Tango as culture: anthropology or criticism?

Ethnomusicology is the study of music from the cultural and social aspects of the people who make it. … It is often defined as the anthropology or ethnography of music, or as musical anthropology. (Wikipedia)


When a student starts taking tango classes the discourse of tango is established by the way the teacher and others talk about the genre. Lets for the moment ignore the commercial aspects of this discourse (will return to that shortly) and assume that the student manages to ignore all the talk about workshops, privates, and trips to Buenos Aires, and tries to break through all of that to try to get a deeper understanding of tango, the dance, the music and the culture. What they will inevitably arrive at is information that can broadly be called ‘anthropological’. He or she will find that tango is a culture confined to a specific area (Río de la Plata), practiced by its inhabitants, with music that is specific to that area and these people. To get an in-depth knowledge of tango one needs to be a sort of anthropologist, namely, to learn about the music and culture of these people who inhabit this place.

In characterising this framing as anthropological I am being generous and somewhat disingenuous because it is really touristic, or an impoverished sort of anthropology. A real scientific anthropology would utilise sophisticated comparative methods, eg., it would demand knowledge of music theory, and would compare this culture to other cultures to draw objective conclusions. What the tango student is faced with instead is a picture of a culture that is sui generis, that on the standard narrative, emerged out of a meeting of European and African cultures around the middle of the 19th century, that it is a popular culture, meaning not a culture of the elites but rather of the common people, and that produced a unified cultural idiom that we recognise as uniquely Argentinian.

We notice that this narrative creates a mystique about the form implied in the image of the Argentine people as having a natural talent to elicit emotional responses that the touristic consumers seek to acquire. It renders tango foreign, other, and exotic. It also gives those who are native to the form a special insider knowledge that requires no justification, proof, evidence or reasoning, on the assumption that cultural practices require no external justification: it’s just what people do. It is, as Wittgenstein put it, a ‘form of life’.

The consequences for the anthropological framing for tango pedagogy are devastating. In order to come to participate in the form one needs to ‘go native’, ideally by way of tourism and lengthy stays in Buenos Aires. Tango teaching and learning consists in finding out ‘what people in Buenos Aires do’. In terms of music, it consists in learning the names of the orchestras, their recordings, and something about the history of the Golden Era.

The anthropological approach to tango education asks the student to emulate a cultural group without asking for reasons. However, since there is no real justification given or necessary this framing leads naturally to the idea that tango ‘evolves’, and so there is no particular reason to want to emulate this group beyond one’s consumer preference. Thus, this framing leads naturally to the idea that just as Argentinians created their local tango culture, foreigners can take those aspects of tango that suit them and create their own ‘nuevo’ or ‘transgressive’, or ‘alternative’ or ‘whatever you wish to call it’ tango. The anthropological framing gives traditionalists no ground to be critical of the new developments if they already accepted that their form of tango is sui generis, specific to a place and people, self-justifying and therefore a mere preference.

An anthropological framing is descriptive without being in any way prescriptive. Without some sort of a norm or standard that is exernal to the culture it is not clear how we are supposed to get from an ‘is’ to an ‘ought’. There is no basis any sort of criticism. As a result tango traditionalists, while they reject non-traditional forms of tango, have really no way to argue against them. One wants to say that the traditional tango practice is more authentic, but why should one prefer authenticity in a postmodern world which rejects such notions. Moreover, there are real barriers to acquiring the authentic thing in terms of cost, finding teachers, getting information, etc. If it’s not available or costly why not settle for what’s available and affordable?

Of couse, the natives do not see the matter in that way. They feel that there are values in tango that are not merely utilitarian, and so would reject that one could replace them with a cheaper substitute. But so long as they are in the anthropological frame those values are no different than the values of any other cultural group: they represet the sentimental attachments of a group of people. So unless one has some other reasons for wanting to assimilate to that group this approach cannot really have any wider appeal.

To have an appeal that is wider and more universal what is necessary is not anthropology but art criticism. When we say that something is a work of art we don’t mean that it is art of a particular cultural group. Art is assumed to have more universal appeal and, given that, the art critic’s job is to find a language of expressing these universal values, and thereby to also provide reasons for preferring some works over others. The art critic must find a language that identifies features that characterise good art, and provide for standards of good taste.

The idea that tango is a ‘popular’ form seems to invite an anthropological rather than a critical frame, but that does not necessarily follow. Jazz is a popular form and yet it is subject to cultural criticism no less than classical music. Theolonius Monk is considered to art, whereas Kenny G is generally accepted at kitsch. Cultural critics even address pop, and try to provide reasons why Elvis Presley might be better than Genesis.

