by Christine Denniston
Tango has three faces. Milonga is Tango's happy, playful face, quicker and more rhythmic than the part of the trinity known as 'Tango'. Vals is Tango in three time, the joyful one.
The Viennese waltz was the world's first popular dance to use what we now think of as the only possible hold for couple dances - the leader and follower stand face to face with the leader's right arm about the follower, holding the follower's right hand in the leader's left - and can therefore claim to be the ancestor of all modern couple dances. The waltz, and the polka, the second dance craze in Europe to use the scandalous new hold, were brought to Argentina by the immigrants arriving throughout the Nineteenth Century. In Buenos Aires they were thrown into the complex melting pot from which Tango would emerge.
Certainly, the musicians playing for dancers throughout the Nineteenth Century, incorporating the many influences that were to shape the evolution of the Tango, would have played waltzes, perhaps in the Viennese style, perhaps in the style which has come to be known as 'Peruvian', perhaps in a blend of the two. And as the Tango style emerged, the waltzes too would have undergone a similar evolution, until a distinctly Tango form, Vals, appeared.
Vals and Tango, then, are twins; two complimentary faces which grew together.
Milonga has a more complicated history, and the word has many different meanings, which can be confusing.
The first Milonga in Argentina was a folk song form from the countryside around Buenos Aires. Milonga was very popular with the payadores, improvisational singers famed for their inventive lyrics. As a form created to carry words, the Milonga Surena or Campera, the folk song Milonga, has a neutral, almost tuneless tune, with the lyrics chanted over a strict structure of rhythm and chords.
Folk music was the most important popular musical form in Buenos Aires before the emergence of the Tango (and certainly one of the important influences in the evolution of Tango). People would often go to places where they could hear the payadores sing, and these places came to be known as milongas. Other forms of folk music were played at the milongas, and many of them were danced. Was the Milonga Surena danced? The folklore community today does not dance it, but rather listens to it in order to be able to enjoy the cleverness of the lyrics. There is some evidence to suggest that it was danced in the Nineteenth Century. In any case, gradually the word milonga came to be extended to a place where dancing happened. Even today in Buenos Aires, when one goes out to dance the Tango, one goes to a milonga.
With the emergence of sung Tangos, and of Tango Fantasía, orchestral Tangos designed to be listened to rather than danced to, it became necessary to differentiate on records and sheet music the different styles. The term Tango Milonga was coined (and Canaro claims in his autobiography to be the one who coined it), to mean Tango for the milonga, that is Tango designed to be danced to.
Then in 1932 a new meaning was added to the word Milonga - the most important meaning in the context of Tango music.
The writing team of lyricist Homero Manzi and composer Sebastian Piana had been working together for some time, writing successful Tangos. Manzi decided that he would enjoy the challenge of writing the lyrics for a Milonga, but Piana was not keen. Milonga had a clearly defined musical form, and he felt that as a composer it left him nothing to do. So they decided on a compromise. Manzi would write a lyric in the style of a Milonga, but Piana would break with tradition and set it in a form which was a hybrid between Tango and Milonga. The song which they wrote was Milonga Sentimental.
The song was a huge hit, and Manzi and Piana continued to experiment with their new hybrid form, which was quickly taken up by other composers and lyricists. While some of the new Milongas Ciudadanas, city Milongas, retained the musical structure of the Milongas Surenas, many abandoned it to become closer to Tangos, though with a stronger rhythm and generally a faster tempo, giving Milonga its place in the Tango trinity. By the late 1930s it was possible to have an instrumental Milonga, something which before Piana's revolutionary Milonga Sentimental would simply not have been thought of.
By the 1940s Tango, Milonga and Vals were inseparable partners, and the three different faces of the same music and dance give Tango its extraordinary depth and richness of expression.
For the history of the dance, visit history-of-tango.com