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Tango in Depth

A blog about classical tango music

What's the difference with Finnish tango?

by Heikki 12. June 2014 23:36

If you are a Finn involved in Argentine tango, you’d better be used to questions about differences between Argentine and Finnish tango. Or maybe you’re a visitor familiar with Argentine tango and having heard that there’s a peculiar species of tango also in Finland. Either way, I hope this post will give you some idea how two nations in the hot south and in the cool north developed dance and music styles that served their emotional and social needs.

As you might guess, my involvement with tango began with the Finnish one. I wasn’t much of a dancer, but as music was my stuff, I wanted to explore the wistful atmosphere of Finnish tango through pen and music paper. Having composed a few Finnish tangos (under a pseudonym) I felt a need to go further and check out the very origins of tango. When Spotify opened the cornucopia of Argentine tango before my ears, there was no return.

Today, as I have learned more and more about the history of tango, it seems quite obvious that the main source of differences is the fact that Argentine tango is an urban phenomenon whereas its Finnish counterpart is a rural one. We’ll return to that point later in this post, but let’s see first how tango came to Finland and how it established its position.

The decades of tango is Finland

Born in the unpaved and unlit streets of the outskirts of Buenos Aires, tango was a wild sensation when introduced in Europe. First tango performances were seen in Paris around 1910, but World War soon hampered inter-Atlantic connections. After the war, however, tango took Europe by storm. By the 1930’s tango was one of the most fashionable dances in Europe along with fox trot.

European song makers soon began writing their own tangos. Their idea of tango was based on the idioms they absorbed during the period around World War. Thus, the development Argentine tango went through during the 1920’s was not reflected in European tango. The most distinctive feature resulting from this is the habanera rhythm that practically disappeared from Argentine tango during the 1920’s but was retained in Europe. As a social dance, European dance teachers wanted to standardize tango steps, and so ballroom tango was born.

In Finland the very first performance was seen in 1913. Tango aroused some interest but did not gain much popularity – as a fad it had to compete with fox trot, and it lost. Besides, the majority of Finnish population lived in the countryside where traditional dances such as waltz, polka and schottische (jenkka) reigned. People who wanted to dance tango tried to imitate the steps they saw at tango shows, and the dance style originating from this is known as Old Finnish Tango, which has received growing interest and attempts of revival during the recent years. Some trendy townspeople also took classes in ballroom tango.

Things changed in the 1930’s when a Finnish dance teacher developed a kind of simplified tango based on fox trot steps. As in fox trot, the basic step pattern slow-slow-quick-quick is repeated all over the dance, and no side steps are taken. Contrasting fox trot, there is no bounce in the steps thus making a smooth movement with slightly bent knees. Feet are interleaved, not to-to-toe like in Argentine tango, and the embrace has a low contact point at the pelvis.

Due to the wider acceptance as a social dance, Finnish tango music also emerged. The first recordings to be considered as dance music were made in mid-30’s, and during World War II tango was the music genre to provide an escape from the harsh reality, but it wasn’t until after the war when the popularity of tango really exploded. Why this happened is to be found in the post-war society.

The social function of tango

The main function of tango has always been to seek contact with the opposite sex. In Buenos Aires the main challenge was that the sexes were not in proportion. Single men were pouring in as immigrants, and women were something to compete for. Were this done with knives or guns, the society would have fallen into pieces. Lucky for us and them, a cultural skill was chosen as a means to compete. Proficiency in tango also served as way for hard-working men to gain appreciation among their peers.

Given this it is no surprise that there is a lot of machismo in Argentine tango. In the original context of tango, a man has to conquer the woman, and he does this by displaying his virility through his tango skills. The woman, however, is not just a passive object. She uses adornments to tease the man and to show her interest whenever she chooses.

In Finland after WW II the situation was quite opposite. During the war 10 percent of male population had lost their lives or were permanently injured, so there was a lack of men, not women. In addition, hundreds of thousands of young men had spent their best years at the front, many of them emotionally hurt by the horrors of war. Now they had to join the peace-time society and raise a family. Almost half a million people from Karelia, most of them farmers, had lost their homes, and more than a hundred thousand new family farms had to be formed and cultivated. You cannot build a family farm if you haven’t got a family, and this is where tango came to help.

During the post-war period every village had at least one community house plus a summer dance pavilion, typically by a lake. These were the very nests of Finnish tango. For a midsummer feast, tango was as essential as the traditional bonfire, and the luminous nights of June were reflected by birth rates in March.

