What Does The Pandemic Have To Do With Tango?

by Terence Clarke, author, journalist, Alma del Tango board member

Couple dancing tango with masks during the pandemic

Dancing tango during the pandemic

As everyone knows, we’re in the midst of a pandemic. But what many don’t know is Tango was affected by another plague that took place in Buenos Aires in the nineteenth century.

The mosquito, and the Yellow Fever that it brought to Buenos Aires, killed eight percent of the population of the city in 1871 and reduced the overall population by one-third as masses of people fled to safety.

This wasn’t the only such scourge to visit Buenos Aires. There had been other, smaller outbreaks of the Yellow Fever in 1852, 1858, and 1870. But 1871 was the worst year of the lot when, at its peak, five hundred porteños a day were dying from the disease.

A war on the part of Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil versus Paraguay (known as The War of The Triple Alliance) had been fought between 1864 and 1870. It was a particularly difficult struggle. Paraguay was defeated entirely and suffered what some estimates put at two hundred thousand deaths. Bad as that certainly was for paraguayos, the aftermath of the war was also a singular disaster for citizens of Buenos Aires. Argentine soldiers returning from the war brought the Yellow Fever with them, and the rest is history. Polluted drinking water, untreated human waste, and the hot, wet summer climate so welcoming to mosquitos were singular elements in the spread of the disease. Another was the overcrowded conditions caused by the enormous influx of immigrants from everywhere in the world to Buenos Aires.

This immigration story is one of the most famous of this storied city.

As in New York City, Buenos Aires was the arrival point for hundreds of thousands of impoverished immigrants from across Europe and countries farther to the east. Mostly packed into the famous conventillos, which were large tenement blocks built both privately and by the government, these people suffered enormously from the Buenos Aires epidemic. They had nowhere to go and no money to get there even if they could escape.

The black population of former slaves, although small by comparison to most of the immigrant groups arriving in the port, lived south of the city in generally miserable, poverty-stricken, and overcrowded conditions. Better-to-do white citizens began building neighborhoods in the northern part of the city, in order to distance themselves from the black and immigrant peoples. A 2013 article in the International Business Times says:

It has been alleged that the president of Argentina from 1868 to 1874, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, sought to wipe out blacks from the country in a policy of covert genocide through extremely repressive policies (including possibly the forced recruitment of Africans into the army, and by forcing blacks [by military means] to remain in neighborhoods where disease would decimate them in the absence of adequate health care).”

That word “alleged” does little to reveal the truth of whether blacks were so treated, and I have not yet been able to determine the truth of what happened. What we do know is that the black population of Buenos Aires was reduced to almost nothing by the pandemic, whether or not they were surrounded by the army.

These losses account directly for the fact that one encounters so few black people today in Buenos Aires.

So…what does this have to do with tango?

The basic rhythms of tango came to southern South America with black slaves from Western Africa, beginning in the sixteenth century. As with jazz in the United States, tango derived from those rhythms. Despite the many considerable elements in tango that came with other nationalities during the times of immigration, the basis for the music and dance forms is black. (See my column from last month, titled Tango Negro for more details.)

We can only speculate about what tango music and dance would be like in our own time had the black population of Buenos Aires not been decimated in the nineteenth century. My guess is that it would be much different from what we see today, in many important ways.

Terence Clarke’s non-fiction book, An Arena of Truth: Conflict in Black and White is available online and in book stores everywhere.

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