The River Plate Tango: Etymology and Origins

By Megenney, William W. | Afro - Hispanic Review, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

The River Plate Tango: Etymology and Origins

Megenney, William W., Afro - Hispanic Review

In all of the literature written about the origins and history of the tango, only some authors adhere to the possibility of its having had its roots in Africa. Jorge Rivera (1976), for example, dedicates a chapter to the discussion of the tango's "black roots", speaking first of its etymology, which some have placed as stemming from Old Castilian and others from Japanese. Rivera supports the African route (root) for the word, believing that it came over to the New World from Africa on slaving ships, as many other words did. He states (59) that the word tango was used by slavers, meaning 'holding place for slaves before they were forced onto ships'. He also tells us that tango was the place where slaves were put up for sale, either in Africa or in the New World. In addition, says Rivera, tangos were societies of free and freed blacks-organizations which lasted until after 1888, the date of abolition in Brazil.1 Obviously, none of these meanings has any connection to the concept of dance or music. On the face of it, then, we would have to conclude that these tangos were phonological chance occurrences with no tie to our tango rioplatense.

Within the realm of music, Rolando A. Laguarda Trias (1969) suggests that tango comes from tambor (pronounced tambo by the blacks), which means that the original oxitonal word would have become paroxitonal with the change in meaning-not impossible, but unlikely given the lack of such stress shifts in most words borrowed from African languages into European ones in the New World. Jose Gobello, who cites Laguardia Trias (133), disagrees with him in a most emphatic way. To put the record straight, as he states, Gobello (133) cites Esteban Pichardo (242), who has written that tango is a "Reunion de negros bozales para bailar al son de sus tambores o atabales." There are records of blacks meeting for the purpose of dancing and reveling (e.g., Rodiguez Molas 1957, Blas Matamoro 1971, Ortiz Oderigo 1974:139-146, Rossi 1926:169-183, inter alia) during the XIX century in Argentina and Uruguay, but there is no proof that they were designated as tangos by either the blacks or the colonial whites. The drums and/or other percussion instruments used by the blacks in the Rio de la Plata area were, according to Rossi (97, 341), called tango, by way of onomatopeia, as was customary in the Americas and in Africa.2 But, once again, we have the problem of stress, even though tango is phonologically closer to tango than the example of tambo already cited. The possibility of a shift in stress should not be eliminated entirely, though, given its occurrence in the Spanish-speaking world (e.g., mango in most of Spanish America, but mango in Puerto Rico).

In his essay titled "Raices negras del tango", Blas Matamoro (Manuel Pampin, ed., 1976) cites Ricardo Rodriguez Molas's unpublished manuscript, in which Molas, after having searched for the etymology of tango among many African languages, especially those of the Congo, the Gulf of Guinea and the southern Sudan, arrives at the following conclusion:

En varies de ellos "tango" significa "lugar cerrado", "circule", "coto" y, por conotacion, todo espacio vedado al cual se accede sorteando ciertas condiciones previas de admision. Me permito suponer que el uso de "tango" en estas lenguas partiales del Africa llevaba al mundo de Io religioso, con la clausura y el hermetismo que son propios de todo culto, sobre todo en comunidades primitivas.

(Blas Matamoro, 57-8)

It is, of course, possible, that tango or similar words, may have shifted in meaning, as Molas suggests here, from 'some sort of religious circle' to 'dance', given the importance of dance and of music in sub-Saharan religions. However, Molas's mention of the supposed religious aspect within what he found as tango is only speculation on his part; words meaning 'closed areas' ostensibly could have no connection whatsoever to anything religious.

My own search for sub-Saharan words resembling tango did not reveal what Molas's claims have shown. …

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