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Juan D'Arienzo: A Biography (Long)

Juan D’Arienzo (December 14, 1900-January 14, 1976) was a violinist, pianist, band leader and composer. His nickname was “El Rey del Compás” (The King of the Beat). D’Arienzo was born on December 14th, 1900 in the Buenos Aires neighborhood of Balvanera. His orchestra is considered one of the "Big Four" orchestras of Argentine tango. 

Part 1: Introduction and Early Career (1900 to 1934)

Part 2: Tango Cancíon and The Guardia Nueva: The Lead Up to D'Arienzo

Part 3: The D'Arienzo Revolution (1935 to 1939)

Part 4: Re-Invention and the Final Years (1940 to 1975)

Part 5: References and Resources

A Brief History of Argentine Tango

Version 1.0 - May 2014
by Clint Rauscher and Shelley Brooks

The concept of this performance is to show a progression of Argentine Tango from its early days up to today, demonstrating different rhythms, embraces and styles. We also tried to work in the 4 primary orchestras of tango D’Arienzo, Di Sarli, Troilo and Pugliese.

Performance Notes: This is our first time attempting this performance. I finished editing the music on Thursday and we performed the very next night, at the Spoleto Tango weekend in Charleston, Sc. This performance is completely improvised, Shelley did not even know which songs I had decided on prior to the performance. Since this was our first time attempting this performance, we asked for feedback from the audience and got some great ideas. We ask the same from you, please provide us with any constructive criticism that you might have. We want to fine tune this concept and perform it again in the near future.

Chapter 1: Early Tango Criollo and Guardia Vieja (Old Guard) (1850s to 1925)
We did not include this period in our performance. The main reason is that we wanted to keep the performance around 10 minutes and we have not practiced this style of tango very often. We plan on adding it in our next iteration of the performance and will likely use:

The reason for choosing this song is the recording quality, tempo and rhythm. I have many early recordings going all the way back to 1907, but the recording quality was very poor on most of these recordings. The earliest tangos, were actually habaneras mixed with European and African musical influences such as candombe and polka, etc. In the sheet music at the time you can see some of these songs being labeled tango-milongas, tango-habaneras or tango-criollo. This music was in 2/4 time and mostly spirited and light in nature. It was faster than the modern tango of today, but slower than today’s milonga.

Tango Criollo Sheet Music

The earliest pictures that we have of tango are from 1903 and feature a well known dancer, and friend of Carlos Gardel, Arturo de Navas. In the pictures, he is dancing with another man and the dance is labelled “El Tango Criollo.” I would argue that there were many competing styles of tango during this period and that the general term Tango Criollo would have encompassed the styles of Tango Orillero and Canyengue.

Tango Orillero would have been more upright and the dancers would have danced in a more spirited and light manner. Canyengue would have been danced more down and with more attitude and swagger. Tango Liso would have also existed during this time and would have been a more calm and prim and proper way of dancing in the nicer dance halls. According to Carmencita Calderon, “It was always the dance hall on the one hand and the canyengue on the other.”

I think that Eduardo Arquimbau gives the best explanation of the difference between Tango Orillero and Canyengue in this video (jump to 57min 45sec mark and watch until he is done demonstrating the walk).

The primary orchestras of this period would be Aduardo Arolas, Roberto Firpo, Juan “Pacho” Maglio, Quinteto Criollo Atlanta, and Vincente Greco.

Chapter 2: Guardia Nueva (The New Guard) (1925 to 1935)
During this period, the habanera influence began to fade and the tempo of the music slowed down with the proliferation of "El Cuatro" or "The Four." "The four" consists of 4 equal quarter notes (beats) with 2 strong beats (down beats) and 2 weak beats (up beats). Along with the music slowing down, it also began to get more complex with the melodic structure having a stronger role.

This is where our performance begins. The song that we use in our performance is “Lorenzo” by Julio de Caro from 1926. I picked this song, because it has a classic rhythm of dance music from this period. Most of the music that people label as Guardia Vieja is actually music from the Guardia Neuva period being played in a Guardia Vieja style. This Guardia Vieja style was even used by Canaro’s Quinteto Pirincho in the 1940s and 1950s and by more modern orchestras like Los Tubatango in the 1960s and 1970s.

“Lorenzo” is a great example of how tango slowed down during this period and took on a more heavy feeling. It is still a very fun and playful song, but “Lorenzo” is more grounded than “Venus” and has more canyengue or swagger. Another important feature of this song is the use of the arrastre. You can clearly hear it for the first time in “Lorenzo” at the 45 second mark, it sounds like a stretch or drag and then a fall.

“Lorenzo” by Julio de Caro from 1926

Our dance in this section, is what I some would call Canyengue. To me, Canyengue is not a codified style but rather an attitude or expression. It is not an embrace or a particular set of steps. To dance Canyengue, you are dancing with a swagger and sway. 

