Orquesta Típica Francisco Canaro

ORIGIN (1880-1900)

The first tangos emerged around 1880 in the suburbs of Buenos Aires and Montevideo. Early tango bands were trios, playing mobile instruments, mostly violin, flute and guitar.  Important influences were the Spanish Flamenco, the Italian Belcanto, African rhythms related to Uruguayan Candombe and, later on, the German bandoneon.
In the melting pot of Argentina’s capital, tango evolved, becoming a music and dance with a Mediterranean character that was infused with passion and nostalgia. At first, the ruling classes, the bourgeoisie of this strictly catholic society, were disapproving of the intimate appearance of this modern social dance.
Then the ‘compadre’ appeared on the scene, the gaucho from the province, who occupied a special role in the urbanized areas around the big cities: a poor, knife-flicking, but attractive, womanizing and tango-dancing, rowdy cowboy. In the brothels both higher and lower classes encountered tango for the first time. The norms there were quite different: a man could practise all kinds of intimate embraces and daring intertwining leg-steps undisturbed, he could drench himself in alcohol and lewd lyrics. There was an ample supply of champagne and cocaine…Tango was on its way to the Beau Monde, it was the era of the Guardia Vieja, on the brink of the 20th century.

GUARDIA VIEJA (1900-1925)

The first great tango artists were Angel Villoldo, Francisco Lomuto,  Francisco Canaro, and Juan de Dios Filiberto, who formed the orchestras of the early 20th century. Later on highly educated musicians also started to work with tango music. In Buenos Aires, as in Paris, the first cabarets opened their doors. The first tango pianist, Roberto Firpo, performed at the Avenida de Mayo in 1910, leading the first big orchestra, the so called ‘Orquesta Típica’. Firpo was also the arranger of the most famous tango of all time, ‘La Cumparsita’, written by the Urugayan, Gerardo Matos Rodriguez. More tangos were written with clear melodies and danceable rhythms. Around 1910 the first tangos were recorded on vinyl. The  Orquesta Típica Victorrecorded numerous legendary tangos, but never performed for a live audience.

BANDONEON (from 1910)

The bandoneon arrived in Argentina with German immigrants around 1870 (developed by Heinrich Band in 1854), but was initially used as a mobile organ to accompany church chants, later for polkas and mazurkas. The first famous tango bandoneonplayer was ‘El Pardo’ Sebastián Ramos Mejía, a coach driver who started to earn a few pesos roaming the bars in 1910. Many players would follow, among them, in the early days, Pedro Maffia and Domingo Santa Cruz. The pace of the tango slowed, because the first bandoneonists could only play the bass lines; the instrument was very difficult to master. Within a few years the bandoneon would become the ultimate tango instrument, conveying both rhythm and melody.

PARIS (1910-1925)

Tango travelled abroad for the first time, to Paris with Villoldo, Gobbi and Canaro. The tango became widely fashionable during the roaring twenties, seemingly made for the blatant eroticism and artistic climate that gripped the cultural capital of Europe. Dancer and actor Rudolf Valentino attended a Canaro concert in 1920. He danced his first tango to the classic ‘El Choclo’. The floor filled immediately, the first European tango dance night was a fact. Tango influenced many important European composers, such as Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Kurt Weil. Later, tango spread to Berlin, Vienna, New York and Tokyo. And finally, tango achieved acceptance even in Buenos Aires.

CARLOS GARDEL (1915-1935)

The early vocal tangos were quite happy and upbeat, based on romantic zarzuelas from Spain as well as Italian belcanto songs. But then, in 1915, Carlos Gardel appeared on the stage and was to have a tremendous influence on tango vocals. He sang ‘duels’ with his guitar player, José Razzano, creating a kind of rap before rap. In 1917 Gardel sang ‘Mi Noche Triste’ by Pascual Contursi and the effect was devastating. The audience was dumbstruck, for the first time a tango singer’s words resonated with his audience’s own emotions. A new standard was set for personal, melancholic tangos. Gardel started a movie career that increased his popularity tremendously. He travelled to Paris, Barcelona and New York. In Paris he sold 25,000 records a month. Gardel met Josephine Baker and Maurice Chevalier, joining Paris high society. In 1935 he died in a plane crash above Cali, Colombia and became a legend.

