Tango Negro Review

AKA: Tango Negro: The African Roots of Tango, Tango Negro: Les Racines Africaines du Tango, Tango Negro: Las Raices Africanas del Tango
Genre: Music Documentary/Historical Documentary
Year Released: 2013
Distributor: ArtMattan
Origin: Angola/France/Argentina/Uruguay
Running Time: 94 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: PG
Related Films/Series: N/A
For Fans Of: Gurumbe: Afro-Andalusian Memories, The Black Mozart In Cuba, The Lion’s Share, Made in Jamaica, The Tango Salon, Tango Pasion, Tango Your Life, Subtango, Afroargentinos
-This documentary was part of a 2 DVD set called Blacks in Latin America from ArtMattan.
Fun Facts:
-Tango Negro is directed by Angolan filmmaker Dom Pedro. He’s currently based in France and has directed works such as Paco, Kin-Malebo Danse, and Rido Bayonne.

-Juan Carlos Caceres was one of the featured interviewees. He was a jazz and tango pianist from Buenos Aires who was enthralled with the African origins of multiple genres of music in Latin America. This documentary covered some of his last performances as he died two years after it was filmed due to cancer.

-Parana is a city in the Entre Rios Province in Argentina. There are over 247,000 people living there currently. This city was one of the multiple locales in tango Negro. It’s actually Sister Cities with Salto, Uruguay, Quebec City, QC, Canada, and even Muscatine, Iowa (part of the Quad Cities region near Davenport and Bettendorf).

-Language Bonus: Did you know that the words “tango” and “candombe” aren’t Spanish at all? Tango actually comes from the Kikongo and Lingala words for “time” or “moment”. Candombe comes from the Kikongo word for “black” which is “ndombe”. That’s right, everyone. There are common musical words that actually come from different Congolese languages. Natondo nayo lokola!

-In the Uruguayan candombe music, there are three types of drums used. There’s the piano drum which is the biggest while having the lowest tone, a repique which is a medium-sized drum used for improvisation, and a chico drum which is the smallest but is the one to keep the tempo. A candombe drummer group is called a cuerda.

-Pedro “Perico” Gularte is one of the Uruguayan candombe drummers interviewed in Tango Negro. He was born in 1938 in Montevideo, collaborated with Hector Suarez, Julio Gimenez, and Alfredo Ferreira to name a few, and still drums to this day.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been realizing how much I never knew about certain kinds of music or genres even if it’s something I normally don’t listen to. The Lion’s Share was an unintentional watershed moment and not just because of that documentary proving me right even more about a certain movie being guilty of plagiarism as well as cultural appropriation. Next came some documentaries with The Black Mozart In Cuba and Gurumbe. I never knew about a Guadeloupean composer who influenced Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart or how genres such as flamenco and fandango were literally created by Africans despite never getting credit for it. My sights went back to ArtMattan, but this time involving South America…particularly Argentina and Uruguay in this case. Those nations have been represented on Iridium Eye before and the first Spanish-language movie I reviewed was the Argentinean film Eva Doesn’t Sleep. Speaking of that nation, what is one of the most famous musical genres and dances that’s associated with that South American country? Tango, of course. I had limited experience with that genre besides a couple of digital records of composer Horacio Salgan (I’ll get back to him later). Much like the Spanish/Portuguese documentary Gurumbe, this documentary is like an extension of sorts when it comes to the culture. For those not too familiar with Argentina in this particular situation, this may be a surprise to you especially given the geographic location…that country has a roughly 96.7 percent white population. Think about it. From a population percentage standpoint, America, Canada, New Zealand, England, France, and even Germany have higher non-Caucasian populaces. No, I’m not bashing anyone’s race even though I will be discussing concepts of racism and cultural appropriation given some of the subject matter of what I watched. This extension involves some kinds of music that was started out by the African diaspora and people are now starting to realize it.

All it took was an Angolan director and a white Argentinean pianist to expose this hidden musical history of one of the biggest genres to come out of South America.

