Musicians perform in a scene from Tango Negro: The African Roots of Tango.
tangonegrofilm.com

There is no doubt that African music is at the core of the native sounds for America, Brazil, Colombia and all of the Caribbean. In Argentina, the subject is a tad more controversial. Tango is the core music of the country and its neighbor Uruguay, yet in Argentina it has bordered on scandalous to suggest that the style has its roots in Africa.

A new documentary film, Tango Negro: The African Roots of Tango, explores this national denial and obliterates it with abundant anthropological and musical evidence. The movie premieres Friday in New York City and Chicago and is part of the ninth annual African Diaspora International Film Festival in Washington, D.C. 

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The film is written and directed by Dom Pedro, an Angolan filmmaker who first took an interest in the subject 25 years ago while watching the 1990 World Cup. After seeing Cameroon upset Argentina, he began to wonder why there were so few black players on the Argentine national team when such players were commonplace on other South American teams. 

His suspicions about Argentina’s institutional whitewash took an important turn when he met Argentine musician Juan Carlos Caceres. Caceres, who died in April, was an internationally renowned jazz trombonist who turned his attention to the music of his native land while living in Paris in the ’70s. He became certain of tango’s African roots in styles like candombe and murga, which are native to Angola and Congo.

“The tango is made up of three sadnesses, three memories,” Caceres says in the documentary. “The immigrants’ sadness. The gaucho’s sadness, people who lived in the country. And finally the blacks’ sadness, who didn’t come here as immigrants, but who were brought here, leaving their lives in Africa.” The musical great also served as the film’s composer.

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The first two-thirds of the documentary traces Caceres’ world in both Buenos Aires and in Paris. He demonstrates the rhythmic roots of the tango and shows the similarities to sub-Saharan African music. Through performances, both formal and informal jams, the evidence is compelling and at times mesmerizing.

The film also traces the slave trade in Argentina and Uruguay and details its sordid history, as well as the subsequent European immigration that has resulted in so many Argentines feeling a close bond to Italy. The film closes by probing why Uruguay, where tango also developed, is much less conflicted about its African roots and the black influence on its culture. 

For music fans well familiar with tango, either through root sources or more recent innovators like Gotan Project and Astor Piazzola, some of the film’s core points may seem like belaboring the obvious. For instance, it's nearly impossible to my ears not to hear the African influence in the complexity of the rhythms. Yet Pedro’s film maintains interest precisely by not being a polemic. Rather than hammering home a point, he carefully reveals the complex web of supremacist values and foggy national memories rife in Argentina. 

In its even keel and mix of music, history and analysis, Pedro’s film bears some resemblance to Wim Wender’s 1999 documentary, Buena Vista Social Club. There are plenty of fingers to point and fists to shake over the situation, but Pedro doesn’t let politics overwhelm the story of a fantastic music that he wants to celebrate and explore. Instead, he keeps everything in balance. Tango, like flamenco, is profoundly romantic, and like most things romantic, there are complications beneath the surface. In Tango Negro: The African Roots of Tango, Pedro delves into that complexity in ways that are both insightful and entertaining.

Martin Johnson writes about music for the Wall Street Journal, basketball for Slate and beer for Eater, and he blogs at both the Joy of Cheese and Rotations. Follow him on Twitter