GUARDIA NUEVA (1925-1935)

Guardia Nueva (1925-1935) was introduced by Osvaldo Fresedo and Julio de Caro. Fresedo was influenced by jazz music while recording in the USA, playing an occasional gig with Dizzy Gillespie. De Caro founded a Sexteto Típico that is still an example for modern tango – rhythmic and polyphonic. All instruments played both rhythm and melody, tangos became complex, intricate compositions, a kind of jazz tango. He also introduced violin techniques such as pizzicato, plucking, and chinchada, a sort of scraping noise made at the neck of the violin. ‘Decarism’ (the techniques of De Caro) influenced a large number of orchestras, among them Osvaldo Pugliese’s. De Caro could command the best bandoneon players of his time: Pedro Laurenz and Pedro Maffia (who would become important band leaders themselves). In the Depression of the late twenties tango declined, it was also hit by the invention of the talky, the soundmovie (orchestras had played at cinemas for silent movies). Perception shifted, Decarism was seen as elitist. Tango faded from the dance halls with the rise of jazz music and the first tango crisis began.

EPOCA DORADA (1935-1955)

In 1935  Juan d’Arienzo started performing with a big orchestra in the Guardia Vieja style, and was an instant success. He was known as ‘El Rey del Compás’ because of the pulsing, potent rhythm of his music. The dance halls were packed once more by milongueros dancing till dawn. Famous songwriters such as Homero Manzi and Enrique Santos Discépolo translated the feelings of the Buenos Aires locals – the porteños – beautifully, writing lyrics full of nostalgia, love, alcoholism and black humor. WWII brought prosperity to the whole Argentinian nation. It produced massive amounts of steel and exported to both sides. Nightclubs and radio stations were hugely successful. Tango regained popularity alongside jazz music and the forties were the años dorados – the golden years – of tango. The best orchestras appeared on the scene, featuring fabulous singers:  Angel d’AgostinoLucio DemareCarlos di SarliAlfredo de AngelisMiguel CalóEdgardo DonatoRicardo TanturíRodolfo Biagi, Mariano Mores and the comeback of Fresedo and Firpo. Singers such as Edmundo Rivero, Raúl Beron, Alberto Castillo, Nelly Vazquez, Roberto Goyeneche, Jorge Vidal, Roberto Rufino among others. The rise of the populist president Juan Perón contributed to the nationalistic character of tango.


Master-bandoneonist and composer Aníbal Troilo was a tango innovator who built on the ideas of Julio de Caro, introducing the fueye cadenero, the typical Troilo-sound, sweeping the entire orchestra into his stream of staccato and legato parts. Troilo had the best arrangers in the history of tango: Astor Piazzolla, Emilio Balcarce, Julián Plaza and Raúl Garello. The role of the singer was pivotal to Troilo’s compositions, representing the voice of the man of the street, a man like Troilo himself. Francisco Fiorentino was his most important singer. Troilo became a rockstar in the city of Buenos Aires in the forties.

Osvaldo Pugliese
followed the steps of de Caro, he became a master of dynamic tango, with arrangements full of pulsating bass lines and lyrical violins. Roberta Alvarez’s orchestra, Color Tango, which still performs worldwide, plays Pugliese arrangements. Pugliese’s first tango hit was ‘Recuerdo’, in 1924, and his career lasted the century. In 1992 he perfomed together with Astor Piazzolla in Amsterdam, their only performance together. Pugliese is especially loved by performing dancers, since the dynamic range lends itself to dramatic interpretations.

Astor Piazzolla 
began his career as an 18 year old bandoneon player in Troilo’s orchestra. He was the first to play solos with the left hand. In 1960 he introduced his famous Quinteto and caused a furore with his numerous compositions. In Paris people adored his unorthodox style, combining elements of both classical and jazz music (Tango Nuevo).  Piazzolla’s avantgarde compositions reference both Stravinsky’s polyrhythmn and Bartok’s dissonance. The general public, however, were less convinced by his modernism, and preferred to stick with the old and traditional tango. In the sixties a tango decline set in once again, exacerbated by the rise of pop music and disco dancing. It wasn’t until the mid-eighties that people started rediscovering tango.


Around the beginning of the new millenium young Argentineans started composing and recording tango tracks, combining traditional instruments like bandoneon and violin, with electronic music, samples and percussion. Successful pioneers  Gotan Project, were followed by Bajofondo TangoclubNarcotangoOtros Aires en Tanghetto. These bands have been touring the stages and salons of the world for 15 years, playing to appreciative audiences. The tango-purist may not be convinced of neo-tango’s worth, but large numbers of younger aficianados insist that this new tango genre has earned a place in the tango canon.
Even completely different music that seems to have little relation to tango (so-called non-tango) is now played at some milongas, music such as blues, jazz, fado. Any melancholy song can be as irresistible a lure to the dance floor as a traditional tango, waltz or milonga.

Narcotango in concert