Kisapurren tanssilava, Lievestuore

One could say that Finnish tango is not about conquering a woman but finding a mutual partnership. How did tango help in this task? We have gathered a bunch of ingredients for the Finnish encounter with tango: a dance pavilion with a lake view, a shy young man, a simple dance that does not require highly developed skills or a macho attitude, a mood full of longing, and a girl that also wants to find a partner for her life. What is missing, what is the thing that should weld the hearts of these two people together in a shared experience? It’s music, of course!

So what about the music?

The development of Argentine tango during the 1930’s and 40’s emphasized the need to include different musical characters or moods in one piece in order to let the dancers demonstrate their skills, grace and imagination. Finnish tango, however, didn’t have to fulfill this need, and each piece is thus in one mood only, just like the vast majority of popular music in the world.

Practically all Finnish tangos are songs, most of them highly melodic, and popular songs seldom contain contrasting segments the way Golden Era Argentine tangos do. This also means that there is little incentive to vary your dancing during a piece, which parallels the idea of simplified step patterns. So is a Finnish tango just three minutes of dull or primitive walking void of any rhythmic experience? Not at all, and that’s due to a clever system that produces rhythmic variation like a kaleidoscope.

As we learned earlier, European tango retained the habanera rhythm, and this also more or less applies to the majority of Finnish tangos. In addition to that, there is another rhythmic feature that is unique to Finnish tango: a backbeat at the end of a measure. This means that the last weak beat in a bar is accented, a 1/16 note in 2/4 or 4/8 time or a 1/8 note in 4/4 time – not in every measure but every now and then, often irregularly. These rhythmic levels, absent from Argentine tango, produce ever-changing rhythms when combined with the slow-slow-quick-quick step pattern.

It is a funny thing to note that this idea of layered rhythms is the propelling power of Afro-Latin music. When we add the fact that also beguine rhythms are often heard in Finnish tangos, it seems that Finnish tango musicians have kind of reinvented Latin music in a way that suits the Finnish temper. Adding a beautiful melody and longing lyrics, the dancing couple will be able to feel they are carried away into another world where the worries of tomorrow will fade into oblivion, like the words of a well-known Finnish tango put it.

Listen to it!

To get an idea of the style features of Finnish tango, it might be a good idea to listen to an Argentine tango arranged and performed in Finnish style. I have chosen no less than the most famous tango in the world, La Cumparsita, with an Argentine performance for comparison:

La Cumparsita, Olavi Virta & Metro-Tytöt 1953

La Cumparsita, Juan D’Arienzo 1951

My absolute favorite among Finnish tango composers is Toivo Kärki, the master par excellence of post-war popular music in Finland. An infallible sense of harmony and melodic curve is his trademark, and although his compositions in other genres prove that he could master any mood, all his tangos reflect the wistfulness repeatedly mentioned in this post. As an example of his work I have chosen here three of his early tangos from 1944 to 1950. Two of these videos are from Finnish music films built around those songs.

Siks’ oon mä suruinen

Laulava sydän

Köyhä laulaja

After the era of Toivo Kärki, one of the most beloved Finnish tangos has been Soi maininki hiljainen by Fridrich Bruk. Interestingly, the composer was born in Ukraine and received his training in Russia, but spent most of his professional career in Finland. It’s quite a slow tango with a distinctive habanera rhythm. No decent version is available on YouTube, but I hope you have got Spotify. Please enjoy!

Di Sarli vs. Pugliese: Contrasting Views on Romantic Tango

by Heikki 5. June 2014 01:14

When somebody talks about ‘romantic tango’, what does it bring to your mind? Wailing violins? Cantabile melodies? Lingering rhythms and dawdling tempos? 1940’s and 1950’s? You might also think of such names as Osvaldo Fresedo, Miguel Caló, Lucio Demare and, of course, Carlos Di Sarli and Osvaldo Pugliese. In order to drill down into romanticism in tango, I chose the last two, both of who developed a very distinctive style in their music and in a way represent opposite ends of this style spectrum. These two pianists had their most active periods simultaneously from 1939, when Pugliese established his orchestra, till Di Sarli’s last performances before his death in 1960.