Like ethnomusicologists (who are a type of anthropologist) critics use comparative methods, must know something about music theory, and the history of music. Both, ethnomusicologists and critics differ from the natives in that they try to draw more general conclusions about the cultural practices, but they differ in that the goals are descriptive for the one group, and prescriptive for the other. Criticism does require an adequate description, so that disagreement about description, ie., about the facts, will make a difference to the critique, but in the case of criticism there is a normative component, that is, there is the assumption that things are to be preferred on other than merely personal, subjective or consumption preferences.

To the contrary, art criticism assumes that art ought to stand outside of the sphere of mere utilitarian or consumer values, and that it has a moral dimension. That is why the distinction between art and kitsch is so central to criticism. This distinction does not touch objects that are cultural artefacts of some group because the members of the group attach an authentic significance to these objects. However, some writers (Adorno?) have suggested that when these artefacts become kitsch as soon as they are purchased by a tourist who does not attach that significance to these objects and for whom they are mere decorative trinkets. The question is whether this is not precisely what happens to tango when it becomes a mere object of touristic experience.

A major reason for the anthropological/touristic approach to the dissemination of tango has to do with the consumers themselves. Earlier generations have grown up with an intuitive understanding of the difference between real and fake, art and kitsch. With modernity, however, we have the academic ‘postmodern’ attack on the idea of authentic art. Modernism in art, music and architecture relentlessly dethrones and debunks all traditional notions of good taste and renders everything equal and relative, a matter of personal preference and only worthy of attention if it is interesting or better, transgressive. Modernist artists such as Andy Warhol elevated consumer products to the status of high art, and the ordinary person can no longer rely on art criticism for guidance on good or bad taste, being thrown onto the wasteland of loud consumerist promotion.

Given the loss of the skill of cultural criticism, the learner is thrown rudderless on the ethno dance/music market to figure things out for themselves. They are now supposed to know what they prefer without being told what they ought to prefer. Since the ordinary person can’t bear such a heavy burden they simply follow the guidance of the loudest marketers and the crowd. Contrary to what one might expect, the contemporary tango is a case study in unscrupulous, vapid consumerism and crowd behaviour. It is truly hard to believe that people capable of discriminating judgement could respond positively to the dressed up kitsch promoted on tango websites and Facebook pages.

What is the alternative to the anthropological, postmodern and consumerist paradigm that is currently in power? The conservative view of art, music and culture, at least the one that we have inherited from romanticism, is that culture is the realm of authentic values that transcend ordinary utilitarian or merely hedonistic values. Writers on culture have recognised for a long time that all traditional societies distinguish between the ‘sacred’ and the ‘profane’ values. In European culture, art has come to occupy the place of the sacred, and the aesthetic experience of the art object is not regarded as having a mere utilitarian significance. Art, including painting, music, dance and ritual, is the domain of the sacred and as such has a moral significance. Bad art is not merely unpleasant, but rather, pleasant or not, it is morally bad. Listening to bad music and surrounding yourself with kitsch art makes one poorer as a person. It debases rather than elevates because it is a source of easy satisfaction that does not demand effort or personal sacrifice. It is a source of easy satisfactions but as such is a source of inauthentic, fake emotions.

Art criticism is difficult because it is not easy to identify why certain art is better than other, or what makes it morally elevating or debasing. People were once able to follow their gut instinct, and normal people still are highly suspicious of the so-called ‘art’ that occupies modern art galleries, and feel uneasy about the ‘gifts’ of modernist architecture. They still prefer to travel see classical architecture although some are still drawn to the modernist curiosities, although it is questionable that they would choose to spend much time in them or live near them once they have taken the obligatory snapshots. In the same sense the consumer tango that we are served nowadays is largely a disposable product, a way to spend an evening in a foreign city.

An alternative to the anthropological/touristic framing is a view of how dancing makes us better and brings us closer to others. Traditionally dances have had a moral and truly social dimension in bringing people together. This more authentically moral, social and elevating aspect has been supplanted with ideas about exoticism, authentic cultures, tourism, fashion and hedonism that are typical of kitsch dances like LA Style Salsa, Bachata or Zouk. Anthropology and tourism have inadvertently directed tango into a seedy, degraded neighbourhood on the false assumption that it has only the barest connection to European culture and is the product of the latin brothel. Sadly that is a framing and a narrative that appeals to people already predisposed to be drawn to easy ‘transgressive’ touristic experiences.



