Tango, Samba, Modernity and Nation

It takes more than two

by | Oct 21, 2007

A man and a woman dance the tango on a dock. She wears a knee-length red dress, is is dressed in a black shirt, black pants, black coat. She is dancing in front of him (her back to his front) in a dance position known as

Argentine photographer Sergio Segura captures the elegance of tango performance as dance partners perform tango in shadow position.

The story begins in a Paris cabaret, in the 1910s. Suddenly, the conductor of the orchestra—all Brazilian musicians—announces: “And now, ladies and gentlemen, a Brazilian Tango!” The story could have ended right there, if it weren’t for a group of Argentine tourists in the audience who rose up and started a fight: “This is impossible, the tango is Argentine.” Tango, indeed, was Argentine, but there was also a lively and effervescent Brazilian tango by some of the most interesting Brazilian musicians such as Ernesto de Nazareth and Chiquinha Gonzaga.

Even though in the 1910s, the tango’s nationality could still be disputed, by the 1930s the panorama had radically changed. In 1937, Carmen Miranda—“The Samba Ambassador”—recorded a song entitled O tango e o samba (Tango and Samba):

Chegou a hora!
Chegou!… Chegou!
Meu corpo treme e ginga
Qual pandeiro
A hora é boa
E o samba começou
E fez convite a tango
Pra parceiro
Hombre, yo no sé por qué te quiero
Yo te tengo amor sincero
Diz a muchacha do Prata
Pero, no Brasil é diferente
Yo te quiero simplesmente
Teu amor me desacata
Habla castellano num fandango
Argentino canta tango
Ora lento, ora ligeiro
Eu canto e danço, sempre que possa
Um sambinha cheio de “bossa”
Sou do Rio de Janeiro.

The song, which mixes samba and tango, clearly identifies each rhythm with a single national identity. The lyrics spell out the differences between Argentines and Brazilians as expressed by the music and the marked contrast between the rhythms and the corresponding instruments—bandoneón for tango, violão for samba.

On the one hand, the song views tango and samba and the national identities they supposedly represent in opposition to each other. Yet it also merges rhythms and language to create a song that actually contradicts its exclusive quality. The ambivalence of this song—called on the disc label a samba-tango, a “genre,” as far as I know, of which this song is the only specimen—is paradigmatic of the ambivalence that arises on studying the construction of tango and samba as national symbols of Argentina and Brazil. From the fight in the Paris cabaret to Carmen Miranda’s song, the nationalization of samba and tango is completed and fully accomplished. How was this process achieved? And what does this process tells about the nationalization of a Latin American culture?

The two musical forms do share some formal features such as rhythmic predominance and the systematic use of a particular beat (known in the musical world as syncopation). In addition, tango and samba may even share a possible common genealogy. Some research indicates the habanera, a musical style from Cuba—as a possible origin for forms shared by samba and tango. There is also evidence of contacts between these two types of music.

Moreover, several events have both tango and samba—or maxixe, one of the Brazilian musical forms that contributed to samba’s development —as their protagonists. For instance, when tango was said to have been proscribed by Pope Pio X because of its overtly sensual nuances, a satirical quartet was published in a Brazilian magazine, Cá e Lá, in 1913:

Se o Papa soubesse
O gosto que o tango tem
Viria do Vaticano
Dançar maxixe também.
(If the Holy Father knew
just how tasty is the tango,
he’d come from the Vatican
to dance maxixe, too)

A further example involves Carmen Miranda, the film star-singer who became known as “the lady in the tutti-frutti hat.” The story goes that the first time she was asked to sing a samba, she replied with surprise and, perhaps, some indignation, “How dare you, I am a tango singer!”

Even more important than these formal features or the actual historical encounters between the two forms, the cultural network in which both of them are enmeshed presents a series of surprising coincidences.

To name one example: the syncopation and the counterrhythms of tango and samba or maxixe at the turn of the nineteenth century—in combination with typical instruments or some particular lyrics—associated these musical forms with a savage primitivism that the nation was compelled to banish. Their primitiveness meant that they could never play a role in the construction of a national culture. A caricature published in the magazine La Ilustración Argentina in 1882 makes that point quite clearly in a comic drawing representing the animal-like postures of the dancers. (Fig. 1, “Negros bailando,” La Ilustración Argentina, No. 33, November 30th, 1882).

How a national culture could possibly be constructed on such typical and exotic forms that do not meet—at all—modernity’s standards?

By the 1930s, these very same counterrhythms could be associated with the avant-garde music of a Darius Milhaud—who was in fact inspired by samba and maxixe for his Suite Brèsilienne—or a Stravinsky, who would later compose two tangos, one for piano and another for chamber orchestra. Both popular and erudite musical scenes were influenced by tango, samba and the other “danses brunes,” as they became known in Paris. A common trend in the musical language of the period, and not only in Latin America, rhythmic predominance—perceptible both in avant-garde and popular music—made tango and samba or maxixe into some of the most successful musical forms in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century.

The 1920s and 1930s involved a period of an intense and rapid modernization for Latin America. The idea of the primitive came to be tied to a vernacular concept of modernity. Such changes in the constructed meanings of primitivism negotiated the tension between the complex –and at some points contradictory, for a Latin American country—demands of modernity and nation.

