Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Italian Roots of Tango

The Italian roots of Tango. I confess; I never know there were any. I’ve always thought of Tango as a supremely Argentine creation, practiced in dark dance halls with low-ceilings filled with cigarette smoke and perspiration. It turns out this image isn’t far from the truth, but I forgot one vital component: the effect of Italian immigration to Buenos Aires, the birthplace of Tango.

I had the pleasure of discussing this phenomenon with Eduardo Tami, master flautist and star of the international Tango scene (eduardotami.com.ar). He has recorded numerous Tango CD’s and regularly tours the world with his own band or as a featured performer with other world-class musicians. Tami is a native of Buenos Aires, born of Italian immigrant parents. He has first-hand knowledge of Italian musical influences on Tango melodies and dance.

Large numbers of Italian immigrants reached South American shores in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Notes Tami, “Immigration was encouraged by South American countries who offered land to new arrivals. They wanted to attract professionals, artists and business people, but these people were comfortable in their own countries. Instead, the poor and undereducated answered the call.” These immigrants arrived mainly in the ports of Buenos Aires and soon learned that the promises of land were empty. Too poor or hopeless to return home, they remained in city. Says Tami, “By 1905, there were about 3 million Italian immigrants in Buenos Aires.”

This infusion of Italians, mostly from Naples and nearby areas, greatly impacted the development of Argentine Tango. Neapolitans brought their lyrical style of violin and dancing across the ocean with them. They settled in the same poverty-stricken neighborhoods where Tango was already the music of heartache and longing. They sang and played, danced and blended their traditions with the local population and in so doing, altered the direction of an art form. Speaking of the Italian influence on Tango, iconic musician Jose Libertella observed, “Tango started in brothels and the poorest sections of town. It’s the music of immigrants. It’s of emotional people going through emotional times.”

Libertella arrived in Buenos Aires from Italy in 1934 and became a maestro on the bandeneon, sometimes called the Argentine accordion. Legend says the first bandeneon was abandoned by a German sailor in an Argentine pawn shop. “The first time I heard it played it seemed magical to me.” Libertella spun this magic on the Tango, and together with his Sexteto Mayor Orchestra, is credited with “breathing life into the Tango Argentino.”

But Libertella in turn credits many Italian artists with giving the definitive form to Tango. Ernesto Sabato, actress Tita Merello, lyricist Homero Manzi (changed from Manzioni) and the father of Tango, Carlos Gardel. Musicians like Carlos di Sarli, Alfredo DiAngelis and Rodolfo Biagi. Since Libertella’s time, the magnificent composer and musician Astor Piazzola continues to celebrate the tradition of Tango and evolve it into the future with musical experimentation.