The Golden Age of Tango

The Golden Age of tango is the period from the late 1930’s to the mid 1950’s, although some would argue that the true Golden Age of Tango is the decade of the 1940s.

It is referred to as the Golden Age of Tango because it is when tango was at its highest in terms of popularity. Tango became both the music and the dance for the masses in the city of Buenos Aires during the 1940s.

At the time, tango wasn’t restricted to a certain age group but rather attracted all generations, from children, to their parents and grandparents. You could listen to tango on the radio, and due to the popularity of records which became more affordable and accessible to the general public, many would also listen to tango at home. Tango orchestras became increasingly popular and played every night of the week across clubs in the city and city fringes, in cinemas, cafes, bars, etc.

Tango was a lifestyle and a pastime for the masses and it was driven by a number of important factors, including: population growth; infrastructure; the technological means; and finally a change in the dynamics of the music. But to truly understand how these factors impacted the growth of tango we need to go back in time.

The Great Depression and economic crisis that started with the stock market crash of October 1929 had a huge impact on Argentina, as demand in Europe and the United States for its farm exports suddenly declined. From the 1930s Argentina adopted a strategy of import substitution designed to convert it into a self-sufficient country in industry as well as agriculture. Population growth from the provinces into Buenos Aires grew form approximately 8,000 people per year to 72,000 per year in the mid 1930’s to 117,000 in the mid 1940’s. By the mid 1940’s the urban area held 56% of all industrial establishments and 61% of the total workforce of the country.

Population growth meant that housing and infrastructure grew too. During this period there was little differentiation in terms of leisure activities for adults vs. teens vs. children, there was a mix of generations in most social activities – this was the norm. Local clubs began to open in the neighbourhoods and basketball was huge in Argentina at the time. These presented the perfect meeting spot for dances and other social gatherings.

At this time Buenos Aires had the population and the venues, next came the technology that allowed the music to be spread far and wide via radio which experienced exponential growth during the 1930’s, as well as well-known publications such as ‘La Canción Moderna’, ‘Radiolandia’, and ‘Antena’, and let’s not forget the establishment of large radio studios such as ‘Radio del estado’, ‘Radio El Mundo’, and the filming of the first film with sound (please see previous post to read more about the film).

The final element was a change in trend in the music with the birth of the huge dance orchestras of the late 1930s such as D’Agostino, D’Arienzo, Di Sarli, Pugliese, De Angelis, Caló and Trolio. This music was less for listening and more for dancing.

All of this coincided with the Great World War, all the while Argentina remained neutral which had a huge positive financial impact on the country.

What factors led to the decline of tango?

As with the rise in tango, several factors led to the decline in the popularity of tango. Factors such as the end of World War II, local politics, international and local economy, the rise of capitalism, all had an important role to play. The very thing that drove Argentina to huge success at the start of the war was what was impacted negatively on the economy, worldwide agricultural demand was far more competitive with the USA, Canada and Australia back in the picture.

From a political perspective, directly related to art and culture, there was censorship of the language and in turn censorship of Lunfardo as well as the exile of actors and musicians as a direct result of political developments.

In addition, in 1950 there was a rise in sales of folk music – for the first time surpassing sales of tango music, in 1950 the largest discotheque opened in Buenos Aires with organisers ensuring they had the latest music by travelling several times a year to both the UK and the USA.

From 1951 TV also played a role as did consumerism lead by the USA. Teens wanted to differentiate themselves from other generations by dressing differently and listening to different music than that of their parents or grandparents. It was at this point that tango orchestras introduced changes to the music, in an attempt to bring it in line with what was happening around them (eg. Rock n roll). But it was to no avail, the younger generations were no longer interested in tango, in any form, and thus moved to rock and other genres of music.

There’s also the 1955 coup d’état which leads to repression and persecution and Argentina is driven into a deeper crisis. In the early 1960s Channel 13 launches ‘Club del Clan’ a music program which becomes incredibly successful and launches the careers of many artists including Palito Ortega. This single event is often attributed to the decline in tango but it was the collision of the above factors that ultimately led to the demise of tango from the lofty heights it enjoyed in the 1940s.

golden age of tango
Club Atlanta, Buenos Aires, 1940
June 2024
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