Wednesday, October 3, 2012

THE AFRICAN ORIGIN OF TANGO

 The modern tango, a slick, sultry dance which today is a cornerstone of Argentine cultural identity, has a long and complex history. There is much debate over the exact origins of what we now know as the tango, however one undeniable truth remains the immense influence of Afro-Argentines in the formation of the tango. The name itself, "tango", is widely believed to be of West African origin meaning "closed space" or "reserved ground". 
                 Afro-Argentine Tango dancing maestro Facundo Posadas & Ching-Ping Peng

This origin seems to be in accordance with the 19th century use of the word, when it referred to any place where Africans assembled to dance. Only later did the word tango come to refer specifically to Afro-Argentine dance, before being ascribed to the specific form of couple dancing we know today as the tango. Both the dance and the musical style known as tango has three main antecedents, the lunfardo, the milonga and the candombe, each of which represents a different component of the Argentine cultural mosaic.
                                                         congo dance

The topic of “Race” is still a topic which awakens deep passions….Robert Farris Thompson’s, “The Art History of Love” in which he makes a strong argument for the African roots of tango, even precipitated a heated battle of critics over the subject…in startling acrimony, reviewer Anthony Howel says of Thompson’s book “this irrelevant and dishonest book…the author makes irresponsible claims and insists in implying that white folk stole tango from the blacks”...in a counter-accusation, reviewer Christopher Everett defends Thompson and in a point by point rebuttal…”Tango, The Art History of Tango” is in fact a thoughtful, well documented and well written book…the number of people of African descent in Argentina went from 34% in 1810 to 2% in 1887 and their disappearance is a subject of controversy and a source of racist humor among the residents of Buenos Aires…reportedly, when the great Josephine Baker visited Argentina in the 1950s, she asked the bi-racial minister of public health Ramon Carillo, “Where are the Negroes ?”, Carillo responded laughing, “there are only two, you and I”…nevertheless, Thompson, renown Yale Africanist and art historian, demonstrates how their presence can be clearly traced through the tango culture

                                               An early caricature of the black 'tango'


He asserts that the word “tango” comes from the Ki-Kongo word which means “moving in time to a beat”…he explores tango’s relationship to cakewalk, ragtime, cubanhabanera and even rossini’s opera and he observes that the custom of dancing tango while moving in a counter-clockwise direction may have been influenced by the African myth that moving in a counter-clockwise direction means long life…he mentions that renown dancer Juan Carlos Copes was taught by Afro-Argentine Carlos “El Negro” Anzuate…he cites renown Afro-Argentine tango greats like   Celedonio the black poet of tango, Rosendo Mendizabal composer of the immortal “El Enterriano” and Oscar Aleman one of the greatest entertainers which Argentina has ever produced…one reviewer said of the book, “Thompson mines working class origins and its emotions of defiance, freedom, self-control, humor, love and redemption” 

CLICK HERE-http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xuUMssU2Sg4 to see a program on the Afro Argentine legacy of tango presented by Robert Farris Thompson

ENTERS JUAN CARLOS CACERES (Staunch defender of the black origins of Tango)

Juan Carlos Cáceres is an energetic and multifaceted personality and can be labelled as a renaissance man. He is just as colorful as his paintings, as can be seen on the artwork of the CD Toca Tango and the November 2003 cover of El Farolito. He paints, composes music, plays piano and trombone, sings, produces shows, does research into the history of tango rioplatense and many other things. Micheal Stone describes Cáceres as "a longtime student and conservator of tango, candombe, murga, and milonga - and a painter and scholar of the history of music in the River Plate - Cáceres is among few artists born in the 1940s to champion the neglected African influences in Argentine music".
                                                  Juan Carlos Cáceres

1993 is the year that Cáceres decided to go solo and started his career as a singer. Because of his rough and unpolished style of singing and the fact that he was well over fifty years old before he started his singing career, he has been nicknamed the Paolo Conte of Latin America. With his CD's Tango Negro (1998) and Toca Tango (2001) Cáceres broke through  in the world of tango dancing. His style can be characterized as a mix of tango and jazz, clearly hinting of  carnival in Rio and a  voice like Paolo Conte, but above all his music accents the African roots of tango.
Cáceres is an advocate of the African roots in tango, a phenomenon that has been overlooked, ignored or even denied by generations of tango researchers and other Latin cultural historians.

In the La  historia negada (History denied) attachment of the CD Murga Argentina (2005), he defends the African roots of tango by fire and sword.: "To give back African heritage its rightful place in Argentinean culture is only fair. The tango is the most significant exponent, and the most exported one, of that Afro-Argentinean expression. Usually the duality of tango's origin is ignored in favor of  the European contribution Let us not forget that Buenos Aires used to be a slave harbor and that a third of its population was black until the middle of the 19th century."

For many decades Argentina has been gradually 'whitening',  a practice Cáceres despises: "this willful forgetting is a product of racism prevalent in a society that looks towards Europe and self censorship on the part of the African community".

About tango he adds to this, in an YouTube interview: "tango is not only  a dance. Tango is a  style. It  is a style taking in a series of rhythms. It is this phenomenon that used to be called, and still is today, ira y vuelta, which means coming and going with music".


The blackness of tango 

Dance's dark roots in a country "without blacks"



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