I’m a long time student and teacher of tango guitar. This series of articles is for tango guitar students and guitarists interested in pursuing tango. Contact me for more information on lessons and workshops.
Rhythms or ‘Genres’ in tango
Now that we’ve given a general introduction to tango guitar (see article I) let’s talk about a practical matter: the different rhythmic song forms, or ‘genres’ we encounter in tango music. There are three main genres in tango:
In this article we're going to focus on the rhythmic foundations of each genre. All three have origins tied to dance, and mastering the rhythmic feel is key to playing them well. Like many other types of Latin music, tango has some African roots and a connection to drums, although drums themselves did not end up in tango. In their place, other instruments assumed a percussive role. You can hear it in the piano, bass, and bandoneons in orquestas típicas * and small ensembles, and you hear it in guitar groups.
I'd estimate that most tango repertoire contains about 80% tangos, 10% valses and 10% milongas.
Here’s an introductory look at each of the three genres:
Vals is the Spanish word for waltz. This Austrian dance form made its way to Latin America with the Spaniards and installed itself firmly in popular music all over Latin America. Waltzes are an important part of argentine folk music or folklore, and the valsecito criollo made its way into the urban repertoire of tango and stayed there.
There are different ways to produce the vals rhythm on the guitar, but we can safely say that it’s relatively easy to create the basic feel, which fits the guitar naturally. The vals is in 3/4 time and is written that way.
The milonga that is used in tango music is an upbeat 2/4 rhythm. There are two accented beats and a dotted rhythm commonly called a habanera** pattern. Other rhythmic modes appear: tenuto quarter notes (for harmonic changes) or eighth-note bordoneos, for example.
The upbeat milonga used in tango music has a rural cousin, the milonga campera, which comes from the folk music of the Buenos Aires region. This is the folk music of the payador, a singer who would accompany himself with a guitar. The milonga campera is a slow milongawhose accompaniment is made up of bordoneos.
Tango is written in 4/4 quadruple meter (although for many years it was notated in 2/4 and then 4/8 – see below). It’s the most complex of the three genres and the most difficult to master. Within the 4/4 meter there are several rhythmic modes that combine to produce the rhythmic basis of tango:
Marcato – this is the main mode and has many variations on one theme: accented quarter notes. In a traditional tango arrangement, the accompaniment uses marcato most of the time. The specific way that musicians accentuate and articulate the different marcatos it what makes an accompaniment truly feel like a tango.
Síncopa – this mode is the counterbalance to marcato and can be used to break up its monotony of even beats. There are many different ways of playing síncopas but the general characteristic is a very specific question and answer that lasts one measure. The first half of the measure or ‘question’ starts with two eighth notes and the second half, or ‘answer’ is a single note on beat 3. I’m describing síncopa in the most general terms possible.
There are several other rhythmic modes used in tango accompaniment: bordoneo, half notes, 3-3-2 and umpa-umpa are a few. I discuss them in detail in my workshops and lessons, and we can dig in to them in future posts.
Finally, I’ll say this: the tango feel that we consider standard today (four beats per measure) evolved in roughly the 1940’s. Up until that point tango was played with a feel that used the habanera pattern and therefore sounds more like a medium-tempo milonga to our ear. I’ve heard musicians refer to old tangos, ‘Zorro gris’ for example, as ‘tango milongas’ for that very reason.
Why 2/4? Why 4/8?
Here’s a little history behind a technical question – why is tango sometime referred to as ‘dos por cuatro’? And further to that, why is the old tango sheet music written in 4/8? Musically it doesn’t make a difference and as a musician you might not care, but if someone asks you it’s nice to have an answer. Here goes:
The in the guardia vieja or ‘old guard’ period tango was played with a habanera feel. It makes sense to notate that feel in 2/4, as it sounds. Over time, tango groups started marking four beats per measure. It no longer made sense to use 2/4, so they started notating in 4/8.
My guess is that at a certain point in time somebody decided that 4/8 is a silly time signature and started using 4/4, which is easier on the eyes, maybe because it’s considered ‘common time’ and as kids we all got used to it.
Other rhythms (folklore)
One final note about genres that should be of particular interest to guitarists: there has long been a tradition in Argentina of the cantor nacional – the singer of ‘national’ repertoire. The repertoire of such singers was essential folkloric, and specifically the folk music of the Pampa/Buenos Aires region, which includes genres such as: estilo, cifra, triunfo, huella, and milonga. Carlos Gardel began as such a singer and made many, many recordings of folk music before becoming a tango singer.
Ignacio Corsini and Agustín Magaldi were national singers and contemporaries of Gardel, and later on singers like Nelly Omar and Edmundo Rivero continued the tradition.
The repertoire of such singers is alive and well in Argentina today. Tango musicians who aren’t guitarists may have little awareness of this music, but if you’re a tango guitarist you should become familiar with the repertoire. It’s one of the things that makes being a tango guitarist special, and it’s a gift worth embracing.
* the orquesta típica is the type of group that became standard during the development of tango and is probably the most widely recognized and representative format in this music. It’s like the big band in jazz: large and made to fill a dance hall. The típica’s instrumentation grew out of the tango sextet: piano, bass, two violins and two bandoneons. Over time the number of violins and bandoneons grew to roughly 4 each, and in some orquestras one cello and one viola appeared, to reinforce the string sound.
** habanera refers to this pattern:
*** for more on the cantor nacional see this todotango article (in Spanish)