Tango Negro, The African Roots of Tango by Angolan filmmaker Dom Pedro explores the expression of Tango’s Africanness and the contribution of African cultures in the creation of the tango.
“The tango is made up of three sadnesses, three memories – The immigrants’ sadness. The gaucho’s sadness, people who lived in the country. And finally the Blacks’ sadness, who didn’t come here as immigrants, but who were brought here, leaving their lives in Africa.”
-Juan Carlos Cáceres, The African Roots of Tango
Misery adores company. In fact, it requires company, or how could the miserable know their misery? It fits that the tango requires a partner. “Nació con el primer dolor del alma [born with the first pain of the soul],” the tango came to South Americas with the forced migration of millions of enslaved Africans . The drum-based music and dance that came with them was called kandombé [now Candombé]. Tango was both the initial drum that pumped the hearts and the ground they swept with their soles . Many linguists agree that tango is derived from the Yoruba orisha Shango , a venerated and deified ancestor and the God of Thunder . The first written use of the word tango in this form is found in a 1786 document signed by the Spanish governor of Louisiana, which has in it “los tangos, o bailoes de negros’ meaning ‘the tangos, or dances of the blacks.’”
Candombé – Wikipedia Commons
Buenos Aires was a major hub for African slavery, particularly during the 1800s – where almost one quarter of porteños – the lovely people of Buenos Aires – were African and Afrodiasporic and up to half the population in some provinces, including Catamarca, Salta, Santiago del Estero, and Córdoba . Enslaved Afro-Argentines were permitted certain rituals – one of which was the candombé. After slavery was abolished in 1853, the candombé continued to flourish, evolving into the milonga, and ultimately into modern tango . The Real Academia Española [Royal Spanish Academy] defines “tango” in it’s 1899 edition as “a fiesta and dance of negroes or people of lower class. ” By 1984, the tango was the official dance and one of the primary artistic exports of Argentina.
The art and craft of the modern tango is quite different than the tango of our Afro-Argentine ancestors. The modern tango melts the blood and thunder of the enslaved, the pride of the first nations, the stoicism of the gaucho, the love of your fellow, the oily skin of the compadrito, the perseverance of the immigrant, the sweat of the laborer, the baguette crumbs at the table and the Italian wine in your glass.
In the Argentine newspaper called Crítica, a man aliased as Viejo Tanguero (Old Tango Dancer) scribed that the ‘tango’ seen in Buenos Aires was a parody of the African dance .
“The suburban compadre did perhaps inherit certain gaucho values: pride, independence, ostentatious masculinity, a propensity to settle matters of honor with knives. More numerous than the compadres were the young men of poor background who sought to imitate them and who were known as compadritos, street toughs well depicted in the literature of the time and easily identifiable by their contemporaries from their standard attire: slouch hat, loosely-knotted silk neckerchief, knife discreetly tucked into belt, high-heeled boots .” Young compradritos from the arrabales (outer slums) liked what they saw when they would socialize with Afro-Argentines and compadres (not mutually exclusive), and they wove elements of the candombé they saw at the “tango” into elements of the Cuban-Criolle habanera which produced a dance called the milonga. In 1883, Ventura Lynch would write that “the milonga is danced only by the compadritos of the city, who have created it as a mockery of the dances the negroes hold in their own places. ”
Compadritos would dance the milonga with friends. Same-sex partnership was, at one point, encouraged in the milonga .
Young upstarts, travelling to experience something fun, taking elements that they like and passing the craft off as an original creation – this requires a nature of audacity. It took less than 30 years for their audacity to become industrialized, and the tango would forever evolve.
“The tango as a dance arrived to Paris as early [as] the 1910s and it was seen as exotic as other musical genres: tropical Cuban music, flamenco, Russian and Hawaiian dances, and, later, North American jazz. […] The European gaze conditioned the evolution of the dance and the way the opposition between wild and sophisticated eroticism was presented.”
-Eduardo Archetti 
In Argentina, the tango was considered a low-society enslaved African gathering for much of the 19th century. After Afro-Argentines were no longer in official bondage, compadritos took ownership of their art during a time when the Argentine government looked to extinguish them. Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, Argentine president from 1868 to 1874, wrote in his diary that “In the United States, 4 million are black, and within 20 years will be 8…. What will be done with such blacks, hated by the white race? Slavery is a parasite that the vegetation of English colonization has left attached to leafy tree of freedom. ” Sarmiento achieved genocide and ethnocide using targeted policies. Conscription of enslaved and free Afro-Argentines into the Argentine military was popular. The practice began in 1810 during the Argentine revolution against Spain. Financial separation and racialized living policies forced Afro-Argentines to remain in neighborhoods where yellow fever pandemics would happen regularly. By 1895, there were so few Afro-Argentines left in the country that the government removed the category from the census . 30 years after that, what was once an African expression of pain, freedom, and survival was a buzzword for French high society and African. The modern tango, as diverse as it can be, little connection to it’s original form. One connection that does remain – the colors of the orisha Shango are red and white.
In 2016, and the attitude of the compadrito is mainstream in European and Eurodiasporic cultures. People who are identified as “white” by social derangement love to help themselves to a plate of cultural expression. Here – join socially “white” Ben H. Winters as he explores a world in which slavery is still legal in 4 of the United States. His main character is a former enslaved African who now pursues bounties on escaped enslaved Africans.