Tango Negro is a musical historical journey involving the hidden history of tango, condombe, milonga, and other genres across Argentina and Uruguay. Tango composer/pianist/musicologist Juan Carlos Caceres goes around educating people about the African origins of the music as well as playing concerts all over the world. During Argentina and Uruguay’s colonial days, their former Spanish colonizers brought in several slaves to those nations. Both had severe issues with racism and slavery, but Argentina did some massive whitewashing of their history despite Black people fighting in their war of independence on the front lines, got starved out, and faced genocide to the point where the current Black population in that country is currently 0.4% today. Despite those hardships, they created their own dances, music, and tradition even when their identities were stomped out. Caceres did his research for decades in that manner and wanted to share the knowledge with people across the world. In this journey across multiple countries and continents, they talk to historians, music lovers, musicians, and the Afro-Latino community in Argentina and Uruguay who know about these obscured traditions. Tango Negro reveals the history and musical connections that span hundreds of years and to other cultures that were previously invisible to the masses.

I’m not the biggest expert on tango music and I wasn’t familiar with candombe or the other genres mentioned, but this documentary caused me to become even more interested in those genres that came from the Rio de Plata area of South America. There was a healthy mix of history and displays of the music going on. I was impressed with Juan Carlos Caceres’s enthusiasm, musical talent, and talking about history for the right reasons. I was a bit concerned about him going into white savior territory, but I was relieved that it never came off that way throughout the duration of this documentary. He was genuinely interested in righting a colonial wrong, wanted to give credit to the Black community in South America, and he did it in a way that anyone can understand. He was a bit like Rian Malan in The Lion’s Share, but not in a journalistic and legal way when he broke the story and encouraged the Linda sisters to sue that American licensing company and Disney. Caceres came off more as an educator as well as an entertainer. The scene with him layering different pre-recorded sounds on a keyboard to prove the point of the African origins of tango was very innovative as well as convicting when he slowly added more instruments each time. There was a diverse set of interviewees of different races which was a huge plus for me. Seeing some of the Afro-Uruguayan drum groups was awesome as well as giving their own perspectives of their culture and history. There was a powerful interview with an Afro-Argentine woman named Elida J. Obella. She talks about the bigotry in her home country and people assuming that she’s either Uruguayan or Cuban even though her family has been there for several generations as her white compatriots believed the Black community was “invisible” in their eyes. It gets even more frustrating considering how Argentina had a massive wave of European immigrants that have been in the country more recently than hers. Not just Spain or Italy which are the two biggest ethnic groups, but there are families there that came from Germany, France, Switzerland, Austria, and even Wales of all places where they have a Welsh-Argentinean community in Chubut province of all places (they even speak Welsh as well as Spanish, too!). Those stories were so powerful and while there are uncomfortable truths mentioned, it’s still accessible for people to watch. There’s a sense of grounded optimism from all races as this history becomes more known and you see multiracial musical collaborations from time to time which gave me some hope, but it was never cheesy or superficial. The music presented is certainly exquisite despite not being that familiar with most of the musical styles. The camera work was certainly grounded and got the job done with the different locations, concerts, and people being interviewed.

When it got to the descriptions of the musical history with Caceres as well as the multiple Black interviewees that showed up during the 2nd half of the movie, I was enthralled with all the nuggets of information. Yes, there was the disturbing part with the slavery, genocide, and even the reaction against the civil rights movements in those countries (mainly Uruguay which gets mentioned more), but there was a healthy balance between the positive and the frightening sides. They revealed the ethnic origins of the Black communities in Argentina as well as Uruguay. It was revealed that 60% of the Black population are of Bantu ethnic stock. Want to know which countries in specific in Africa? Angola (note where the director Dom Pedro is from), Mozambique, South Africa, and the Congo. Even the original name of the tango was called “Tango Congo” which shows the huge Congolese influence in the population as well as the music. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t smiling as I wondered if I had any distant Spanish-speaking maternal relatives in that part of the world. This was amazing as they showed all those cultural connections with the dances and music. The concepts of cultural appropriation are brought up as these communities are very protective of their music and do not feel ashamed of their heritage. Some of them admitted that they were brainwashed by the revisionist history in the schools. In the Afro-Uruguayan community, they had to fight against racist propaganda at the time and the drummers weren’t allowed to play drums under a dictatorship decades ago even to the point where one musician wasn’t allowed by his father to even LOOK at a drum during his childhood until a civil rights group in the Ansina neighborhood became rebellious by leading peaceful protests via drum corps to protect their heritage. Nowadays, they became proud of their heritage. I have nothing but mad respect for learning about the drumming traditions as well as the pride even among the racist pressures then and now. Seeing the parade in the streets of Montevideo where one can clearly see Black, Caucasian, and Latinx population drumming together shows how far Uruguay has come for example. even with their other issues in that country.

