Early bandoneón, constructed ca. 1905
Even though present forms developed in Argentina and Uruguay from the mid 19th century, there are records of 19th and early 20th 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 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.
Angel Villoldo's 1903 tango El Choclo was first recorded no later than 1906 in Philadelphia. Villoldo himself recorded it in Paris (possibly in April, 1908, with the Orchestre Tzigane du Restaurant du Rat Mort). 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 then later in Montevideo. The first generation of tango players was called "Guardia Vieja" (the Old Guard). 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 bandoneóns.
Like many forms of popular music, tango was associated with the underclass, and attempts were made to restrict its influenceRicardo Güiraldes, were fans. Güiraldes played a part in the international popularization of 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".
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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 1916 by teen-aged Gerardo Matos Rodríguez of Uruguay.