|by Dr. Jeffrey Lant
Author's Note: To get the most out of this article, go to any search engine. Search for arguably the most popular tango ever written, "La cumparsita" (1916) by Uruguayan musician Gerardo Matos Rodriguez. You will be in the mood at once, right from its famous opening lyric, "The masked parade of endless miseries...."
A dance for men and women.
When a boy insists upon dressing up in coat and tie to dance with a girl, his girl by holding her firmly and gazing intensely into her eyes. When he is ready to lead, to command, he is no longer a boy but a man, and he's ready for tango.
When a girl insists upon wearing a provocative dress that's starkly cut and skin tight, slashed to her waist. When she wants to be held by a man, her man and relish the power of submission, she is no longer a girl but a woman, and she's ready for tango. . This is an article for adult men and women. No "hanging out", texting adolescents with wild gyrations need apply. What follows here is not for you.... yet. When you read it you will want to grow up too fast and grasp your fate, whatever it is. That is your first sharp longing for tango. There will be many others, right up to the last day you tango which will be the last day of your life.
The waltz is a dance... the fox trot is a dance... the samba is a dance. But tango is destiny; your most intimate, revealing, convulsive feelings set to a music that seizes you and never lets you go.
Call tango a dance at your peril, for it is so much more. It is the most important moment in the lives of those who walk its steps, expecting to reveal nothing to their partner, then swept away unaccountably revealing everything, however abashing, destructive.
Tango is life itself. It is never just about its various positions; those are the least important things. Tango is about passion... power... the control of a woman by a man who discovers too late that woman controls him.
Tango is endless variations and manifestations of jealousy, betrayal, revenge. And always variations of love, in all its aspects, from its soaring prospects to its squalid conclusions. Tango, you see, is not danced; it is lived. And when you are dancing it... you are, perhaps for the first time, alive... You can hardly believe that once upon a time you attempted life without it. Now it haunts you... and you would never have it any other way.
Tango originated in lower-class districts of Buenos Aires and Montevideo. There life was cheap, short, glorious for an instant, ending abruptly, a legacy of sorrow, pain, regret, remorse. The word itself can be dated to the 1890s when it was applied to a fusion of music from the candombe ceremonies of former slave peoples mixed with European dances. It was always, right from the start, a combustible, volatile sound, with violence and mayhem lingering just below the surface, always ready to erupt.
Tango burst like a grenade upon the blase sophisticates of pre-World War I Europe; sheltered, pampered, rich they craved the unpredictability and eroticism of tango. It was liberating... dangerous... exciting. They couldn't get enough.
In the middle of that great war (1916 or 1917, authorities differ), tango's most famous music was born. It seemed oddly fitting. In a world now maddened by unimaginable destruction and early death, tango's dancers craved release... and at the cafe "La Giralda" in Montevideo Gerardo Matos Rodriquez gave it to them (albeit anonymously).
The orchestra of Roberto Firpo was the first to present the composition, then without words, to a world which grabbed at it as if to a lifeline out of the inferno of the "war to end all wars". People danced with abandon; their total focus on the dance, its steps, and the partner they held tight, eyes locked together... as if that night, that dance might be their last on earth. For many it was. Tango was the music of the doomed...
The first lyrics to "La cumparsita" were written in 1924 by Argentine Pascual Contursi. There have been many other lyrics since but Contursi's are the most apt. They signify a group of people that attends the carnival festivals dressed in a similar fashion (usually but not exclusively, wearing masks.)
Here are his words:
The masked parade of endless miseries promenades around that sick being that soon will die of sorrow.
That's why in its bed cries mournfully remembering the past that makes it suffer.
These were words of death, of pain, of a haunted, fretful past and a future of despair, alienation, loneliness.
Immortality for sale, 20 pesos.
No history of tango and its most famous song would be complete without a few more words about Matos Rodriquez. He was just 18 when he wrote "La cumparsita"... young, educated, well mannered, naive. He sold his rights for the pittance of 20 pesos to the Breyer publishing house. It would hardly be a tango tale if he didn't live to profoundly regret his rash, ill-considered act. Of course he did -- deeply, bitterly, never endingly.... a legacy of draining, expensive law suits shadowed his life. At last a legal loophole gave him vindication, solace, and cash. The court ruled that as a minor he was unable to sell the rights. They were his again.
There were, in the best tradition of tango, other lawsuits, too. Who had the right to sing it? Who was entitled to the lyric royalties? It was all hashed out in court, in one hard-fought action after another.
In the end legendary tango composer and band leader Francisco Canaro (president of the Argentine Society of Authors and Composers) was asked to arbitrate. He ruled that tango lyricists Enrique Maroni and Pascual Contursi were entitled to royalties, too. They had given "La cumparsita" its first lyrics and a new name, too, "Si Supieras" -- if you knew. It didn't stick.
Through the endless series of charges, countercharges, claims, lies and law suits people worldwide danced tango... unconcerned about rights and wrongs. They had something more important on their minds. It was the compelling, entrancing, primitive, rough and graceful dance...
... the dance of one man and one woman.
The dance where total strangers, through the mad alchemy of tango, become intimate, enraptured, engrossed in each other, no one else in their world, and none wanted.
These two people, tormented by the intoxicating proximity, exist for each other only, body to body, eyes to eyes, walking rhythmically to a destination where anything might happen. They fear it. They want it. They tango.
Now it is time for you to tango, too, for you have waited far too long. It beckons. It knows you cannot resist, for you are but human... and tango is divine.