Sex roles and gender equality in tango

When tango emerged out of the primordial swamp the world was still in the grip of an oppressive patriarchy. It was a time of regressive practices such as lifelong marriage, religion, female modesty, enforced monogamy, complementary sex roles, homemaker housewives and breadwinner husbands. After many millenia we are finally emerging in a brave new world of feminization which liberates us with equal partnerships, atheism, no-fault divorce, serial polygamy, career women, single mothers, government schooling, alimony, welfare and affirmative action. A fundamental social transformation which ‘liberates’ women from their traditional roles at the cost of men (whose jobs and income must become sacrificed to the benefit of women who are not their wives) and the family (which must not impinge on state’s power to indoctrinate the new generation) is bound to have affected tango which is not a world unto itself and whose participants are bound to reflect in their behavior the norms of the brave new world.

The respective roles of the two partners in tango are not arbitrary or marginal to the practice. They reflect the place of sex roles in traditional society, ie., the ‘patriarchy’. In a traditional society men and women occupy distinct and complementary roles. Men are out in the world earning a living so as to provide for their family. To do so they must exhibit skills and characteristics such as planning, goal-orientation, and rational decision-making as well as a sense of responsibility for their dependents. Women look after the home and the children for which the husband provides. In this world the women seek the protective male energy and the men seek the nurturing female energy. These complementary roles are reflected in tango in which the woman lets the man lead and the man needs the woman to follow, and this complementarity of the roles and the provision of the respective type of energy offers the satisfaction of the dance.

In the new feminized world the two  ‘partners’ are equalized in that men become more like women and women become more like men, that is, they both become more androgynous. Both partners are expected to be able to fulfill both roles and this is supposed to be natural. True, men and women still dress differently, but this has become a merely external matter of fashion more than anything else. gearjunkie_legacy_imagesThe urban lumberjack look with bushy beards, Timberland boots and flannel shirts do not signal any corresponding masculine skill at physical labour such as chopping down trees or anything else for that matter. Similarly, hyper-feminine fashion with high heels, immaculate hair and copious amounts of makeup rarely signal actual feminine nurturing energy, which is typically expressed in a vacuous, narcissistic sassy attitude that men find superficially attractive but ultimately draining. Despite being based in our basic nature, the competent performance of sex roles beyond mere externalities does require long-term nurturing which no longer happens. The free expression of masculinity in boys is discouraged as ‘toxic masculinity’, whereas women are encouraged to ‘lean in’ and behave assertively like boys.

It has been observed that both sexes are to a certain extent capable of fulfilling both of the traditional roles: men can become more like women and fulfil the female role, and women can at times due to necessity or ability perform in male roles. Men can learn to cook, clean and look after children, and in some cases they even can dress and behave like women. Women can also work and provide for the family, have careers, and some girls who are tomboys even dress and act like boys.

Instead of viewing such behavioural plasticity as eccentric or marginal radical feminists, social justice warriors and transgender activists want to draw a general conclusion. Biological differences whereby men are better at fulfilling the male role and are interested in doing so, whereas women are better at fulfilling the female role and this makes them more happy, are a myth, a so-called ‘social construct’ that has no truth beyond the norms of an outdated morality. They insist that gender and sexuality are ‘fluid’ and people can pick and choose their identity, like fashion, as the current mood suits them. Numerical differences in occupations or incomes are then not due to men’s and women’s natural tendencies but must be explained by oppressive patriarchal practices whereby women are being actively prevented from advancing in their careers by ‘boy’s clubs’, or discouraged from going into certain professions by being saddled with artificial ‘sex roles’. Women who prefer the traditional roles of the housewife or caretaker and refuse to compete on the traditionally male career market are blamed for endorsing the patriarchal oppression of women.

So feminism, rather than allowing women to follow their natural preferences, rejects that such preferences exist, and instead blames women for not being competitive and career-seeking. Feminism wants and expects women to become more like men. The result is that we get women who are competitive but also angry and unhappy, in other words, women who are highly aggressive. They cannot possibly compete against men who are biologically designed for their role and are much better at it. But they are told that they ought to be as good as men at careers and various other competitive pursuits. The denial of the rather obvious biological differences leads to such absurd situations as transgender women easily winning in female sports. Only people in deep denial due to being immersed in an ideology of feminism could fail to see the obvious absurdity of what is being attempted.

