Since I’ve been here at Emory I’ve noticed the absence of a Hispanic cultural dance group and I’ve always wanted to start...
Syncopation in the habanera rhythm, and some of its derivatives, is explained using sound clips in the post Habanera Variations.
The habanera rhythm is central in tango music. It, and derivatives of it, define the rhythmic character of all tango forms: tango, milonga, and vals – but much less so here, having to do with the “3″ count of the 3/4 time signature.
Milonga preceded tango, originating in the Río de la Plata area of Argentina and Uruguay in the last quarter of the 19th century.The music was heavily influenced by the Cuban Habanera dance, specifically its namesake rhythmic pattern:
Consider this original version “habanera 1″. The habanera has another form, call it “habanera 2″ or the “syncopa”:
Habanera 1 remained the dominant rhythm in milonga throughout the great period of tango composition during the first half of the 20th century. It is usually the underlying pulse, the driving rhythm, in the accompaniment. Habanera 2, the first three notes especially, often is in the melody and/or the accompanying instruments. Habanera 1 dominated early tango too. In the piano sheet music from the day – the early 1900s – habanera 1 is prominently used as an accompaniment. For the most part we can’t know if that is an accurate representation of tango during the period. The recorded history is obviously scant and piano scores are not always all that accurate. But we can get a good idea how early tango sounded by looking at El Choclo. The music on Tango Musicology’s site header is the start of El Choclo, with my handwritten notations. The full piano sheet music is here. Ángel Villoldo wrote the music in 1903 and the score clearly shows the habanera in the bass clef.
Here’s an early recording, by Juan Maglio “Pacho”. (Never heard of him? Me either until a year ago. You can read about him at Todo Tango.)
El Choclo, Maglio
The recording quality isn’t great, but if you listen closely you’ll hear the habanera in the accompaniment. And the first derivative of the habanera is the prominent rhythm for the melody in section B, starting at :30. That’s bar 17 in the score. And for section C as well, around 1:00, bar 26, although here habanera 2 is an elaborated version. So by 1903, certainly earlier, tango was finding its own way, maintaining the original habanera rhythm but prominently featuring the second one too. And the tempo is quite a bit slower than milonga; vitally important.
Over time, although tango still used habanera 1, the distinguishing rhythm became the second version. Other than tempo differences, the emphasis on habanera 2 and the removal of habanera 1 from the underlying pulse makes tango tango and not milonga.
A third habanera version, the 3-3-2, is not as common in tango. It occurs now and then, mostly in milonga, and it is claimed the rhythm has its roots in canyengue, a predecessor to tango. It is very closely related to the original habanera, sharing the defining dotted 1/8 – 1/6th rhythm and its second 1/8 note. (Click habanera to see what it looks and sounds like.) In more recent times Astor Piazzolla made the 3-3-2 famous, with Libertango.In a future post I’ll show how the two habanera derivatives are musically based on the original. And I really should provide some audio examples of these rhythms in tango and milonga.