Tango History

tango milonga

„While the Vals followed an independent path by „joining“ the Tango with its appearance, the Milonga did not „join“ the Tango, but rather „gave birth“ to it … There is little argument today about the Milonga being a fundamental part of the Tango ancestry. It’s the mother, indeed.“


The practice of dancing Tango to the waltzes that were composed alongside Tango in Argentina during the Golden Age is a relatively recent development in Argentine Tango. The result is a fast, smooth dance that joins the seductive and rhythmic melodies of Waltz to the complexities of Tango. Tango Vals utilizes almost the same vocabulary as Tango, the biggest difference perhaps being that in response to the music, the dancers often choose more turning steps and less pause than they would in a Tango.


The Viennese waltz was the world’s first popular dance to use what we now think of as the only possible hold for couple dances – the leader and follower standing face to face while embracing each other – and can therefore claim to be the ancestor of all modern couple dances.

The Waltz became an independent, identifiable dance only at the end of the 18th century. Until then, the aristocracy permitted dances without any liberties; dancers had to be at a respectable distance to each other, with perhaps only very slight touching of hands. The Waltz turned this on its head; couples suddenly started embracing each other, hands were placed around the bodies, and couples looked into each other’s eyes.

„The contemporaries of the first waltzes were highly shocked at the eroticism of this dance in which a lady clung to her partner, closed her eyes as in a happy dream, and glided off as if the world had disappeared. The new waltz melodies overflowed with longing, desire and tenderness.“ - Max Graf

The upper middle class adopted the Waltz as a more liberal way of dancing and it became a symbol of their attitudes: self-assured, emotional, free, erotic. Yet, when it became fashionable in Vienna around 1773, where it was popularized, it was shocking to the masses and the aristocrats, and was considered ‘riotous and indecent’ as late as 1825.

The waltz, and the polka – the second dance craze in Europe to use the scandalous new hold, were brought to Argentina by the immigrants arriving throughout the Nineteenth Century. In Buenos Aires they were thrown into the complex melting pot from which Tango Vals would emerge.


The word Creole (Criollo in Spanish) described working class Argentineans; often descendants of mixed Spanish/Afro background. The Creoles had a very strong influence on tango – almost mythical – and even Carlos Gardel’s repertoire, was known as Creole rural music.

The native Creoles who danced an early form of tango grew up to the popular sounds of the waltz. As they did with other dance forms such as the Candombé, Cuban Habanera and the Polka, the Creoles began to incorporate and modify the Waltz to their liking. Towards the middle of the 1800s a Creole variation of Waltz had emerged – the Vals Criollo. (Also known as Peruvian Waltz and Vals Cruzado.)

One of the most beloved Creole Waltzes „Desde El Alma“ was written in 1911 by 14 year old Rosita Melo; her song made her the first widely recognized female Rioplatense Hispanic composer in the world. Desde El Alma was first recorded in the 20s by Roberto Firpo. Today, we mostly hear later recordings such as Puglieses version.

Once tango was firmly entrenched in Buenos Aires, it was only natural for the tango musicians of the day – who’d had considerable exposure to both the Waltz and its derivative the Vals Criollo – to incorporate it into their repertoires. By 1910, composers were writing tango compositions in 3/4 time, and the Tango Vals was born!

One interesting difference between the Tango and the Tango Vals was its intended audience; whilst in the early 1900s Tango was played for and danced by the lower classes, the Tango Vals was being adored by the aristocrats and upper class.


The Vals slowly began to lose its appeal around 1917 when American dances like the Foxtrot and the Charleston started to become popular. However, during the Golden Age of tango, the Vals made a strong comeback thanks to superb Vals compositions by Francisco Canaro, Alfredo De Angelis, Juan D’Arienzo, Francisco Lomuto, Pedro Lawrenz, Rodolfo Biagi and Anibal Troilo.


The Milonga you see and hear on the dance floors today is a very fast-paced dance. Milonga is played and danced in 2/4 beat rather than the standard 4/4, and generally every beat of the music is danced. Many of the normal tango steps are incorporated, but due to its fast pace, the vast repertoire available to tango cannot be reproduced in full in the milonga (for example many of the embellishments, which require a pause).