Similarly in tango, the idea that same-sex tango dancing can be the same thing as traditional tango dancing can be entertained only by people who have been subjected to lifelong indoctrination into the feminist and social justice ideology. The problem, however, is much deeper than that because the current generation of goal-seeking career women and equally androgynous compliant men, having been subjected to decades of the sex-role denying public schooling, are completely unprepared to perform these traditional roles. If, as I claim, tango is dependent on performing these roles within the dance, the new androgynous tango is a completely new type of practice. But if it is, it is also equally completely unsatisfying if one comes to tango precisely because it offers the possibility of men being men and women being women.

Because these competitive career women do sometimes long to feel like women, and I also believe that the androgynous compliant urban lumberjacks do want to be allowed to feel and act like men beyond the external appearance. Unfortunately tango in itself cannot reverse decades of feminist indoctrination and gender fluidity ideology. What you end up with is the shadow of tango: an egalitarian, androgynous dance in which the roles are performed as a sort of formality, incompetently. The assumption is that the partners are equal, and the well-behaved men expect women to express themselves and compete.

In fact, much as with children, men express their protectiveness precisely by avoiding acting in an overtly protective way so as not to cramp the woman’s style, to give her space, so that she can ‘lean in’. Unencumbered by feminist scruples female leaders will lead in a way that women actually want men to do so, that is, in way that is assertive and yet protective. Women are encouraged and rewarded for ‘leaning in’ and taking the male role as men step aside. Since women are rarely aware of their own desires they sometimes assume that the women must be naturally better leaders than men. Since men have been warned that assertiveness and protectiveness are essentially oppressive they can hardly be blamed for doing everything to avoid satisfying the need. The result is that on the contemporary feminised tango scene we see the shadow of the dance, failing to satisfy our natural needs that originate in the biologically based sex roles.

Musicality: the connection of music and movement

The tango is the result of a combination of the German Waltz, Czech Polka, Polish Mazurka, and Bohemian Schottische with the Spanish-Cuban Habanera, African Candombe, and Argentinian Milonga. … The music derived from the fusion of various forms of music from Europe.

Wikipedia entry on Tango

This month, our popular Musicality Workshop is back “Dance to D’Arienzo”.

Workshop announcement

Tango is a feeling.

Tango Teacher

Apart from the Female Technique Workshop another popular type of class one sees commonly advertised is the Tango Musicality Workshop. I don’t recall taking one of these but in those classes where the topic is the music one would expect to find the exhortation to listen to and to feel the music. I have serious doubts whether exhortations of this sort have much effect since there is no system for teaching how to feel the music if one doesn’t already. When there is an actual attempt at systematic teaching the focus is often on the different interpretation of different orchestras. These workshops are typically taught by dancers who have little or no knowledge of music beyond dancing to it: they neither play music, know any music theory nor have any knowledge of ethnomusicology. The standard ethnomusicological story is like that we see on the Wikipedia entry: tango spontaneously emerged out of a fusion of various European and African genres in the back streets of Buenos Aires due to the intermingling of European migrants and African slaves.

Occasionally one does see announcements of musicality workshops conducted by musicians who play tango. From what I see these go into technical detail that is more relevant to the craft of the musicians themselves rather than helping dancers interpret the music in their dancing. Instead of looking at the historical antecedents of the music and providing an understanding that helps dancers listen to it, interpret and be moved by it in their dancing, musicians are mainly concerned with the form of the musical score that is written down.

There is an apparently unbridgable divide between musically illiterate dancers and teachers on the one hand, and musicians on the other. The latter seem unable to communicate to dancers about music as it is related to dancing, that is, to movement and gesture. Workshops run by musicians seems to focus on music theory and the various aspects of the way tango compositions are organised, but do not put the music in any historical context to provide us with some understanding of its origins. Nor do they break down the music to those of its components that are relevant to movement and gesture. In fact, judging from the fact that most contemporary tango orchestras are play in a way that is either completely undanceable or at best barely danceable, it seems that contemporary tango musicians themselves have little to no understanding of the aspects of tango music relevant to dancing.

The apparent lack of serious inquiry in to the historical origins of tango seems to be due to the prevailing assumption that tango is sui generis so that it is neither necessary nor fruitful to inquire into the supposedly “dark” origins. This is surprising given its apparent sophistication and effectiveness in inviting movement. The reasoning seems to be that unlike the European tradition in which there are obvious and studied continuities from the Renaissance to Baroque, Classical and Modern periods, tango is more akin to the popular or Ethnic musical genres that spontanously emerge from the natural creativity of the common folk. This is largely a myth which has the unfortunate consequence of creating the sort of confusion and misunderstanding that propels the contemporary dancer into fallacies such as that tango is a ‘living’ culture that is constantly and randomly ‘evolving’ by adapting to the current circumstances.

