Tango: a reflection of what we are
o inquire into tango in all its dimensions is a good way of knowing how we are, what we feel and where we, the Argentines, come from. Here is a preview.
We do without the philological research —with which the more you research the less is cleared out— but we do not leave out some elementary approach to the term we allude to. To state that tango is a dance it is as if you were saying that a dog is a tail. We do not either like the musicological definitions because they are as well incomplete. We think that tango is a genre. From Latin: to engender, create, cause, invent. An «invention» that once men began, so producing, maybe unknowingly, the most typical milestone of their geography and the most mysterious phenomenon of their identity.
Something that at the same time has to do with love, sex and death has to be enough vast so as to be the symbol of a culture. Something that from its inception contains the brief elation of the whorehouse and the mothers’ tolerance has what is necessary to last as time goes by like passions and miseries do.
Borges writes ironically in his Evaristo Carriego: «In the past it was an orgiastic prank, today it is a way of walking.» hinting at the fatal and inevitable character of tango. Because of that we think that researching the history of tango is an essay on the genealogy of our identity. The method is based on the observation of the most outstanding features of the genre which are, not by chance, the most typical ones of the way of being of the culture that gave rise to them.
Below we mention some of them. In this discursive level the aesthetical judgments are worthless. Tango is something that no Argentine can evade.
At first sight we may be led to believe that tango is something that concerns men. We should say without being untruthfull that, in fact, it was made by men but thinking of women. Tango doctrinaires have stated that there are three stages for women in connection with man: when they do not exist, when they come and when they have left. Undoubtedly, tango evidences the machismo that characterizes us. This usually hides an unmentionable feeling of inferiority of man that is deepened by helplessness when he is forsaken by «gals»; and has to do with the idealization of his mother and the first good girlfriend that in time was forsaken. This attitude, many times, led to violence:
Dejó de castigarla, por fin cansado
de repetir el diario brutal ultraje
que habrá de contar luego, felicitado
en la rueda insolente del compadraje.
(Evaristo Carriego, Misas Herejes)
(He stopped beating her, tired at last
of repeating the daily brutal outrage.
He later will talk about this and will be congratulated
by his buddies, an insolent bunch of bullies.)
(Evaristo Carriego, Heretic Masses)
This same feeling has its best piece of evidence in bragging. The bully’s boastfulness —which is also the one of the common Argentine— is the symptom of his insecurity, the fear of being less. What a man is is what matters but what they say he is matters more. And in backing up one’s image our life is spent.
But above all, tango is sadness and that habit that belongs to us of looking after it, that habit of «inventing» nostalgia to the extreme conviction that everything is gone, that nothing will be again as it was before. It is a pleasure for revising decadence.
Far from escape and even farther from entertainment, man thinks about his fate, his sorrow at a café table, in that way choosing the most absurd way of forgetting it because he, precisely, does not want to. He «is¦ his sorrow, that heartache that overwhelms him.
Horacio Ferrer and Luis Adolfo Sierra say that tango is not sad but it is serious. We think that, in fact, it has the sadness of seriousness, the bitterness of daily things and «true things». So Martínez Estrada says about its dance: «It has the seriousness of the human being when he procreates. Tango has stated that seriousness of copulation because it seems to breed without pleasure».
Once I heard that tango is not dramatic but naughty. It’s true, but that mischievousness is far from being joyful. We cannot be surprised for the fact that some lyrics are tinged by a certain humorous mood. When in tango humor appears it is in the crudest way that we know as grotesque. As an answer for a disgrace without remedy it is the skeptical resigned smile of the one that has lost all hope. «Laughing instead of crying» may be the most childish way of facing adversity... or the wisest (Enrique Santos Discépolo’s oeuvre sums up this trend).
Because early lyrics allude to funny evenings spilt with alcohol in brothels we do not have to be misled. The pretended merriness of tango cannot even be inferred from this information because as Sabato says «that event itself must make us be suspicious about the fact that it may be something like its exact opposite... because an art creation is almost an invariably antagonic act, an escape or rebelliousness act. We create what we do not have...» (Ernesto Sabato, Tango. Discusión y clave).
Finally, we can get closer to the most curious identification. Tango and Argentines share a hybrid and dark origin. We are the descendants of a traumatic encounter. Natural children of nostalgia and overcrowding, of the cheated immigrant who was displaced by war and of the criollo «chased» by wire fences, the Bible and laws, that is to say, by the immigrant himself. We come from that clashing circumstances, from that struggle. Heirs of the unhappy history of the old continent and the disgrace of a pampa «without history», from that time we argue if we have to identify ourselves with both and in the meantine we recognize none of them.
Result of a cultural difference that was growing in language and was softened in anger and confusion, tango was born in some room of a tenement house where generally what is Argentine was born. And out of that anger lunfardo was born as a marginal dialect, first, to later become the peculiar Spanish of the Argentines. Likewise Gardel, our idol, we carry the anguish of an uncertain origin that sometimes is suspected as indecorous.
Tango is, in sum, that creature of ours that, like fatherhood, is so in vain denying as admitting, because it is the destiny of our culture, like «being criollo» which is the same. From this point of view the research of the genre leads us to know a little better how we are and where the Argentines come from.