The notion of the existence of a rioplatense tango has been peculiar to the River Plate region. Whatever the motivations, Uruguayans have used the universal success of La cumparsita (originally written as a second line parade march for carnival and later redressed and arranged as a tango by Roberto Firpo), as a good enough reason to claim joint paternity of the tango. They also claim the nationality of Carlos Gardel.

In 1929, author Mariano Bosch wrote “History of the origins of the Argentine National Theatre,” partially in response to “National Theatre rioplatense,” a book by Vicente Rossi published in 1910. In clear terms and with plenty of evidence Bosh shows the impropriety of assuming an Uruguayan co-protagonism in the development of the Argentine national theater.

Similarly, in spite of the non existence of musical sheets or recordings by Uruguayan composers during the first decades of the twentieth century, there have been efforts to assume a shared partnership in the tango during that period. The habit of rights misappropriation may well be the consequence of an inferiority complex created by the enormous shadow that the brilliance of Buenos Aires cast over the small country on the oriental shores of the River Plate.

At the international level, there has never been any doubt about the country of origin of the tango because it has been known as tango Argentino since the beginning of the twentieth century. With a few exceptions, the global expansion of the tango has not carried explicit or implicit any reference to an alleged Uruguayan contribution to the birth or to the wealth of tango music.

We know that half way through the 1990’s, a Uruguayan bandoneon player took residency in a German city, and became romantically involved with a French expatriate who ran a tango school in Hamburg. His name was Hugo Diaz, not to be confused with the Argentine harmonic player folk musician who cut a couple of tango albums towards the end of his career. The late Uruguayan Hugo Diaz played a lot of vanguard Piazzolla compositions, and his various groups became very popular in certain German tango communities.

It was during that period that some zealous German entrepreneurs began to add the “rioplatense” handle to the tango represented by Hugo Diaz. As the appellation made it to the incipient Internet tango lists, a few others, with a nationalistic bone to pick adopted the “rioplatense” adjective attached to the tango they promoted in the USA. A sad occurrence of denying Caesar what rightfully belongs to Caesar’s.

The time has come to stop calling the tango “rioplatense,” and accept the undeniable fact that the tango is exclusively Argentine. In a recent article written for Todo Tango, author and historian Enrique Binda carves with the skill of a surgeon a time line that dissects the claims of joint tango paternity on the part of Uruguay. He uses tangible evidence and verifiable research to put to bed once and for all the ridiculous attempts to deny Argentina sole bragging ownership rights of the Argentine tango.

It has been documented that something that people called tango existed in Buenos Aires since at least 1890. By 1900 published sheet music scores suggest that a “tango criollo” had become very popular. Something still not clearly defined was danced on theatrical plays on stage, and on the dance floors around the city by all elements of society from the upper to the lower social classes. There were hundreds of composers, performers and definitely a mass audience. This preceded the appearance of the well known works of Angel Villoldo, Enrique Saborido and others at the turn of the century. During that period whatever may have been happening in Uruguay had nothing to do with the tango movement being developed not only in Buenos Aires, but also in cities of the interior, like Rosario and Cordoba.

To avert suspicions of bias Binda resorts to the testimony of a witness protagonist: Uruguayan pianist Alberto Alonso and his essay entitled “La Cumparsita – History of the famous tango and its author,” edited by Mosca Hnos S.A. Montevideo in 1966.

In the prologue, Eduardo Colinet refers to the author as “one of the pioneers of our tango”. The author himself acknowledges later that he formed his first orchestra in the fall of 1916. Binda compares this date with what had already been done by then in Argentina. There already existed compositions such as “Alma de bohemio, El entrerriano, Rodríguez Peña, El amanecer, Sans Souci.” In 1916 the following classics were being composed, “Re fa si, La guitarrita, Comme il faut, Ojos negros, Mi noche triste.”

As far as orchestras are concerned, Roberto Firpo, Eduardo Arolas, Juan Maglio “Pacho,” Vicente Greco and Francisco Canaro among many other directors were already quite established and very popular with the public. Binda compares Uruguayan pioneer spirit or beginnings, against the full aesthetic and stylistic maturity of the Argentine tango.