This is not just wrong – it’s horrific cultural and economic violence. The socially “white” New York Times publishing reporter Alexandra Alter described the book as a “chilling thriller” and gives the author free reign to masturbate his right to authority. “‘The whole art form is about empathy,’ Mr. Winters said. ‘No, I will never know what it’s really like to be black, but I can, through as much imagination as I can bring to it, create this individual. That’s my job.’” We do not need to be created, we are already here. Give these folks no quarter and no pass – they know exactly what they are doing. They will continue to do it. They don’t enter the dance without knowing the steps.
The audacity to erase a culture from their own cultural creation must require some level of privilege I am not able to access. I wonder what goes through the head of a person like Cary Fukunaga, the socially “white” man with mixed Japanese heritage from Oakland (he attended my Alma Mater, University of California: Santa Cruz), who directed the vile propaganda film Beasts of No Nation. Ghanaians, please engage with me – did you enjoy seeing that over 12 million dollars were spent on making Twi children into naturally brutal maniacs? My first filmic experience of the beautiful and intricate Twi language, and it’s being used to wrap African children in a generic and tired representation of African animalistic violence. The audacity problem doesn’t stop at the director – every production department lead was socially “white” and distinctly non-African in a project that was primarily produced in Ghana. West Africa has a vivid and talented production industry, yet the production itself managed to avoid it. The film’s executive producer is Elizabeth Koch, daughter of Charles Koch. She’s also involved with a biopic about Harriet Tubmen. These people have the audacity to assume spiritual and economic authority over an experience they have no foundational connection to.
It takes two to tango. The audacious require a partner to continue their authority. In my exploration of authenticity vs. audacity, I’d like to avoid attacking any African or Afrodiasporic person on their particular method of survival even if it involves selling the visual identity of Blackness. My goal is to simply highlight the circumstance. The CEO of OkayAfrica, a man named Abiola Oke, jumped on the #oscarssowhite discussion and penned an op-ed for CNN. In his opinion, Beasts of No Nation was snubbed for an Oscar due to its “Blackness.” Beasts of No Nation, a movie without a single Black department lead (let alone Ghanaian), was snubbed by the academy for it’s lack of Blackness. It’s interesting that the CEO of OkayAfrica would pen such a piece… until it’s understood that OkayAfrica itself is founded, owned and operated by two socially “white” American women. Vanessa Wruble and Ginny Suss are people that spent some time in West Africa – specifically Sierra Leone – and somehow had the audacity to team up with OkayPlayer to start a global platform which claims our African and Afrodiasporic identities… from Brooklyn. Check out what Ginny and Vanessa think of Black identity in their own words.
Enjoying Black art, leading to the ownership claim of a Black platform.
It should be noted that they have changed their bios since they’ve been called out for their problematic self-descriptions. They sound like they’d love to eat lunch with Ben H. Winters and explore life under a colonized African/Afrodiasporic identity – and how much wealth they develop off that ‘exploration’.
Yeah. We all just read that.
Ashley Okwuosa of OkayAfrica penned a piece on Ezibota, giving our platform a thorough examination. I’ll be exploring authenticity in both Beasts of No Nation and OkayAfrica in separate focus pieces. It takes two to tango, and I insist on this dance.
In 2016, Africans and Afrodiasporic people have a chance to challenge this nature of audacity that seems so prevalent in today’s media industry. Y’all – it’s not just violent, authoritative control – that’s only one horrible aspect – it’s billions of dollars of economy. The audacious are feeding themselves on our pain, love, and spirit while dictating with high authority how it is expressed. The audacious would rather indulge in their creation of “Africa” and “Blackness” and portend to sell their fantastic ignorance than actually contribute towards the betterment of lives of our African family in the diaspora. How many opportunities are lost to this audacity?
Thank you for reading Ezibota and embracing our “tango” space. We won’t need to dance for thunder – it’s here. I ask that you step forward into authentic African and Diasporic storytelling spaces, holding authenticity close as your partner. Representation is key, but the storyteller themselves must live an experience foundationally connected to that representation or the voice is false. Let us thoroughly check every source before we consume the material. This tango is vogue.
1. BORGES, Jorge Luis, The Intruder, Evanston, 1969
2. ROSSI, V., Cosas De Negros, Buenos Aires, 1926 and VEGA, C., Danzas Y Canciones Argentinas, Buenos Aires, 1936
3. KNOWLES, Mark, The Wicked Waltz and Other Scandalous Dances: Outrage at Couple Dancing in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries, 2009
4. AKÍNYẸMÍ, Akíntúndéí, FÁLỌLÁ, Tóyìn, and TISHKEN, Joel E., Sàngó in Africa and the African Diaspora, Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2009
5. GHOSH, Palash, Blackout: How Argentina ‘Eliminated’ Africans From Its History And Conscience, International Business Times, 2013
6. VIEJO TANGUERO (atrib. José Antonio Saldías), El tango: su evolución y su historia, Crítica, 1913
7. COLLIER, Simon, The Popular Roots of the Argentine Tango, History Workshop Journal, 1992
8. LYNCH, Ventura, La provinciade Buenos Aires hasta la definicion de la cuestion Capital de la Republica, 1883
9. ARCHETTI, Eduardo P., Gaucho, Tango, Primitivism, and Power in the Shaping of Argentine National Identity, University of Oslo, 2010
10. ALTER, Alexandra, In His New Novel, Ben Winters Dares to Mix Slavery and Sci-Fi, New York Times, 2016
11. A VERY TANGO STORE, History of Tango