A sentimental abyss   2 comments

A sentimental abyss
By Alberto Paz
A thorough search for Spanish literature regarding Africa during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries confirms the fact that such literature is almost non existent. Yet, that lack of reference material at the beginning of the twentieth century has not stopped many from talking about African matters with the erudition of a parrot. It seems that those pursuing transcultural crusades have given ample publicity and used as reference the unverifiable sayings of Vicente Rossi in his book Cosas de negros, paradigmatic among the theoretical defenders of the Africaninfluence in the tango.Completely left out off their discourse is the reasoning of poet and musicologist Carlos Vega (1898-1966).

From a very early age Vega had two vocations: poetry and music. He chose the latter one. During his life Vega traveled numerous times to the interior provinces and to other Latin American countries like Chile, Peru, Bolivia and Paraguay in order to thoroughly study the characteristics of native music, its rhythms and instruments. The documentation he obtained formed the basis of an audiovisual archival and a collection of musical instruments.

In 1944 his study group become the Institute of Native Musicology by decree 32456/44 of president Farrel. In 1948 by decree 20,082/48 signed by president Perón the Institute of Musicology became autonomous under the direction of Carlos Vega. He dedicated the rest of his life to the study of the Argentine and American folklore. He is the author of many books such as “Argentine Dances and songs” (1936), “Creole Songs and dances” (1941), “The pop music of Argentina” (1944), “Panorama of the Argentine pop music” (1944), “South American Music” (1946), “The native and Creole musical instruments of Argentina” (1946), “The song of the troubadours in an integral history of music” (1963) and “The Argentine folkloric songs” (1963) among others.

Having been established that after 1820 the black population began to freely integrate into the porteño society to the point that three generations later actual blacks made out less than 2% of the population, the argument that suggests 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, can be counterpointed with the argument Carlos Vega made in an article he wrote for La Prensa in 1932,

A song book may be influenced by another as long as there is not a sentimental abyss between them. Even though most of the enslaved Africans didn’t belong to the group of the more primitive cultures, even though many came from African regions influenced by the semitic-kamitic cultures, the imported music they brought along was, with very rare exception, of such rudimentary, original and strange nature, that it was inaccessible to the ears of the white man.

That music could not wake up in the Creoles the natural desire needed for adopting it. Far from finding in the black celebrations appropriate elements suitable for the expression of their own feelings, the Creoles found them so colorful and ridiculous that after their extinction they modernized them in grotesque carnival parodies with drumming and European songs.” –La Prensa, Nov 16, 1932 – Carlos Vega, African songs and dances in the River Plate area.

Still, the remaining question is why illustrious members of the intellectual elite porteña insisted in attaching African references to the tango of beginning of the twentieth century.

Posted November 15, 2008 by Alberto & Valorie in MYTHS & LEGENDS

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2 responses to “A sentimental abyss

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  1. I find this very interesting and credible. I hear African musical influence in Spanish music. But could you please explain why the candombe rhythms seem so strongly African — at least to my ears.
    I am not a scholar of this at all; but from the first time I encountered Argentine tango music (12 years ago) I was struck by how unafrican it sounded.
    I am very familiar with American blues, swing and jazz; and African-Caribbean music with and its strong musical syncopations and multi rhythms. The response of the dancer to these rhythms is sooo very different than the response to tango music. My hips and upper body don’t want to wave and shimmy — I want to go inside and move in a level, smooth way.
    This is just my experience — not based on any historic research.
    Omar Vega told me that milonga was based on African rhythms; and I wonder where this idea took form?

  2. Thank you for you intuitive and clear commentary. Experience and common sense always come closer to the truth.
    Candombe (can-dome-bey) is an African derived rhythm that has been an important part of Uruguayan culture for over two hundred years. Uruguay, with a population of approximately 3.2 million, is a small country located in South America, bordered by its two massive neighbors, Brazil (162 million) to the East, and Argentina (34 million) to the West.
    This rhythm traveled to Uruguay from Africa with black slaves, and is still going strong in the streets, halls and carnivals of this small enchanting country.
    To understand how this rhythm, which is so strongly rooted in Uruguayan culture evolved, one would need to turn back the pages of African and South American history to look at how this contagious rhythm anchored at the shores of Montevideo. African slaves were first introduced to the city in 1750. The roots of this population were not homogeneous, but rather a multi-ethnic swath of Africa that was culturally quite varied. Seventy one percent were
    sourced from the Bantu area, from Eastern and Equatorial Africa, while the rest came from non-Bantu Western Africa: Guinea, Senegal, Gambia, Sierra Leone, and the Gold Coast (what is today Ghana).
    The houses where the slaves gathered, with their masters’ permission, were off-limits to the general public in Montevideo of old. These were called tangós, and within their walls the slaves celebrated their festivities and ceremonies to the sound of the Tambor. From this period of original celebrations in Uruguay, only the musical gathering is retained today.
    During colonial times, the newly arrived Africans called their drums tangó, and used this term to refer to the place where they gathered to perform their candombe dances; by extension, the dances themselves were also called tangós. With the word tangó, they defined the place, the instrument, and the dance of the blacks.
    The Tambor of candombe is the presence of ancestral Africa in Uruguay.
    During the 1920’s, a historic revisionism movement in Buenos Aires recreated a period of history half way the nineteenth century making it look like blacks lived in paradise. From this period is the development of the milonga we dance today, and the rhythm is supposed to resemble the sounds of alleged African beats which they only imagined since there is no tangible or audible evidence of how those rhythms sounded.
    The history of the tango has been, until ten years ago, based on tall tales and legends where one read what somebody else wrote, repeated it, quoted it and vice versa building a comic book in lieu of rigorous research.

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