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.

Pre History

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:

Eduardo Arolas (left)
Eduardo Arolas, (seated left, 1912)
introduced the bandoneon to tango.

Musica Guardia Vieja

MEDIA LUZ, Carlos Gardel


The Sextet

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”):

Roberto Firpo
Roberto Firpo

FUEGOS ARTICIALES, Roberto Firpo and Eduardo Arolas

EL AMANECER, Roberto Firpo


De Caro’s Revolution

Let’s listen one more time to a typical 1920s tango orchestra. Here is Orquesta Tipica Victor in 1926:

PATO, Orquesta Tipica Victor


Now, here’s the Revolution—this is Flores Negras (“Black Flowers”), recorded two years after Pato.

Julio De Caro
Julio De Caro




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:

VIEJA AMIGA, Francisco Canaro


Pedro Laurenz
Pedro Laurenz

VIEJA AMIGA, Pedro Laurenz


The first version of Vieja Amiga by Canaro uses the old marching cadences from the very start, while Laurenz’s Vieja Amiga begins with a piano melody (if the piano sounds nice, it should—the band’s pianist was Osvaldo Pugliese). Laurenz’s version sounds more “modern” (and in fact, the DJs do play Laurenz’s tango almost every day in BsAs), but both tangos were recorded in the same year. The difference is that these two tangos are from different camps. We are hearing the great divide in tango. Ten years after De Caro’s revolution, the traditionalists like D’Arienzo, Canaro, and Biaggi tended to retain more of the jumpy rhythms of the street. But the evolutionists like Laurenz, and Fresedo began to play De Caro’s smoother, more instrumental sound... and they saw D’Arienzo as a sort of embarrassing reactionary who was holding back the progress of tango. This divide between “street” and sophistication continues today—most Buenos Aires DJ’s play a mix of tandas in the milongas, balancing rhythmic tango picado with tandas of more instrumental tangos.


So what about D’Arienzo? On the previous page I began with a quote about the genius of creating something new and useful through simplification. Of course genius is an overused word—but by emphasizing the beat and passion of the music, D’Arienzo probably created the tango we know today. In fact without him, it’s likely that no one today would even be dancing tango. And it’s also probable that apart from a few enthusiasts in the suburbs of Buenos Aires, no one today would have even heard of Troilo, or Laurenz, or Piazzolla.

Finally, think about this: Here was a guy who came along and broke all the rules. He played too fast; he pounded out a relentless rhythm; he jumped around and twitched to the music—and sometimes he even shouted out like a madman. And he did it on stage, in front of everyone! Naturally, he was ridiculed and laughed at... but he was also idolized by the people who bought the tickets. Sound familiar? A decade or so after D’Arienzo began to fill up the dance halls in BsAs, a handful of musicians in Memphis and the rest of the South began fooling around with some of the rural folk music of the U.S. They speeded it up, emphasized the beat, and even began to twitch and jump around on stage the same way D’Arienzo was doing ten years earlier. And just like D'Arienzo, they were laughed at.

What irony... because it was D'Arienzo, the reactionary opponent of De Caro, who was actually the revolutionary! He started a revolution that was profound enough to ensure the popularity of tango around the world, and to sustain both the music and dancing into the 21st century. And what's more, his vision foreshadowed the greatest revolution in all of music—because, whether he was a genius, or a visionary (or just lucky), this funny looking man jumping around in front of his orchestra in Buenos Aires 70 years ago, may have been the first to discover the formula that would eventually create the billionaire rock stars of today!