Archive for the ‘MYTHS & LEGENDS’ Category

SHE WANTS TO MAKE IT TO 100   Leave a comment

She wants to live to be 100

By Gaspar Zimerman

Copyright (c) 2009, Clarin. All Rights Reserved

At 97 she still in full swing. A nature’s prodigy, the legendary singer recalls her intense life, talks about her love with Homero Manzi and her friendship with Evita, defends the Kirchners and refers to her relation with death. Shortly before her show at the Luna Park, she confesses a desire to have a boyfriend.

Nelly Omar sings “Desde el alma”

Nelly Omar is happy. It is a day for interviews: it is necessary to promote the Saturday recital at the Luna Park and the series of interviews, far from annoying her, seems to please her. Installed in the office of the recitals producer, she happily receives one journalist after another, proud for showing that time did not rust her mind nor her bones. It is necessary to follow her train of thought as she evokes her friendship with Evita, the 17 years of prohibition she endured after the 1955 military coup, the help offered by Tita Merello; she praises the (President Cristina and ex president Nestor) Kirchners, mentions (radio program) Palmolive on the air.” I do not know how you are not bored” , she lies, and smiles. At 97 years and with her voice intact she is, more than a tango living legend, a sort of a natural phenomenon, a prodigy who is about to step on a stage once again. “It troubles me a little,” she admits. “I am afraid of getting nervous and not remembering the lyrics. But I have faith: God is going to be by my side”.

Is this is a farewell recital?

No, the day I say good bye will be the day I’m dead. I have the support of the people, those who really love me. And not just the common folks: there are intellectuals, professionals who love me.

Where do you draw the strength to continue?

I love life, that’s why I’m alive. I dislike people who waste my time, I like people who are doing something. There are friends to whom I say: “You are boring. Go the hospital, to the square, take a walk: do not talk to me.” If I reached this age, it’s because I have to life to give. I have love which is what’s lacking in people. I want to get to be 100 and celebrate sparing no expense. To celebrate drinking a bottle of whiskey or champagne.

How do you imagine the recital?

Better not think about it, because if I do, I can’t sing. That’s what happened when they paid a tribute Guaminí. I broke down. I sang five songs and I could not continue. I was overcome by tears. I got sick, bah. They had given me, symbolically, the keys to the house where I lived when I was five: entering and seeing the rooms, the plaque they had put in the hall, and not finding relatives and friends once I knew…

Have you felt the loneliness of immortality?

Do you know what is like to get to be my age and not hear anymore from people who had been around? (singer Julio) Martel just left in July, a friend who used to call me almost every day.

How do you overcome the losses?

I believe in God. If He did it, may God have him in His glory. Recently another friend passed away. Tito Alberti had moved to Zárate. He invited me to visit, but I did not have time to go.

You must have a great capacity to make new friends.

Yes, absolutely. I have many friends. More men than women, because the women are very gossipy, and get into tangles and messes. But what I want to have is a partner who thinks like me, to find a partner who would not be embarrassed to be with a person like me. Then my happiness will be complete. But I do not know where are the men. Although first, they should give me a try, because they do not know how I am.

You must be tough.

Don’t believe that. I am a woman who knows how to be a woman. Who did Homero Manzi fall in love with? With Nelly Omar. And how many years he was in love? Since 1937, when I met him until 1951, when he died. But he did not want to follow through on his promise: get a divorce to marry me. And the one who suffered was him, not me. He composed many pieces dedicated to me, starting with Malena. Many people say that this is not true: I give a shit. That a man had fallen in love with me and dedicated tangos to me doesn’t change my way of being. It doesn’t put me in a higher or lower place . I’m the same Nelly.

Do you think about death?

No, not at all. The other day I was telling a friend: the only thing I regret when it’s time to go from this world is not having someone to grab me by the hand and say “you’re leaving, I love you a lot,” something like that. What I would not want to is suffer. I told my doctor: if you determine that I am not curable give me an injection of pentothal and say I had a cardiac arrest. I do not want them to open me, to remove the liver, a kidney, this, that. No, this is a martyrdom.

How would you like to be remembered?

Not as a singer but as a good person. I think I am. It hurts when I can’t help someone. But generally I can or do what is possible. And I do not expect retribution in return: when I give, I do it with my heart. If there is anybody who says I have a debt, let them come and I’ll pay it.

The conversation drifts. Nelly states that recently she was approached to run for a Senate seat but that she rejected the idea “because I do high level politics, not this kind of garbage”. She attacks the dissident Peronism (“It is a shame the scandal they make, they should unite and leave the current administration to finish its mandate”) and she remembers that she met Eva Perón in the Luna Park “during the aftermath of the San Juan’s earthquake. Eva still was an actress… She always helped me: when she found out that I had not worked for over a year she became furious… she said that I was the best Argentine singer”. “I root for Perón and Evita – she adds. What Evita did for the children, by the adolescents, does not have a price”.

She also it remembers her three husbands – Antonio Molina, the folklorist Aníbal Cufré and journalist Héctor Oviedo, whom she met when she was 82 years old and he 57 – and she regrets not having had children. She mentions that she wanted to be an aviatrix and pauses, reflective: “All this can go on a book”. But immediately she discards the idea. She does want to record two albums: one of folklore and another one of tangos, valses and milongas, with an orchestra. She tells that she exercises every mornings and that, when younger, a professor of lyrical song prophesied: “You, like Gardel, have a voice with a natural resonance. You are going to sing until you’re 90”.

Just when we are having the desire to adopt her as our grandmother, she bids us good bye: “I swear that everything I told you is true. I do not have anything to gain nor anything to lose. Bah: I only hope to gain in the Luna Park. Later, God will say what will be of me”.

Translation by Alberto Paz


The junta couldn’t kill it   1 comment

The junta couldn’t kill it
By Alberto Paz

Today March 24, 2009 marks the 33rd anniversary of the military coup that overthrew the government of Vice President Estela Martinez de Peron and thus began one of the darkest periods of political, economic, and social unrest in Argentina’s  history.  It was a horrifying time span of state sponsored terrorism with a dictatorship that kidnapped, tortured and killed thousands of Argentines.

“It’s good to know that there is no better political system  than democracy. And there is no democracy separated from human rights,” said yesterday the secretary of Human Rights, Eduardo Luis Duhalde.

Memory and Justice are the reassurance of our future as a nation,” noted Health Minister Graciela Ocaña.

The tango made an unexpected reappearance in Buenos Aires, around the time democracy was reinstated and a new democratically elected government assumed power in 1983. The significance of the renewed interest in tango is that it confirmed the resiliency and everlasting attributes of a phenomenon that, across many generations, has surged to incredible peaks of popularity followed by crushing chasms in which all  indications pointed to its irremediable death.

With the global popularity of the tango urban legends ran amok including one that is very hurtful and offensive to every Argentine who either lived, survived or saw friends and relatives live, survive or disappear victim of state sponsored terrorism. It comes in a variety of forms but the jest of the insidious tale states that the military junta engaged in a war to eradicate, proscribe, eliminate, etc., the tango in all its manifestations.

There is an corollary to the urban legend in question, and that is the absurd belief that Argentines let the tango die and it was the foreigners who came to the rescue, resuscitated and took ownership of the tango for the world. In other words, the justification for removing the Argentine from Argentine tango.

We hope here that an explanation of the facts will provide food for thought, and actually inspires everyone with good intentions to nip in the bud the cruel, insensitive and offensive tale about the junta going after the tango.

The main reason why the live performances of orchestras and the public milongas ceased to stay open for business for a long period, was because the political climate discouraged people from going out and risk being arrested during the frequent raids of the secret police did to all public places.

All public dances suffered the consequences of a state of siege and an edict that prohibited public gatherings.

People wanting to get married, for example, had to obtain a special permit from the police after providing a list of attendees so their personal backgrounds could be checked.

The excuse of looking for terrorists or extremists gave the repressive regime free rein to detain anybody without cause or habeas corpus. People stayed home, and all public venues shut down. Tango, jazz, rock and roll, etc. Simple as that, not just the tango but every conceivable artistic activity suffered.

The dictatorship in numbers

2818. Days that the dictatorship lasted from 24 March 1976 to 10 December 1983, when Raúl Alfonsín assumed the presidency after being elected earlier on October 30.

30 thousand. The number of persons, who, according to human rights organizations, were kidnapped during the illegal guerrilla repression. The majority remains disappeared.

500. The number of babies stolen from their mothers, or born in captivity in the clandestine detention centers. Almost 100 have been located and their identity reinstated.

500. The number of clandestine detention centers functioning during the dictatorship. The majority belong to  regiments, military installations, police stations or police detachments. The largest CDC was the one at the former Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada (Navy’s Mechanical School), where it is estimated that five thousand persons were processed.

46 billions. The amount in dollars of external debt accumulated towards the end of the dictatorship. At the beginning of the self defined National Reorganization Process (El proceso) the external debt amounted to 6.3 billion dollars.