These transformations in the meaning of primitivism in this period are similar in many Latin American countries. This movement can be traced in Tarsila do Amaral’s paintings and Oswald de Andrade’s poems, in the criollismo of Jorge Luis Borges and the Argentine avant-garde group’s publication Martín Fierro or the Revista de Antropofagia, the Brazilian avant-garde magazine. Precisely during those decades, some of the most primitive and exotic features of the tango and the samba were emphasized in order to highlight their national characteristics. Music such as the samba, which accentuates the syncopation associated with African music, and the tango, which lingers in a nostalgia for a past world now lost, highlight these aspects. In addition, some contemporary discourses on tango and samba—novels, essays, poems, films, paintings and iconographic representations— are often complex elaborations of the primitive and exotic nature in these musical forms.

Primitivism was also associated with a modern sensibility through some visual representations of tango and samba. Emilio Pettoruti, one of the key figures of Argentine avant-garde, created some paintings with tango as their subject. La canción del pueblo (The people´s song) and Bailarines (Dancers) are just two of the many he painted. Bailarines (1918) uses the modern language of cubism to paint a tango dance, reproducing tango’s corte y quebrada with the angles and intersected planes of cubism. Thus, the painting dissociates itself from realist representation while at the same time referring to a national icon, evoking simultaneously the primitive and the modern, a combination that marks the emergence of a national form. Stressing the avant-garde character of this maneuver, reproductions of Bailarines and La canción popularwere included in one of the issues of Martín Fierro, the journal of Argentina’s avant-garde. In a text signed by Xul Solar, Petorutti is acclaimed as “one of the painters of our vanguardia criolla.”

In Brazil, Cecília Meireles chooses a different path to modernize samba. Her very “feminine” designs depict Afro-Brazilian women in their traditional dresses, but rendered with a sophisticated movement that could be compared to motifs in modern fashion designs. Meireles’ designs—now included in the book Batuque, Samba and Macumba—were exhibited at the Pró-Arte Art Gallery in Rio de Janeiro, in 1933. (Fig. 4 y 5, Baianas) At the opening, anticipating the artistic happenings of later decades, the Escola de Samba da Portela performed one of its first shows. Together with paintings and texts by Emiliano Di Cavalcanti, Lasar Segall, Oswald de Andrade and Mário de Andrade, many samba representations of the period found in samba’s primitivism a modern quality full of potential.

Perhaps the widest ramification of this association of primitivism with modernity can be better seen in Jorge Luis Borges’ 1933 book Evaristo Carriego. A reading of a popular urban poet, Evaristo Carriego reveals itself in fact to be a book on the city of Buenos Aires and the poetics it expresses. In it, Borges articulates a poetics based on some aesthetic principles he encountered in tango. The compadrito, tango’s central character, and the music of courage, as Borges sees real tango, condenses for Borges a national idiosyncrasy that, nonetheless, manifests also a universal drive.

In just one page, citing such authors as Jordanes, Homer, Quevedo, Hugo, Ariosto and Schopenhauer, Borges states that tango “transmits the bellicose joy that was attempted in previous eras by Greek and German rhapsodies.” What becomes, then, of tango as a national icon? In a movement that later he will extend to his short stories, Borges employs simultaneous particularist and universalist strategies, producing a discourse on the nation that sustains an ambiguous relation both to the idea of nation and the concept of universality. In an article published some years earlier, he had claimed:

Contrary to the solemn chauvinism of fascists and imperialists, I have never incurred in that sort of intellectual blunders. I feel more porteño than Argentine and more from Palermo than any other neighborhood.… I am inept for patriotic exaltations and lugonisms: I am bored by visual comparisons and will rather listen to the tango Loca than to the National Anthem!

The almost infinite movement of particularization fragments the nation without ever abandoning the need to construct a discourse that can handle its vibrant heterogeneity. However, that heterogeneity is kept in sometimes too strict and hierarchic boundaries. It is as if only because tango is—according to Borges—like a Greek rhapsody, it could and needs to be esteemed. But making this analogy eclipses many of tango’s most contested features and the populations that played, danced and sang tango.

It is possible to read a figure of some Latin American modernities in this contingent and changing primitivism. As long as the need to construct a national culture coincided with the need to become a modern nation, that changing primitivism paved the way for the construction of a simultaneous national, primitive and modern culture. The historical condition for the modernization of a Latin American culture is inscribed in these convoluted relations: if the nationalization of a cultural form previously considered primitive presented some contradictions to modernization, these contradictions end up being negotiated by the proposition of a primitive and modern form as an alternative type of modernity. These forms embody a new, vernacular identity in those decades of relative optimism for Latin America

The movement is, yet, clearly aporetic—a skeptical dance in and of itself. It reveals the construction of a national identity immersed in a complex exchange of gazes and transactions. Different discourses and actions, coming from very diverse sites and nations, come into play. Modernity and nation were, in those turbulent but challenging years, two contrasting vectors that, nonetheless, only defined themselves by negotiating their differences. If the association of primitivism to modernity risks the blurring of specificities and the consolidation of some sort of exoticisms, it also allows tango and samba to figure as sites of an alternative modernity.

In the interplay of cosmopolitanism and nationalism, the negotiation of differences in tango and samba not only drives joy and hope, but continues—as many milongas and carnivals keep showing—to build communities and enable intercultural communication.

Fall 2007Volume VII, Number 1
Florencia Garramuño is the director of the Program in Brazilian Culture at Universidad de San Andrés in Buenos Aires. She has recently published Modernidades Primitivas. Tango, samba y nación. (Fondo de Cultura Económica).

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