by Christine Denniston
A key moment in the development of Tango music is the change from the early Tango rhythm, referred to by musicologists in Buenos Aires as "dos por cuatro" or "canyengue", to the rhythm of mature Tango, known as "cuatro por ocho".
What do those terms mean? Tango of the Golden Age has a square, lyrical quality. There are occasional syncopations for effect, but the underlying rhythm is even and smooth, with each bar (measure) divided into four equal beats, and in musical notation these are usually written as four quavers (eighth notes) - cuatro (four) por ocho (eight).
The earliest Tango recordings that we have, going back to the first and second decades of the twentieth century, have a noticeably different rhythm. Here is a clip of a recording by the first Tango recording star in Buenos Aires, Juan "Pacho" Maglio, from 1912. Causi Nada
These early recordings have the regular irregularity of a heart beat. Each bar is divided into two (dos) equal beats, each one written as a crotchet (quarter note - "cuatro"). But that first beat is divided in an unequal, syncopated way. To put it technically, the first crotchet is divided into a dotted quaver and a semi-quaver (dotted eighth note and sixteenth note).
On the basis of the recordings that survive from the period, it seems that the transition from the syncopated heart-beat rhythm of Tango to the mature Tango sound began in 1914 with some landmark recordings by Roberto Firpo. By 1914 Firpo had taken over from Maglio as the biggest Tango star in Buenos Aires, and his smoother, more lyrical sound is often quoted as demonstrating the increasing Italian influence on Tango culture. Here is a clip of a recording of Nueve de Julio made in 1916, which shows Firpo completely abandoning the heart-beat rhythm that had defined Tango up till that point and instead using the more regular rhythm of mature Tango.
While Firpo seems to have been the pioneer of the new sound, other orchestras were quick to follow. Here is a clip by Canaro from 1919, again abandoning the old 2x4 rhythm in favour of the more modern 4x8. El Africano
And the Orquesta Tipica Select, with whom Fresedo made some of his first recordings in 1920, also demonstrate the new sound. Sabado Ingles
While none of these clips show the finesse of recordings from the Golden Age, they are unmistakably Tango.
Listen again to the clip from 1912 to see just how much Tango had changed.
The dos por cuatro rhythm returned to the Tango in the 1930s, with the popularity of milonga ciudadana.
This was the first Tango revolution of the twentieth century. Yet even as it was becoming established, the next revolution was about to begin...