517. Percentage of inflation registered between 1976 and 1983.

14 thousand. Number of soldiers, officers and conscripts sent to the Malvinas Islands after the landing of 1982 and the transient recovery of sovereignty over the archipelago.

694. The dead toll in the South Atlantic war with Great Britain.

A mythical cafe   Leave a comment

A mythical cafe
By Alberto Paz
With the discovery of the brick floor of a building half a meter below the surface on the corner of Figueroa Alcorta and Sarmiento across the Planetarium in Palermo, a group of archeologists have fueled a lot of excitement among the fans of tango tales and those who repeat them and report them.Under a tent installed by the Ministry of Culture of the city of Buenos Aires, there is a piece of a bottle and a small piece of a brick floor. As the plans call for further excavation, another project is on the works to provide a walking area for people interested in getting an idea of how the city looked in the past. Close by, a fountain will be replaced with an art exposition dedicated to the tango.

According to city records, on the site of the discovery there existed a building that is believed to have belonged to mid nineteenth century ruler Juan Manuel de Rosas. Juan Hansen (1847-1892) originally from Hamburg, transformed the residence into a restaurant, beer garden and tea house that became known as Cafe Hansen.

The most surprising and totally unverifiable tall tales have been written about Cafe Hansen. That one person was killed there every day;  that several daily squabbles were common occurrence; that the mythical place was the cradle of the tango where “the best tango was danced because it was an elegant place;” that the Roberto Firpo and Francisco Canaro orchestras performed there. When the information is cross referenced to the date of birth of those allegedly having performed at Hansen, it shows how improbable is that that might have happened.

There is no a single reference to such happenings in the archives of publications researched nor in police reports of the times. To the contrary, an abundance of evidence contradicts the fans of tango tales and those who repeat them and report them. When it comes to the history of the origins of the tango it makes no sense to discuss things said, written and repeated by people unable to master the chronology of events. It’s like discussing grammatical rules with an illiterate.

Evidence found in publications and police reports at the General National Archives indicate that the establishment was small, that it employed two waiters. In the case of the investigation of an incident, a police report lists every person being interrogated, with no reference whatsoever to musicians, and without a single mention that there was a dance hall there. The details of the inventory demonstrate that it was a very important and well equipped restaurant, brewery and confectionery. The business continued operating until its auction and liquidation which took place on April 22 and 23, 1893. The municipal draft notice described it as Hansen Hotel, while the public notices called it a restaurant.

Francisco Canaro in his memories never mentions Hansen as a place where he might have performed. And then there is the often quoted Enrique Cadicamo, “It was a dance hall patronized by people of the night of different ranks. It was a tough but very fun place.

Cadicamo was born on June 15, 1900, so he was 12 years when the building was demolished. Either he is exercising some poetic license or he just repeats like a parrot the same fables without taking care of analyzing the chronology of the facts. How could he know that it had a brave but very funny atmosphere? What kind of amusement must have taken place in a nonexistent “dance hall, attended by people of the night of different ranks?”

It is possible that the confusion and contradictions about what went on in the area in the last quarter of the nineteenth century are a consequence of not knowing the characteristics of Palermo and the area known as the Bosques of Palermo. An orderly account of the place and the times might help people read history knowing how to explain it.

Before it was buried in a tube underground beneath Avenida Juan B. Justo, on both margins of the Arroyo Maldonado there were different military facilities and ammo deposits, next to precarious houses where fishermen, veteran prostitutes who served the military, and the families of soldiers lived. There were numerous cafes along what is today Avenida Santa Fe to the bridge over the stream.

Since the nineteenth century, Palermo was almost exclusively an area of recreation for the inhabitants of the city, a charming and delightful place with changing characteristics according to the time of the day.

Early in the morning, Palermo hosted sports loving and horse riding folks; around noon , those associated with the race track; in the afternoon, the tea time strollers; and at night the romantic dates and rendezvous. Late at night, after the theater, Palermo was the favorite place of licentious night owls accompanied by ladies of the night. Numerous concessions offered refreshments or food to a select segment of the population.

Consider the incongruity of the tales that link the tango with the underground and the lowest classes and simultaneously with places like Palermo, which was frequented by elegant people. Adding to the excitement of the brick floor discovery, the vice president of the Academia Nacional del Tango offered a tall tale of his own, “At Hansen they danced a very well danced tango because in his beginnings it was an elegant place”. He said that without taking in consideration that nobody really knows what or how people danced in those times, or that dancing tango well is not the patrimony of elegant people.

