You’ve seen her at a milonga: brassy, bottle-blonde hair. Between too much sun, too many cigarettes, and too much plastic surgery, it’s difficult to determine her age—maybe 50 leaning toward 70 trying to look 30. She’s wearing, shall we say … something “memorable” (although you can’t remember exactly what now) and it reveals her tucks and lifts and undergarments. She is Buenos Aires. She has black roots and her parents were purchased from another country. She was a slave, a whore. She wants to move to a wild African rhythm but the years have taught her, pressured her, to maintain composure. The tango, whitewashed in the ballrooms of Paris, is the dance for her—with its balance of surrender and control. Europe, taught her some refinement—taught her how to hide, how to lie, how to sell. But underneath she is simmering with passion—ready to strike with a kiss or a knife blade.
There’s a story that Argentina’s first-ever president, Bernardino Rivadavia, was mulatto. His black mother was “beneath” marrying his European father—who was already married anyway. Or, perhaps he was the offspring of Rivadavia’s first wife. It’s difficult to say. The “Chocolate Dictator” was apparently a fairly ugly man but a great president. The information is elusive, contradictory; maybe “mulatto” means something other than what we think it means, maybe since “los argentinos son mas europeos que los europeos” they want to hide their black roots. If you ask an Argentine if they know the truth … they don’t.
Blacks were first brought to Argentina as slaves in the 1770s and by 1778 they comprised 30 percent of the population. By the early 1800s, Argentina was the first country in the Americas to abolish slavery. A disproportionate number of Blacks were then sent to the front line in the War of Paraguay and didn’t return. Then, Yellow Fever hit. By the late 1800s, Afro-Argentines comprised less than 2 percent of the population. Their “disappearance” is referred to as a “riddle” and even the “black genocide.” The immigration of “white” Europeans increased dramatically to the point where, in the 1900s, Argentina was considered the “whitest” of all South American countries.
Today, there are very few people of colour (any colour) walking the street of BA. The few African Americans that visit are given a stare. I met one who had come to play music but went home to the States early because he didn’t feel welcome.
But, if you listen carefully, you can hear those roots in the tango: Canyengue, Candombe and Milonga admit easily to originating from the depths of slavery and the African continent. Tango followed, kicking and screaming, to claim its adopted parent (Europe) as its only. But, with more leniency and acceptance, especially in the Arts, Tango Nuevo (starting with Jazz infusion/inclusion), brought back some of those beats and rhythms that make us want to move a little less stiffly, a little more “blackly,” and reminds us that when we get together, no matter what colour, all we really want to do is dance.