The African roots conundrum   3 comments

The African roots conundrum
By Alberto Paz
Researching for facts and figures takes time and anyone interested in the history of Buenos Aires during the half-century preceding World War I will be richly rewarded by a visit to the Archivo Historico de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires. Documents recently made available have added tremendously to knowledge of the period when, what a decade later would be identified as the tango, began its genesis and evolution, enabling scholars to recreate the complexity and texture of daily life in historical Buenos Airesin the nineteenth century.That’s how we know that during the first decade of the 19th century the population rolls of Buenos Aires recorded the largest number of slaves of African origin. Africa then, as now, reflected a multitude of religions, languages, cultures, traditions, beliefs, forms of expression, ethnic groups, and historic backgrounds. Such differences characterized the African slaves brought to the shores of the River Plate. They were as different from one another as they were different from the existing Spanish population.

They did not arrive in Buenos Aires all at once. Nor did they remain bound by political or cultural liaisons that could have preserved and kept their ethnic diversities alive. Their native identities were quickly dispersed upon arrival.

On April 9, 1812 all slave carrying vessels were banned from entering the River Plate. By 1813 everyone born in Argentine territory, including sons and daughters of slaves was deemed to be free. Anyone who set foot on Argentine territory was considered free.

On February, 1813, the ruling Assembly declared that all slaves brought in any way, shape or form from foreign countries were declared free from the moment they set foot on Argentine soil.

So, it is absurd to talk about slaves in Argentina after 1820, and that is probably because the black population cared more about integrating into a society that considered them free people than spending time inventing rituals for future revisionists with an agenda for rewriting history.

So, any discussion regarding whether the tango has African roots or not must take in consideration the fact that there were no slaves in Argentina after 1820. Blacks joined the new society and made contributions the same way other immigrants did. Of course, they had to endure the same discrimination, political persecution and bigotry that immigrants suffer anywhere in the world, depending on the way the political wind blows.

The census of 1887 of the 429,558 inhabitants of Buenos Aires listed 8,005 blacks, of which only 905 were foreigners, mostly from Brazil and the United States. In other words, by the last decade of the nineteenth century, the black population was about 1.8 % of the city population.

Samuel Gache (1859-1907), famous for his work with the Red Cross, wrote in 1913 in La Nacion that towards the end of the nineteenth-century, the black population had basically disappeared, not just in Buenos Aires but also in the provinces. For example, the province of Santa Fe had 20 registered blacks. And in the province of Corrientes, where a large black town named CambaCua had existed, the black population was zero. Causes for the disappearance seem to have been wars, illness and interracial marriages.

The census of 1905 listed no blacks at all.

It is important then to look at the time line. During the period of gestation of the tango (1880’s) the citizens of African heritage made up less than 2% of the total population of Buenos Aires.

The argument that the tango has strong African roots seems to suggest that the African culture in general and its music in particular was so influential and respected as to have had such a major effect on the decision of the remaining 98% of the population to adopt a popular music as their own. Or that the mythological personage (unverified and unsubstantiated), of Negro Casimiro with his scrawny violin, left such a major imprint all by himself.

Those who have cited the works of Zenon Rolon or Carlos Posadas to support claims of an African root of the tango, need be reminded that both Rolon and Posadas had very solid European academic musical formation. They didn’t fit the stereotypically destitute “negros candomberos” figure used to represent the distressing socio-cultural conditions of a minority that was supposed to have had such a major influence on the music of Buenos Aires.

Posted October 8, 2008 by Alberto & Valorie in MYTHS & LEGENDS

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3 responses to “The African roots conundrum

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  1. The foundation of the Milonga/Tango has definite Black Roots. Milonga/Tango is something that originates in the River Plate region which consists of both Argentina and Uruguay.

    You can read these 5 very well written books by American Professors about the African/Afroargentine foundation of the Milonga/Tango:

    Tango: The Art History of Love
    By Robert Farris Thompson You can preview some of the chapters of the book here:

    The Afro-Argentine in Argentine Culture El Negro del Acordeón
    By Donald Castro

    The Afro-Argentines of Buenos Aires, 1800-1900
    by George Reid Andrews

    Afro-Argentine Discourse: Another Dimension of the Black Diaspora
    by Marvin A. Lewis

    La Historia Silenciada: Los Afroargentinos protagonistas de un drama social
    by Sylvain Poosson

    Also these books give you a great insight by Argentine and European scholars:

    La música y danza de los negros en el Buenos Aires de los siglos XVIII y XIX, Buenos Aires, 1957
    by Ricardo Rodriguez Molas

    Los Afroargentinos
    by Jean-Arsène Yao

    • American professors, really. We thought these were filed under fiction.
      We understand how mind blowing of a concept must be for racially educated American professors to understand the freedom of choice exercised by blacks in Argentina to become Argentines, to interracial marry and to be proud of their new land free for them to do as they please.
      In twenty first century America, blacks are still hyphenated to remind them where they’re from and not where they belong.

  2. excellent article which puts into legitimate and nuanced perspective this issue.

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