Backgrounds and Early Careers

Carlos (originally Cayetano) Di Sarli, born 1903 in Bahía Blanca, and Osvaldo Pugliese, born 1905 in Buenos Aires, had lots in common in respect to background and career as well as to musical style. They were both born to music-loving families of Italian immigrants – just like many other tango musicians. Adolfo Pugliese was a worker in the shoe industry and an amateur tango flutist. It was him who gave the first music lessons to his son, and when Osvaldo wanted to learn the piano, he took great pains to buy the expensive instrument and send his son to a conservatory. Miguel Di Sarli was better-off as an owner of a gunsmith store, and it was just natural that Cayetano received training in classical piano at a conservatory where his elder brother was teaching. At the age of 13, an incident took place that literally shadowed the rest of Cayetano’s life: when working at his father’s store, an explosion caused him eye damage, which forced him to wear those dark glasses we have seen in all pictures of him.

Both of these men started their public careers as tango musicians when they were just boys, Di Sarli at the age of 13, and Pugliese at the age of 15. Like young musicians often do, they performed in various formations and sought influence from more experienced musicians. Di Sarli played in Osvaldo Fresedo’s orchestra, and Fresedo became an important influence on his music as well as a good friend.

Pugliese’s view of Tango was affected by the tradition of Julio De Caro when playing with ex-members of De Caro’s team. One should note that Fresedo was also one of De Caro’s mentors, but the latter soon developed his own highly melodic style with a flexible pulse treatment as we can hear in Flores Negras from 1927. A nice example of the interconnection between De Caro and Pugliese would be the recording history of Recuerdo, a composition by young Osvaldo Pugliese from 1924. The composer did not have a chance to record it until 20 years later in 1944, but De Caro recorded it as early as 1926.

What Do We Mean by Romantic Tango?

Stylistically Di Sarli and Pugliese share several features that may justify us to call their music romantic. One of them is relatively slow tempo, which differentiates them from D’Arienzo, Tanturi and Troilo, for instance. As I recently pointed out in my post, both of them belong to the “slow tempos line” of musicians after the great division around 1935.

Another feature is the “wailing violins”, a technique in violin playing called portamento. This means that the player slides his or her finger on the string when moving from one note to another thus softening the contours of the melodic line. This is something you cannot do on a piano or bandoneon, and that is why the melody is most often given to violins and not to bandoneons or the piano. Portamento originated in 17th century vocal music and is more or less present always when a “sweet” violin sound is required.

The third feature I would like to point out is the melodic line itself. With a majority of older tangos, the melody moves in short notes and possibly repeats a pattern throughout a whole section in the music. The romantic tendency, however, requires gentle melodic curves moving in long notes. A whole lot of new tangos were composed during the 1940’s to satisfy this need, but also older tangos could be arranged in a more romantic fashion. A good example is Felicia by Enrique Saborido. When we look at the sheet music, we can see that the composer has written a pattern-based melody in sixteenth notes for the piano. In most performances this is treated as the main melody, e.g. in a recording by Adolfo Carabelli. Then there’s a counter melody for the violins, but Carabelli uses it only once during the last half of his performance. Osvaldo Fresedo, conversely, starts immediately with the counter melody and demotes the sixteenth-note movement to mere accompaniment. Remarkably, Carabelli's recording was made in 1932 but Fresedo's in 1927, well before the reign of romantic tango when Fresedo was just laying its foundations.

Differences Exposed - in the Light of an Oil Lamp

One thing that indicates that Di Sarli and Pugliese might have different stylistic approaches is that their repertoires don’t overlap for more than just a few tangos. However, I wanted to compare two performances of a single piece so that the differences would come from the interpretations, not the music itself, and was lucky to find an extremely dramatic tango that ideally suits our theme. It is A la luz del candil (In the Light of an Oil Lamp), composed by Carlos V. G. Flores in 1927. The lyrics by Julio Navarrine tell a grim story: A gaucho confesses a double homicide to a police officer. I suggest you listen now the recordings by Carlos Di Sarli & Jorge Durán (1956) and Osvaldo Pugliese & Miguel Montero (1954). Don’t believe the titling of the Di Sarli video – the singer is Jorge Durán, a baritone, not Mario Pomar, a tenor.

Same Instruments, Different Ways of Using Them

So what did you hear? Two masterpieces of romantic tango music, all right, but what was different? What immediately hits my ear is a kind of sharpness or rigidity in Di Sarli’s interpretation versus elasticity and a larger scale of expression in Pugliese’s.

