By El Yanqui Yeff
Buenos Aires, February 1996
Mary, Peggy, Betty, Julie. We are all familiar with the Rubias de New York, the blondes about whom Gardel sang some sixty years ago. I would like to turn our attention to Susana, Libertad, Claudia, Zulema, Rubias de Buenos Aires. I write “rubias“, but what I want to focus on is that they, and many of their compatriots (and the Rubias de New York), are “rubias teñidas“, that is to say, “dyed blondes”. It is not a secret that Susana Gimenez, Libertad Leblanc, Claudia Maradona, and Zulema Menem, to name just a few, owe their blondness not to nature, but to Roberto Giordano, Miguel Romano, or some other porteño hairdresser. The Buenos Aires newspaper Clarin even observed that one of Madonna‘s key qualifications to play Evita was that she, like Evita, was a rubia teñida. There are natural blondes in Buenos Aires, but they are not nearly so numerous as the rubias teñidas. Walk down Calle Cabildo in Belgrano. If you doubt that most of the many rubias you see are teñidas, ask yourself why there are so many more blonde women in Buenos Aires than blond men.
What do these rubias teñidas have to do with tango? The answer, some theories say, is that both try to conceal their black roots. Most of us have heard stories about tango’s uncertain origins that nevertheless involve Afro-Argentines, Afro-Uruguayans, and even Afro-Cubans. Or, we have heard that musicologists recognize a connection between the syncopated rhythms of tango and habanera. Few of us, however, could identify any African elements in the contemporary tango scenes in Buenos Aires or San Francisco, Tokyo or Amsterdam. Some would claim that tango’s black roots, like those of the rubias teñidas, are hidden.
In Buenos Aires, black roots are often hinted at, but they are seldom seen. Go into any milonga in San Telmo, Boedo, or Almagro today and you will hear people call one another “Negrita” or “Negrito“. Similarly, one of tango’s great lyricists was “El Negro” Celedonio Flores. Such references to blackness are common in tango and in Argentine culture in general, but blacks per se are very rare. In several years of attending milongas, practicas, and tango shows in Buenos Aires, I have seen only one black tanguero. He is a professional dancer who goes by the name Pochi and he has been performing for over a year now at Cafe Homero in Palermo Viejo.
Last July I attended a performance at La Trastienda in San Telmo by a group called “Afro-Tango“. Though the instrumentation included several African drums, none of the musicians was black. I am not suggesting that “black music” or “black dance” can only be performed by black people, or that black people necessarily sing or dance differently from white people. For example, Pochi is a very good dancer, but so far as I can discern there is nothing unusually “black” about the way he dances tango. I do not even accept that there are “black people” or “white people” in a genetically significant sense; I understand that there is more variation within so-called racial groups than between them. As a matter of fact, in my (white) opinion, the all-white Afro-Tango group was quite good. Still, even if it is not genetically significant that the group contained no blacks, it is politically significant. Race may not exist in nature, but it does exist in the culture.
I was prompted to consider these politics when my partner, which I will call La Morocha, and I had the pleasure to show Buenos Aires to an African-American friend. Our friend was staying at the Sheraton, so she had a beautiful view of Retiro and the Costanera from her room. La Morocha, who is something of a historian, explained that African slaves used to be auctioned off just in front of Retiro. Our friend was surprised and she wanted to know what happened to the slaves. Why was hers the only black face she saw in Buenos Aires? La Morocha explained that there is no simple answer to that question, but that some factors have been identified. Throughout the nineteenth century, thousands of Afro-Argentine men died fighting in wars. Some blacks emigrated because they were not welcomed in Argentina‘s recessionary labor market. And many blacks stayed in Buenos Aires, where they were more integrated into the general community than elsewhere in the Americas. Thus, their descendants are usually not identifiable as black. Like the hair of rubias teñidas, the Afro-Argentine community has been whitened.