In the first chapter of his book, under the heading “The outpost of the tango,” Alonso, writes, “Montevideo, was lagging in the tango race that it had begun propitiously in the neighboring shore where it had developed with well defined characters. And even though there were some guitar players early on, there were no proper tango musicians here.” The evidence presented is conclusive. Montevideo was really straggling, as Alonso writes. Lagging the evolution of tango in Buenos Aires by at least 25 years.

Paraphrasing Binda’s words, young Alonso turned enthusiastically to the tangos of Angel Villoldo, because he understood “how much education was contained in the works of the teacher.” Consequently, it can be said that the genuine precursor of tango in Uruguay was Angel Villoldo and not a native Uruguayan. Later, Argentine pianist Prudencio Aragon, arrived in Montevideo around 1907, and “it can be said that he initiated the authentic tango era” in Montevideo.

Such conclusive statement of facts should support the challenging of the claims of a “rioplatense” paternity of the tango. For that to have happened, a joint parallel development should have taken place, and that didn’t happen. Binda acknowledges that by applying the proper elements of chronology, the idea of tango movement on both shores of the River Plate could be specifically applied from the mid-1930s onwards.

Alonso also writes about the arrival of other musicians from Argentina. The timing is unclear, but one can deduce that it refers to the first decade of the twentieth century. The arrival of these musicians contributed to “the tango efforts in our environment.” The alleged rioplatense tango was being mainly nourished by Argentine elements.

Another important fact that Binda extracts from Alonso’s book refers to Minoto Di Cicco. Until 1914, the pioneer of the Uruguayan bandoneonistas was better known as a talented accordion player. He adopted the bandoneon many years after Juan Maglio “Pacho”, Eduardo Arolas, Vicente Greco, Agustin Berto, Genaro Espósito, Arturo Bernstein, and Vicente Loduca have been shining in the tango firmament of Buenos Aires. A conclusive difference both in timing and numbers.

A very special event took place around 1914 or 1915 when “the famous Argentine orchestra of Juan Maglio” played in Montevideo. But perhaps the event with historical implications was the arrival to Montevideo of a quartet led by Roberto Firpo, who made its debut at Confiteria La Giralda early in 1916. It was in this instance that Firpo arranged, added an introduction and converted a carnival march into La cumparsita, a song that would go on to become the undisputed sound of the tango around the world. The success of Firpo’s performances at La Giralda inspired young Alonso to form an orchestra following the model of the famous quartet, a novelty since “… until then, all the typical combos were mostly trios.”

This is another forceful difference, as Binda points out, because in 1916, the typical Argentine orchestras already included a piano, a bandoneón, two strings and a flute.

As Alonso says, he made his decision, because “he was convinced that there were a few local musicians who qualified” for such an undertaking. This affirmation indicates that he was conscious of the difficulty to finding musicians for that purpose.

Enrique Binda continues to draw a clear time line reminding us that in 1916 nothing of transcendence came out of Uruguay while in Buenos Aires, Eduardo Arolas introduced Anatomia and Rawson, Agustin Bardi released, Independiente Club and Vicente Greco premiered Racing Club, to name just a few tangos that would go on to become classics. Concordantly, that year according to Alberto Alonso, he was forming what it would be the first orchestra or rather, a quartet equivalent to the one led by Roberto Firpo.

Soon after forming his quartet, Alonso’s orchestra, quickly became outdated because in 1917 the typical Argentine orchestras grew richer in innovations. In new recordings, Eduardo Arolas added a violoncello and Osvaldo Fresedo incorporated his bandoneón next to the one of Vicente Loduca, among others examples.

Finally, putting aside the Alonso book , Binda analyzes the Uruguayan discography from those times. Only three bands recorded between 1917 and 1929: The Tipica Alonso-Minotto (1917), Minotto (1922) and Donato-Zerrillo (1929), the latter, almost 20 years after the first recording of the Orquesta Tipica Criolla Greco (1910).

Three Uruguayan orchestras in a dozen years, point to a significant difference compared with the amount of Argentine orchestras who had access to recording studios during this period as well as their already vast published repertoire. Binda does make a reference in relation to the marketing of records, admitting that Uruguayan and Argentine markets were actually one and the same, but fed almost exclusively by Argentine artists.