Milonga resulted from a fusion of many cultural dances, including the Cuban Habanera, the Mazurka, the Polka and the Brazilian Macumba. In addition to this, there were two very significant influences: the Candombé and the Payada.


Oil paining by Pedro Figari (1861-1938) picturing Candombé dancers at a Tangó.

Candombé, through the development of the Milonga, is an essential component in the genesis of Argentine tango. This musical rhythm influenced, specially, the „rural Milonga“.

When the Spanish colonized South America, millions of enslaved Africans were brought there, centuries before tango was created. More than two thirds of them came from the Eastern and Equatorial region of Africa called Bantu. Candombé is the single word that fuses all the drum-based african dance and music from that area and era. Interestingly enough – they called their drums tangó, and also used this term for the name of the place that they danced the Candombé. The dances themselves were also called tangós!

Oil paining by Pedro Figari (1861-1938) picturing Candombé dancers at a Tangó.

Since around 1580, Buenos Aires was a major hub for African slaves, and their presence made a strong impact on the culture. Also after slavery was abolished in 1853, the Candombé flourished; The local population started dancing with the African descendants, adding their own touches (in particular the embrace) and over time, the Candombé evolved into the milonga.


The milonga, which precedes the tango in history, started as a solo song cultivated during the 19th Century by popular gaucho poets. These payadores gathered and organized la payada de contrapunto (payada is pronounced pah-jah-dah, and essentially means singer). The payada was a gathering in an open place, where the payadores competed through improvisation with guitars, in which one would start a song about any subject that came to mind – often death, God or love – and the other would retort with verses which were octosyllabic quartets structured in a musical period of eight measures in 2/4. These payadas takes place even to this day!


Folk music was the most important popular musical form in Buenos Aires before the emergence of the Tango and it certainly was one of the most important influences in its evolution. People would often go to places where they could hear the payadores sing, and the african slaves who attended these payadas but who did not understand the songs, started to call them milongas – in other words, „many words“. Eventually these events were termed „milongas“, and people started going to a milonga rather than a payada.

„The term milonga from the African language Quimbunda means words, that is; the words of the payadores.“

Many forms of folk music were played at the milongas, and many of them were danced. Gradually, the word milonga came to be extended to a place where dancing happened. Still today, in Buenos Aires and around the world, when one goes out to dance Tango, one goes to a milonga.


With the emergence of sung Tangos, and of orchestral Tangos designed to be listened to rather than danced to, it became necessary to differentiate on records and sheet music the different styles. The term Tango Milonga was coined (and Canaro claims in his autobiography to be the one who coined it), to mean Tango for the milonga; Tango designed for dancing.

In 1932 a new meaning was added to the word Milonga – the most important meaning in the context of Tango music.

The writing team of lyricist Homero Manzi and composer Sebastian Piana had been working together for some time, writing successful Tangos. Manzi decided that he would enjoy the challenge of writing the lyrics for a Milonga, but Piana was not keen. Milonga had a clearly defined musical form, and he felt that as a composer it left him nothing to do. So they decided on a compromise. Manzi would write a lyric in the style of a Milonga, but Piana would break with tradition and set it in a form which was a hybrid between Tango and Milonga. The song which they wrote was Milonga Sentimental.

The song was a huge hit, and Manzi and Piana continued to experiment with their new hybrid form, which was quickly taken up by other composers and lyricists. While some of the new Milongas Ciudadanas, city Milongas, retained the musical structure of the rural Milongas, many abandoned it to become closer to Tangos, though with a stronger rhythm and generally a faster tempo, giving Milonga its place in the Tango trinity. By the late 1930s it was possible to have an instrumental Milonga, something which before Piana’s revolutionary Milonga Sentimental would simply not have been thought of.


By the 1940s Tango, Milonga and Vals were inseparable partners, and the three different faces of the same music give Tango its extraordinary depth and richness of expression.

Tango emerged by mixing the music of the gauchos’ rural milonga and the polka & waltz of the European immigrants with the African-Argentine dances in the melting pot that was Buenos Aires. The tango was shaped by and for the foreigner, the estranged, the disenfranchised, and it still revolves around the intimate connections between people, their communities and the intermixing of a plethora of international cultures.

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