The task of gaining a proper understanding of tango music is especially urgent for those who want to preserve traditional tango practice. It can be safely said that there is a general lack of understanding of music in general, and tango music in particular, among tango dancers as with the wider public. This lack of understanding means that people do lack the ability to listen to tango music and make informed judgements. It may be what is behind the many tango fads and kitsch ‘nuevo’ forms (see Beauty). If we could find a way of teaching people to understand the underlying structure of tango music and to appreciate it this would go a long way towards reinstituting the primacy of danceable traditional tango and thus reversing its degeneration into vacuous cliches that we see on the dancefloors of most milongas outside of Buenos Aires today.

One of the problems that we encounter here is a communication gap between those who understand music and those that they are trying to teach. Musicians are comfortable communicating to other musicians or to music students who are willing to invest time and effort into understanding the intricacies of music. However, the rule of pedagogy is that things need to be simplified to the level of the student so as to then bring the student up to a level where the knowledge gained is useful, as to do otherwise is to lose the student. Musicians tend not to understand this necessity to simplify in order to bring people along, the result being that musicality is taught by people whose background is studio dancing but who have inadequate understanding of music as a form that cannot be picked up in the dancing studio but that is written and has its own sort of structure.

Myths of diversity and popular culture

The cliches that we hear in Tango workshops and read online is that tango emerged in Buenos Aires in the latter part of the 19th century out of a mishmash of European and African genres, out of the intermingling of immigrant workers from Europe with African slaves practicing Condombe rituals, in the back streets and the brothels of Buenos Aires. It gives the impression of a cultural form emerging sponteously out of the creative spirit of the lowest strate of society generating something truly spectacular and transformative.

This idea of emergence may sound plausible to those who are exposed to the fads of Western pop and rock music that apparently create something novel every decade. In fact, pop is based on an extremely limited musical vocabulary and what makes up for this poverty is the addition of an ostinato rhythm added by the drum kit or electronic drum machine. This phenomenon, which addicts the mass of consumers of pop and rock is quite new in music. Prior to pop, rhythm emerges out of the music itself rather than being added externally by the drum kit. As Roger Scruton points out in Understanding Music, without this external addition, much of pop would lack its impact. Scruton writes:

There is an extreme case of ostinato phenomenon, in which rhythm seems to become detached from harmonic and melodic organization, so as to be fired at them from outside, as it were. I refer to rhythmic ‘backing’, as exemplified by a certain style of pop.

To see how the ostinato rhythm is external to much pop music compare Genesis “No Son Of Mine” (1991) with an ‘acoustic’ version by Genesis in which the drum beat goes out for a portion of the song whereby it loses its impact. When played on acoustic guitar with no drums at all much of the impact of the original version is lost.

So pop music and all the apparent novelty is completely spurious, comprising short chord progressions repeated cyclically with little internal rhythm generated by melodically or harmonically but imposed by an artificial beat. The reality is that music of any sophistication or complexity is a fairly technical skill that is hardly the domain of the poor and the illiterate. Most complex musical genres emerged over long periods of time passed on from one generation to the next. Music that requires any sort of orchestration, ie., that has several musicians playing different instruments playing in concert necessiates it to be written down. It is more likely that, as with the various forms of rock music, novely involves several variations within a genre are created, much as funk and RnB are variation on jazz.

While it is common to find today many musicians who play in rock or pop bands who do not know how to read music or know music theory, this is possibley only because much contemporary music is a variation on the blues, that is, they use a cycle of basic chords. Tango music, especially the danceable variety, is more complex. While Carlos Gardel might have run through a chord progression on his guitar while he sang, a tango formation of four or more instruments playing for dancing is already a complex affair that is unlikely to have spontanously and organically emerged out of the back streets of a port city.