The sharpness comes from Di Sarli’s use of instruments. Apart from melodies, he uses violins almost like percussion. While playing chords, the violins produce short and accented notes with the heel of the bow. His violins also play pizzicato, which Pugliese does not use at all. Pugliese, on the other hand, relies on bandoneons and the low register of his piano for accented chords, and when violins are used for this purpose, they don’t apply the extreme heel of the bow, thus making a more bouncy sound. Rather than sharp, Pugliese’s accents can be characterized as thick or heavy. Di Sarli also uses bandoneons for chords, but they can be hardly heard because the percussive violins obscure them.

You might also have noticed the fine melodic details for bandoneons and violins that Pugliese has woven into his fabric. Di Sarli is doing the detail work with his piano marking ends of phrases or other strategic points with broken chords in the upper register or marcato passages in the lower register. This way of using the piano is quite typical of Golden Age tango music and makes the structure of the piece clear and easy to follow.

As to the distinction between rigidity and elasticity I mentioned a few paragraphs earlier, we must take a closer look on how Di Sarli and Pugliese handle tempo in their interpretations.

Tempo Made Visual

By tempo we mean the speed or pace of music in beats per second. We can determine the average tempo of a piece simply by taking a stopwatch and counting the beats during one minute. When tango is concerned, we are counting the basic beat, i.e. quarter notes, like this:

But tempo might not be constant throughout a performance. In classical music and in many styles of popular song, variations in tempo are used as a means of expression. We speak of tempo rubato when the performer “steals time” to or from a note or a passage. To determine the beat-by-beat tempo, we should measure the time between two beats and take the inverse.

I recorded MIDI sequences by tapping the keyboard while listening to these two performances of A la luz del candil. In some cases I had to align the MIDI note events manually with the perceived beat in music taking advance of the wave graph of the audio recording. Then I computed a series of beat-by-beat tempos from the MIDI timings and made a tempo graph from both of the performances.

Let’s first have a look at the graph of Di Sarli’s performance:

The average tempo is about 56 bpm, and there is not much variation in tempo before the final ritardando. The slight fluctuation might be due to errors in determining the beats, or they might reflect an actual musical phenomenon – this question definitely deserves further investigation some other time. Anyhow, the perceived beat, when listening to the music, is constant and accurate, ticking like a clockwork or metronome. There is, however, some tempo rubato, but it always happens in the melody (voice or violins) against and not affecting the beat.

Pugliese’s graph looks quite different:

Tempo changes are outstanding, and from time to time there is no tempo at all! The gaps in the graph were caused by the fact that at certain passages I could not find any kind of beat – the notes just followed each other in a free flow like in traditional chanting or opera recitative, and when there is no beat, there is no tempo. Given the premise that tempo rubato is a means of expression, it is easy to agree that there is a whole lot of expression in Pugliese’s playing.

Although Pugliese’s treatment of tempo is more dramatic, Di Sarli’s performance is by no means void of drama, either. He has the full scale of dynamics at his disposal, which he also uses, and the dramatic baritone voice of Jorge Durán paints the gloomy story in rich colors.

Di Sarli and Pugliese on the Dance Floor

It is a well-known fact that there hardly is a tango class where Di Sarli won’t be played, but Pugliese is seldom heard, at least at elementary to intermediate level classes. In milongas, Di Sarli has been so popular that some DJ’s even refuse to play his music anymore, but Pugliese has always been something you only should play well after midnight when less experienced dancers have already withdrawn from the battle field.

Considering our findings about tempo, it is quite clear why dancers find it easy and safe to dance to Di Sarli, thanks to the regular beat that never pulls the rug from under your feet. With Pugliese, you will really have to listen to the music and find the beat when there is one. When there is no beat, you should calm down, take a closer embrace with your partner and concentrate on small and slow movements or adornments. When the beat is back again and gets passionate, you would express it with powerful walking, whooshing sacadas or whatever rhythmic you might find appropriate. That’s art!

On the average one could characterize Di Sarli’s music as cool and Pugliese’s as passionate knowing that this is not the whole truth. Another point of view we might find interesting is that history records tell us how Pugliese mainly played at places favored by the working class where boleos, ganchos and other daring figures were often seen, whereas Di Sarli’s audience was more high society dancing in a more restrained manner.

Anyway, both Carlos Di Sarli and Osvaldo Pugliese have a permanent place in our hearts as tango lovers. Although a bit different, their music represents the very core of Golden Age tango and the romantic tendency within it.

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