by Ian Whitcomb

Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by clicking here,
or by going to

Tango ...that gust of wind...that diabolical undertaking, challenging the unresting years; made up of dust and time, man lasts less than the frivolous melody."

-- Jorge Luis Borges

Tango, a Latin American classic, today has its center back where the form began--in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where an aficionado can tango from dusk ‘til dawn and beyond. And around the world, tango is today one of the hottest and hippest steps. It’s also one of the oldest.

Tango was the rock and roll of its age. Like ragtime, a North American cousin, tango trailed noxious fumes, disreputable to the Buenos Aires blue bloods, because of its origins in brothels. There, so it was said, the dance had been developed by lustful customers killing time while waiting for the lady-for-hire. Male danced with male, belly to belly and sometimes knife to knife. There was much machismo. Later, the women became involved, but always arched in subjugation. Musical accompaniment was simple and folksy: a guitar, with maybe a flute and violin. Like the culture of rock, this early expression of an underclass gradually spread to Argentine youth as a rebellion, an alternative lifestyle to the restrictions imposed by the late-Victorian and European-imported manners of bourgeois Argentinean society. Tango spawned a lingo, a dress code, a certain street swagger. Tango was an artistic extension of real working-class life. Braggadocio set to music.

At the same time, around the turn of the century, American ragtime was collecting the same bad reputation and the same eager audience of excited young people. Rhythmically, the two forms were connected by a constant syncopation. Ragtime’s was confined to the treble (or right hand of the piano), while tango’s syncopation concentrated on the bass (or left hand). Both employed the emollience of nineteenth-century European romanticism in melody and harmony. The result was an addictive condiment of yin and yang, of sweet and sour, of the safe and the dangerous.

Despised and proscribed by Argentinean society, the tango somehow surfaced in Paris around the 1910s, where it was a sensation. The trendsetters of café society embraced the tango, although by this time the more excessive sensuousness had been excised and a certain refinement brought in. From Paris the new craze was taken to London, and thence to New York, where Mr. and Mrs. Vernon Castle, premier ballroom dance teachers and the darlings of the upper crust, removed a few more rough edges--the snaky interlacing of legs, the belly-rubbing-and turned this once-folksy dance into a decorous city walk. Civilization had once more kept back the encroaching barbaric hordes, it would seem.

However, in th early 1920s, the beast returned in the sinuous shape of Rudolph Valentino, lusting and thrusting as a cigaretted gaucho in the movie The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Animal instinct returned, but, after all, this was supposed to be "The Jazz Age," where "anything goes."

After a while, things settled down to normality and the tango became anybody’s genre--no need to be a loose gaucho. A Scandinavian composed the enduring "Jalousie;" Broadway music man Vincent Youmans contributed the superb "Orchids in the Moonlight" to an Astaire and Rogers movie vehicle.

Meanwhile, back in Argentina, tango as a national music had grown into a popular art form. The simple early groups had been superseded by sophisticated orchestras featuring the characteristic classic tango sound of the bandoneon. A German-invented combination of accordion and concertina, the bandoneon pumped forth a heart-rending sadness of tone, jerked by a pulse puffed full of defiance and a sort of fatal pride.

The tango song appeared about this time, a near-constant wail about the perfidiousness of women and the attraction of death, set in a wallow of self-pity. A lachrymose situation was saved by the artistry of singer Carlos Gardel, who brought to the tango a hearty bravado that transcended this slough of despair. Gardel was a Latin American superstar on stage, on record and in the movies. He became a deathless legend after being killed in a plane crash in 1935.

By the 1950s, the tango had settled down nicely as a standard dance taught by Arthur Murray and his ilk. The Hit Parade had room for such novelties as "Never Do a Tango with an Eskimo" and Pearl Bailey vamping "Takes Two to Tango," not forgetting Broadway’s "Hernando’s Hideaway" and "Whatever Lola Wants. "

Argentina was not immune to the virus of rock and roll, that friendly invader of the middle 1950s. Tango went into sharp decline. Not until the 1980s and the phenomenal international success of the show Tango Argentino was a true tough-guy tango reestablished. A tough guy, however, with an elegant and nippy tread. Today everybody’s tangoing again--from Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman to the Evita dancers. I hope you’ll try this collection out on your keyboard, and maybe even stage a tango tea.

"The tango is the deepest popular dance in the world." -- Waldo Frank


Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by clicking here,
or by going to