The evidence is overwhelming and conclusive regarding the concept of “tango rioplatense.” It simply didn’t exist. There isn’t a shred of evidence to refute the time line and chronology exposed by Enrique Binda. When it comes to history it is important demonstrate what it’s being said, and Binda does that like the best on his profession. We can appreciate those musicians who have come out of Uruguay, such as Hugo Diaz, Raul Jaurena, Miguel Villasboas, Donato Raciatti, and respect with admiration their talent for being such faithful interpreters of the Argentine tango.

Posted May 19, 2010 by Alberto & Valorie in MYTHS & LEGENDS

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  1. Really interesting artcile! I am travelling to Buenos Aires in 2 weeks to live there for several months and learn the Tango.


  2. I love to tango. Great article, it’s interesting how the tango has evolved.

  3. This article is totally inexact. Full of the centralism that not only uruguayans point at “porteños” the inhabitants of Buenos Aires, but also the rest of Argentine provinces do. But remaining into Tango. Yes Gerardo Matos Rodriguez, being a young student composed, and as established later by a court was unfairly bought by Roberto Firpo to a non-adult, its composer. But there is more to tango history and Uruguay. Countless tango musicians were Uruguayan, such as Francisco Canaro (and brothers), Alfredo Gobbi, singers and like Carlos Gardel, who for sure wasn’t Argentine, at the most he might have been French, or Julio Sosa, composers like Matos Rodriguez, or Rosita Melo (Desde el Alma – vals) and as I said hundreds of others had an active and creative role in tango’s history. To say that tango is Argentinian is to ignore (on purpose) history, and create a cultural ripoff Uruguay’s cultural legacy.

    Please read what UNESCO says about tango as a heritage for humanity, and keep in mind that the petition to achieve this result was formulated both by Argentina’s and Uruguay’s goverments.

    • Your opinions are appreciated and accepted with the caveat that what you offer as arguments aren’t quite even circumstantial. Just because Uruguayans crossed the river (some even took Argentine citizenship) doesn’t mean that they left the tango behind. They went to where the tango was because that’s where it originated. Later on, some Argentine musicians crossed the river the other way to take advantage of the popularity of the Argentine tango in Uruguay.

      Matos Rodriguez composed a march for carnaval. He was lucky that Roberto Firpo added an intro and introduced the music as a tango. Whatever legal disputes ensued don’t add any evidence that the tango originated in Uruguay.

      The time has come to stop calling the tango “rioplatense,” and accept the undeniable fact that the tango is exclusively Argentine. In a recent article written for Todo Tango, author and historian Enrique Binda carves with the skill of a surgeon a time line that dissects the claims of joint tango paternity on the part of Uruguay. He uses tangible evidence and verifiable research to put to bed once and for all the ridiculous attempts to deny Argentina sole bragging ownership rights of the Argentine tango.

      Your disagreement should be addressed to Enrique Binda who has done a significant work of historical research. First, I recommend that you familiarize with what he has to say, with an open mind. That’s the way to get on an even foot to discuss at a higher level.

  4. I’ve read Binda’s work on Todotango and I totally disagree with him.
    Besides from saying this I only wish to say that affirmations as this one, tango is ONLY argentinian, have to be considered as cultural colonialism. Nothing more and nothing less. Same as the asado argentino, candombe argentino, mate argentino, dulce de leche argentino. And the funniest of them all the Regianito! A cheese produced in Argentina, claiming to be something like the king of all cheeses Parmigiano Regiano!
    Please take a break with this attitude.

    • My good man, you and I disagree for reasons we firmly believe. My article refers exclusively to the facts that clearly establish a time line as to the origins and geographical location where the primitive tango originated.
      I have addressed you with respect and dignity because I’m educated and because I’m completely confident in the historical facts that support my position.
      You seem to have an existential problem and an arrogance that’s only backed by words and generalizations that are totally foreign to the topic in discussion.
      Your opinions have been acknowledged and accepted as such, as your opinions. The editorial embellishments regarding items you seem to have a problem with, but have no relevance in our intention to share facts as presented with the backing of evidence, have nothing to do with our mutual right to disagree.
      End of discussion.

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