Tango Stories – The French Connection
“Tango Stories: Musical Secrets” is the title of a wonderful book by Michael Lovocah. As the title indicates, there are many great stories about Tango and its history. The interaction between the facts and those oral histories are all at once compelling, confusing, and interesting to sort out.
- Did Tango have its genesis and development in the brothels of Buenos Aires?
- Did Pope Pius X weigh in on whether Tango was a sin?
… Perhaps subjects for future blog posts?
- Also, was Tango embraced by upper class society in Argentina only after it had been so enthusiastically embraced by the French?
I want to write here about this last story, one that we sometimes hear about. The relationship between Tango and Paris is colorful, rich, and full of great stories. Did the French legitimize Tango for the upper classes in Argentina?
The history of Argentina closely parallels that of the United States in that in the second half of the 19th century there was a tremendous influx of immigrants from all across Europe. Tango originated in the lower class, immigrant communities and neighborhoods of Argentina and Uruguay. It was created and developed in the same way dancing and dance music always has been, by folks coming together for expression and celebration and as a way to share their common experiences – a way to interact.
”Art washes away from the soul the
dust of everyday life,” Pablo Picasso.
Tango music has its roots in African and Cuban rhythms, especially the habanera. Its evolution and developing style borrowed elements from folk-dances and even has cowboy (Gaucho) influences. The tremendous influx of immigrants with their dreams for this new world created fertile ground for Tango’s artistic development. It was coalescing in the late 1800’s when the musical forms and dance figures began to mature into a clearly evident art form: Argentine Tango.
This maturing process involved composers, poets/lyricists, musicians, and dancers.
I love how Horacio Ferrer writes about the creators of Tango:
“The genesis of Tango [was] made by the wild artists who created its pieces and the way of imagining, playing, singing [and] dancing them.
“Above all, arts are not the result of miraculous deeds. … They are the talent, intuition, … and work of real and concrete human beings, … gifted for art, the human power [of] choosing,.. changing, … adding, … or adapting what already exists so as to offer the fruits of innovation.” [from the “Golden Age of Tango” by Horacio Ferrer]
“Music expresses that which cannot be said
and on which it is impossible to be silent.” Victor Hugo
So, by the late 1800’s Tango had evolved into a vibrant phenomenon that included composers, dancers, and musicians, but how did Tango make its way around the globe? Well, in a variety of ways which I will talk about, but there is a great story from 1906. It would appear that the Argentines were quite proud of their new Tango music. So, someone had the idea of “exporting” it. Reportedly, a thousand copies of the tango “La morocha” were printed and loaded on the ship, the ARA Presdiente Sarmiento. History says that the ship sailed on a worldwide voyage and copies of the sheet music were left in every port the ship visited. Some also say that the Tango “El choclo” was also shipped aboard the Sarmeinto. (from Néstor Pinsón on Todo Tango).
Here’s photo of the ship which was built for the Argentine Naval Academy and made at least 6 circumnavigations of the globe. You can visit the ship today, now a museum, in Puerto Madero near downtown Buenos Aires.
Making Tango Recordings in Paris
Another introduction of Tango to Europe happened in 1907 when Angel Villoldo, the composer of “El choclo,” travelled to Paris to make some recordings. The making of phonograph records was quite new at that time and the best techniques were reported to be in Europe. Villoldo traveled to Paris with Alfredo Gobbi (the father of the orchestra leader of the same name) and his wife Flora Rodriguez who was a singer.
Here is a recording from that trip in 1907. Flora Rodriguez is singing, of all things, “La morocha,” the Tango that was spread around the world aboard the Sarmiento
There is little else said about their time in Paris beyond their making recordings, but one can imagine that they also gave musical performances.
Enrique Saborido – “La morocha”
The Tango “La morocha” was composed by Enrique Saborido with lyrics by Angel Villoldo. Interestingly, Enrique Saborido is the great grandfather of Sofia Saborido who, along with her partner, Pablo Inza, are one of the premier dancing and teaching couples in the world today. I interviewed Sofia about her great grandfather.
She said the story about the Sarmiento was true and that Enrique himself traveled to Paris in 1911. There he taught other musicians how to play tango “properly” and, as he was an excellent dancer, he also gave dance lessons. It was during this period, 1911-1913, that Tango really captured the imagination and interest of people all around the world. Enrique Saborido, the composer and dance teacher, was likely one of the early and influential ambassadors.
He is also the composer of the Tango “Felicia” and many others, and returned to Argentina at the start of WWI in 1914.
Tango infiltrated France and Paris in a number of other ways. First through the port at Marseille where sailors would dance and perhaps the printed copies of “La morocha” were deposited. There were also some Parisian stage performances in 1908 and evidence of a Tango demonstration in 1910. In that same year, Columbia Phonograph also brought an Orquesta tipica criolla to Paris to record and perform.
During this time, wealthy Argentines were also travelling to Europe (back to their “home” countries) and many of the younger generation were already dancing tango. (More about that in a bit.)
Tango went from a curiosity in 1910 to being all the rage in just three years. By 1913 it was being danced everywhere. Dance academies were teaching the “new” dance and parties and Tango Teas were springing up everywhere including London. Tango actually spread throughout all of Europe and to the United States during these years.
Tango Orchestras Travel to Paris
World War I (1914 to 1919) put a big damper on the expansion of Tango in Paris, but following the war things began to pick up where they had left off.
Many musicians travelled from Argentina to France including Francisco Canaro and his brother Rafael. Rafael Canaro (pictured) spent a number of years in France and made recordings there as well. Here is one with French lyrics. We know this song more commonly as “La melodia de nuestro adios” but here it is presented by Rafael Canaro and his orchestra and sung in French.
