What does tango have to do with Buenos Aires’s subway you might ask? Actually a lot more than you think!
In connection with the annual Buenos Aires's tango festival, which ended last week, BA tours offered a special edition of one of their tango walks with the promise of a show in the end of the tour… How could I not, not want to see that!?
It turned out that it was not a normal walking tour. Not only were there more than just one tango show by highly professional performers, the whole guided tour took place underground… In Buenos Aires’ subway system!
Keep on reading and learn more about tango, Buenos Aires’ subway and how these two quite distinct porteño elements have been merged.
So, let’s get our history straight first of all: What is tango, and when did it emerge?
Tango is both used to refer to a special kind of music and a dance style. The dance is an intimate and highly sensual dance performed by couples, and the music which accompanies it tends to be low key with elements of nostalgia, desperation and sadness.
The huge breakthrough of tango as we know it today, is said to be in 1917 with the song “Mi noche trist” (e.g. my sad night) written by Pascual Contursi and sung by Carlos Gardel.
According to the guide on the tour, this title includes the main themes of the tango which during the 1920s to 1940s became world famous: individualism (my sad night), sadness (my sad night), and nocturnal (my sad night). Hence, the focus is on the individual’s sadness and frustration, and must take place in a nightly environment. I’m not an expert in neither dance nor music, so I will leave the technical explanations here.
There is still unclarity on how and when exactly tango emerged. However, most sources agree on the fact that the tango spread during the 1800s in the economic lower communities of Buenos Aires. These communities included both people of African and Caribbean heritage and indigenous Argentines.
Towards the end of the 1880s, a huge wave of European immigrants was added to this cultural melting pot of lower-end Buenos Aires. These immigrants were mostly poor European men in the search for success in Argentina.
The tango is assumed to be the result of all these diverse cultural backgrounds intermixing their musical heritages with each other, and sharing their desperate and homesick lives of being immigrants. At first, it was not accepted in the higher classes of the Argentine society but as the success grew, tango became widely accepted.
Through the 1920s and 1930s, tango became world famous with tango singers such as Carlos Gardel travelling the world to perform. Gardel himself had arrived in Buenos Aires as the child of a French immigrant.
He died under tragic circumstances in 1935 in an airplane crash in Colombia – only 44 years old. His career was at this height by when, and by many he has ever since been considered for being the soul of tango.
However, the guide on BA tours clearly highlighted that Gardel’s success and memory is not just based in this tragic death – he was the biggest of the big stars!
Tango at the Subte’s H line
I frequently change subway lines at the station Corrientes which connects the B-line with the H-line, and there you can’t miss the tango references. A huge mural of Carlos Gardel and another tango star, Enrique Santos Discépolo, completely covers a wall. From time to time, there is a couple dancing tango in front of the mural while tango beat fills the station.
Thus, it was not before I went on the tour that I realized that every station on the H-line is decorated in memory of different tango personalities.
According to the guide from BA tour, none of the big tango stars of a past left any remarkable graves or memorials… Simply because there was nothing left in their bank accounts by the time of their death. They lived the sweet life all the way through. Not even Carlos Gardel - the biggest of them all – left enough money for a memorial.
In 2003, the local government of Buenos Aires gave the past-century tango stars a helping hand. They passed a law which indicated that the to-be-established new H-line in the subway system should be created as a “culturally tango tour of the subway”. Each station should be decorated with images and art works referring to different personalities within tango.
Luckily, the BA tours are some of the many free activities in Buenos Aires - check out more here! But, on the other hand, unfortunately for non-Spanish speakers, BA tours only offers this tango tours in the subway in Spanish. However, they do offer another tango tour in English (link), which I’m still to try out!
A bit about more the H line
The H-line of the Subte is the first subway line to be built since the 1960’s. The line eased the connection between the south and north part of Buenos Aires. Furthermore, it connects with all the existing subway lines, and therefore improves the infrastructure for a huge amount of porteños.
The tango heritage in Buenos Aires today
According to some porteños tango has sat its mark on everyday life in Buenos Aires. Are the porteños, for example, more nostalgic than others because of the homesick and sad lyrics of the tango?
Or, as an Uber driver once told me, does the porteños’ special way of speaking date back to the way the tangeros sang?
It is up to you to decide what you believe! However, there is no doubt that tango has been and is part of what has put Buenos Aires and Argentina on the world map!