Tango, a distinctive dance and the corresponding musical style of tango music, began in the working-class port neighborhoods of Buenos Aires (Argentina); and years later in Montevideo, Uruguay; the area of the Rio de la Plata.
There are a number of theories about the origin of the word “tango”. One of the more popular in recent years has been that it came from the Niger–Congo languages of Africa. Another theory is that the word “tango”, already in common use in Andalusia to describe a style of music, lent its name to a completely different style of music in Argentina and Uruguay.

The dance form derives from the Cuban habanera, the Argentine milonga and candombe, and is said to contain elements from the African community in Buenos Aires, influenced both by ancient African rhythms and the music from Europe.

Even though the present forms developed in Argentina from the mid 19th century, there are earlier written records of Tango dances in Cuba and Spain, while there is a flamenco Tangos dance that may share a common ancestor in a minuet-style European dance. All sources stress the influence of the African communities and their rhythms, while the instruments and techniques brought in by European immigrants played a major role in its final definition, relating it to the Salon music styles to which Tango would contribute back at a later stage, when it became fashionable in early 20th century Paris.

In Argentina, the word Tango seems to have first been used in the 1890s. In 1902 the Teatro Opera started to include tango in their balls. Initially tango was just one of the many available local dances, but it soon became popular throughout society, as theatres and street barrel organs spread it from the suburbs to the working-class slums, which were packed with hundreds of thousands of European immigrants. The development of the Tango had influences from the cultures of several peoples that came together in these melting pots of ethnicities. For this reason Tango is often referred to as the music of the immigrants to Argentina.

During the period 1903–1910 over a third of the 1,000 gramophone records released were of tango music, and tango sheet music sold in large quantities. In 1910 the bandoneon was introduced to Buenos Aires from Germany and it became linked inextricably with tango music from then on. In 1912, Juan “Pacho” Maglio was very popular with his recorded tangos featuring the bandoneon accompanied by flute, violin and guitar. Between 1910 and 1920, tango featured on 2,500 of the 5,500 records released.

As the dance form became wildly popular with upper and middle classes around the world, Argentine high society adopted the previously low-class dance form as their own. In 1913, tango began to move from the dark side of town to elegant dance palaces. In 1916, Roberto Firpo, an extremely successful bandleader of the period, cemented the arrangements for standard tango sextet: two bandoneons, two violins, piano and double bass. Firpo heard a march by Uruguayan Gerardo Matos Rodríguez and adapted it for tango, creating the popular and iconic La Cumparsita.

By 1912, dancers and musicians from Buenos Aires travelled to Europe and the first European tango craze took place in Paris, soon followed by London, Berlin, and other capitals. Towards the end of 1913 it hit New York in the USA, and Finland. These exported versions of Tango were modified to have less body contact (“Ballroom Tango”); however, the dance was still thought shocking by many, as had earlier been the case with dances such as the Waltz. In 1922 guidelines were first set for the “English” (international) style of ballroom tango, but it lost popularity in Europe to new dances including the Foxtrot and Samba, and as dancing as a whole declined due to the growth of cinema.

In 1917, folk singer Carlos Gardel recorded his first tango song Mi Noche Triste, forever associating tango with the feeling of tragic love as revealed in the lyric.

Classically-trained musicians weren’t associated with tango music until Julio De Caro, violinist, formed an orchestra in 1920 and made the tango more elegant, complex and refined, as well as slowing the tempo somewhat. With Pedro Laurenz on bandoneon, De Caro’s orchestra was famous for over a decade.

In Argentina, the onset in 1929 of the Great Depression, and restrictions introduced after the overthrow of the Hipólito Yrigoyen government in 1930 caused Tango to decline. Its fortunes were reversed as tango again became widely fashionable and a matter of national pride under the government of Juan Perón. Tango declined again in the 1950s with economic recession and as the military dictatorships banned public gatherings, followed by the popularity of rock and roll. The dance lived on in smaller venues until its revival in the 1980s following the opening in Paris of the show Tango Argentino The Broadway musical Forever Tango and in Europe Tango Pasión followed.


All photographs and video posted here were shot at the Gala Dinner at the Raintree Club, Kuala Lumpur during the 5th Kuala Lumpur Tango Festival which took place from 8th to 11th March 2012, organized by Marguerite Brodie and Andreas Lehrke. Marguerite and Andreas started Tango Malaysia which run tango classes and workshops at various locations in KL.

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