Tango Negro tends to shuffle a bit. While the production works just well, there were elements of pixelation and aliasing in the DVD. Some parts got pixelated from time to time which was a bit of a bummer. There was a healthy representation of different races in the Uruguay scenes, I would’ve liked to have seen more input in the France and Argentina scenes even if some non-white faces got decent screen time in their interviews or some of the concert moments shown. I was a bit miffed with the subtitle work as some dialogue had delayed subtitles and the songs don’t get subtitled even though they are clearly in Spanish like half the dialogue in this movie. Why couldn’t they translate the lyrics? I’m not fluent in Spanish, so I would’ve loved to have known what they were singing about. Remember how I mentioned Horacio Salgan earlier in this review? How is he or other Afro-Argentinean/Afro-Uruguayan tango composers not mentioned in this documentary? Sure, I’m no expert on tango and my music taste can be random (I have avant-garde music, jazz, death metal, and R&B among other genres in my iPod and music collection), but I was shocked that he wasn’t mentioned in Tango Negro since he’s clearly a brother, was influential in the tango genre, and would live to be a hundred years old. The emphasis was more on modern composers and bands which is fine, but I would’ve really appreciated a mix of specific classic composers instead of the interviewees listening to old recordings while never mentioning most of the songs or who wrote/performed them. Maybe this is me being too much of a historical nut or being a recovering music fan (albeit for different genres than what I used to listen to most of the time), but seeing some names and knowing about some of the songs would’ve really helped me find out these songwriters from the past as well as the present.

This was an astounding documentary that I enjoyed way more than I expected. The music and history shown were phenomenal. I certainly learned a lot about that genre more than a music appreciation course I took during my university days. There was a diverse set of interviewees and musicians which was amazing. The approach was just right with showing the horrors of slavery and genocide while also acknowledging the positives of the contributions of the African community in that part of Latin America as they want to make things right. I was a bit bummed about not going into specifics with the older composers which I would’ve liked to know more about. Tango Negro gets my strongest recommendation and I would easily recommend this to music fans and those who want to see the real history be exposed out there. I think music and history courses should make this movie in their academic canon, but I could see people in the non-academic field finding enjoyment in this film.

Gracias…or should I say, Natondo mingi given the origins?

Here’s some tango and candombe music to check out.

Here’s Juan Carlos Caceres playing the de facto theme song for this documentary.
The legendary Horacio Salgan
Perico is featured in this video.
There is a candombe band from Uruguay named Kimba! That name REALLY got my attention.

Adjustable Point System:
-Subtract 1-2 points if you’re not into tango or candombe.
-Subtract 1-3 points if you feel really uncomfortable with the discussions of slavery, racism, colonization, cultural appropriation, and genocide.

-Wonderful musical performances
-Very insightful history and stories with hard facts
-Accessible approach that doesn’t shame the viewer

-Delayed subtitles and omitted lyrics subtitles
-Lack of classic composers mentioned or shown
-The Argentinean and French scenes could’ve been more diverse in presentation

Final Score: 10/10 points

Content Advisory: Tango Negro should be okay for most audiences besides the very youngest of viewers. When the history of tango dancing is mentioned as starting up in Africa, it is mentioned as having some erotic undertones. The subject matter does mention slavery, genocide, state violence, cultural appropriation, white denial, and gentrification (historical as well as modern). Some of the discussions delve into complex dialogue with whitewashed history, cultural erasure, and some of the Black interviewees mention being subjected to dog-whistle terms around them as well as overt racism in their home countries.

-Curtis Monroe

All photos and videos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. Tango Negro is property of ArtMattan. The screenshot is from YouTube and is property of ArtMattan.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s