Posted January 19, 2009 by Alberto & Valorie in MYTHS & LEGENDS

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HOW DID THEY DO IT?   Leave a comment

by Andy Doubt Raiser
London, November 2008

The claims that the population of African origin in Argentina was exterminated in an act of genocide are absurd and they deserve a place next to extraterrestrial kidnappings and the staging of the moon landing in an Arizona undisclosed location, under the heading of looney tunes hoaxes. Currently 10%, around 1.4 million of the population of Buenos Aires has African heritage. In 1810, black and mulatos totaled 9,615 [42% of the population], therefore, in 200 years, the number of individuals with African ancestry in Buenos Aires has gone up 142 times!!!!! This confirms the claims of those who attribute the “disappearance” of blacks to consensual interracial marriages among other things.

The slave trade was made illegal in 1810 with independence from Spain, Then in 1813, came what was known as the “Ley del Vientre”, declaring free anybody who from that day onwards landed on Argentine soil, whether from abroad or from their mother’s womb. Clearly it made no difference to those who were already slaves at the time, who had to wait another 40 years, until slavery itself was made illegal, in the Constitution of 1853 to acquire their freedom.

The Constitution of Argentina, to this day, has a racist foundation: Article 25. “The Federal Government shall encourage European immigration; and may not restrict, limit or burden with any tax whatsoever, the entrance into Argentine territory of foreigners who arrive for the purpose of tilling the soil, improving industries, and introducing and teaching the arts and sciences.” Imagine the audacity of these people wanting to attract laborers, artisans, artists and scientists. What’s next, restrictions to terrorists, or tango teachers like the US and the UK have done?

There is a precedent out there. Domingo Sarmiento, abhorred blacks with their candombe processions because he was painfully aware that white men can’t wave and shimmy. His dream was to populate and civilize like the British Empire and the rising US had done. To that effect he toured extensively both countries to copy their educational system and their immigration policies. Natives and Negroes were systematically eliminated, and Argentina was the success story of genocide, well in front of Custer and the 7th Cavalry, Apartheid and Adolf Hitler. If you think this is absurd wait until I tell you about the yellow fever epidemic.

The yellow fever epidemic of 1871 started in 1871. Biological warfare had already been used against the Indians; indeed, in the first 100 years of their occupation of the Americas, the Spaniards eliminated at least 80% of the native population, with the diseases they brought with them. The authorities encircled the Negro barrios with the army holding hands after releasing a swarm of mosquitoes and mowing down anybody trying to escape with a blunt instrument called the bandoneon, invented by Hitler’s grandfather in a white supremacist region of the Bavarian Empire.

What does this have to do with tango? Probably nothing. The tango doesn’t come from Africa.

With so much persecution, genocide, extermination, chemical warfare, and every known or to be invented methods of extermination used against them, how did the black population find the time to go dancing? With such impossible living conditions how did they manage to develop such a unique and complex choreography? How was it possible to create such a alluring music with their typical drums?

Not only that but how did they manage to impose their cultural preferences to the great majority of Europeans and Creoles who were so busy exterminating them, yet couldn’t help stealing their dance moves and cultural roots instead of using their power and wealth to create something on their own.

How did they do it?

Andy is a fiction writer specializing in the inclusion of fantastic elements in a self-coherent setting where any location of the fantastical element is possible. In addition, he is the European record holder in Conclusion Jumping and Tall Tales category.

AS THE ORGANITO GRINDS   Leave a comment

Those who have written about the tango and its origin, usually have not been interested in the popular aspect, only in the marginal, ‘forbidden” part. That makes all their body of work historically irrelevant for not being representative of the entire porteño society. As a consequence of quoting each other in their perpetuation of tales and misconceptions, the stories of the tango and its origins have been based in myths that have made it into the fertile imagination of those who seek the passion and exoticism of a foreign culture. One is the tale about illiterate musicians who played by ear, whistling into each other’s ears tunes that became the foundation of the tango music. Another is about men dancing with men. Another is that the often mentioned academias were places where dancing was taught.

The Archivo General de la Nacion, Argentina’s National Archives is an amazing place on Avenida Leandro Alem, a few blocks from Casa Rosada, the government mansion. There are records of publications, city council meetings and police reports all the way back to the beginning of the nineteenth century. It is the right place to spend plenty of time for anybody interested in finding out where people danced, what they danced, who were the dancers and the musicians, and when the tango made its appearance. The first reality that strikes the researcher is the realization that there was a full fledged living society in nineteenth century Buenos Aires.