It is much more likely that, as rock is but a variation on the 12 bar blues, tango is a local variation on a more permanent tradition that has a longer and wider span. This approach differs from the more standard approaches that are currently in fashion, that are influenced by a sort of relativist anthropology and which emphasise diversity rather than commonality, and prefer to find the ‘roots’ in the oppressed underclasses rather than privileged culture. My view is that music if any complexity involves cumulative development and technical training of some sort and is unlikely to emerge spontanously out of the oppressed underclass. We are not talking here about banging out a rhythm with a couple of sticks. The building and playing of instruments such as guitars, flutes, violins and bandoneons demand fairly complex technical skills and materials that do not come easily and cheaply. I suspect that the idea that semi-literates can play tango music is significantly due to the fact that a lot of modern music such as rock seems to be played by semi-literates. But much of modern ‘guitar’ music is based on the 12-bar blues and most 12 year olds can learn to play a blues tune in a handful of lessons, after that it’s all pretty much the same.

In fact, we do find that tango is actually a part of the evolution of partner dances that originate with British country dance. My suggestion is, instead of reading the standard accounts of the origins of tango in the back streets of Buenos Aikres, a better way to gain insight into the origins and structure of tango music is to read the Wikipedia article on the Cuban Contradanza, subsequently known as Habanera. Cuban Habanera is the key connection between the English country dance and European contradase on the one hand, and Tango and the other latin folk dances on the other. The key contribution that Habanera makes to European contradanse is the addition of an African rhythm. It thus explains the key African contribution to the latin dances that are based on the Habanera rhythm.

The standard sort of anthropological readings of the history of tango are politically correct in that the current academic fashion is to stress the lowly origins for popular culture, diversity, difference from the formal European tradition, and the transgressive aspect whereby these forms challenge the mainstream or acceptable culture, where white Europeans intermingle with dark women in seedy locales. Thus, a reviewer of Chasteen’s 2004 book “National Rhythms, African Roots: The Deep History of Latin American Popular Dance” writes that:

Dance could unite people across boundaries of class, race, and – since the dances under study are couples dances – obviously gender. Yet precisely because popular dance ruptured those boundaries, elites, the state, and the Church all considered dances with African cultural influence transgressive to the social, political and sexual order of things. … Chasteen argues that the story of transgressive popular dance is one of race mixing, a reason official culture so long opposed it. Indeed Chasteen posits that Church and state never succeeded in repressing transgressive dances since powerful men enjoyed the “privileged sexual access to poorer, darker women” (p. 204). The full extent of the sexual politics …

We can see how these sorts of narratives are spun by academics following the current fashion in political correctness and ‘radical discourses’, with plenty of ‘transgression’ and ‘oppression’ to get the book accepted by academic publishers and ultimately to be ordered by dance departments and paid for by university libraries. In other words, in the present climate of academic culture studies this is the kind of thing to need to say for the book to be accepted by predominantly female, leftist, probably lesbian and almost definitely radical feminist dance department and sociology academics: a narrative of the appropriation of exotic African cultures and oppression of poor dark women by powerful white men.

It’s all very exotic, radical and titilating, but whether there is any truth to it or not (which is questionable) pretty much useless from the point of view of a person wishing to learn how to dance tango as a form of self-improvement and cultural development. On the contrary, I suggest that the understanding of tango in terms of the evolution of the structure of tango music, rather than giving us spontaneous diversity of local musical forms, provides us with an understanding of what they have in common and the connection between them. While perhaps less radical and titilating, and more boring and bland, showing connections and continuities with established mainstream culture provides, in my view, a more useful way into the form for the student.

The basis of danceable tango: the habanera rhythm

I propose that in order to understand the basic rhythmic structure of tango we need to trace it back to its roots in the habaneira rhythm and to understand (i) what the habaneira rhythm is, (ii) what are its varieties, (iii) where it originates, and (iv) how it influences dances such as tango. In addressing these questions in the simplest way possible my primary source for the time being is going to be Wikipedia. So I will cite the Wikipedia entry on Contradanza and insert my comments. The roots of tango trace back to English country dance, subsequently known as Contradanza. First, Wikipedia informs us as follows:

Contradanza (also called contradanza criolla, danza, danza criolla, or habanera) is the Spanish and Spanish-American version of the contradanse, which was an internationally popular style of music and dance in the 18th century, derived from the English country dance and adopted at the court of France. Contradanza was brought to America and there took on folkloric forms that still exist in Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, Panama and Ecuador. In Cuba during the 19th century it became an important genre, the first written music to be rhythmically based on an African rhythm pattern and the first Cuban dance to gain international popularity, the progenitor of danzón, mambo and cha-cha-cha, with a characteristic “habanera rhythm” and sung lyrics.Outside Cuba the Cuban contradanza became known as the habanera – the dance of Havana – and that name was adopted in Cuba itself subsequent to its international popularity in the later 19th century, though it was never so called by the people who created it.