The disappearance of hundreds of thousands Afro-Argentines should not be forgotten, nor should the disappearance of a million or more Native Argentines. Indeed, the Venezuelan anthropologist Fernando Coronil suggests that one of the reasons the 30,000 disappearances of the “Dirty War” were possible is that Argentines were already accustomed to live in the shadow of black and Indian desaparecidos. What I am concerned with here, however, is not the disappearance of the Afro-Argentines per se, but with the absence of blacks in the contemporary tango scene both in Argentina and abroad. The fact that there are far fewer blacks in Argentina now than there were one hundred years ago might explain why there are almost no blacks to be seen in the milongas and tango shows of Buenos Aires. This fact does not, however, explain why there are so few blacks seen in the milongas and tango shows of San Francisco or New York. Despite alleged tango’s black roots, the international tango scene has grown to include just about every one except blacks. Tango is popular in many countries–including, for example, Japan and Turkey–but not, so far as I know, anywhere in sub-Saharan Africa.
Blacks do participate in the tango scene in Uruguay. For example, La Morocha and I recently met Francisco Prieto dancing at IASA, a social club in Montevideo that also goes by the name Salon Sudamerica. Mr. Prieto explained to us that he, too, goes by another name, “El Groncho de la IASA“. “Groncho” is a lunfardo word that means “black” since it sort of reverses the syllables of “negro“, the way that “gotan” reverses the syllables of “tango”. What struck me about El Groncho‘s dancing is that it is both very good and very different from the dancing I have seen in Buenos Aires. For example, he moves his upper body more than would be permitted in the tango Argentino or the social dances of Europe, and sometimes he marks an ocho with his right hand gripping his partner’s waist. In Buenos Aires, El Groncho would probably be dismissed as too “canyengue“, a word used to indicate old-fashioned, low- class dancing.
While we were in Montevideo we also had the privilege of attending an asado at the Asociacion Cultural y Social Uruguaya, an Afro-Uruguayan collectivity. There we heard classic tangos such as “La Ultima Curda” sung to the accompaniment of a guitar and three African drums. Once again, it was different from any tango I have witnessed in Buenos Aires (including that of Afro-Tango). The rhythm is what Uruguayans call “candombero“. The word comes from “candombe“, an Afro-Uruguayan music, dance, and religion. Also, the singing was less operatic and more enunciated than is typical in porteño tango. It reminded me more of Goyeneche in his final years than of Gardel, Corsini, or Rivero. I have rarely heard tangos performed more beautifully or to greater effect.
Before our trip, La Morocha and I asked tangueros in Buenos Aires for recommendations on where to dance in Montevideo. We were told that the tango scene in Montevideo is a disaster. Note that many Argentines express admiration for Uruguayan soccer, asado, dulce de leche, and wool, so their lack of respect for Uruguayan tango cannot be attributed to a general anti-Uruguayan attitude. Thus, I was surprised to find that Montevideo is such a wonderful place to hear and dance tango, and I asked myself why the tango scene in Montevideo is so little known and respected in Buenos Aires and the United States.
Could it be that in Montevideo tango’s black roots are too visible, like a rubia teñida who has waited too long between color treatments? I suspect that this is one of the reasons most tango tourists go to Buenos Aires and not to Montevideo, and why so many people are enamored of tango Argentino whereas so few have even heard of tango Uruguayo. Tango in Montevideo is too African for the international Tango market.
When I say that the tango’s black roots are closer to the surface in Montevideo than in Buenos Aires, I do not mean to suggest that Montevidean tango is less developed or more primitive than porteño tango. A century of history has surely left its mark on tango in Montevideo just as much as it has on tango in Buenos Aires. The difference is that for most of this century porteño tango has been systematically whitened, while Montevidean tango has not. In tango Argentino, both in Argentina and abroad, African (and Indigenous) elements have been suppressed in favor of the European elements with which they once coexisted. There are also many fewer rubias teñidas to be seen strolling down 18 de Julio (in Montevideo) than down 9 de Julio (in Buenos Aires).
El Yanqui Yeff is an anthropologist dedicated to the study of Argentine popular culture and an enthusiastic but inexperienced tango dancer.