It is just as important to be well danced as it is to be well versed or well read. Robert Farris Thompson, Tango: An Art History of Love (Pantheon, 2005)
Every Argentinian is proud of the tango. Yet, it’s a commonly held belief that Argentina’s black minority is so small as to have played no major role in tango’s development. Most tangueros agree that African influences were strong in Argentina in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when tango’s roots were watered by the candombe societies, resulting in the quickstep milonga that tangueros still dance today, and canyengue, tango’s “melting” predecessor. But when it comes to a shaping Afro-Argentine presence, most people say, no: for that, you’ll have to go next door, to Uruguay.
Robert Farris Thompson, a professor of African art at Yale, champions black contributions to Argentina’s national dance in his passionate, polemical new book, Tango: An Art History of Love. Not only are blacks present on the Pampas and in the port city of Buenos Aires, he argues, but their influence has been disproportionate to their numbers. Even more than has previously been acknowledged, the origins of tango are black, via Kongo culture imported from Central Africa and Cuba. Tango, “the fabulous dance of the past hundred years,” started life as a creole: “the Kongo grind, caught in a waltz-like embrace.”
One of the paradoxes here: tango is black music that has no drums. Don’t be fooled by the instrumentation, Thompson says. Black musicians implemented percussive tactics in the way the strings and bandoneons are played, and special effects like “arrastres,” whooshing runs (parodied in Hollywood’s tango cliché) that pump up the dancers. Thompson documents early performers who were black, from the first bandoneista on record, to golden age composer Horacio Salgán and contemporary milonga dancer Facundo Posadas.
As background for an Afro-Argentine presence, Thompson documents a continuous history of Kongo spiritual belief and practice in Argentina, from the dances of the black candombe societyvirtual embassies with their own kings and queensto the way Buenos Aires cab drivers stream red ribbons from their rearview mirrors today.
Thompson is a brilliantly creative reader of visual and literary clues, from architecture and street murals in Buenos Aires to caricatures of black figures published a century ago and works of fine art. The subtitle, An Art History of Love, would seem at first glance to have nothing to do with dance, but it accurately reflects Thompson’s methods. He graphs, charts, quotes, pivots into mini-biographies like praisesongs, and puts every eyewitness, painting, film, anecdotal report and expert opinion into swirling, reiterative, dynamic motion. The chapters build in a chronological rhythm to their climax, illuminated by piquant visual plates and bookended by Thompson’s evocative reads on two iconic artworks about tango.
The “Cultural Preparation” chapter, an archaeology of Kongo language, customs and body language, will be familiar to those who’ve read Thompson’s earlier books such as Flash of the Spirit and Black Gods and Kings. The sections on the habanera, canyengue and Astor Piazzola are among the most fascinating. Thompson describes milonga, modern tango’s “co-presence,” as the “Buenos Aires conversation” between two creolized Kongo rhythmsone imported from Havana. The contradanza habanera arrived with Cuban sailors around 1860 and fused its bassline with Argentinian candombe. I knew of habanera, but a light went on for me when I read Thompson’s explanation. Nothing I had read before mentioned the “habanera bassline,” which of course is a key register in any African-derived music. (Now it all makes sense: Bizet’s Carmen, the European vogue in the ’20s and ’30s, and even a Nazi-era musical, “La Habanera,” directed by Douglas Sirk.)
Thompson is an obsessive glosserwith a rare gift for cross-referencing Cuban Spanish with Ki-Kongo, Argentine vernacular and African-American English of the black church. (I once took a seminar with Thompson on Haitian Vodun, and he had a rule of thumb for interpreting lapses in the Oxford English Dictionary: If the etymology of a word goes back to the 18th century and then says, “origin unknown”it’s African.) Even where the language trail seems dizzying and hard to follow (how many among us are experts in Ki-Kongo usage?), Thompson’s speculative synthesis has value. He is reading dance backward in time and across oceans.
“It is impossible to make up the real thing,” Thompson writes, finding Afro-Atlantic correspondences in cognate dance moves and words without asserting exclusive causal relationship. Whether African-American “sass” comes from Ki-Kongo “sosa” or English “saucy,” or whetheras Thompson most often suggeststhe two reinforce each other in the creolization process, I want to hear what he hears and leave it for more plodding researchers to canonize or refute. I want to see tango through Kongo eyes. There is value in casting the net of African influence wide in order to hear echoes not previously heard, and to recognize contributions that have been systematically discounted or denied.
