Preface to the Post: This article is on musicianship for tango dancers, and may not be easy reading. My poetry and prose on the psychology of tango are usually easy reading; so please don't give up on me because of a few posts on musicianship! However, I feel that if you take the time, that it will open your mind to the very roots of tango. And there are elements of psychology/sociology to this post in that many have devalued tango's roots via a lack of psychological insight. Maybe it is slow reading, but I hope this discussion will open up your appreciation of why tango moves your heart and your body to move when the now-dead tango musicians begin to play. Pour yourself some coffee and read slowly, and forgive me if I lose you for a few moments. If that happens, stay with me. Get a general picture of the origins of tango and that will open you up to much more later. I have four videos to share -- it's show and tell: Not hard at all!
Let's start off inductively by seeing and feeling: Listen to this folk music (zamba argentina) with dancers very much not in folk costumes! The music is in 6/8 (very much like the feel of 6 in tango's vals). Sometimes you will see the dancers feet dancing on the pulse like vals (1**4**/1**4**:||) but often when they are going faster they will dance variations off of tango's most important rhythm (1*3*5*/1*3*5*:||). More on this rhythm later, but it is the center of what I want to convey to you as being very important in tango's most primal rhythmic expression.
Here is the more traditional not-in-high-heels zamba argentina and you can see the footwork I mentioned above:
Although the majority of musicians and dancers have a love affair with the melodic, harmonic and instrumental influences of Europe, the fact is that tango would be nothing without its heart -- its rhythm from Africa.
Our Lack of Psychological Insight:
I see this huge silence about Africa as a typical devaluation of Africa. Nothing is new about European influence on misunderstanding the value of Africa and its inhabitants. Without devaluing Africa, the European slave trade would not have been possible. Are we all educated and now we are over this devaluation? Well, let me ask it this way: Is the Civil Rights struggle over? Latin America is particularly blind to its own racism, so please don't turn to people from South America for their opinion to find "openness" -- their devaluation of tango's influence is particularly "European" and denied in spite of many glaring facts. Argentina prides itself on being the "most European" Latin American country, especially being the only Latin American country with so few people of African heritage (less than 3%). So I would fully agree that indeed, Argentina is the "most European," which may include some the less positive things that Europe has imported to the Americas -- its ongoing ignorance and value of Africa's influence.
Surely you have heard the term"Afro-Cuban music"! Have you ever heard of "Afro-Argentine" music?
Sorry, that was a trick question. Of course you have heard Afro-Argentine music. Not only have you heard Afro-Argentine music, you dance to it at every milonga and in every traditional tanda. [Please visit the link on the term "Afro-Argentine" here].
I wrote an earlier musical workshop article on thinking in six. The post was on the vals and I even used Baroque dance to show how the vals is really in six. However, as I wrote that post, only then I remembered about my earlier discoveries as a Latin percussionist: Most well-known Latin American music (son, mambo, salsa, merengue, samba, bossa nova, cha-cha-chá to name a few) came out of the sacred 6/8 rythyms of Africa.
Let me give you the most important example, the 6/8 rhythm that created salsa, mambo, son, merengue, cha-cha-chá, cumbia and others. They all first started like this in 6/8: 1*3*5*/*2*4**:|| This part of my show-and-tell story needs you to clap! If you start out slow and then eventually get it up to tempo, you will find yourself miraculously clapping out the most popular clave-rhythm in all Latin American music, which is also miraculously NOT in 6/8. The first time I did this I was dumbfounded!
The preceding rhythm is today called the "son clave" (from the Cuban music called "son," a slower version of mambo). The word "clave" comes from the word for wooden dowels (claves or "nails") slaves used to play the rhythms of their homeland. The dowels held together the crates the slave dock workers unloaded from European ships. Later, during and after the chaos of the Haitian's war against the French colonists, some slaves escaped to Cuba taking their clave rhythms with them as their only baggage. In Cuba, then, we really do not have "Afro-Cuban" music. Really, the black Haitians musical inventions in the new world was Afro-French to be fair to Europe's important influence with their music in Cuba.
