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Tango and Milonga: A close relationship

by Gabriela Mauriño
gabriela@xtrabox.com


The slaves supplied to South America came principally from the Congo, the tribes of the Gulf of Guinea, and Southern Sudan. In various dialects of these areas, tango meant closed, shut off. The slave trader called tango the gathering places of slaves in both Africa and America. In the Diccionario Provincial de Voces Cubanas (1836), of Estaban Pichardo, tango is defined as "get-together of newly-arrived blacks to dance to drums or kettledrums. In Buenos Aires, tango referred, as early as the early 16th Century, the houses where the blacks carried out their dances." Some documents of the 19th Century used the word tambo instead of tango, which for the newcomers meant drum, the percussion instrument used for those dances. The word mulonga (like its plural, milonga ) is a term of quimbunda origin, of the language spoken by the Angolan blacks of Brazil, that means word, according to the Diccionario de Vocabulos Brazileiros (Rio de Janeiro, 1889).
The tango and the milonga, while different genres within Argentine music, are closely related. But how so? And, if they are different genres, what is the tango milonga? A misleading use of these terms has only contributed to generate more confusion. This article, although not a comprehensive musicological or historical study of these genres, aims to answer these questions and to clarify the terms.

The milonga, which precedes the tango in history, was a solo song cultivated during the 19th Century by the gaucho (a sort of Argentine cowboy) in the vast rural area known as the Pampa. It derives from the payada de contrapunto, in which two singers (payadores), accompanying themselves on the guitar, improvised on different topics in a competition-like practice. The verses were octosyllabic quartets structured in a musical period of eight measures in 2/4. The term milonga is an African-Brazilian term that means words, that is, the words of the payadores. It may be named rural milonga in order to distinguish it from later developments of the genre.

Around 1880, through the Conquista del Desierto (the conquest of the desert), the Argentine government made possible the fencing of the Pampa and the subsequent distribution of the land into large properties for aristocratic owners and small plots of land for European immigrants, who were arriving in Argentina in large numbers. This forced the almost nomadic gauchos to settle down in the poorest suburban areas of the capital, Buenos Aires. Their adaptation to city life was difficult, and frequently they lived marginal lives of crime. Eventually they were called compadritos, a word used to denote a person with an aggressive character.

The relationship between the compadritos and the African-Argentine population in the Buenos Aires suburbs gave birth to the tango dance, which started as a result of the compadritos’ mockery of the black people’s dances with an important difference: the blacks danced separated and the compadritos danced embraced. Diverse historians affirm that the word tango derives from the name (in the slang of the black people) of their dancing places, known as tambos and, later, tangos . It is widely accepted that the mocking new choreography was taken to the brothels by the compadritos before tango music really existed as such. Eventually, music was created to fit this dance, and it is not strange that the rural milonga and the habanera, in fashion at the time, influenced it. Trial-and-error adaptations to the new dance, bringing together the rural milonga of the gauchos, the habanera of the European immigrants, and the African-Argentine dances in the melting pot that was Buenos Aires, created a mixture called tango.



The rural milonga had some particular characteristics: binary meter (2/4) and the following rhythmic pattern:

A triplet frequently replaced the dotted eighth-sixteenth notes, and the following syncopated figure could also appear:



The guitar accompaniment was structured over "spread" tonic and dominant chords, as in this example:

These characteristics of the rural milonga were also present in the early tangos of the 1900s. The tango El Choclo (1903), by Angel Villoldo, is a clear example of the influence of the rural milonga in the early tangos: 2/4 meter, the rhythmic pattern of the dotted eighth-sixteenth plus two eighth notes, and simple harmonies, usually alternating tonic and dominant chords:


Small ensembles formed by flute, violin, and guitar gave the rural milonga a peculiar timbre that the first tangos would keep. These types of ensembles would also be present in the brothels, the gathering places of the compadritos, where the early tangos were first played. The tango’s features described above are characteristic of the period comprised between the tango’s origins and 1920. This period is also known as the age of the Guardia Vieja (Old Guard). During that time, the rural milonga survived as a countryside genre independent of the tango.
From 1920 to approximately 1955 the tango underwent significant transformations. During this period, known as that of the Guardia Nueva (New Guard), three different types of tango appeared: tango milonga, tango romanza, and tango canción. The tango milonga is often called milonga interchangeably with the latter, producing confusion between the terms. Other names given to the development of the tango during this period are tango de corte milonga or milonga urbana.
Undoubtedly, Sebastián Piana was the pioneer of the tango milonga with his Milonga Sentimental, composed in 1931 with lyrics by Homero Manzi. It enriched the simple harmonies of the rural milonga and opened a whole range of rhythmic, melodic, and poetic possibilities. Many other composers followed his path: some of the most representative productions are La trampera (A. Troilo), La Puñalada (P. Castellanos), Nocturna (J. Plaza), and Taquito Militar (M. Mores).

A lot of tango milongas were performed in fast tempos, heavily marking the accents, giving them a solid rhythmic character. It is probable that this fact contributed to a popular confusion that describes the tango milonga as a "tango in a fast tempo". This representation fails to explain the existence of the slow tango milonga, like Sebastián Piana´s Milonga Triste (1936), or Astor Piazzolla´s Milonga del Angel, among many others. The confusion grew when some tango historians invented the term orquesta milonguera for orchestras that had a great sense of rhythm.
The main characteristic of the tango milonga (both slow and fast) is the presence of the rhythmic patterns of the rural milonga, like those of figures 1 and 2, and other patterns like in the following examples:


Astor Piazzolla, the internationally known creator of the New Tango, who revolutionized the traditional tango by introducing elements of classical music and jazz, used the tango milonga rhythm as an essential part of his style. His use of the 3+3+2 rhythmic pattern (emphasis on the first, fourth, and sixth eighth notes in a 4/4 bar) derives from the mutation of the rural milonga rhythm typical of the guitar accompaniment (see figure 2). He used this pattern in several fast and slow tango milongas as well as in many of his other compositions, often combining them with other rhythmic cells.
The impressive work of Astor Piazzolla had a great influence in tango music and marked a path followed by the musicians of his and the next generations. The so-called post-piazzolleanos, among them Rodolfo Mederos and Pablo Ziegler, could not find yet an alternative to the Piazzolla esthetic proposal. Tango musicians currently face the challenge of redefining the tango milonga for the XXI Century. As tango bandleader and virtuoso bandeoneonist Aníbal Troilo said, "Tango has the habit of waiting".


Endless controversies exist concerning tango history, specially regarding its origins. The following bibliography presents sources that explore the diverse and contradictory theories:

* FERRER, HORACIO: El Libro del Tango. Crónica y Diccionario 1850-1977. Editorial Galerna (1977)
* LABRAÑA, LUIS y SEBASTIAN, ANA: Tango, una historia. Editorial Corregidor (1992)
* GOBELLO, JOSE: Crónica General del Tango. Editorial Fraterna (1980)
* COLLIER, SIMON et al: Tango! The Dance, the Song, the Story. Thames and Hudson Ltd. (1997)
© 2001 Gabriela Mauriño, all rights reserved.
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