It is almost 10 years since tango was granted intangible cultural heritage status by Unesco, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. An art form developed mainly by the working classes of Buenos Aires in Argentina and Montevideo in Uruguay, tango in performance is anything but intangible, its song and dance, music and movement, lyrics and poetry giving off a pathos the watcher and listener can feel.
Tango is arguably one of the greatest achievements of so-called working class culture – and also one of the most misunderstood. Cheesy and sensationalist representations of tango as sexually charged dancing between a man in a black hat and a woman poured into a figure-hugging dress, often exchanging a rose from mouth to mouth, have “orientalised” the form.
In reality, tango is a battle cry of the working class, a way to counter adversity and celebrate the human spirit. That blood-and-guts nature is not captured at all by Unesco’s overarching definition: “The practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills – as well as the instruments, objects, artifacts and cultural spaces associated therewith – that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognise as part of their cultural heritage.”
That is comprehensive, but very far removed from the humanity and artistry and urgency of Carlos Gardel, tango’s most celebrated and beloved vocalist and composer. Like so many of the porteños, the working-class residents around the port of Buenos Aires in the early 20th century, Gardel was an immigrant. He left his birthplace of Toulouse, France, in 1890, with his mother at the age of three. Theirs was a classic migrants’ journey, seeking a better life in a new world, exactly as today’s migrants look to Europe from Africa, or to North America from Central and South America.
Gardel began doing odd jobs early to boost the family income, and his education on the street gave him unique insights into and empathy with the life of his fellow porteños. When he got the chance to make his first recording, in 1917, he chose to avoid what would likely have been a glittering career as a bourgeois singer and performer, and put his peerless baritone voice in the service of a tango song.
Difficult though it is to imagine, that was regarded as scandalous. Tango, after all, belonged to the “underclass”. But it was a principled choice and one of true artistic integrity, because this was the music Gardel had been surrounded by, growing up in the docklands. His courage and artistry established him at once, and when he returned to France in 1925 to perform in Paris, he made tango a worldwide phenomenon.
Visiting Buenos Aires this month, I was haunted by and in pursuit of Gardel. His old home is next to one of the city’s best tango clubs, where an evening performance robustly rebutted the clichés around the form. The dancers, men and women, were middle aged. The songs were heart-rending by their sound alone, the accordion and the vocalist in duets of infinite pain and unquenchable optimism. This was the music, the song and dance, of the people, though played out before a largely tourist crowd.
There was one concession to the audience, an excerpt, in Spanish, from Don’t Cry for Me Argentina, but the signifier was that it was very brief. At most tango spots in the city, this most untango-like of songs is given a full rendition, but not here. In the run-up to Argentina’s national elections next year, a born-again form of Peronism, with its calls to the spirit of Eva Peron, is a dangerous thing gaining momentum.
Next, a trip to Gran Cafe Tortoni, founded in 1858, the country’s oldest such establishment. Here, Gardel would meet with others in the world of Argentine letters and the arts, including the great poet and essayist Jorge Luis Borges. Beyond its cafe area, Tortoni has a salon-sized tango performance space, and a room dedicated to the city’s cultural icons. The text displays range from first editions of Borges to collections of tango songs by Gardel and his lyricist Alfredo Le Pera. Handwritten texts, jostling one another in old wood-and-glass display cabinets, take you to the moment and act of their creation.
Gardel was fated to die young. As with some of the legendary musicians of the 1940s and 1950s, Gardel died in a plane crash in Colombia in 1935. Le Pera was on board with him.
Shortly before he died, Gardel recorded six tango classics in a single session. Among them was El Dia Que Me Quieras (“The Day You Love Me”), with its text message: “The day you love me/ There will be nothing but harmony./ … Life will flourish/ There will be no pain./ The night you love me”.