Argentine Tango Through History


Argentine Tango is a musical genre, but also dance. Its origins date towards the end of the 19th century on the banks of the river Rio de la Plata which divides Argentina from Uruguay. This is why its history is connected at the same time to Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina, as well as to Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay.

Initially, it was popular especially among many foreign immigrants coming to South America from different parts of the world, mostly from Italy, Spain, and Eastern Europe. They missed their homeland and somehow embedded pieces of their culture, music, and dance into a new dance – Argentine Tango. Despite the adjective “Argentine” it is definitely not only Argentine, as it was (at least at the beginning) a mixture of European, American and African rhythms: the African candombe, the Cuban habanera, European flamenco, waltz, mazurka, polka and many other rhythms.

Argentine Tango was initially danced in the poor working class suburbs – barrios of Buenos Aires, which were mostly populated by young men (immigrants). As there were almost no women among them, the men had to dance with each other. Beginners started to dance with other men, and only much later, when they already had some practice behind them, they began to dance with female dancers.


Tango soon managed to move from the poor barrios of Buenos Aires to Europe, especially to Paris, where it became incredibly popular at the beginning of the 20th century. As the whole Europe got mad about Argentine tango, it finally made its way into the rich barrios of Buenos Aires. Since then, Argentine Tango has become and remained one of the most important parts of the Argentine cultural heritage.

The 1940s and 1950s, especially the period of Juan Peron is called The Golden Age of Argentine Tango. After the military coup in the mid-50s and political repressions, related to this time (censorship of tango texts and similar), tango slowly began to lose its popularity. Its revival in the 1950s is (once again) connected with Paris. Since then Argentine Tango has spread worldwide, and its popularity is escalating.


Just like Argentine Tango as a dance has been slowly evolving over decades, tango music has also been developing accordingly. After the initial beginnings with tango trio (flute, guitar, and violin), the bandoneon started to be an important part of tango. The bandoneon is a musical instrument, a close relative of the accordion and until today is has remained the most common tango instrument. After the tango trio, tango sextet with its six instruments (piano, bass, two violins and two bandoneons) emerged. And finally, The Golden Age of Argentine Tango is the time of “typical orchestras” (Orquesta tipica) which sometimes contained even up to twenty musicians. The end of the golden age was at the same time a decline of tango orchestras, if not for other reasons – for being big and expensive.

The history of tango music is full of interesting people: composers, lyricists, musicians, singers – and of course orchestras. Argentine Tango was hugely popular during its golden age, so the best of the tango artists were seen as real celebrities. One of them was most definitely Carlos Gardel, who had millions of fans (of course mostly women). When he died in a plane crash in Columbia in 1935, his fans were devastated, and most of the countries in South America were in a complete shock.

Carlos Gardel

The history of tango music is actually a fascinating reading: the musicians – singers and instrumentalists – have continually been moving from one orchestra to another, establishing their own orchestras in the meantime and due to this constant moving it is tough to determine who and when was the member of any of the orchestras. But nevertheless, there are four orchestras (with their orchestra leaders) which count to “The big four” in the tango history.

Violinist Juan D’Arienzo (1900-1974) was also called “The King of the Beat” (El Rey del Compas), with his rhythmic orchestra and music that can not be missed. Bandoneonist Anibal Troilo (1914-1975) had the most lyrical orchestra of “The big four”. Pianist Carlos Di Sarli (1903-1960) was certainly the most romantic among “The big four” and moments when you hear his music at today’s milongas are still the most romantic. Pianist Osvaldo Pugliese (1905-1995) had the most dramatic music, his lyrics always having a very strong political connotation (he was a dedicated socialist) and therefore had repeatedly been ending up in prison. At those times his orchestra performed without him, with a bouquet of flowers on his piano.

During the golden age of Argentine Tango, the best leaders of orchestras were so busy that they were actually performing in the same evening with various groups of musicians in different places or theatres all around Buenos Aires. Every night they were running between these different venues to be shown at each one at least once a night. As there was no recorded music in those times and all the music was performed by live orchestras, the atmosphere of every night depended on which orchestra was playing. The choice was big, the music excellent everywhere.


People dance Argentine Tango today all over the world at milongas. Milonga is an event where almost exclusively Argentine Tango is played. This may sound a little strange or even dull for someone who has never heard about tango, but true lovers of tango would certainly not agree. First, in addition to tango, there are two (sub) genres of tango music: tango vals and milonga. Tango Vals has 3/4 rhythm while milonga (usually lively and cheerful music) usually has 2/4 rhythm.

Salon Canning Buenos Aires

Music at the milonga is generally played according to special rules which come from Argentina, and these rules are something like a tango DJ’s Bible, at least of traditional tango DJs. A tanda is a group of four songs of the same style (almost always the same band, the same period, the same or similar singer, …). After first two tandas of tango, one tanda of valses comes, then again follow two tandas of tango and at the end there is one tanda of milongas.  Music between two tandas is called “cortina” (Argentine word for curtain); it can be any type of music, as long as it is not tango.
Buenos Aires, which has always been and will always be the capital of Argentine Tango, offers a choice of up to twenty milongas at different places throughout the city every day. Deciding where to go can be very challenging and is usually based on several factors. One of the most important among them is usually the DJ because the differences between various DJs can be significant. In smaller cities, there are usually no such problems as it is not so often that two milongas are organized on the same evening.


Argentine tango has gone through many different periods in its history. One of them, especially popular at the beginning of this millennium was a time of “new tango” – tango nuevo. The music that emerged during this period was mostly electronic, modern… Although based on tango, it had little in common with it. For some time it almost looked like that the tango nuevo was going to slowly outweigh the traditional tango. Luckily this did not happen, and the traditional Argentine Tango remains where it belongs: in the central role and in the hearts of all of us – Argentine Tango lovers.

Tango DJ Alenka
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