Again, we are dancing with an embrace which is often associated with Canyengue, where Shelley is oriented a little more to my right side. We are dancing cheek to cheek with our heads pointed in the same direction. Our knees are slightly bent and we bring the open side of the embrace down to the man's left hip. While this might very well have been an early embrace of tango, there are plenty of pictures from the early 1900s where people are standing perfectly upgright while dancing. In this part of hte performance we dance playfully, with lots of swagger and sway often using the quick-quick-slow rhythm. I would argue that that is what makes it Canyengue.

Dancing almost died out during the Guardia Nueva period, because the musicians began playing with the phrasing, harmony and the melody instead focusing on a steady beat. People were buying records and listening to tango on the radio and dancers were not the primary concern. Orchestras like De Caro's were creating a music that was more at home in a concert hall than a dance hall. A perfect example of this would be Julio de Caro’s “Flores Negras.” Imagine trying to dance to this when you were used to the very clear steady rhythms of the Guardia Vieja period. Even today, this would not be a song we would dance to.

“Flores Negras” by Julio de Caro from 1927

Chapter 3: The Return of the Milonga
We did not use this in our performance. We cut it for time, but based on feedback I plan to add it back in our next performance. In the 1800s, gauchos, Argentine cowboys, would often sing songs while someone would play a habanera rhythm on the guitar. These boastful songs were performed as contests and were often referred to as milongas.


Poem from the late 1800s:

"You gentlemen confessing milonga,
Let’s battle right here.
Smoke us, milonguero,
if you dare."

During the 1920s, Tango slowed down and the habanera/milonga rhythm disappeared. It did not return until the early 1930s, milonga was reborn with Sebastian Piana’s composition “Milonga Sentimental.”

“Milonga Sentimental” by Francisco Canaro from 1933

Chapter 4: The Golden Age of Tango (1935 to 1955)

Part 1: Rhythmic Tango
As mentioned above, tango for dancers almost died out dying the Guardia Nueva period. But in the 1930s, Juan d’Arienzo came along and started playing more rhythmic tangos reminiscent of the old style. D’Arienzo’s music was not simple but it had a very clear and steady beat which dancers loved.

For our second song, we dance to “Pénsalo Bien” by Juan d’Arienzo with Alberto Echagüe singing from 1938. We now take a more traditional embrace and stand up straight. To this music, we try to express the rhythm of the music by remaining very playful and making small staccato steps without a lot of long pauses or fancy steps. It is more about expressing the rhythm.

“Pénsalo Bien” by Juan d'Arienzo from 1938

Part 2: The Elegance of Tango Salon
To explore this elegant style of tango, I chose “La Capilla Blanca” by Carlos di Sarli with Alberto Podesta singing, from 1944. The music of Di Sarli had a clear, danceable rhythm while being complex enough for advanced dancers to enjoy. He respected both the melody and the rhythm of tango. When dancing to D’Arienzo, dancers often step on most every beat, but when dancing to Di Sarli it is common to dance very slowly and to dance to the melody as well as the underlying beat, employing dramatic pauses. When dancing Salon Tango, dancers will often dance in a mostly close embrace, while expanding their embrace for more complex figures.

“La Capilla Blanca” by Carlos di Sarli from 1944

Part 3: Milonga of the Golden Age
After milonga’s return in the 1930s, it continued to speed up. We represent change in tempo by dancing to Aníbal Troilo’s “Ficha de Oro” with Francisco Fiorentino singing, from 1942. The important thing in milonga is not fancy steps, but respecting the rhythm of the milonga. If you listen carefully to the music, you can still hear traces of the habanera in most modern milongas.

“Ficha de Oro” by Aníbal Troilo from 1942

Part 4: Vals (Waltz) of the Golden Age
Vals had been around since the beginning of the tango, but here we are dancing to a typical Golden Age vals “Pobre Flor” by Alfredo de Angelis with Carlos Dante and Julio Martel singing, from 1946. In our performance, we try to demonstrate the rhythm and flow of the vals.

“Pobre Flor” by Alfredo de Angelis from 1946

It should be noted that there are many sub-styles of Tango-Vals to explore.

Part 5: Dramatic Tango of Osvaldo Pugliese
To fully understand, we must revisit our conversation about the Guardia Nueva period. Pugliese composed his first tango “Recuerdo” in 1924, when he was only 19 years old. “Recuerdo” was one of the most important compositions of the Guardia Nueva period. In this first composition, Pugliese revealed a revolutionary, polished structure. While one can dance to "Recuerdo," imagine what a departure it was from the simple music that went before it. Here is what Horacio Ferrer had to say, "One could speak, with total justice, of compositions before and after Pugliese's "Recuerdo" and the instrumentalists before and after "Recuerdo." The revolutionary conductor and composer Julio de Caro recorded it first in 1926.