Again the rhythm above was in 6/8 as: 1*3*5*/*2*4** :|| which is often reversed to *2*4**/1*3*5* :|| This reversed clave-rhythm will have to be a later discussion because it is the most important development of the most dancable music in tango's Golden Era. (I hope that perks up your interest for a later post).
Tango has only the first part of the rhythm above, which gives tango the drive that it has:
6/8: 1*3*5*/1*3*5* :||
When you put this rhythm into straight time it turns into something close to the original as 3/3/2 (1**/4**/7*). Especially in tango nuevo, one hears the 1, 4 and 7. What gringos often don't hear in most Latin American rhythms is that the "clave" rhythm never goes away. In fact it is omnipresent and responsible for the melody along with what is being played for syncopation around this rhythm. If you don't hear it, I believe that you feel it and it is what drives you to love tango. I have heard tango musicians and teachers talking about syncopations that show up in the music, but they are not aware of the underlying rhythm that has generated these syncopations.
What I hope to demonstrate here is that this feeling of 6/8 is actually behind the pulse (heart) of tango. So how is it that vals, which is essentially in 6, is "European" as so many claim? If you wish to get at the primal tango, listen to tango´s "vals cruzado"! The vals often explicitly expresses the 1*3*5*/1*3*5*:|| of the original tango rhythm from Africa. I have been saddened to experience in my discussions with some tango musicians and vocalists that the majority see the vals as hardly being tango at all but "European." This is simply ignorance of the facts. I more recently have come to see that the vals is more primal and directly connected to tango than any other expression of tango. The "cruzado" of the vals cruzado is the crossing rhythm of a vals within a vals. Nothing is further from the truth that the vals is "kind of like a Viennese waltz," as I have heard musicians claim. To me this is just another devaluation of the African link. Being aware of this rhythm makes my vals. So far, I have not heard any complaints. Instead, I experience some some huge smiles and laughter from the pure joy that the cruzado brings to the dance. The steps seen in the zamba above (1*3*5*) are applied to what the musicians are doing in the vals, and it has a feeling of flying.
Let me give you another example, this time from Gotan Project. This piece (below) is also in six. The key to it goes back to our primal rhythm of 1*3*5* :|| But this time they ingeniously slow things down and drop the 3 on the first measure and the 5 on the second measure. So here is how it looks: 1***5*/1*3*** :|| Practice clapping that rhythm very slowly and then you can clap it to Gotan Project below. I promise it will be fun, and get you back to your African roots.
I started this blog idea from a question of my conocido, Andreas, in Germany. He heard the above music as being divided into two measures of 4/4 + 2/4. His question gave me the idea of showing how important 6/8 is to most Latin music. Did I say Latin? Much of jazz, fusion, funk, soul and rock take from this rhythm. The clearest examples of this rhythm in today's music is hip hop and regetón, which have this 6/8 rhythm of |1*3*5*:|| as their base). The later two types of music may have come dircetly from modern Angola's popular and very-much-analogous to tango music and dance, called kizomba.
Warning label on the kizomba video clip below: Tanger@s who love nuevo may never want to dance tango again after seeing this dance from Angola. Second warning: Do not let your children see this next demo unless they are over 21.
If you hear hip hop in the background, maybe you will also notice the same slower milonga rhythm. Nothing is new under the sun. Here we have the old African roots, now (or still) being danced like condombe/tango and with the same rhythm. Interesting. ¿No?
For those who see this as a mix of sensual Latin and tango dances combined, do not forget where kizomba comes from: Africa. The heart of our tango, and the Afro-Argintine music that forces you to get up and dance.
Finally, ask yourself why you feel impelled to dance when tango plays? Is that the European influence or the African that does that? I really cannot answer that question for you, but for me, it is NOT the European influence.
My next blog will be on the great dancing and people I have met in Germany. Thanks for sticking with me.