So here we can see that what became known as the Habanera in the 19th century was derived from the English country dance that traces back to the Reneissance and contradanse of the Baroque period. This form subsequently became rhythmically based on an African rhythm in Cuba and came to be known as Habanera which forms the basis for many folk dances in South America.

The contradanza was popular in Spain and spread throughout Spanish America during the 18th century. According to musicologist Peter Manuel, it may be impossible to resolve the question of the contradanza’s origin, as it has been pointed out by Cuban musicologist Natalio Galán in humoristically labeling the genre as “anglofrancohispanoafrocubano” (English-French-Spanish-African-Cuban).

The most conventional consensus in regard to the origin of this popular Cuban genre was established by novelist Alejo Carpentier, in his book from 1946 “La Música en Cuba.” In that book he proposes a theory that signals the French contredance, supposedly introduced in Cuba by French immigrants fleeing the Haitian Revolution (1791–1803), as the prototype for the creation of the creolized Cuban Contradanza. However, according to other important Cuban musicologists, such as Zoila Lapique and Natalio Galan, it is quite likely that the Contradanza had been introduced to Havana directly from Spain, France or England several decades earlier.

The earliest Cuban contradanza of which a record remains is “San Pascual Bailón”, which was written in 1803. Certain characteristics would set the Cuban contradanza apart from the contredanse by the mid-19th century, notably the incorporation of the African cross-rhythm called the tresillo. The habanera rhythm can be thought of as a combination of tresillo and the backbeat.

The basic habanera rhythm is most familiar from Bizet’s Carmen. It is made up of a Tresillo as demonstrated in the following visualisation:

This basic rhythm gives tango music the swing that invites people to dance. Play the same tango more legato and it becomes listening music. This is the reason the post-1950 tango recordings that are predominantly arranged for the listening audience are not danceable. In the same vein, you can not dance to traditional tango unless you are able to hear and respond to the underlying swing of the habanera rhythm, or more specifically, the Tresillo beat, that is implicit in all danceable tangos. Conversely, nce you are able to discern this rhythm dancing to traditional tango becomes fairly straightforward.

Below are some more videos with examples of the Habanera rhythm as well as some discussion of the rhythm in relation to tango. Unfortunately the latter are all in Spanish with no available subtitles. I will try to find a translation of English language videos and add them as soon as I do.

The Wikipedia article on Contradanza tells us that the habanera rhythm’s time signature is 2/4. An accented upbeat in the middle of the bar lends power to the habanera rhythm. This can be written as follows:

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This rhythm can be heard in the bass line of these examples of habanera. In the first set of examples we can hear how the habenra rhythm is incorporated into what is otherwise Eurpean music by the Cuban composer Manuel Saumell (1818-70) who was trained and workded in Havana and was one of the first to introduce Cuban folkloric musical styles to a classically-grounded genre. In the first interpretation we can hear a transition from what sounds like European dancing music to distinctly Cuban habanera when the double bass and shaker comes in with the habenera rhythm:

In the following sample the piano plays the habenera rhythm with the left hand which gives the pieces a swing:

The  bassline in the following samples sounds very close to Bizet’s Carmen:


Syncopated cross-rhythms called the tresillo and the cinquillo, basic rhythmic cells in Afro-Latin and African music, began the Cuban dance’s differentiation from its European form. … This pattern is heard throughout Africa, and in many Diaspora musics, known as the congo, tango-congo, and tango. … The syncopated rhythm may be vocalised as “boom…ba-bop-bop”, and “da, ka ka kan.” It may be sounded with the Ghanaian beaded gourd instrument axatse, vocalized as: “pa ti pa pa”, beginning on the second beat so that the last “pa” coincides with beat one, ending on the beginning of the cycle so that the part contributes to the cyclic nature of the rhythm . . . Carpentier (2001:149) states that the cinquillo was brought to Cuba in the songs of the black slaves and freedmen who emigrated to Santiago de Cuba from Haiti in the 1790s . . .

Contradanza subsequently formed the basis for variations in Cuba and elsewhere, such as danza habanera, danzon and danza:

although the contradanza and danza were musically identical, the dances were different . . . A danza entitled “El Sungambelo”, dated 1813, has the same structure as the contradanza – the four-section scheme is repeated twice, ABAB (Santos 1982) and the cinquillo rhythm can already be heard.