“Recuerdo” by Julio de Caro from 1926

We picked his song “Chiqué” from 1953, to demonstrate this more dramatic form of tango. While his music is often associated with performance tango, he was an incredibly popular orchestra during the Golden Age and much respected by accomplished dancers. One of the reasons that we picked “Chiqué” was that it contains all the signature elements that make Pugliese’s music so special, at some moments it is soft and delicate and then bold and dramatic.

“Chiqué” by Osvaldo Pugliese from 1953

Chapter 5: Modern & Electronic Tango
In the final song, we chose “Los Vino” by Otros Aires, from 2007, to represent modern electronic tango. One reason that we picked this song is that it has a rhythm similar to the first song that we danced to. In fact, we start off “Los Vino” with the same steps that we used to start “Lorenzo.” You might also notice that the lyrics reference 3 of the orchestras that we danced to in the the performance Pugliese, Troilo and D’Arienzo.

In our performance, we tried to show some of the more modern steps of tango such as soltadas, volcadas and colgadas.

“Los Vino” by Otros Aires from 2007

Notes on the Performance

As I stated at the beginning, we appreciate any constructive criticism: clint@tangology101.com. If it is of a historical nature, please provide sources for me to review. We were concerned about the time of the performance, but no one complained about that. In fact, the main complaint was that they wanted more information. They wanted us to stop between each song and give a brief explanation. I am going to try to do this next time.

Again, this was the first time we ever attempted it and did not even rehearse before hand, but in the future I want to have some specific figures to work in to each period that are more representative of that period. I have a few more canyengue steps that I would like to work in and some enrosques, planeos and sacadas for the Tango Salon portion.

We also have an idea of just doing a performance that shows the history of just tango from the Golden Age.


Tango y Jazz - Oscar Aleman

I was just watching an interview with Nélida Fernando and she mentioned going to the club to hear Juan D'Arienzo and Oscar Alemán. I was curious if he was a singer or leader of an orquestra that I had never heard. So, I started doing some research and here is what I have found.

Oscar Alemán was an Argentine jazz guitarist born in 1909. He was considered one of the greatest jazz guitarists of all time, on the same level with Django Reinhardt.

He came from a family of performers and musicians. His mother was of the Toba, a native Argentine people. As a child, he travelled to Brazil with his father. Shortly after this, tragedy struck, his mother died and his father committed suicide. He lived on the streets and at age 14 created a duo, Les Loups, with Gastón Bueno Lobos. 

In 1926, they travelled to Buenos Aires. In December of 1927, they recorded their first 78, which included the tango "Hawianita" and the wonderful vals "Criollita." It is worth noting that on "Criollita," Lobo is playing a cavaquinho, which is a 4 string ukelele type of instrument, while Alemán is playing guitar.


In 1928, they record "La Cumparsita."

During this time, Alemán and Lobo also performed as part of Trio Victor for the Victor record label with violinist Elvino Vardaro. Here is their recording of "Recondita" from 1929. Alemán also played guitar for other Tango artists such as Rosita Quiroga. You can usually tell that it is him, because of the unique sound of his Hawaiian guitar.

I should mention that most of his music was Jazz and not Tango, the songs above are a very small portion of his work. In 1929, Alemán and Lobos travelled to Europe to support the dancer Harry Fleming.  After the tour, Alemán stayed in Spain. He later travelled to Germany and France. In France, he discovered American jazz and met Josephine Baker. He ended up leading her orchestra, known as the "Baker Boys" at the Cafe de Paris. During his time in Europe, he also played with Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. When Germany invaded France, in 1940, he returned to Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Oscar Aleman with Josephine Baker

Now is where we get back to what prompted me to do this research. Why was he mentioned in the same breath as D'Arienzo. It turns out that in the mid to late 1940s, Alemán's jazz groups used to play at clubs along with Juan D'Arienzo and these gigs were labelled as "Tango y Jazz." So, if I am understanding correctly, they would switch off playing sets. Back then, when you went to a club, you would hear tango, foxtrot, folk music, jazz, etc.

Here is an interesting video of Alemán playign at a club from a movie titled "El Idolo del Tango" from 1943. What I find interesting is that, it seems that one band or orchestra ends playing and he comes onto the stage and begins to play jazz/swing and the audience still dances with a tango like embrace. Then he gets off the stage and clearly begins dancing swing. So, when they are dancing tango type steps to the swing music, are they dancing alternative tango? ;-)

Again, the majority of his recording career, which spanned from 1927 to 1972, was almost all jazz. Here is a beautiful version of "Milonga Triste," from 1954.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, he is considered one of the greatest jazz guitarists, so here is his rendition of the classic "Sweet Georgia Brown." This is one of the best versions of this song that I have heard, you can hear his genius and that he really makes it his own.

