As tango dancers we have gotten used to the idea that the tango waltz is played in sequences of three beats (as a bar of TW is divided into three equal parts, the first one being stressed). And yet we sometimes bump into waltzes that appear to be rhythmically irregular, ambiguous and not easy to dance on. While many tango waltzes we listen to and love to dance on have been recorded during the Golden Age of tango and their rhythmical interpretation does not challenge us a lot, many of us know that waltzes can also be unpredictable. But why is that?
The revival of the creole waltz in Argentina in the second half of the twentieth century is due, among many other factors, to the massive musical export following World War II. This is how South American hits like „Que nadie sepa mi sufrir” were reinterpreted in that period by European musical celebrities.
Naturally, this export didn’t only travel from one continent to the other, but also to neighbouring countries. The resounding success of the Peruvian waltz quickly arrived to Buenos Aires where big tango orchestras took it on as an influence for a new way of writing music and adopted a number of hits from its repertoire. Thus the first Peruvian waltzes were recorded in Argentina.
”Un párrafo aparte merecen dos valses Peruvianos, el primero “La flor de la canela” de la compositora Peruviana Chabuca Granda, con la inolvidable versión de Aníbal Troilo con Roberto Goyeneche y Ángel Cárdenas, en 1957; segundo, “Que nadie sepa mi sufrir”, de autores argentinos, registrado por Hugo del Carril en 1936 y por Alberto Castillo en 1953.”
El vals criollo
Ricardo García Blaya
From that moment on the musical language used in the creole waltz would diversify and become richer, denser from a both rhythmical and melodic point of view. Ever since its beginning, the waltz in Peru has been assimilated as a musical movement created by the working class1, enabling the creole musical elements to be dominant from that point. This is why its rhythm was a lot more „colourful”, one of its trademarks being the use of the cajon as an accompanying instrument, thus keeping the afro influence stronger.
On the other hand, the debut of the Argentinean creole waltz was a bit different. The afro rhythms were integrated less in the musical vocabulary, as the waltz was sung more by tango orchestras. But some Argentinian composers managed to introduce, discreetly and in a balanced style, rhythmical effects similar to the ones found in Peruvian waltzes.
The question is: what is the trademark of this creole influence that intrigues us and creates a discrepancy from the general way of playing tango waltz?
For tango dancers the interesting characteristic of these Peruvian waltzes is the ambiguous, astounding rhythm which is a lot richer and more dynamic than a Golden Age tango waltz. We are dealing here with a characteristic musically known as polyrhythmicity, where the ternary rhythm of the waltz is superposed over a binary rhythm, a combination also known as a Hemiola. This is an African musical influence that has been used for a much longer time on the South-American continent and can be heard in almost all of its folkloric music like for example in Zamba and Chacarera (Argentina), Zamacueca (Peru).
We could say that this rhythm is almost universal because it is present in both modern western music and traditional music in India or North Africa, with different paths of development. South-American plyrhythms are rooted in North Africa, and their influence, not always direct, is reflected in every musical genre on this continent.
The 3:2 rhythmical ratio is the basis of the phenomenon we are discussing, and in music dictionaries it is explained like this2:
It can be horizontal or vertical, tango orchestras using it especially after the fifties. In creole waltz we also meet a form of this rhythm that we can transpose for more accuracy in an 6/8 meter, where the first and the fourth eight are stressed:
And now we can add the basic rhythm:
This way of stressing the beats can be noticed in its incipient phase in both the orchestral and singers’ interpretation in tango waltz, right from the Golden Age. The intensity and accuracy ratios of the melodic line together with the simple waltz accompaniment offer a unique rhythmical scheme (similar to that presented earlier).
A great example to illustrate this idea would be „Un placer”, recorded by the Juan Maglio orchestra in 1931. And the intonation of the singers Enrique Campos and Floreal Ruiz in „El viejo vals” recorded in 1951 with the Francisco Rotundo orchestra also includes this special rhythm3:
Aníbal Troilo used this effect in the ending of the waltz „Valcesito amigo”, the Hemiola being very clearly marked here4:
There are many other examples, but things really change after the first recordings of Peruvian songs. „Alma, corazon y vida” by Orquesta Horacio Salgán is rich in Hemiolic rhythms that are a lot more complex than what we have discussed previously. The accompaniment changes its rhythmical form and doesn’t always follow the ternary basic rhythm, thus changing dynamic. If we listen to „Que nadie sepa mi sufrir”, Orquesta Alfredo de Angelis, we can notice these changes from one section to another and the polyrhythmic effect reaches unseen heights. These rhythmical ambiguities give way to more ways of interpreting tango music and more ways of reflecting it though dance.
For a tango dancer, the most common way of dancing on the music is to change weight (step) on the stressed beat, and the preferred rhythmical variation for tango waltz would be the double time step3 that appears in two forms:
- Stepping on the first and second beat:
2. Stepping on the third beat of one bar and the first beat of the following bar:
- Taking into consideration the waltzes mentioned before that contain hemiolic rhythms, there is also a third way of stepping:
Consequently, the ternary bar of the waltz is seen as a binary bar with two changes of weight (steps) at even intervals, within that given bar. This way of stepping can offer new possibilities in dancing, and it can begin to feel “normal” when the music allows it. There are a huge number of recordings that include this particular rhythmical structure, and even if they wouldn’t, marking a ternary thythm by a binary combination of steps or dance movements can have an interesting musical effect.
- Herrera – Sobek (2012). Celebrating Latino Folklore: An Encyclopedia of Cultural Traditions.
- (1974). The Harvard Dictionary of Music, Second Edition, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Charlo (Music), Castillo (Lyrics). El viejo vals. Location: todotango.com.
- Troilo (Music), Contursi (Lyrics). Valcesito amigo. Location: todotango.com.
- Amenabar (2008) – Tango. Let’s dance to the music.
Cover Photo: Iulian Mîța (2014). Tango – 81 [Oil on canvas].
Translation from Romanian by Andreea Vieru.
Scores created by Bogdan Ruja using Musescore 2.0.