The Last Milonguero

July 31, 2015 § 4 Comments

A Fable

Just outside the city of Diamante, Argentina, in a neighborhood characterized by poverty and the lack of opportunity that accompanies it, a boy grows up. His origins are unimportant, we need only know that he has a family, brothers and sisters, and that they are poor. He attends school, such as it is, but is little inclined to academic life and shows no inclination for learning a trade—assuming there is a future to be had here.

This boy—his name is Juan, or Carlos, or Antonio—with no education to speak of and few skills, has a talent for dance. Salsa, swing, chacarrera, he excels at them all. As an adolescent, the mothers in the neighborhood would ask him to dance with their daughters so they might learn from him. And in this way he makes a name for himself in that otherwise difficult place, and earns a little money as well.

Somehow, the details are unimportant, the boy is exposed to “el tango,” a product of the city of Buenos Aires or, more correctly, the region around the Rio de la Plata. He learns to dance this dance as he had the others and, as he had before, he excels in this as well. One day the boy, now a young man, travels to Buenos Aires. He assumes, not without reason, that if he is to make his fortune, it will be here and nowhere else.

This is not the story of a young man who discovers the city of his dreams, however. Suffice it to say that he is young, good-looking, ambitious, and poor. And being an enterprising young man, he discovers that it is in the many local dance halls that he can best make use of his talent. He dances every day or whenever he has the money, and continues to refine his skills. Because of his youth and charm, his popularity grows and he begins to think of how he might turn his love of tango into something more productive, something more profitable.

His popularity with women leads him to consider that they might be the answer to his dilemma, the avenue to, if not success, at least a livelihood. Now, instead of dancing for pleasure or amusement, he dances for profit. He becomes a regular at the local milongas and something of a bon vivant as well. Buenos Aires is his home now, and he can often be seen around town, a well-dressed woman on his arm, frequently a foreigner who has come to the city to “experience” tango in its birthplace. This goes on for many years, and in this way an entire lifetime passes. One day, when he is no longer a brash young men, someone asks him about his life and his past. He replies, “Soy milonguero!”

The world as it was

A “milonguero” has been variously defined as a regular patron of the milonga, a singer of milongas, and, at one time, a traveling gaucho who took part in the linguistic challenges known as payadas. But what is of interest from the perspective of contemporary tango is the first definition, the frequenter of dance halls where tango is played. And while a milonguero may be a man who spends a great deal of time attending milongas and dancing, the converse is not true—those who spend a great deal of time attending milongas and dancing are not necessarily milongueros.

From everything I’ve read or heard, the milonguero was the product of a particular ecosystem that flourished in Buenos Aires somewhere between 1925 and 1955 (tango’s Golden Age). Without exception, all of the milongueros I have seen on video or read about had already been dancing for 40, sometimes 50, years at the time they were recorded. Obviously, this represents only a select portion of the milonguero universe, the most notable or the most visible, and cannot provide a fully nuanced picture of the culture of tango in Buenos Aires for the past 75 years. So judging by the existing evidence, it would seem the “milonguero viejo” (were they never young?) is a dying breed, one doomed to extinction.

This raises two interesting questions. The first, what were the circumstances that led to this development, the particular set of circumstances in Buenos Aires that allowed tango and its merry band of followers to thrive? Second, can (does) this exist anywhere else at the present time? In other words, is the milonguero a historical phenomenon, a creature of a certain time and place, the product of a process that cannot be duplicated today? Obviously, these are two, very large questions. The first requires more historical research than I can undertake here, so I’ll have to limit myself to an overview of the situation as I understand it. The answer to the second will have to be somewhat speculative since my “empirical” research is limited.

An attempt at a definition

The milonguero was a habitué of the milonga, true, but this definition would apply to a large number of dancers even today. More importantly, he was a man who grew up at a time when tango was a popular musical form, something you could hear on the radio or listen to at home on an LP. Live orchestras played in the dance halls. You could walk into a club and see D’Arienzo conduct his orchestra. The milonguero was someone who was introduced to the dance early in life, often as a teenager, either by an older sibling or a friend. His life as a milonguero would begin with a few lessons, generally from a more experienced male dancer.

Beginners would be a minority in the practica, and they would be surrounded by people who danced well, so their mistakes would not be compounded, as they often are in a setting where beginners outnumber experts. They had many models of excellence to aspire to, and personal experience of what did and did not feel good to the follower. They were not working out how to do the dance for themselves. They were absorbing the accumulated wisdom of the many generations who walked their path before them.

   (See: Denniston: Tango Renaissance.)

This is very much a form of apprenticeship, learning from a master, like sweeping the workshop before you’re allowed to try your hand at fashioning a block of granite or making a chair. And like the guild system before it, it is a practice that is lost to us now. So, during his apprenticeship, the milonguero would practice with skilled dancers for some period of time before ever stepping foot in a milonga. How long seems to be an open question. Weeks? Months? Years? In interviews, milongueros of that generation have said that you were not allowed to dance at a milonga until you had proven yourself, until you had something more than the rudiments of tango under your belt. Interestingly, Tono Gallesio, in an interview with Monica Paz, relates that, when he was young, he was made to dance in the center of the dance floor, with other beginners, for three years before he was allowed onto the outer ring of the “pista.”