Entering the decade of the 1880 there was still no evidence of anything particularly called tango being danced at the public dances. The most popular source of music for dancing was the organ grinder with a repertoire that included valses, polkas, schottische, mazurkas, habaneras, milonga, gato (a folk music from the interior of Argentina). The organito was not really an instrument but a mechanical reproducer of music previously programmed, sort of player-piano, whose use goes back at least to 1837. It did not need a musician, just somebody who transported it and made it work turning a handle. Programing the organitos required qualified musicians, the kind that graduated from conservatories and who very likely played with the many symphonic orchestras at the opera houses.

Dancing was high among the main sources of entertainment for dwellers of the city and the outskirts. People of all social backgrounds danced at legal and clandestine academias and cafes. The negative consequences of theses activities were public inebriation and rowdy behavior. That upset and annoyed the families who lived in the neighborhood. City ordinances were promulgated to prohibit, fine and tax public dances that served alcoholic beverages. The hardball police  efforts  to enforce the edicts, gave place to the proliferation of clandestine places for dancing.

In the September 27, 1880 issue of La Patria Argentina under the heading of Gresca chistosa or Funny fracas, there is a conclusive police report recommending the closing of one of those clandestine dance places, quoted from El tango en la sociedad porteña by Hugo Lamas and Enrique Binda.

“The prohibitions, fines and taxes with which public dances have been hit by the Municipality, have had the consequences of creating an original method of catering to the merriment of the populace.

Generally, the establishments where the clandestine activities take place are the cafes. On dirty windows, painted white, illuminated from behind by the inside lights, stand out in big black letters the name of the Cafe So and so…

In the first room, closest to the street, there is an actual coffee shop with relatively ugly waitresses. The back door is closed and the noise in the room is the typical sound generated by the voices of the patrons and the nature of the service. Suddenly somebody gets up and disappears through the back door for a considerable amount of time. Sometimes the back door opens and a tired looking character walks in to the counter and orders a refreshing glass of French wine and soda water, that strange concoction that the Italians drink when bowling.

Each time the door opened, it could be heard from the other room the noise of feet shuffling on the floor as if many people walked dragging their feet. Behind that door there was a great salon where people danced some quite original dances.

On the far wall of the salon there was one of those organ pianos, covered with a mattress. The mattress had the purpose of preventing the sounds from reaching the street, or even the room in front. The muffled hits of the instrument’s hammers evenly marked the rate of the piece that was being danced, with a strange noise, something like an instrument of percussion on wet wood.

With that strange music they dance in the salon. And they dance with two, three, or four women who are hired by the owner as dancers. These unfortunate women dance all night long. Every night, without resting, they go from the arms of a Creole dancer who twists them in a milonga, to the arms of a British guy who shakes them dryly in a jumped vals, or the arms of an Italian who dislocates their bones with a peringundin.

The salon is packed with dancers and since the women are few, the rest dance man with man to take advantage of the song that somebody has paid for. At the end of the song, somebody shouts, “Lata!” That means that he gets to pick the next song. He approaches the organillero (organ player) to request his favorite tune, he pays for the song and he gets a tin token for the piece that he requested. And the dance continues in a warm atmosphere because the room is closed, the smoke of the cigarettes clouds the air and the brushing of the feet on the floor is the dominant noise. Everybody is quiet; nobody speaks; because there they dance for the sake of dancing. There are no chairs in the salon to discourage loitering; those who enter, must dance or leave.”

No specific mention of the dance of tango is ever made until 1886 when a newspaper article refers to “the famous masked dances in the theaters where Army officers, violating rules and regulations, their own honor and the dignity of the uniform, swayed exaggeratedly their bodies to the rhythm of a tango milonguero.”

By the end of the nineteen century dancing reached the street corners of busy tenements. Entrepreneurial young men hired a couple of organ players and taught young girls to dance in exchange for the girls paying the organ player for each piece of music. In many neighborhoods, it wasn’t unusual that the lack of gender balance lead to bread with bread practicing, that is people of the same sex, going through the learning process in anticipation of getting ready for the real dances at salons, recreation centers, private clubs, and cafes and restaurants.

It is evident that people then had a notion of the meaning of the word tango as a musical genre, but they didn’t leave any messages buried in capsules to be opened at a future date explaining what it was or how it sounded.AS THE

Blondes of Buenos Aires   2 comments

Black Roots: What tango and the Rubias de Buenos Aires are Hiding
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.

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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