Thompson relies on his own deep knowledge of Kongo culture, and cultural informants on both sides of the Atlantic, to identify specific moves in tango with African antecedents. The fact that these gestures (and their philosophical meanings) erupt in other diasporic dance forms, from Brazilian capoeira to hip hop in the Bronx, is offered as supporting evidence for Thompson’s thesis. One example: the Charleston, derived from a knock-kneed curtsy of obeisance in Kongo dance culture that also finds its way into Argentinian canyengue.
This posture of canyenguea word directly of Kongo origin, like milonga and malambois one of its most African features. Dancers are stone-faced, the knees flexed, rear extended, as couples meet in a leaning embrace derived from European couple dancing. Tango moves like quebradas (a hip twist), cortes (“breaks”) and sentadas (the woman seated on the man’s thigh), which Thompson relates to the bumping of bellies, hips or rears called “bumbakana,” have Kongo ancestry. Jumpcut to Cuba, and the same Kongo gesture is creolized as the famous vacuna of rumba.
While many of these features remain in tango, including the cool facial expression, the straightening up of tango posture is one of the most obvious ways tango’s African roots were obscured. “I’m somebody who’s coming into the tango from the African perspective,” says Hillary Honig, a Durham tango dancer at a recent practica at Dance Plus Studio.
“Because I’ve been African dancing for so long, I want to arch my back and bend my knees,” says Honig. “To me it feels very natural. If you’re dancing the tango they try and stop that a lot. They want you to have an upright torso.”
Thompson has never cloaked his arguments in coy restraint, nor does he bury them in academic jargon. But while his argument is vividly confident, it isn’t an either/or campaign. He doesn’t deny the Andalusian influence on gaucho heel-stamping, or taconeos, a dance known in Argentina by the Kongo name “malambo.” He hears Italian street slang in Buenos Aires and notes the city’s Moorish preference (via Spain) for diamond tiled floors. Jewish presence emerges in such things as chirping bird sounds made on violins and a pivoting dance step, “la viborita,” known in Eastern Europe as the grapevine.
A main thrust of all Thompson’s work is that the philosophical and physical arts that Africans carried with them into exile helped them carry themselves with poise and style, exert resistance and nurture their spirits while living under stress. These traits are all in evidence in hip hop, Latin dance forms, blues, jazz, and every major musical manifestation to come out of the New Worldall touched and created by blacks. Black achievement, black cool, black self-control, black mastery and black improvisation are the hallmarks all these art forms have in common. Tango suddenly makes much more sense as part of this pantheon.
On a profound level, the book changes the way we perceive dance as a purveyor of ideas. Dance is embodied speech. The persistent mind/body split has denigrated the body as a mode of knowing in the West. There’s truth in the body, even when it has become a latent memory, some sacred text gone secular in the mouths of the generations. Tangueros know this.
“Tangueros don’t need books on tango,” says Dmitri Ponarin of Raleigh. Thompson would likely divine great insight in that, because it points to tangoto movementas a metaphor, a spiritual toolbox, and a philosophical worldview in and of itself: moving with an arm around life.
“People who have been doing tango for 20, 30, 40 years, each of them can write their own book on tango,” Ponarin adds. Tango is a life history for every individual, and Thompson honors this, never generalizing tango into an anonymous dance lesson, a set of shoeprints on a record cover. Personality is as irreducible to tango history as individual style, dress and posture.
This is the African way of understanding dance. It’s a call on the ancestors, and the gods. Life happens at the intersection of these two worlds. Choreographer and MacArthur “genius” grant winner Liz Lerman, writing for The Washington Post, sees in Tango “a paean to all the feet, hips, hands, that went before us”a fittingly African form of ancestor worship.
Capturing the historylet alone the essenceof something as transient and ephemeral as dance across a period of centuries is not easy. It requires a special way of seeing, of telescoping the past into the present, and overlapping geographical spaces. “Seeing connections where others see distance” is how Thompson describes kindred spirits Piazzola and Borges, but it applies to him as well. Thompson has a way of capturing muscle memory and footnoting it for posterity. He sees the New World through Kongo eyes, and restores the suppressed and lapsed memories of African civilization. He causes us to wrap our mouths around the names of Kongolese capitals Lwangu and Cabinda in the same breath as London, Rome, Genoa and Paris. This is a great service. The world around you should look differentor simply be more visibleafter reading this book.