Even though the present forms developed in Argentina and Uruguay from the mid 19th century, there are records of 18th and early 19th century Tango styles in Cuba and Spain, while there is a flamenco Tangos dance that may share a common ancestor in a minuet-style European dance. All sources stress the influence of the African communities and their rhythms, while the instruments and techniques brought in by European immigrants in the second half of the 20th century played a major role in its final definition, relating it to the Salon music styles to which Tango would contribute back at a later stage.
The first Tango ever recorded was made by Angel Villoldo and played by the French national guard in Paris. Villoldo had to record in Paris because in Argentina at the time there was no recording studio.
Early tango was played by immigrants in Buenos Aires. The first generation of tango players was called "Guardia Vieja" (the Old Guard). By the end of the 19th century, this blend of salon, European and African music was heard throughout metropolitan Buenos Aires. It took time to move into wider circles: in the early 20th century it was the favorite music of thugs and gangsters who visited the brothels, in a city with 100,000 more men than women (in 1914). The complex dances that arose from such rich music reflects how the men would practice the dance in groups, demonstrating male sexuality and causing a blending of emotion and aggressiveness. The music was played on portable instruments: flute, guitar and violin trios, with bandoneón arriving at the end of the 19th century. The organito, a portable player-organ, broadened the popularity of certain songs. Eduardo Arolas was the major instrument of the bandoneón's popularization, with Vicente Greco soon standardizing the tango sextet as consisting of piano, double bass, two violins and two bandoneons.
Like many forms of popular music, the tango was associated with the underclass, and the better-off Argentines tried to restrict its influence. In spite of the scorn, some, like writer Ricardo Güiraldes, were fans. Güiraldes played a part in the international popularization of the tango, which had conquered the world by the end of World War I, and wrote a poem ("Tango") which describes the music as the "all-absorbing love of a tyrant, jealously guarding his dominion, over women who have surrendered submissively, like obedient beasts".
One song that would become the most widely known of all tango melodies also dates from this time. The first two sections of La Cumparsita were composed as a march instrumental in 1917 by then 17-year-old Gerardo Matos Rodríguez of Uruguay.
"Por Una Cabeza" (1935) by Carlos Gardel and Alfredo Le Pera. Sung by Carlos Gardel.
Tango soon began to gain popularity in Europe, beginning in France. Superstar Carlos Gardel soon became a sex symbol who brought the tango to new audiences, especially in the United States, due to his sensual depictions of the dance on film. In the 1920s, tango moved out of the lower-class brothels and became a more respectable form of music and dance. Bandleaders like Roberto Firpo and Francisco Canaro dropped the flute and added a double bass in its place. Lyrics were still typically macho, blaming women for countless heartaches, and the dance moves were still sexual and aggressive.
Carlos Gardel became especially associated with the transition from a lower-class "gangster" music to a respectable middle-class dance. He helped develop tango-canción in the 1920s and became one of the most popular tango artists of all time. He was also one of the precursors of the Golden Age of tango.
The "Golden Age" of tango music and dance is generally agreed to have been the period from about 1935 to 1952, roughly contemporaneous with the big band era in the United States.
Some of the many popular and influential orchestras included the orchestras of Juan D'Arienzo, Francisco Canaro, and Aníbal Troilo. D'Arienzo was called the "Rey del compás" or "King of the beat" for the insistent, driving rhythm which can be heard on many of his recordings. "El flete" is an excellent example of D'Arienzo's approach. Canaro's early milongas are generally the slowest and easiest to dance to; and for that reason, they are the most frequently played at tango dances (milongas); "Milonga Sentimental" is a classic example.
Beginning in the Golden Age and continuing afterwards, the orchestras of Osvaldo Pugliese and Carlos di Sarli made many recordings. Di Sarli had a lush, grandiose sound, and emphasized strings and piano over the bandoneon, which is heard in "A la gran muñeca" and "Bahía Blanca" (the name of his home town).
Pugliese's first recordings were not too different from those of other dance orchestras, but he developed a complex, rich, and sometimes discordant sound, which is heard in his signature pieces, "Gallo ciego", "Emancipación", and "La yumba". Pugliese's later music was played for an audience and not intended for dancing, although it is often used for stage choreography for its dramatic potential, and sometimes played late at night at milongas.
The later age of tango has been dominated by Ástor Piazzolla, whose Adiós nonino became the most influential work of tango since Carlos Gardel's El día que me quieras was released. During the 1950s, Piazzolla consciously tried to create a more academic form with new sounds breaking the classic forms of tango, earning the derision of purists and old-time performers. The 1970s saw Buenos Aires developing a fusion of jazz and tango. Litto Nebbia and Siglo XX were especially popular within this movement. In the 1970s and 1980s, the vocal octet Buenos Aires 8 recorded classic tangos in elaborate arrangements, with complex harmonies and jazz influence, and also recorded an album with compositions by Piazzolla.
The so-called post-Piazzolla generation (1980-) includes musicians such as Dino Saluzzi, Rodolfo Mederos, Enrique Martin Entenza and Juan María Solare. Piazzolla and his followers developed Nuevo Tango, which incorporated jazz and classical influences into a more experimental style.
Tango development has not stopped here. The following examples are not filed under "Tango Nuevo" since such classification is usually done with hindsight rather than when still undergoing development... These recent trends can be described as "electro tango" or "tango fusion", where the electronic influences are available in multiple ranges: from very subtle to rather dominant.
Tanghetto and Carlos Libedinsky are good examples of the subtle use of electronic elements. The music still has its tango feeling, the complex rhythmic and melodious entanglement that makes tango so unique. The Tango Saloon incorporates other elements such as spaghetti western music, jazz, Cuban music, classical chamber, improvisation and experimental electronics into their tango. Gotan Project is a group based in Paris, consisting of musicians Philippe Cohen Solal, Eduardo Makaroff and Christoph H Muller. They formed in 1999. Their releases include Vuelvo al Sur/El capitalismo foráneo (2000), La Revancha del Tango (2001), Inspiración Espiración (2004), and Lunático (2006). Their sound features electronic elements like samples, beats and sounds on top of a tango groove. Tango dancers around the world enjoy dancing to this music, although many more traditional dancers regard it as a definite break in style and tradition. Still, the rhythmic elements in Gotan Project's music are more complex than in some of the other "electro tango" songs that were created afterwards.
Bajofondo Tango Club (Underground tango club) and its follow-on album "Supervielle" are examples with a stronger "electro" feeling than Gotan Project. Bajofondo Tango Club's beats are more regular, more dominant. The rhythms are less complex but the tango feeling is still there. Other examples can be found on the CDsTango?, Hybrid Tango, Tangophobia Vol. 1, Tango Crash (with a major jazz influence), NuTango. Tango Fusion Club Vol. 1 by the creator of the milonga called "Tango Fusion Club" in Munich, Germany, Felino by the Norwegian group Electrocutango and "Electronic Tango", a various artists' CD. In 2004, a music label, World Music Network, also released a collection under the title The Rough Guide to Tango Nuevo.
Many popular songs in the United States have borrowed melodies from tango: the earliest published tango, El Choclo, lent its melody to the fifties hit Kiss of Fire. Similarly Adiós Muchachos became I Get Ideas, and Strange Sensation was based on La Cumparsita.