents us these kinds of challenges.
I took it as a test of my commitment to my decisions and to Tango.
I did not have my partner to train with, although our partnership got stronger. I did not have money to go to milongas. However, I danced every day, by myself, training, studying, watching videos, remembering what I had learned.
I always remember that time as one of those moments in which my Tango improved exponentially.
I didn’t know it at the time, but as soon as we were able to start dancing together again, my partner noticed it.
Wouldn’t it be a wonderful treat to surprise yourself and those who await us at the milongas when they return?
It suggests that those who do not tango don’t know what life is.
Can such a radical thought make sense?
Ask anyone who is involved in Tango, passionately, which is the only way to be involved in it, and that will be the answer.
This attitude in relation to Tango is rooted in the fact that Tango gives you fulfillment, opening you up to the possibility of making your life a work of Art.
In America (North America), people think of Tango as a dance, (always with the prejudice that dance means “performance”, conceived as something put on for a spectator,) perhaps also as a music genre, but the Spanish speaking population of the world knows that Tango is also words, lyrics, poetry, “chamuyo” (for Argentineans).
These are words essential to knowing Tango in all its relevant aspects. Enrique Santos Discépolo, author of many essential tangos, declared that “Tango is a sad thought that is danced”.
Every word in this phrase demands explanations that will never exhaust their meaning. What kind of “sad thought” then, is Tango?
It is looking at the past with the feelings of what went away, and the realization of how little we have left to leave us, too.
“Cuando dijo adiós, quise llorar… Luego sin su amor, quise gritar… Todos los ensueños que albergó mi corazón (toda mi ilusión), cayeron a pedazos. Pronto volveré, dijo al partir. Loco la esperé… ¡Pobre de mí! Y hoy, que tanto tiempo ha transcurrido sin volver, siento que he perdido su querer.
Jamás retornarás… lo dice el alma mía, y en esta soledad te nombro noche y día. ¿Por qué, por qué te fuiste de mi lado y tan cruel has destrozado mi corazón? Jamás retornarás… lo dice el alma mía y, aunque muriendo está, te espera sin cesar.
Cuánto le imploré: vuelve, mi amor… Cuánto la besé, ¡con qué fervor! Algo me decía que jamás iba a volver, que el anochecer en mi alma se anidaba. Pronto volveré, dijo al partir. Mucho la esperé… ¡Pobre de mí! Y hoy, que al fin comprendo la penosa y cruel verdad, siento que la vida se me va.”
“You will never return”
When she said goodbye, I wanted to cry… Then without her love, I wanted to scream… All the daydreams dwelling in my heart (all I dreamt of), fell to pieces. I’ll be back soon, she said as she left. A fool, I waited for her… Poor me! And today, that so much time has passed without her coming back, I can feel that I have lost her love.
You will never return… my soul says so, and in this solitude I call your name night and day. Why, why did you leave my side and so cruel, have you destroyed my heart? You will never return… my soul says, and, although it is dying, it is waiting for you incessantly.
How much I begged her: come back, my love… How much I kissed her, how fervently! Something told me that she would never return, as the nightfall was nesting in my soul. I’ll be back soon, she said as she left. I waited for her so much… Poor me! And today, that at last I understand the painful and cruel truth, I feel that life is leaving me.
The lyrics are about love, about a broken heart, an unfulfilled promise and unsatisfied hopes. It is also a view of life from the perspective of realizing that life, and everything in it, goes away: “Y hoy, que al fin comprendo / la penosa y cruel verdad, / siento que la vida se me va.” (And today, that at last I understand / the painful and cruel truth, / I feel that life is leaving me.)
Did Osmar Maderna, one of the authors, know that he was destined to die, suddenly, at age 32, in an accident?
His short life was feverishly productive: a piano virtuoso, a gifted composer, a in-demand arranger, a successful conductor, a great friend, a beloved husband, a passionate amateur aviator… When he left his home, in Pehuajó, a city located 230 miles southwest of Buenos Aires, to start his independent life as a musician in the capital, he asked his brother to tell everyone that he went to buy a bandoneon…
to make the world beautiful, starting with yourself, since you are the most accessible, affordable and appropriate canvas to be the experimental field for you to probe into your understanding of beauty, before being accepted by others and daring yourself to go beyond yourself and do whatever you want with it in a world into which you exist, a world populated with meanings that tend to be shaped by prejudices and misinterpretations, by accumulation and overlapping of meanings, gifted, inherited, imposed by others, or simply developed by you to justify some of your beliefs, hide your hypocrisies and/or calm your anxieties.
You will need to probe your creation, your dance, your style, to be refreshing and more meaningful than what is already out there.
That is exactly what it is to be a “milonguera” (a woman who regularly dances tango) or “milonguero” (same for a man).
We, milongueros, decided to accept to live in a world that reproduces the kind of existence described above, where our life is possible not only by our participation in the economy of our societies, by having a job like everyone else, but beyond this primary satisfaction of our elementary needs, we EXIST in accordance with what is beautiful, with “compás y elegancia” (musicality and aesthetic energy efficiency), shaping every manifestation of our being-in-the-world-with-others according to proportions that are the same, that seem, from our human perception, to underlie the universe.
Pythagoras (495 BC), after researching what notes sounded pleasant together, worked out the frequency ratios (or string length ratios with equal tension,) and found that they had a particular mathematical relationship. The octave was found to be a 1:2 ratio, and what we call today a fifth to be a 2:3 ratio.
All the notes of a musical scale are produced by ratios.
Same as rhythm can be defined by ratios:
Including the rests -pauses-, essential to dancing Tango:
And the proportions of our bodies:
Proportions are everywhere:
The artist uses this awareness of proportions as a guide to creation.
And now, combine all these proportions with another human, who, being of the same species, is also different from you.
One of these differences is that we are sexed. Being sexed is related to our mortality. We need this duality to preserve our species. And when the raw sensations of our sexuality fade away, only the human embrace -more than anything- still satisfies our need for consolation in the face of the abyss of the infinite void of death, always ahead.
How fulfilling to learn about our bodies, about our existence in the world, discipline and train ourselves to extract beauty out of the depths of our lives! How exciting to engage in such adventures in the company of that mysterious being that is so familiar and yet such a stranger! A being that calls us like the mermaids would, with a voice that draws out from our perception all other indicia; which will harmonize with that music, which, in its brave approach, recalls the tragic inevitability of a storm that will take away all our superficial possessions, and leave us only with ourselves, longing for an embrace.
In Plato’s “The Symposium”, Aristophanes tells a legend, that the human being was, in its origins, a double being, composed of two entities, of what is today a human body. These creatures offended the gods, so they decided to cut them in half. The beings’ first reaction was to embrace each other.
We like to say in Argentina: “el Tango te espera”
(Tango is waiting for you)
This patient waiting is another manifestation of its call, not a call that awakens our curiosity, like the sounds of our cellphones, always buzzing WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram and text messages.
It is the call of a challenge, that is not easy to respond to, that is not user friendly, that makes you think, that scares you and pushes you away in the same measure of (if we could quantify it somehow) seduction and attractiveness with which it appears to you.
Do not worry. It’s great to have that feeling! That means you are alive!