Milonga resulted from a fusion of many cultural dances, including the Cuban Habanera, the Mazurka, the Polka and the Brazilian Macumba. In addition to this, there were two very significant influences: the Candombé and the Payada.
It is important to understand the Candombé (pronounced can-dome-bey) because it forms the very basis of milonga - and thus tango as a whole.
To do so, we must cast our eyes away from Argentina for a slight moment, to Africa. When the Spanish colonized South America, millions of African slaves were introduced there centuries before tango was created. More than two thirds of these slaves came from the Eastern and Equatorial region of Africa called Bantu.
The Bantu area is a very large area of Africa, which had over 450 distinct ethnics groups, 20 languages and 70 dialects (reference: Montevideo census of 1812). It is rather tragic then that the entire ancestral dance and music heritage of the Bantu region, from which millions of people were enslaved, is encapsulated and mashed together into a single word... but there it is: Candombé. Candombé is the single word that fuses all the drum-based black dance and music from that area and era. These slaves - interestingly enough - called their drums tangó, and also used this term for the name of the place that they performed the Candombé. The dances themselves were also called tangós!
Improvisation of Candombé milonga
Buenos Aires was itself a major hub for African slaves, who also brought along their Candombé to that area. Even after slavery was abolished, in 1853, the Candombé flourished. The local population who danced with the descendants of these slaves, added their own touches - in particular the embrace! - and the Candombé evolved into the milonga.
The word milonga (in the African language Quimbunda) is the plural of 'Mulonga', which means 'word'. Hence milonga means 'words'.
To further explain the derivation of milonga, we note that gauchos (*early Argentinean cowboys - see detailed explanation below) roamed the rural area known as Pampa. These gauchos gathered and organized la payada de contrapunto (payada is pronounced pah-jah-dah, and essentially means singer) - which even to this day exist! This was a gathering of people in an open place, where the payadores competed through improvisation with guitars, in which one would start a song about any subject that came to mind - often death, God or love - and the other would retort with verses which were octosyllabic quartets structured in a musical period of eight measures in 2/4.
The black slaves, who attended these payadas but who did not understand the songs, started to call them milongas - in other words, "many words". Eventually these events were termed "milongas", and people started going to a milonga rather than a payada.
Example of a payada
The word 'milonguero' was originally used to describe the gauchos who went from town to town competing in payadas.
The names of those ancient milongas related to the areas where they were danced: 'Milonga Campera' or 'Milonga Sureña'. 'Campera' means 'from the country side', and 'Sureña' means 'from the south'.
Milonga Campera music sample: Eduardo Robles and Luis Soria
Dancing to Milonga Campera music
Milonga Sureña music sample: by Juan José Ramos
The Cuban Habanera is believed to be the successor of the old Spanish contradanza or counter-dance (a word derived, according to some, from the English country dance).
The contradanza was a rigid figures dance, in which the dancers had to do specific movements according to the directions of the director - called a bastonero - who decided the number and position of the dancers. This bastonero would perform whichever complicated movements or figures he desired, and the others had to imitate him on their turn.
During 1850s, the Cuban Habanera was strongly established in Buenos Aires. It spread throughout the region of Ribera, on the river shores of Buenos Aires, thanks to the sailors taking the commercial route between the Río de la Plata and the Antillas. It became established in Buenos Aires and was gradually transformed, along with other influences, into the milonga.
The milonga is the predecessor of the modern tango, which began as an urbanized folk dance. The earliest tangos were in fact mostly titled tango criollo para piano and were milongas rather than true tangos, with ensembles consisting of the bandoneón, flute and guitar.
Ventura Lynch (an ardent student of the dances) wrote in 1883 of the milonga in Buenos Aires:
The milonga is so universal in the environs of the city that it is an obligatory piece at all the lower-class dances (bailecitos de medio pelo), and it is now heard on guitars, on paper-combs, and from the itinerant musicians with their flutes, harps and violins. It has also been taken up by the organ-grinders, who have arranged it so as to sound like the habanera dance. It is danced too in the low life clubs around...[main] markets, and also at the dances and wakes of cart-drivers, the soldiery and compadres and compadritos.
It is worth noting that modern-day Argentineans also use the word 'milonga' as slang to mean 'many words'. For example a phrase might go something like 'No vengas con esa milonga' - 'Do not come with such a long complaining discourse' or 'La vida es una milonga' - 'Life is a milonga' (meaning life is a long drama).
The word gaucho originated at about 1790 to describe a rough individual, normally traveling alone or with a woman - having his only baggage a knife called a facon. Gauchos meandered the country side, and would be familiar with the landscape. They were considered the best 'cowboys' money could buy.
In 1872 Jose Hernandez published his book 'Martin Fierro', in which he describes the life of a gaucho - in verse! In that book, the word 'milonga' was already the term used for a gathering where one could dance.
An excerpt from a National Geographic special about gauchos
The Definition of 'Milonga'
The milonga has the following attributes:
A fast-paced dance which originated in Buenos Aires, and preceded modern tango.
It incorporates many of the steps in tango, but due to its pace, the vast repertoire available to modern tango cannot be reproduced in full in the milonga (for example many of the embellishments, which require a pause).
It is not a true tango in the very strictest sense as rather than being in the 4/4 standard tango pattern, it is 2/4:
Yohann, a tango teacher from Yorkshire, has this interesting comment to say about milonga:
One of the most obvious [reasons for milongueros to struggle to make the transition between the tango and milonga] is that, in tango, you can step on any beat, in milonga, you must step on every beat - not easy to manage when you are a leader. This fundamental differences in rhythm, which makes these dances so unique, have appeared over time as the dances were born, influenced by various cultures.
Types of Milongas
The are two distinct styles of milonga:
Milonga Lisa: the dancer steps on every beat of the music.
Milonga con Traspié: the dancer uses traspié (trips) or contrapasos (changes of weight) in either double time or three steps per two beats.
The Evolution of Milonga
Sebastián Piana is considered the father of the modern milonga with his Milonga Sentimental, composed in 1931 with lyrics by Homero Manzi. It opened up huge possibilities and other composers followed in Piana's path.
Other notable milongas include La Trampera ( by A. Troilo), La Puñalada (by P. Castellanos), Nocturna (by J. Plaza) and Taquito Militar (by M. Mores).
The vast majority of milongas are not only fast, but heavily mark their accents - however there are in fact slow milongas, for example Sebastián Piana´s Milonga Triste and Astor Piazzolla´s Milonga del Angel.
Milonga Triste (a bandoneón solo)
Astor Piazzolla, who created Tango Nuevo, used the milonga rhythm as an essential part of his style. His infusion of the 3+3+2 rhythmic pattern (emphasis on the first, fourth, and sixth eighth notes in a 4/4 bar) derives from, and changes, the milonga rhythm.
Here are some further beautiful examples of milongas.
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