For the curious, Monica Paz has conducted many interviews with milongueros. The videos are available on YouTube, several with English subtitles. In her interview with Juan Topalian, for example, he describes how he discovered tango by watching his older brother practice with friends on the patio of their home. This represents a direct line of knowledge transmission—sibling-to-sibling. When his brother and his friends left for the afternoon, Topalian would put on a record—Canaro in this case—and practice by himself.

Juan Topalian interviewed by Monica Paz

Tono Gallesio interviewed by Monica Paz

Even with such a cursory examination of the context, there are clear differences between then and now in the culture of the milonga and the experience of milongueros. The lengthy apprenticeship, learning from friends and experienced dancers, the relatively conservative customs of the milongas, the presence of a chaperon for young women, the absence of touring performers from the local scene. More importantly, being a milonguero was something of a lifestyle choice. For the milonguero, tango was more than a hobby or pastime, it was akin to an avocation—a field of interest to which one dedicated one’s life and energy independent of fame or monetary reward. And for most of those men, such as Juan Topalian, the music they danced to was played by local orchestras and composed by local bandleaders; it grew and evolved as they did. It was a living thing, an integral part of their day-to-day experience.

Another aspect of milonguero culture that should be kept in mind is that these men, by all accounts, came primarily from the lower classes of Argentine society. If the histories of tango’s growth are correct, it was largely the product of a demographic that was, at best, blue-collar and often comprised of those on the margins of polite society, the lumpen-proletariat—petty criminals, pimps, the congenitally unemployed. Borges claims, with some authority, that the tango was born in the brothels of Buenos Aires.

(There’s a very interesting commentary on the “milonguero” of the Golden Age on Gallesio’s own blog, in which he attempts to deflate our romantic notions of the period. You can find his commentary here: Tono Gallesio’s blog.)

As historians have noted, the realities of this segment of Argentine society at the time are largely reflected in the lyrics of the tango—the sense of melancholy and loss, homesickness, nostalgia, poverty, drunkenness, romantic betrayal (although these are certainly not limited to a particular social class). There is an immediate connection between the realities of everyday life, the lyrics (and melodies) of tango, and the way the dance itself evolved. Borges, in “A History of the Tango,” remarks on this development, not entirely favorably.

The Argentine tango, if we apply this conjecture, might appear as a mirror of our reality and, at the same time a mentor or model with a certain malignant influence. The first milongas and tangos might have been foolish, or at least slipshod, but they were heroic and happy. The later tango is resentful, deplores with sentimental excess one’s miseries, and celebrates shamelessly the misfortunes of others.

In short, a milonguero was a man who learned to dance, often from other men, over a relatively lengthy period of time. His first encounter with a real milonga took place under the watchful eyes of older dancers. After a while, he became a habitué of the city’s many tango venues in his neighborhood. Tango, the dance and the music, the local club and its social rituals, these all became a regular, an integral part of his daily routine. The milonga was more than an occasional outing, it was an element, an important one, of daily life. It was his life. Depending on his age, this process would have continued for years, decades, until the tango’s suppression by the junta in the mid-fifties and subsequent resumption many years later.

The world as it is

The above is a far cry from the context in which most of us experience tango today. Many come to tango relatively late in life and few are exposed to it as children or teenagers. We learn through teachers at local dance schools or milongas, take workshops with visiting performers, attend practicas to practice what we’ve learned and refine our skills. Tango, its musical forms, is not popular music, hasn’t been for decades, and exposure to it is volitional rather than accidental. Few dancers today are taught exclusively by friends or experienced social dancers, and certainly not as their primary form of tango education.

It would be interesting to examine the make-up of the tango community in North America, but from my (admittedly limited) personal experience, it is largely comprised of educated professionals, men and women with at least a college degree, and only a smattering of truly blue-collar participants. And while there are many in the community who follow tango on a regular basis, several times a week in cities like New York and San Francisco, there are few whose lives are built around the experience of the milonga and its music.

Obviously, some kind of empirical study would have to be conducted to support my claims, but I’ve found nothing that would lead me to believe they do not reflect the reality of tango today. As in other walks of life, we cannot relive the past, only reinterpret it; and tango’s origins are largely undocumented and speculative. Our experience of it here and now is, to a great extent, and certainly outside Buenos Aires, an interpretation of what we assume it to have been. Many claim they are faithfully following a tradition rooted in the past, but few have had any direct contact with that tradition. (Yes, there are a number of milongueros who are living exponents of that tradition, but they are declining in number and the urban environment that gave birth to them no longer exists.)

Maybe this matters, maybe it doesn’t. Where it affects us today is in the search for what is often claimed to be the “authentic” tango of the past. As long as there are living exemplars of that tradition whom we can learn from, we have an opportunity to extract the defining elements of that tradition. Opportunity, or obligation?

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