The Moving Group

Moving Group 5: Tango: Black Atlantic and Beyond. Report by Ananya Kabir

Our fifth Moving Group was dedicated to an exploration of tango music and dance, and it involved a double bill. First, we heard Dr Kendra Stepputat, ethnomusicologist from the University of the Performing Arts, Graz (Austria) speak on ‘Inter-relations in tango music and dance: exploring structural and social dimensions of a cosmopolitan genre’, and we then watched the film Tango Negro: African Roots of Tango by the Angolan filmmaker Dom Pedro. The two parts made for a rich learning experience in what they addressed separately as well as elements of shared interests.


Kendra’s talk focused on tango as a social dance practiced in Europe, Dom Pedro’s film focused on tango as a music embedded in the politics and history of Argentina; yet in the talk we heard music and in the film we saw dancers. Secondly, Kendra’s talk focused on the dance as a cosmopolitan practice and did not touch on issues of race and gender identity; Dom Pedro’s film was by definition deeply involved in the (evaporated) blackness of tango as manifested in musical history; yet (for a Modern Moves audience at least) race was present in the talk by its very absence, while the film’s interest in the long relationship between Buenos Aires and Europe (especially Paris) that shaped tango showed it as a cosmopolitan dance from its very beginnings.


These intersections meant that we had some fascinating, if unintended overlaps. Kendra’s talk showed an image of the earliest Tango ‘leaflet’, El Enterriano (1898), and in the film, we actually heard it played. The person playing that music in the film was Juan Carlos Caceres, whose research on the African roots of tango formed an important focus for Dom Pedro (and who is the film’s musical director); in the talk, Kendra cited his group, the Gotan Trio, as the kind of tango music that is not popular at all among Europe’s social dancers. This divergence made me think more deeply about the ‘complex inter-relations between tango music and dance’. What does it mean that what one aficionado of tango wishes to restore to the tango, is absent from its reception by another group of aficionados? Are they really talking about the same genre?

Kendra’s definition of ‘cosmopolitan’, which is a central characteristic of the group she is studying, involved the levels of university education and disposable income possessed by her typical European tango dancer. This was a dancer seemingly unperturbed by race issues, yet the paucity (or absence) of non-white people dancing tango in the European circles she investigates- in cities like Berlin where salsa and now kizomba draws a totally racially mixed demographic- is itself a commentary on ‘critical whiteness’. This white, white-collar cosmopolitanism appeared to those present in the audience as a puzzling elitism of tango’s appeal, and we kept returning to it in our questions to Kendra. An answer was provided by the film’s expose of the whitening of tango as central to its history. Yet the Afro-descendant lovers of tango we saw in the film said the same thing that Kendra found as essential to cosmopolitanism: ‘it is not about where you are born but where you want to live.’

Kendra began by telling us that although Argentina and Uruguay shared the early history of tango, Argentina has been better at claiming it is its national patrimony. This partitioning of shared cultural resources by modern nation-states was familiar to me from my work on the consequences of the Partition of India. But Tango Negro revealed visually the racialised dimension of this Argentinian appropriation of a shared tango: the Uruguayans on screen bore more phenotypical traces of African descent; the few Afro-Argentinians we saw and heard frankly attested to their ‘invisibilisation’ within their nation and their participation in their own ‘whitening’. The cosmopolitanism of tango that started from its acclaimed Parisian reception in the 19th century – a topic that both Kendra and Tango Negro showcased— thus seems to have involved an embourgeoisement of tango that was also its de-Africanisation.

Thanks to this evening, I understood a bit more about an aspect of tango that always intrigued me—the missing drums. From my Modern Moves research I have come to understand that a) drums often go ‘underground’; b) percussion can re-emerge on all manner of instruments, found objects and simply the body; c) the percussion that plays hide-and-seek in this way is that which involves African-heritage rhythm patterns marked by polyrhythm and what is, often controversially, called ‘syncopation’. These lost-and-found percussive dimensions make rhythm part of resistance on and after the Plantation. According to Kendra, the tango dancer must always walk on the 1 and the 3 of tango’s 4/4 measure and ignore syncopations heard in the music; In Tango Negro Juan Carlos Caceres restores tango’s lost Africanity through the use of complex drum-based percussion. The silenced polyrhythms of tango that haunt its cosmopolitanism thus ask the question, ‘at what cost’?

Kendra’s presentation of the cosmopolitan dancer who smoothens out percussive complexity and Dom Pedro’s re-introduction of the same together present tango as the quintessential Black Atlantic genre, a dance of migrants from different continents to the New World. In the film, the group Tocomochos declare that ‘the drums are the beating of our heart, it allows us to talk in a non existent language—we have to take the tango back’. Reminding us that ‘the only thing we were able to maintain was our drumming’, they assert that the drums transmit knowledge down the generations; drumming is resistance through survival. Acknowledging the black roots of tango means to reintroduce the drums and their associated sacredness into the tango. ‘There has always been an element of neglecting our identity’, they declare. ‘We need to know ourselves better. If we work on reconstructing the drum, we can understand many things.’

