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"From Candombe to Tango and Beyond (Part I) "




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From Candombe to Tango and beyond

(Essay on the fusion of disparate rhythms)

(Part II)

By Jean-Pierre Sighé


...It is the similar process that has given birth to Samba, Calypso (or Socca), Salsa, Cumbia, Zouk, Milonga, Canyengue, and, indeed, Tango. They were generated as rhythms and colorations, but also as corresponding dance forms. All these rhythms and dances were brought forth through the Habanera creation. It’s worth repeating that the Habanera came from incorporating the Contradanza to the African drumming of the slaves. Another famous rhythm came to birth in the journey: the Reggae. One must listen to the old Reggae rhythm prior to Bob Marley’s time and hear the accentuated Habanera expression. It evolved to the current Reggae beat where the upbeat is more pronounced. The rhythmic transformation continues as we have now in Angola, the Kizomba. The dancers who came up with the Kizomba did exactly what the descendants of slaves in Buenos Aires did; that is, invented steps and body movements to express an existing rhythm.
In this case, in Angola, they adopted the Zouk rhythm and music. In Buenos Aires, these descendants of African slaves first called the place they came to dance their dance, Tango, a word in their natural Bantou language meaning “ the place we gather”. The place quickly gave its name to the dance actually performed there: Tango, a dance generated to express the new form that had transitioned through the Milonga rhythm and the Canyengue dance, from the Candombe drumming, mixing in with the Foxtrot. In case there is astonishment as to how a place where a dance is performed can lend its name to the dance actually performed there, I would remind us that today we call Milonga, the place we hold Tango parties, although Milonga is a distinct dance by itself, that we dance at these parties. No mystery here. It’s only confusing to the newcomer in Tango who hears the word Milonga used in different contexts.
I will use the opportunity here to affirm that Milonga is NOT a fast Tango, as I’ve heard some people describe it. It is true that a good Tango dancer could inject into the Milonga dancing some specific Tango moves. It takes skill to do that. However, one should approach the Milonga from the African concept of call-response in a rhythmic conversation. I often think that a good Milonga class should be a pure exercise of rhythmic exploration where people would sit in a circle and, one buy one, clap their hands to respond to a piece of Milonga playing. Such exercise would tremendously enrich the participants, whether they are totally uncomfortable with rhythm or advanced with it. The synergy of such gathering would be absolutely magical. (We might do just that at Tango Magdalena, at some point in the future.)
It is in these similar gatherings that people in Africa enrich themselves with the science of rhythm, all the way from childhood to adulthood. At age 9 or 10 we might gather to play with rhythm, exploring the call-response and having tremendous fun with it. Of course, we all took it for granted, as it was a natural thing to do. Those of us who later ended up in musical activities suddenly realized how important that unseemly training actually was: a gateway to the Mathematics and the Meta-physics of rhythm.
Milonga is an elegant call-response where the full body of the dancers participates. Horizontal and vertical undulations make it look good and truly make it feel good. Those who have recently studied Milonga at Tango Magdalena will clearly understand what I mean by vertical undulations. We have decided to let the window of the Zouk music (composed on the Essewe rhythm –fig.1- as anyone can verify) shine its light on the famous Traspie to correct its observed stiffness. The Traspie is a result of a side step with the combination of the vertical and horizontal undulations in the bodies of the dancing partners. The Traspie executed as a mechanical counted 1-and-2 is awfully unsatisfactory. It’s the letter devoid of the spirit. There we have it… the constant teaching of a dance without telling about its African roots!
Playing more with rhythm helps the dancers respond to the emphasized habanera color with ease and spontaneity. That same ability might be quite helpful in their dance composition when they are dancing Tango.

To hear the Habanera in Tango helps improvise and be musical. The skilled dancer will easily compose as the call-response keeps guiding the path. It makes perfect sense to dance Tango on a piece of music where the Habanera is expressed or called for.  This is what will keep Tango or any other dance form using the Habanera door evolving; and evolve they will, as no one can stop that process….that cosmic urge!