He was friend with Django Reinhardt and supposedly he would fill in for Django when he livedi n Paris, when Django would not show up for shows. Here is what he had to say about Django,  "I knew Django Reinhardt well. He used to say - jazz was gipsy - we often argued over that. I agree with many Americans I met in France who said he played very well but with too many gipsy tricks. He had very good technique for both hands, or rather one hand and a pick, because he always played with a pick. Not me, I play with my fingers. There are things you can't do with a pick - you can't strike the treble with two fingers and play something else on the bass string. - But I admired him and he was my friend. He was my greatest friend in France. We played together many times, just for ourselves. I used to go to his wagon, where he lived. I've slept and eaten there - and also played! He had three or four guitars. Django never asked anyone to go to his wagon, but he made an exception with me. I appreciated him, and I believe the feeling was mutual".

And a comment he made about the tango of Piazzolla, Troilo and Salgán:

"They are two different things. Piazzolla introduces a lot of jazz into tango, Troilo has a pure way of playing. It doesn’t mean he’s a better bandoneon player or a better musician. I regard Piazzolla as a great musician. Salgán is also greatly influenced by jazz, I love him, he’s got much musicality inside."

He died in Buenos Aires in 1980 at 71.


More Information:

Todo Tango
Tango Reporter


1904 Men Dancing Together in the River in Buenos Aires

Great picture of men dancing together from the 1904 in the river. This comes from the Archivo General de la Nación? in Buenos Aires.

There are actually many theories as to why men danced together in the early days of Tango. I think there is some truth in all of them.

1. This was a time when women were not out in public as much as men. Women were in the house and if they went out in public or to public events then they were accompanied by a male relative. Men learned to dance with one another on street corners, clubs and as this picture shows anywhere they could gather.

Women learned primarily in their homes from their brothers, fathers or mothers. So, men would HAVE practice with one another unless they had a female relative to practice with and women were few and far between. Most Buenos Aires was one of the busiest cities in the world and was enjoying mass immigration from Europe, but this was mostly men coming for jobs while their families stayed back home.

2. There were simply not many women to dance with, so men HAD to practice in order to get good enough to dance with the few women that were around. Some estimates state that men outnumbered women 7 to 1, at the turn of the century. This was also still a time when Tango was considered a lower class activity, so many women would have refused to dance this obscene dance.

3. It is also thought that perhaps the early, early Tango was a primarily male dance. That its early origins were on the outskirts by Argentine Cowboys gauchos who would dance around their campfires competing with one another doing very athletic movements and that tango became more tame as women became more and more involved.

Quote from Carlos Gavito

"The secret of tango is in this moment of improvisation that happens between step and step. It is to make the impossible thing possible: to dance silence. This is essential to learn in tango dance, the real dance, that of the silence, of following the melody." Carlos Gavito

One of the great things about Tango is that you don't have to move all the time. In Tango, it is perfectly fine to take a side step and pause... standing completely still for as long as you like. You can gently rock back and forth or rotate your body back and forth slightly... or just be completely still and quiet.

The quote is not just talking about this stillness.. but also about the connection with our dance partner. Our connection exists during the whole dance and goes far beyond the steps that we do.

At the end of a milonga, the women will not remember what steps you executed with them but rather how you connected with her, how your embrace felt and how you stepped rather than the pattern you stepped in.


History of Argentine Tango Music & Dance

There is No Truth to be found in Tango

The tango can be debated, and we have debates over it, but it still encloses, as does all that which is truthful, a secret. - Jorge Luis Borges

Tango did what it pleased with us and it led us and misled us and it ordered us and found us again - Jorge Luis Borges

With this section of the website, my goal is to help educate students and tango enthusiasts about the history of tango music and dance. One thing to keep in mind when reading these articles is that there is much disagreement even amongst famous tango historians. The periods of progression are very loosely defined and of course musicians of one style or period kept playing well into the next so the lines are always blurred. There are even discrepencies over who wrote which songs. People cannot even agree on the origins of the word, "tango." So, what follows is my best effort, at the moment to make sense of it all.

I have been studying Argentine Tango music and dance since 2003 and have amassed a substantial collection of over 6,000 Tango songs, 600+ Vals and 500+ Milongas including CDs, Vinyl LPs and 78s. This is still just a fraction of the Tango music that is out there. It is estimated that there are over 40,000 tango recordings.

This site will primarily focus on music for dancing from the early days of tango, through the Golden Age (1935 to 1955) and today's modern music. One thing to keep in mind is that the vast majority of tango music is not for dancing. In Buenos Aires, most everyone listens to tango but only a very small percentage of the population dances.