The tango originated in the 19th century Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Montevideo, Uruguay, and spread to the rest of the world soon after that. It was based on ancient African dance forms, and the word “tango” comes from the Niger Congo. Most historians say the tango really took hold in the brothels of Buenos Aires. Certainly the overtly sexual energy of the dance tends to lend credence to the idea.
I am absolutely insane about the Argentine tango. It should not be confused with ballroom tango, which developed in European and American ballrooms, and uses different music and styling, with more staccato movements and characteristic “head snaps.” Phony and ugly, to my mind.
Tango music is traditionally played by a sextet, known as the orquesta típica, which includes two violins, a piano, a double bass, and two bandoneons (handheld accordions).
A revolution in tango came in the 1950s with the work of Ástor Piazzolla. He is widely considered the most important tango composer of the latter half of the twentieth century. A formidable bandoneonist, he continuously performed his own compositions with different ensembles. He is known in Argentina as “El Gran Ástor” (“The Great Astor”).
Piazzolla incorporated elements from jazz and classical music, morphing the traditional tango into a new style called Tango Nuevo. The style brings new forms of harmonic and melodic structure into the traditional tango ensemble and includes the fusion of electronic and acoustic sounds.
In 1974 Piazzolla did an album called Libertango, featuring the song by the same name. The title is a portmanteau merging “Libertad” (Spanish for liberty) and “Tango,” symbolizing Piazzolla’s break from classical tango to Tango Nuevo. In 1999 the renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma did an album called Soul of the Tango, and this video has become the definitive performance of the piece:
This past week, one of my favorite television shows, So You Think You Can Dance, featured the Argentine tango—and Piazzolla’s “Libertango”—danced by Brandon Bryant and Janette Manrara.
Now, a quick note about the title of this post. It has nothing whatever to do with tango music. In 1973, American songwriter, singer, pianist, and guitarist Harry Nillson did an album called A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night, which was itself a reference to a line from Shakespeare’s Henry V. It’s one of my favorite albums ever. EVER. Performing a selection of pop standards by the likes of Irving Berlin, Gus Kahn, and Sylvia Fine, with the help of Sinatra’s old arranger, Gordon Jenkins, Nillson did a crazygood version of “Over the Rainbow” and a version of “Makin’ Whoopee” that is simultaneously hysterical and touching. My favorite track: “It Had to be You,” the only recording to feature Cole Porter’s banned lyrics. The BBC made a documentary of it, which is preserved on YouTube. I’ve linked them together into a single Playlist for you.