Do you, honestly, hear the Habanera in Tango

By Jean-Pierre Sighé



There is a notable thing in the Tango world, often quiet. It is visible on the dance floor. It establishes the difference between the skilled Tango dancer and the average one. The musicians who play Tango music, obviously, have a lot of fun doing it, as one can sense and hear in their execution of their pieces. The dancers, in turn, should be able to pick up that pleasure and excell in the movements they create with their bodies. It is not always the case though. One can see on that dance floor a great deal of uneasyness coming from the observable fact that many simply do not hear the Habanera, as they listen to Tango music.

This does not and should not, come as a surprise. It is rather one of the unexpected consequences, finding its roots in the past conscious decision to remove the drum sound from Tango songs, and re-arrange the music as a Chamber Orchestra entity. As a musician, I must be quick to add that the re-arraging of the orchestra into a Chamber entity, is not a sin per se. I, myself, enjoy Chamber Orchestras immensely, in their repertoire built overtime. In the Tango world, the re-arranging of the music in a Chamber Orchestra platform, could have been done with some presence of some rhythmic instrument, to remain authentic to Tango and its essence, and yet, still preserve its Chamber Orchestra form. I suppose, one of the reasons in history to come up with the Chamber Orchestra formula was to keep the production to the minimum and yet agreable format. How important is it to actually hear the Habanera ?

What is the Habanera ? It is a call-response, thus, a segment of a rhythmic drumming . It is a rhythm. It came from the Candombe drumming. The name « Habanera » draws its immediate roots from Havana (Cuba). However, it is truthful to state that, prior to that rhythm being called « habanera » it had already been part of the African drumming for millenia (for as long as drumming sessions were born on the African Land). One cannot drum with other drummers without getting into the « habanera » spirit. Period !

At Tango Magdalena Dance Studio, we have shared with our students the simple secret about the Habanera, which can be summerized as follow : the moment you let the down-beat « pass » you and you « go after it to catch it » at a future down-beat, you have enterred the Habanera.

I am conscious of how difficult it would be to a reader who is not musician, to grasp what I just wrote, as a simplified summary of what the Habanera is... I understand it. But the fact of the matter is that the Habanera is not a theory. Unless one is in a drumming or a demonstrative context, it is a challenge to hear the Habanera and much more, feel it. Without a prior familiarity with rhythms, one would be at a loss. That is precisely what is quite often visible, on the Tango dancing floor. To the readers who are musicians, you can deeper explore the roots of Habanera with these published articles : « « and « «.  

The fundamental difficulty, is the dogma that some wanted to impose on the history of Tango, by telling the half-story of Tango being developed in the « brothels of Buenos Aires ». Had the history being told truthfully from the beginning, the curiosity to develop the Habanera mind would have been developed. That curiosity would have, undoubtedly, guided the learner to the Afro roots of Tango. The learner would have heard what the Tango musicians have always been hearing when they play Tango.

Most people hear the "2 by 4" or the "4 by 4" pulses in Tango (it means 2 beats per cycle or 4 beats per cycle). That is not too bad. It is already a step forward, compared to those who do not yet, easily, hear the basic down-beat. To not hear the down-beat is a handicap that needs to be corrected sooner than later, as it robs the dancer of the ability to appreciate Tango.
Let's consider an orchestra easy to listen to, such the Carlos Di Sarli's. (listen to « La Cumparsita » piece, for the purpose). As we know, Carlos Di Sarli arranged for the dancer, which is why the tempo and the beat are hammered continuously in most of his recordings. You can cleary hear the 4 beats impulse, thanks to the the slower tempo. If one dances on the 4 is technically correct. However, the truth is that the musicians are using the 4 beats merely as a guide for precision, so that they would know where to musically meet. The pleasure they are having, rather comes more from the Habanera they are constantly hearing and abiding by, as they play their musical phrases. That is why, suddenly, you might hear a forté or a crescendo executed, culminating in an ecstatic donw-beat. This is not a mere coincidence. Hearing and feeling the Habanera is a whole new world, a whole new song. Besides the 4 beats impulse, there are other beats, responding or accompanying the basic 4 beats impulse. These other beats are responding or also calling, in the phrasing. The musicians cannot, not hear the Habanera, and so shouldn't the dancers ! This is where the skilled dancer is set apart from the average one.

To just stick to the basic 4 or 2 beats impulse, is a limitation. It is, not fully entering the imaginary room where the musicians are having a bliss; it is being or becoming predictable, in an environment where improvisation is the modus operandi ; it is, only hearing part of the conversation engaged, between the music and the dancers, or even between the dancing partners. On the other hand, to hear and feel the Habanera opens the door to a rich dialogue between the dancers. It is a fact that the dancers are also, in a sense, participating in a new composition or re-arrangement of the piece they are dancing on. The only difference from the musicians, is that the dancers are using their feet and bodies to execute their charts.

The teaching of Musicality in Tango must include the Habanera explanation and experimentation. The instructor must be capable of articulating the generation of Habanera to accurately demonstrate how it is used in the Tango music. Within the Tango community, there is a strange movement called « Alternative Tango ». It is a strange movement, because, the Tango music is so rich and fullfiling that there is no need to wander around with a slow « 2 by 4 » or « 4 by 4 » song, trying to dance Tango on it. Simply because a piece is slow, DOES NOT automatically call for a Tango rendition. This strange exercise has produced, hélas! some characters with unsustainable challenges in musicality.

This does not mean that one can only dance Tango on a Tango piece. The fact is the following : In order to naturally dance Tango on a song other than a Tango song, the musical execution must suggest or imply the Habanera. There are many ways such suggestions or implications can be accomplished. Someone trying to dance Tango on a song that does not suggest or imply the Habanera would have to be a VERY good rhythmic person to inject that Habanera whenever they want, in coordination with a partner and without a clash with the music. It can be done, as nothing is impossible, but this would be a higher level of the art. An average dancer trying the same thing would definitely be exercising their freedom to be incorrect...definitely, not any artistic new art-form to follow. Error and ignorance cannot be claimed as Virtues !

In conclusion, we, at Tango Magdalena Dance & Art Studio, encourage every Tango dancer or learner, to be passionately involved in the discovery and practice of the Habanera. It can only make the Tango journey that much inquiring, exhilerating and rich, The ensued expansion in the mind will be in direct proportion to the ability to create instantly and uniquely. This leads to a deeper understanding to why any Tango dance is, and can only be different from the last one.


© February 2016