In music of both its indigenous peoples and that of the Spanish conquistadors of the 16th century, as well as more recent immigrants, Argentina boasts a rich and varied heritage of art, folk, and popular traditions. Perhaps the musical genre most closely associated with this diverse country of nearly forty million is the tango. In fact, few artistic expressions are so closely associated with their country of origin as the tango is with Argentina, though variations of this popular dance arose in many Latin American countries. Perhaps no other proof is necessary than the fact that the climactic song “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina,” from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita, is cast in a tango style.
As both a seductive dance and a musical genre, tango had lowly origins in the brothels of Buenos Aires, Argentina’s capital city, where it took shape during the last three decades of the 19th century, drawing on a variety of earlier Spanish and Creole forms. However, by the turn of the century, the dance and its music had begun to be accepted by the urban middle class, and been exported to the world. In the early 1910s, tango, perhaps because of its aura of the risqué (in its most popular form it is a couples dance, with the dancers tightly clasped together, and the male performing stylized moves that suggest erotic power and conquest) created a sensation in Europe and the United States. As a result, any music with the tango’s characteristic “habanera” rhythm (think of the title character’s famous aria in Bizet’s operaCarmen) began to be called a “tango,” though true Argentinean tango continued to develop as a distinctive art form.
The earliest tango ensembles were made up simply of violin, flute and guitar, though the guitar was occasionally replaced by an accordion. The turn of the century saw the incorporation of the bandoneón, a special type of 38-key accordion, as well as the piano. Later groups brought in additional string instruments, including the double bass. By the time of tango’s “Golden Age” in the 1940s, some ensembles had grown to the size of small orchestras, with full string sections, several bandoneónes, and often vocalists.
By the late 1950s and early 1960s, the popularity of tango in its native Argentina had been largely eclipsed by newer forms of popular and folk music. But with the rise in popularity of composer and bandoneón virtuoso Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992) and his “New Tango” (see Musician Biographies), tango reached a new international audience, culminating in the wildly successful world tour of the Tango Argentino show, a stage extravaganza created in the early 1980s by Claudio Segovia and Hector Orezzoli that eventually made its way to Broadway.