For Sunday’s World Cup final, a paean to the genius of Lionel Messi. Watch his magical dribbling skills in awe, click here for a compilation of some of his great solo goals (the magnificent finale adorned with suitably ecstatic commentary!), and admire this longer compilation. Among innumerable tributes, here’s a detailed analysis, and I like this recent article by Anita Asante. See also this BBC documentary.
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The vision of Messi dancing his way through flailing defenders reminded me to expand my limited acquaintance with Argentine tango—don’t worry, I’m not going to try and dance. 
As with flamenco, fado (here, with sequel), and rebetika, the demi-monde roots of tango in the ports and bordellos were soon co-opted in a typical progression from banning (like the waltz) to bourgeois respectability, as the genre’s sleazy, predatory background gave way to the elegant sensuality of polished cabaret and ballroom performance (for critiques of artistic competition, click here). Please excuse me if I round up some of the Usual Suspects below, and for focusing on music rather than dance.
The early years, and the Golden Age
In the traditional style, the habanera rhythm, with the jagged, staccato syncopation of its 3+3+2 accents (cf. Taco taco taco burrito), is common to other Latin American genres (see this useful wiki page). The tango sound became more distinctive from the late 19th century with the addition of the bandoneón, originally used for church music in Germany (cf. Accordion crimes—including an early Polish tango).
The dance, with its sinuous intertwinings, spread around Europe from 1910. Echoing the “posturing machismo” of flamenco, Ricardo Guïraldes wrote in homage (sic):
Hats tilted over sardonic sneers. The all-absorbing love of a tyrant, jealously guarding his dominion, over women who have surrendered submissively, like obedient beasts…
Naturally, in recent years the sexism of tango dance has been subjected to much critique.
The global fame of tango was spread by the new radio, recording, and film industries. Here’s Rudolph Valentino with a tango-travesty in The four horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921):
Here’s a playlist of early 78s:
Here’s a remastered album of Julio de Caro’s band in the 1920s:
and the great Aníbal Troilo on bandonéon with singer Edmundo Rivero in Cafetín de Buenos Aires (1948):
Tango is part of a widespread musical family expressing heartache (duende, saudade, sevda, and so on), whose letras lyrics enhance its melodic melancholy; however, in vocal timbre I find none of the harsh anguish of flamenco cante jondo. The quintessential tango singer was Carlos Gardél (1890–1935), heard on playlists like this:
To redress the macho dominance, women singers from the Golden Age—some great tracks here:
“The ultimate tango cliché”
Like other pieces that suffer from over-exposure (such as Bach’s Air, the Mahler Adagietto, Debussy’s Clair de lune, Ravel’s Bolero, Dream a little dream of me…), it would be great if we could hear La cumparsita with original ears, but the kitsch image of Some like it hot (1959) leaves an indelible impression. Slower and more evocative than the first recording by Roberto Firpo (1917) is Eddy Duchin in 1933:
With the lyrics it’s quite transformed—I like Carlos Gardél’s version (#5 in playlist above), reminiscent of fado. Like most performers, he sang the Si supieras version by Pascual Contursi, which is maudlin enough—but the anguish of tango is rarely expressed so extremely as in Matos Rodríguez’s own lyrics, heard in this 1945 recording:
La cumparsa de miserias sin fin desfila The parade of endless miseries marches
en torno de aquel ser enfermo around that sickly being
que pronto ha de morir de pena… who will soon die of grief…
Well, that’s the last time I’m inviting him to one of my parties.
The piece must have become a millstone around the necks of tangueros—but its immortality was confirmed by Tom and Jerry:
Meanwhile, as juntas and Perónism rose and fell, Buenos Aires was in flux; with an ever-swelling immigrant population and changing tastes, “old-guard” tango declined amidst the rise of pop music. And so to the nuevo tango of Astor Piazzolla (1921–92) (Songlines; wiki), “the Boulez of the bandoneón” (an epithet attributed to L’Éxpress, making one worry about its readership figures), who “elevated” the genre to the status of art music in the concert hall (NB What is serious music?!). After his youth working with some of the great bands of Buenos Aires, Piazzolla was drawn to the style of modern WAM composers like Bartók and Stravinsky, studying with Alberto Ginastera and Nadia Boulanger—who, to her credit, insisted that he follow his own path.
Studying with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, 1955.
He also recruited jazz musicians to his groups, although by the standards of jazz his arrangements were over-prescribed (cf. Unpacking “improvisation”).
Again, just a selection. Tres minutos con realidad (1957):
Adiós nonino (1959), a requiem for his father:
Balada para un loco (1969), with his second wife Amelita Baltar:
Libertango (1974) (playlist):
Suite Troileana (1975):
I’m keen on his late Quinteto Tango Nuevo, with Fernando Suarez Paz (violin), Pablo Ziegler (piano), Horacio Malvicino (guitar), and Hector Console (bass)—click here for their 1984 gig in Utrecht (playlist).
As the “world music” scene took wing and boundaries were breaking down, Piazzolla became a legend. A definitive book is María Susan Azzi and Simon Collier, Le Grand Tango: The life and music of Astor Piazzolla (2000). And here’s the documentary Tango maestro (Michael Dibb, 2004):
Joining a long list of London gigs that I kick myself for missing, in 1985 Piazzolla performed for a week at the Almeida Theatre! Awww…
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It’s too easy to think that [Piazzolla] was leaving it all behind or rejecting it; in truth he was completely a part of this music and wanted it to be ever greater, to grow rather than to stagnate. And the dead end is to think that since Piazzolla innovated, then the natural progression of tango is the language that he invented. The danger there is for other composers, arrangers, and performers to get absorbed into Piazzollean language, which is what happened in the 80s and 90s.
Finally, some bonus tracks. Dance, with its complex technique, remains a vital part of tango’s social life, deserving greater attention than I can offer; but here are some staged representations. Carlos Suara’s 1998 movie Tango:
For Last tango in Paris and The conformist, click here. A scene from Frida (2002):
And Rose and Giovanni in Strictly:
and Şecaattin Tanyerl (1921–94):
Hmm. Like I’d know—I was just admiring Messi weaving his way through yet another helpless defence, and recalling his time at Barcelona, comparable only to Bach at Leipzig [Late entry for 2022 Pseuds’ Corner Award—Ed.].
 Useful starting points include the chapter in The Rough Guide to world music, Songlines (including this selection), and wiki:
For the wider context, see Peter Manuel Popular musics of the non-Western world.