From the Candombe drumming, dancing to Tango, the Milonga and Canyengue were necessary elements to accommodate the subtle accents in the rhythm. We can already see how the other major recent change consisting of bringing back the drums into Tango has brought forth the “Nuevo Tango”. Dancers felt the need to open the embrace in order to allow more movements between the partners.


The younger generation of musicians from Argentina has grown somewhat tired of the sound from the so-called Golden Era of Tango. It is as if they feel the urge or need to recall the drums into the sound of Tango music. The drum is the heart beat. You can’t keep it out forever! For the time being, however, the segment of the rhythm that these younger musicians use is still very basic, very “square”, very intellectual and lacks the unpredictability of true drumming. It is easy to foresee how this will change, as the world has entered a new era of instant and global communications. The science of the drummers and dancers from the land of Africa will reveal itself more quickly around the globe. Already in Uruguay, some musicians are making that transformation. I had the privilege to be introduced to the music of a wonderful Candombe drummer from Uruguay named Sergio Ortuño. Good credit should also be given to Juan Carlos Càceres (Argentinean) who has not been shy about expressing the Afro root in his Tango pieces.
More of this infusion in Tango songs will produce better dancers, as the spirit sustained by the very essence of the rhythm will be considered while learning the dance. Gone will be (at last) the time when people are taught the dance solely by counting the beats! I might further emphasize the spiritual importance of rhythm. There is such thing as the emotional connection to the rhythm.
As I inferred earlier, that emotional connection is a gateway to a deeper inner state. The same way one might reach spiritual exaltation with the continued intonation of vowel sounds, one can reach that similar state with the internalization of a specific rhythm. It’s not by accident that a structure such as the 5/8 or 7/8 or 9/8 is used (these are cycles of 5, 7 and 9 beats) in ritualistic instances. It is useful to point out that these are not mere figures or digits, but rather should be understood as numbers or “vibration-qualifiers”, in the numerological sense. The numbers are purposefully odd. It


should begin to appear to anyone, that the complex Candombe could not just have been some subaltern exercise for the African slaves, in Argentina. No! Playing the Candombe was and still is (in Uruguay or elsewhere in the world and certainly in Africa) a spiritual experience. That this experience has expanded to include other structures is normal. Think of a monk’s meditation in some isolated area in Asia that transcends the immediate limitations of time and space to encompass the meditation realm of a Jesuit monk somewhere in Europe. The spiritual exaltation is similar in both cases.

Candombe, Milonga, Canyengue…Tango. This is a spiritual progression of a mother engendering other channels to sustain an essence. Tango is not a spontaneous generation, nor is it a result of some sexual enticement in some brothel in Buenos Aires. As the process continues and more people get a better acquaintance with the Habanera call, we would be able to dance on many other music creations. We would do so, in full understanding of our moves. Guided by the same necessary premise that the lady (or the Following Partner) in our arms is the person who is dancing; we have the privilege to make the partner dance. That is our compass! We would therefore view, sense the partner’s stepping, as the rhythmic response to the call of the music. They would, in turn, be the call to which we would continuously respond, thus, instantly inventing the new move, taking our partner to the place of pure joy. Pour le plaisir! (for the pleasure), as they would put it in the language of Molière.  We would not be pretending to dance Tango on other musical genres. The command of the rhythm would have given us wings to fly higher and deeper into the ever surprising, thus spontaneous, world of true dancing. Here and now!
The ever-expanding creatures that we are have allowed us to come up with Nuevo Tango. The Cosmic urge is scintillating, pulling forward into future inventions, perhaps totally new dance forms. Perhaps coming up with a better adaptation of a dance form to an already existing rhythm? The probability of Tango moves or dancing on Habanera R&B is real! … Why not? ... Stay tuned!




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