Argentine tango was invented by enslaved Africans

Luis Gustavo Reis October 04, 2022
El Tango by Uruguayan painter Pedro Figari. Image via Wiki/Public domain

The transatlantic slave trade, which lasted for almost four hundred years, left deep marks in all regions where it was adopted, constituting a solid legacy that is perceptible to this day. Thousands of enslaved Africans disembarked in cities such as Buenos Aires, Lima, New York, Rio de Janeiro, Havana, Mexico City, Caracas, Montevideo, Kingstown, and Port-au-Prince among many others and formed, at certain times, the majority of the population in Argentina, Peru, United States, Brazil, Cuba, Jamaica, Venezuela, Uruguay, Jamaica and Haiti.

Anyone who currently walks the streets of Buenos Aires, for example, who watches Argentine football matches and is enchanted by the beautiful films produced by Buenos Aires, may wonder what happened to the almost 74,000 Africans who disembarked in the Rio de la Plata (as the region was known until 1816) that are not seen in the places mentioned. How did a group that made up half the population in 1776 constitute only 4% of the current inhabitants?

It so happens that in the 19th century, the country was affected by a serious epidemic of yellow fever responsible for decimating significant portions of the population, especially blacks unassisted by health services. In addition to fever, the period was marked by several internal and external wars where legions of enslaved soldiers were sent to be slaughtered on the battlefields.

As if these horrors were not enough, in 1852 President Justo José Urquiza decided to intensify the policy of whitening the population implemented four years earlier. For this, he distributed thousands of passports to blacks, mainly men, and called them to leave the country. The enterprise achieved results and at the beginning of the 20th century, there were few Afro-Argentines in the territory, part of them concentrated in Chacomús.

Despite successive attempts to exterminate blacks and the various campaigns to erase their contributions, they are responsible for the central element of Argentine identity, the tango.

Since the mid-eighteenth century, enslaved people of different ethnicities concentrated in Buenos Aires formed mutual aid societies where they practiced, in addition to other particularities, religious cults. They danced to the beat of drums, sang ancestral songs, worshiped altars filled with sacred symbols and invoked gods until they went into a trance.

These religious groups gave rise to the so-called candombe (from the Bantu Ka n’dombele, which means “to pray to the gods”), existing both in Argentina and in other regions of the Rio de la Plata (the origin of candombe divides scholars to this day). In the candombes, there were several elements and religious rituals related to different African traditions, in addition to the practice of crowning black kings and queens. Over the years, candombe has been changing and gaining different meanings, combining periods of legality and prohibition sanctioned by the powerful slave masters.

After the abolition of slavery (1813), those leaving captivity began to gather in places they called “casa de tango” (also known as “casas de tambó” or “sítios”), replacing the traditional candombes. In these houses, they had meetings, drummed and sang different songs, religious or not, creating a generous universe of sociability. However, these places began to annoy the authorities who ordered their closure and the criminalization of the meetings.

To circumvent the ban and adapt to the contingencies of the moment, the regulars reinvented the spaces, re-articulated their relationships and gave rise to the so-called “ballrooms”, where music played by piano, flute, violin, bandoneón and other instruments prevailed, choreographed by dances that mixed the swing of candombe, detailed steps and traces of sensuality. At the dawn of 1877, a group of black people inspired by candombe and dance halls invented a dance they specifically called “tango”.

Since the colonial period, some blacks had learned classical music, which they began to play and teach in various schools across the country. In the 19th century, pianists such as Ignacio San Martín and Teodoro Hipólito Guzmán played in the Buenos Aires cathedral orchestra. Remigio Navarro, Roque Rivero, and Rosendo Mendizábal alternated between piano lessons and performances at crowded parties.

There were also dozens of composers, among them Casildo Thompson, Frederico Espinoza and Zenón Rolón who stood out for the beautiful songs they wrote. Gabino Ezeiza, born in 1858 in the then-black neighborhood of San Telmo, Buenos Aires, composed more than five hundred songs, including tangos that were immortalized and gained international recognition.

When entering the 20th century, tango underwent several European influences that modified not only the lyrics of the songs but also the choreography and the spaces where it was played. From the dances attended by marginalized blacks and poor whites, it moved to the halls of high society, integrating the repertoire of show houses that went from New York to Paris. As the century progressed, the erasure of the African origin of tango, currently known as the heritage of European immigrants, also accelerated.

From North to South of the Americas, Africans and their descendants built and influenced the formation of different cultural elements, many of them concealed by the systematic falsifications of history. Based on an ideology that established hierarchies among human groups, the Argentine authorities and their minions were not able to destroy the strength of the enslaved who left their fingerprints in the country and were responsible for the creation of the maximum national symbol, like it or not.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: October 4, 2022


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