Habera rhythm in tango

The habanera rhythm forms the basis of the early tango and continues in some form throughout:

The Argentine milonga and tango makes use of the habanera rhythm of a dotted quarter-note followed by three eighth-notes, with an accent on the first and third notes. To some extent the habanera rhythm is retained in early tangos, notably El Choclo and “La Morocha” (1904). . . .

In 1883 Ventura Lynch, a student of the dances and folklore of Buenos Aires, noted the milonga was “so universal in the environs of the city that it is an obligatory piece at all the lower-class dances (bailecitos de medio pelo), and … has also been taken up by the organ-grinders, who have arranged it so as to sound like the habanera dance. It is danced in the low life clubs . . .

Here is an example of a habanera El pañuelo de Pepa by Manuel Saumell we can almost hear a danceable milonga in the bassline, played either by the Viola in the first video, the left hand on the piano, or the guitar playing the rhythm in the trio in the second video below:


What is interesting is that the 1-2 pulse of the milonga emerges out of the more complex habanera rhythm which can be counted 1 and-2-and 1 and etc.


Here you will find my replies to the discussion on TangoVoice which are being censored by the owner without his or her notification as of mid-2018. TangoVoice apparently did not censor any discussion until the issue became hypergamy and misandry in women. Below are my responses that are being censored.

Ultimate Values and Desecration

Currently it is possible to say that there are two sorts of Argentine tango. One is the milongas in Buenos Aires that maintain the traditions of tango. The other are the milongas outside of Buenos Aires that are primarily commercial outfits. Whether or not they promote themselves as traditional and are operated by Argentines, the latter are fundamentally oriented to commercialising cultural product and seem to inevitably downgrade the value of the tango experience. Traditionalists insist that tango cannot be commodified and commercialised.

In the modern world, traditional values are being replaced by instrumental values. These two sorts of values are fundamentally different. Instrumental values are concerned with means to ends. I have a goal and see something as a means to an end. When I learn to dance I must view learning and dancing as a means (as instrumental) to some further ends. Values, on the other hand, are concerned with the ends that we are ultimately aiming for. There must therefore be a disagreement about the ends of dancing tango between the traditionalists and the consumers of tango outside of Argentina.

When one looks at much of the marketing for tango on the internet the images resemble that of ballroom and club dances. The dancers are cool, fit and sexy, wearing cool and sexy outfits, engaging in a fun and exciting activity. These images reflect contemporary culture which has dispensed with ultimate values in favour of short-term hedonistic gratification. There is no attempt to achieve the sort of experience of transcendent beauty that was the end of art until about a hundred years ago. Instead, music and dance aim only to provide entertainment.

There is, however, a difference between art and entertainment. The philosopher of aesthetics Roger Scruton tells us that the goal of art is beauty and that we need beauty to make life worth living. If we only ever experience mood lifting entertainment we will in the end feel spiritually depleted. Therefore, people came to the view that art has a spiritual function to put us in touch with beauty that transcends ordinary reality and is thus redeeming.

Commodifying a form like tango must therefore inevitably involve corrupting it in one way or another. It requires appealing to our lower instincts. It requires the product of kitsch art which provides immediate gratification but only by producing feelings and experiences that are inauthentic. The problem is that, because beauty is no longer valued in culture generally, we have lost the ability to evaluate critically the products of the mass culture industry. The education system no longer teaches the history of art other than in order to contrast it with the achievements of modern and post-modern art that no longer aims at beauty, but merely at novelty, creativity and being interesting, at ‘deconstructing’ ordinary reality in order to desecrate it.

Because so much of contemporary culture is oriented towards this sort of desecration, those who have been exposed to postmodernist forms of education have no way of understanding what traditionalists are talking about when they insist that there are certain ultimate values. It is extremely difficult to critically unpack the aesthetic values in cultural products like music, painting, architecture or dancing. Modern architecture is invariably ugly and dehumanising, and yet it’s not obvious why. Contemporary music is dumbed down and degenerate and yet we have lost the ability to explain why we should prefer something else.

The traditional practitioners of Argentine tango are therefore not alone, but share this difficulty with traditionalists and conservatives in all the other spheres of culture, in music, art and architecture. All of culture is set against tradition, viewing it as an expression of an oppressive patriarchal system that needs to be abolished in favour of a new utopia that dispenses with beauty and instead is constantly creative. It views the function of art to desecrate, to show what is ultimate and beautiful as being really kitsch and ugly, and instead to elevate what is ugly or ordinary to the status of art and culture. In such a culture insisting on traditional values and pointing to the beauty of a practice that ought to be preserved will inevitably draw derision and contempt.