TANGO by Robert Farris Thompson


The Art History of Love
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A history of the Argentine-born dance by turns too encyclopedic and too enthralled.

Thompson (Art History/Yale) is taken with the tango. Indeed, the last sentence of his book-length paean reads, “I thank God for its sheer existence.” Here, he rehearses the development of the dance, analyzes movies and poems about it and argues throughout that Afro-Argentines had a huge, often overlooked role in shaping tango. In fact, suggests Thompson, tango is clearly influenced by the dance traditions of the Kongo, an African kingdom that was home to many slaves eventually taken to Buenos Aires. Innumerable black musicians made their mark on tango music: Anselmo Rosendo Mendizabal, who wrote the classic tango “El entrerriano,” tango violinists like Eusebio Aspiazu and El Pardo Cototo Almeida and even black clarinet players, like “El Negro” Gregorio Astudillo. Although there aren’t large numbers of black people living in Buenos Aires today, Thompson shows that Afro-Argentines continue at the forefront of contemporary tango culture. The Posadas family, for example, was prominent in early tango music, and their descendant, Facundo Posadas, performed just a few years ago at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach. Thompson has undoubtedly made a major contribution to the study of tango, but his text is marred by too many attacks of purple prose. One remark such as, “If nostalgia is a country, tango is its capital,” would be fine, charming even; one every two pages is precious. When not waxing enchanted, Thompson tends to catalogue: a three-page chart compares the Buenos Aires Creole idiom with classical Ki-Kongo; a chapter on “Tango as Text” principally comprises one-paragraph bios of leading Argentine writers and short excerpts from their work. An analysis of tango-inspired poetry could be fascinating, but Thompson’s attempt seems undigested.

Not at all worthy of its subject.

Pub Date: Sept. 30th, 2005
ISBN: 0-375-40931-9
Page count: 384pp
Publisher: Pantheon
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15th, 2005