“La melodie de notre adieu”
[Lyrics in French]
Tendre et discrète comme un aveu,
Qui nous trouble toujours un peu
La mélodie de notre adieu.
J´entends mon coeur parfois
Quelques doux regrets d’autrefois,
Il s´y mêle un lointain désir
Un ancien souvenir.
Car malgré tout mon espoir lassé,
Elle ranime le passé
Que je croyais presque effacé.
Et dans un rêve
Une larme perle à mes deux,
Lorsqu´en mon coeur s´élève
Cette chanson d´adieu.
Rafael Canaro was in France from 1925 until 1939 when, again because of a world war, he returned to Argentina.
One of the most successful Tango music band leaders in France was Manuel Pizarro (pictured)
who fostered numerous orchestras. They often performed in traditional Argentine costumes.
Here’s a portion of an another example of the French influence on Tango lyrics. “Nuit de Montmartre” (also known as “Noches de Montmartre”) was written and is here performed by Manuel Pizarro . As you can see from the words, lots of French references including a mention of “Mimi” from “La Boheme.”
Place Pigalle… Midnight…
Courtesan in a regal car,
The champagne kisses…
The last drink –
he will drink it in his mouth
Perfumed by the woman of Paris
Jazz-band and balalaikas and bandoneons…
A thousand kisses… A thousand women…
The world’s carnival, all year round
with their passions unleashing
While in the dark deserted street,
leaning on the door of some bistro,
Mimi, hungry and cold, remembers the old
romantic Montmartre of yesterday.
[Translation – Rachel Moon]
Pizarro also returned to Argentina in 1939 because of the war. In an interview later in life he reflected on his time in France.
“I would like to believe that it will be reported that my contribution, through tango, was to convey an understanding of Argentina to Europe, to make our music known and popular everywhere, not just in the dance halls.”
As mentioned above, numerous other Tango orchestras and musicians travelled from Argentina to Europe around this time including Osvaldo Fresedo, Miguel Calo, Ricardo Malerba, the Canaro brothers, and Francisco Alongi.
The French Influence on Tango
As we’ve seen, many French references and words made their way into Tango songs and even entire Tangos had French lyrics. Arguably there is no equivalent in any other popular music where a foreign language so infiltrated the songs and lyrics. Some examples of the French influenced tangos are:
- “Comme il faut”
- “El Marne”
- “Sans souci”
- “Place Pigall”
- “Palais de Glace”
Enrique Santos Discépolo, the famous Tango lyricist, wrote new lyrics for “El choclo” in 1946 and summed up how Paris and Argentina were intertwined.
“Carancanfunfa se hizo al mar con tu bandera y en un ‘perno” mezclo a Paris con Puente Alsina.”
(“Carancanfunfa sailed to the sea with your flag, and with a Pernod he mixed Paris with Puente Alsina.”)
Carancanfunfa = a famous Tango dancer
Pernod = an anise liqueur
Puente Alsina = the Alsina bridge in Buenos Aires
When talking about France and Tango one must mention Carlos Gardel, the most famous Tango singer of all time.
Gardel was born in France in 1890 but his mother took him to Argentina when he was just 2. He toured France in 1923-24 and again in 1928 where he was hailed as a Parisian celebrity. Here is an announcement of one of his Paris performances (notice Pizarro’s name above…)
Did the French Legitimize Tango for the Upper-class in Argentina?
So, back to the main story we sometimes hear about Tango, Paris, and the acceptance of Tango by upper class Argentines.
Between 1903 and 1910 there were about 1000 phonograph records made in Argentina. Fully one-third of them were Tango recordings. Phonograph players, those that played flat discs with two sides and a spiral groove, were patented in 1887 by Emile Berliner, a German immigrant working in Washington D.C.
Here is a photo of a 1904 “Berliner” Phonograph.
In the early 1900’s this was new technology. Also, probably quite expensive and more likely to be owned by upper class families. So, who was buying all those new Tango records? Most likely it was the upper class. They were aware of Tango and loved the music.
It was also likely that the mixing of upper and lower-class people may have happened at bars and brothels where younger Argentine men would hear the music and see and learn the dance. Those same young Argentines were among those travelling back to Europe in the 1910’s sharing Tango music and dancing. That is not to give prominence to the story that brothels were somehow crucial in the story of Tango. My opinion is that they were not, but it is logical that they were an intersection between upper and lower class peoples.
Though much is made of the Tango-mania in Paris in 1913, it was already a thing in Argentina. On May 25, 1910, the Centenary of the May Revolution was celebrated with a lavish ceremony in honor of the Infanta Isabel, Princess of Spain. The ceremony was organized by Baron Antonio de Marchi at the Palais de Glace in Ricoleta at which the “dance of the lowlands” (Tango) was performed. By this time the most famous Tango orchestras were playing at both upper-class parties and in venues in central Buenos Aires and the surrounding suburbs. (from The Golden Age of Tango by Horacio Ferrer)
The Tango explosion of the 1910’s was actually a global phenomenon and the sensation of Tango that enthralled Paris, France and Europe was the result of a number of interactions. Argentina was sending music, and musicians, and dancers and travelers. The Tango that was born in immigrant and lower class communities had spread first to upper-class Argentines who then carried it via commerce and travel to Europe and beyond.
Some Other Fun French Connections
Here is a video of Tango dancing in France in 1913 from the movie “La Mort Qui Tue.”
Do you want to learn French Tango? Here’s an instruction video from 1928. It looks easy, perhaps because it’s all in parallel system.
Here is a video of French social dancing from 1928. Again, all in parallel system.
Lastly, the famous actress Louise Brooks is shown dancing tango in this French movie “Prix de Beauté” from 1930.