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Tango Tales: A Journey through the History of Tango

Just a few days ago, the reissue of "El tango between 1880-1920" was presented in Buenos Aires, a book of great documentary value that challenges some of the milestones around which tango has built its identity.

Although it may seem unartistic, it is common for important events not to occur in the form of a serial story. This disorder is often tempered by historians with flowery prose, oral traditions, and artistic evocations, who provide comforting doses of quaintness where necessary. Logically, when history mixes with romanticism, the rigor of truth often suffers; the present takes care to spice up the past, and that's how heroes die contentedly after defeating enemies instead of desperately calling for a stretcher. Fueled by repetition itself, the corrected narrative gains autonomy and at some point breaks free from what has once happened; myths begin to wander in the social imaginary, to circulate, to linger, and slowly manage to carve out a place in collective memory. So they endure, placidly, until some curious person decides to investigate how much truth there is in them.

That's what Hugo Lamas and Enrique Binda were up to for over 35 years, investigating how much truth there was in the usual story about the origins of tango. "What we were reading about the period we were dealing with didn't add up," says Enrique Binda; "the more we analyzed, the more questions arose, until we realized that we had to rewrite history based on verifiable documentation and not on revealed truths." From the outset, the authors imposed the rigor of a strictly scientific investigation: to consider only what can be proven, to dispense with what is accepted dogmatically by popular knowledge, to avoid the temptation to elaborate a theory where the documentation is not enlightening, and to reread the bibliography considering the circumstances of production and the boasts it might hide. "We always thought that tango was born within a normal society, such as that of Buenos Aires at that time," says Binda. "The documentation we found reveals that the socio-cultural phenomenon called tango developed normally within the intellectual growth of the city."

The cross-referencing of judicial records, police communications, testimonies, theater programs, records, advertisements, cadastral reports, censuses, and archives of all kinds led the authors to revelations that confront some of the most widely spread milestones about tango: the research presents a tango that developed both in the center and in the outskirts, in plain sight of whoever wanted to see it, with more academies than brothels and with many more actors than the usual cast of thugs, prostitutes, and scoundrels. "The presence of tango occurred in all social strata," points out Binda, "in different percentages. It's not that the entire lower class loved tango or that the entire upper class rejected it. In 1910, for example, there were already more than 500 recorded tango titles; who consumed these luxury items? The thugs, the prostitutes, the compadritos? At the same time, thousands of piano scores of tangos had been sold, who had a piano in their house? We're talking, at least, about the middle class and above."



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