The Great Divide
Because no one was filming tango in the barrios of Buenos Aires, it's almost impossible to really understand the way tango developed during the twentieth century—but understanding the evolution of the music is easier. Many early recordings do exist, and the combination of written lyrics and old recordings is enough to provide a basic understanding of the directions the music was taking. So, with the caveat that you should look elsewhere for a more detailed discussion, I'd like to give a few quick examples to illustrate a basic division in the music that occurred 80 years ago. It’s a division that still exists today—both in the play lists of the BsAs DJs, and also in the way people dance.
A lot of early music in Argentina was mobile. Payadores with guitars wandered and sang, and their lyrics were often improvised. Two or more musicians would join together and take turns playing, and exchanging made up lyrics—sometimes in the form of questions and answers. The payadores performed outdoors, or in places where people were drinking and dancing, and they often commented on their surroundings—how people looked, or danced, or even the weather. Sometimes the lyrics were crude or obscene, which isn't surprising, since their audiences often consisted of working class men who were hanging out around bars and whorehouses. And there were other groups of musicians playing in the streets as well. They used instruments that were easy to carry around, like guitars, flutes, and violins. And there were also organitos—portable organs that played music on pre-recorded cylinders.
All of these forms of street music must certainly have contributed to tango. Even before radio and phonographs, the sounds of this early tango-like music from the sidewalks must have entered the houses through open windows—just as the sound of the pan flutes of the afiladores echoes through the BsAs neighborhoods and enters houses today. (Afiladores are knife sharpeners who make the rounds of the city, announcing themselves with flutes that can be heard in apartments that are many floors above the street). Here are a couple of examples of the kind of "Old Guard" sound a porteño might think of if you mentioned “tango” prior to 1920:
MEDIA LUZ, Carlos Gardel
When tango moved indoors, the piano became part of the orchestra, and the sextet, a basic form of tango orchestra was born. It consisted of two bandoneons, two violins, a piano, and a bass. Here is an example of an early sextet, Roberto Firpo’s orchestra, with Eduardo Arolas. Firpo introduced the piano to tango, and Eduardo Arolas introduced the bandoneon. Here they are in 1928 (The first tango is “Fireworks”, and the second is “Sunrise”):
EL AMANECER, Roberto Firpo
De Caro’s Revolution
Now, here’s the Revolution—this is Flores Negras (“Black Flowers”), recorded two years after Pato.
The difference in these two pieces music is striking. A lot has been written about how De Caro changed tango, but the comparison of these two pieces shows it very clearly. The pre-De Caro style has a marching, almost dirge-like cadence. But De Caro’s music replaces the thumping street rhythms with a lighter melodic sound. He created a style of tango that was able to leave the bars and whorehouses of the arrabal and move into the black-tie dinner shows in downtown BsAs… or even in Paris. The split in styles can be seen in these two tangos that were recorded ten years later. They are different versions of Vieja Amiga, both from 1938: