The Origins Of Tango: Photo Essay

Argentinians and Uruguayans are always arguing over the origin of tango. Paula (@museodeltango) gave us a private tour of Montevideo’s tango museum to clear up this 100-year-old feud.

Where Was Tango Created?

In 2009, UNESCO cited the origin of tango as the Plata River Basin, the area between Montevideo and Buenos Aires.

Café Facal (above) has a stage on the sidewalk in front. Cafe Facal is the oldest cafe in Montevideo.

A mix of immigrant music and dance contributed to the creation of tango. It was right here, at the site of the Tango Museum, Paula told us, that a club of high-society men began dancing with prostitutes. High-society women wanted nothing to do with this vulgar dance.
Drawing of Matos Rodriguez, with the sheet music of La Cumparsita behind him
In 1917, Matos Rodriguez, a university student, was sick with typhoid fever. He wrote the iconic tango tune, La Cumparsita, and his sister, Orfelia, wrote the sheet music. However, when she found out it was a tango, she was furious. She refused to have her name attached! Matos, just 20 years old, sold the rights to the music.
I’m with Tigre, a legendary waiter at the well-known restaurant Chiquilín in Buenos Aires. You can see the portrait of Carlos Gardel behind me. He remains an icon.

Years later, Matos traveled to Paris where he heard his friend, Carlos Gardel, performing La Cumparsita. Matos had never added lyrics and was furious. In the new version, the song was called, Si Supieras! (If You Knew). Matos wrote his own lyrics and told Gardel that these were the ones he had to sing!

Carlos Gardel’s version, though, was already a hit in Paris cabarets! Tango was now being accepted! Matos’ battle seemed hopeless. He was also sick with tuberculosis, complicating the situation even further!

Tango Goes To Paris And French Tannat Comes To Uruguay

The Tango Museum’s Ambient Decor, a throwback to the early days of tango
The Museum of Tango‘s ambience makes you feel like it’s 1917!

At this point, our guide Paula poured both of us a glass of Tannat. People drank Tannat, a French wine, as they watched tango in Paris cabarets. This wine has a fruity aroma, but is dry. Uruguayan vineyards imported the seeds. These grapes are now the national grape of Uruguay.

Tango’s Acceptance Into High Society

A street in the Buenos Aires neighborhood, La Boca, where some say tango originated
El Caminito is in the notorious Buenos Aires neighborhood, La Boca. Argentinians say that tango originated right here.

People of society, men and women, were filling Paris cabarets, dancing tango! The news reached Argentina and Uruguay. If high society in Paris accepted tango, then so could high society in South America!

The Legal Battle Over La Cumparsita

Tango dancers performing on a pedestrian street in Buenos Aires
We were lucky to catch a street tango on Florida Street in Buenos Aires

One day, a lawyer in Paris overheard Matos complaining about the new lyrics and title of his song. The lawyer noticed that Matos was young. When Matos sold the rights to his song, he was just 20 years old, still considered a minor. The sale was not legal!

Matos never lived to learn the results of his lawsuit. Matos won and the rights were transferred to his surviving family, his sister Orfelia!

Cafe Tortoni’s History of Tango

A long list of famous people have visited Cafe Tortoni since the mid-19th century. UCityGuides ranks Cafe Tortoni as one of the ten most beautiful cafes in the world!

The show at Cafe Tortoni features highly talented singers, musicians and dancers. It takes you from the early days of tango, when it was considered a vulgar dance, through its transformation to the beautiful dance we know of today.

If you enjoyed this post, you will surely enjoy our conventillo visits in Buenos Aires.

13 thoughts on “The Origins Of Tango: Photo Essay

  1. Oooo a private tour, how cool! Orfelia wasn’t a fan of tango music, eh? I wonder if she regretted that. Poor Matos with such sickness. It’s brilliant Cafe Tortoni is so popular and dedicates itself to the best musicians, dancers, singers, and showcases tango in all forms. Interesting post, Aixa!

    1. She may have once tango became so popular and accepted. Cafe Tortoni is beautiful and the show was brilliant! So professional! Now we’d like to watch tango in a much smaller place to have a different type of experience. Thank you, Caz!

    1. We really loved it! Paula was excellent! Our change in lifestyle has been very interesting. Of course, plenty of difficulties but we can overcome them all. The hardest part for me is not being organized like I usually am. I have to work on that. Thank you so much for asking, Bojana!

  2. I was blessed to spend part of a delightful summer in Buenos Aires and Montevideo—both wonderful cities! I can attest to the fact that each claims the tango, such emotional music and dance!

  3. I wish we watched tango at Cafe Tortoni instead. My first night in burins Aires was sort of ruined because we chose a tango place that had lessons and dinner included but it was terrible. Maybe next time! Great post Aixa!

    1. Cafe Tortoni’s show was excellent but there are other excellent shows here. If you come back to Buenos Aires, I’ll tell you some must-see places. Maybe I’ll even be here when you come!

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