Who is the ‘we’? Shaped as much by dispossessed Italian immigrants (as Kendra reminded us) as the African slaves and their descendants that were the focus of Tango Negro, the film and the talk together made me think of Michael Rothberg’s concept of ‘multidirectional memory’ as a more productive response to shared traumas than the competition of sorrow and damage brought to a community through diaspora and dispossession. Shared too is the nostalgia that permeates tango and its appreciation. The film broaches the taboo subject of a ‘whitewashed history of Argentina through tango. A museum curator interviewed by Dom Pedro says, ‘the entire history of Argentina is a lie’. His camera captures a white couple dancing. In their faces contorted with some deep emotion, in the advance and retreat of their feet, I found that history made a truth. Dance becomes the trace of memory.

These two sides of the coin brought forth in painful clarity the traumas of tango. Bringing back to the audible surface tango’s rhythmic ancestors reminds us of the parallels between tango and other Afro-heritage music-dance complexes such as salsa, kizomba and samba. Tango’s status as a privileged social couple dance in Europe shows all the hallmarks of transnational commodification that Modern Moves research has observed in other Afro-heritage couple dances—most evidently, the formation of a ‘scene’ through festivalisation and gatekeeping, the elevation of DJs, and the evolution of new tango music styles. As with all these dance genres, though, the necessity of improvisation combats commodification by keeping the dance protean and unpredictable; while the couple dance format, which makes the constant negotiation between partners as an accompaniment to improvisation– impels two people in partner hold to listen to and learn from each other in concert with the music.

This listening, learning, and leaning in are also a pact of dancers with its submerged Africanity—especially where that Africanity crossed paths with global capitalism’s machines in the brave new world of America’s cities. ‘The steps of tango open up vistas’, remarks Robert Farris Thompson is his tour de force, Tango, The Art History of Love; ‘Tango is simultaneously a ritual and a spectacle of traumatic encounters, and of course it takes two—two parties to generate otherness, two places to generate otherness, two people to dance’—these are the words of Marta Savigliano in her equally stunning book, Tango and the Political Economy of Passion. These two works together explain this complex inner history of tango and are essential reading for the curious. They provide the script of lost loves and histories silhouetted against the urban triumph of Buenos Aires—as we see in the video of the month featuring the great tango dancers Juan Carlos Copes and Maria Nieves.

For further listening and learning, here is a playlist curated by friend of Modern Moves, the DJ John Armstrong!

CARLOS DI SARLI (his records are particular favourites with tango dance teachers for some reason)
ADA FALCON (esp the Lp Tango Ladies Harlequin label)
TANGO ARGENTINA (show soundtrack, very obvious choice but surprisingly good nevertheless)
HUGO DIAZ (who wrote the soundtrack for the movie The Tango Lesson- highly recommended film)
SANDRA LUNA (fantastic, intense classical tango sung by Sandra, who is still in her 20s I believe. Definitely NOT ‘easy listening’ tango!)

ASTOR PIAZZOLLA (in first, second and third place! Everything he did was extraordinary, but if you want real fireworks listen to the 1986 LP Tango Zero Hora (easily available on Youtube/Amazon etc)
GOTAN PROJECT (A French DJ started this band in the late 90s- the first of the electro-tango acts)
BAJOFONDO TANGO CLUB (great band- saw them in Miami playing one of the most exciting latin dance shows I’ve ever seen)
GUSTAVO SANTAOLALLA(soundtracks for Brokeback Mountain, the Motorcycle Diaries, Pan’s Labyrinth, Camino, Ronroco etc as well as Playstation and many TV commercials! The founder of Bajofondo (above), he’s not really a tanguero ‘proper’, but is probably the most important living personality/musician in placing Tango and Argentine music in the international limelight)

Only very recently becoming a recognised genre, around the work of pianist JUAN CARLOS CACERES:
TANGO NEGRO TRIO,and all of Caceres’ solo albums, especially the extraordinary funky MURGA ARGENTINA, one of the very few recent renditions of Buenos Aires’ African-based Murga music


DIEGO EL CIGALA-CIGALA Y TANGO (Fine Flamenko sings tango)
ARTURO SANDOVAL-TANGO COMO YO TE SIENTO (Cuban jazz trumpet giant’s take on El Sonido Porteno)
RUBEN BLADES-TANGOS (Politically inspired salsa superstar does a great job with his favourite tangos)