An image of male and female legs dancing in the final round of the stage category during the Tango World Championship in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021. 

Feminist tango collectives take center stage in Argentina

All-female and all-queer tango groups playing contemporary tango songs with a feminist lens are on the rise in Argentina.

The World

Gaston Gatti and Hebe Hernandez dance while competing in the final round of the stage category during the Tango World Championship in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Sept. 25, 2021. 

Natacha Pisarenko/AP/File photo

Patricia Malanca always dreamed of writing a tango album full of feminist songs — a rarity in the tango world.

“My intention is to have my songs heard in places where the traditional sexist tango persists,” she said of her newest album, “Traerán Ríos de Tango las Páginas de un Libro,” or “The Book’s Pages Will Bring Rivers of Tango,” released in November 2021.

Each song in Malanca’s album is an ode to a novel written by a contemporary female Argentine author, touching on topics such as abortion rights and transgender identity.

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“Female lyricists and singer-songwriters are writing tango’s new poetry and songbooks. ... We’re paving the way for the 21st century, full of songs about equality.”

Patricia Malanca, singer-songwriter, Argentina

“Female lyricists and singer-songwriters are writing tango’s new poetry and songbooks,” Malanca said. “We’re paving the way for the 21st century, full of songs about equality.”

Malanca said classical tango songs often normalized gender violence or devalued women. Even Carlos Gardel, considered the most prominent figure in tango history, has songs like “Tortazo,” roughly translated as “The Slap,” where he threatens a woman with physical violence in order to “keep her in her place.”

To this day, it’s common to hear songs from the early tango days played in recitals or milongas, special venues where tango is danced to live music.

In this June 6, 2021, file photo, a couple dances tango at a park amid the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown in Buenos Aires, Argentina. 

In this June 6, 2021, file photo, a couple dances tango at a park amid the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown in Buenos Aires, Argentina. 

Credit:

Natacha Pisarenko/AP/File

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The roots of tango date back to the late 19th century, when Argentina’s capital of Buenos Aires was a cultural mix of Indigenous people, formerly enslaved Afro-Argentines and recently arrived migrants predominantly from Italy and Spain.

“It was a very patriarchal world. ... Buenos Aires’ population was around 70% male, mainly because of all the migrants, and that was reflective in tango songs. ... Nowadays, women are creating new spaces for themselves in the tango world.”

Francisco Palumbo, tango historian, Argentina

“It was a very patriarchal world,” tango historian Francisco Palumbo said. “Buenos Aires’ population was around 70% male, mainly because of all the migrants, and that was reflective in tango songs.”

But by the early 20th century, Palumbo said, some women had worked their way into the spotlight. Paquita Bernardo played the bandoneon — a small type of accordion typical in tango. She died young in 1925, leaving behind no recordings. Rosita Quiroga was a guitarist who sang in the first tango ever recorded in Argentina in 1926: “La musa mistonga,” a song using slang particular to Buenos Aires in the early 20th century, and which roughly means “The worthless muse.”

“Nowadays, women are creating new spaces for themselves in the tango world,” Palumbo said.

All-female and all-queer tango groups playing contemporary tango songs with a feminist lens are on the rise in Argentina.

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One is La Empoderosa Orquesta Atípica, or the Empowered Atypical Orchestra. They cover songs like “Pendeja,” about a young girl who was forced to carry out a pregnancy after being raped. That songtitle term, when used toward women, is often an insult. Composer Cintia Trigo said she wrote the song to highlight the importance of abortion access, which was illegal in Argentina until December 2020.

“I started noticing how, once the [latest] feminist movement gained traction following [anti-gender violence] marches and abortion rights campaigns, the feminist tango movement really took off."

Cintia Trigo, singer-songwriter, Empowered Atypical Orchestra, Argentina

“I started noticing how, once the [latest] feminist movement gained traction following [anti-gender violence] marches and abortion rights campaigns, the feminist tango movement really took off,” Trigo said.

For Trigo, who’s been in the tango industry for nearly 20 years, the emergence of feminist tango collectives helped her feel less alone. Now, she often collaborates with other female and trans musicians. And there are many venues that prioritize feminist and queer tango.

“What tourists are looking for when they come to Argentina, that’s not an authentic representation of tango,” Trigo said. 

“Real tango is about the underground movement, about independent musicians who sing about contemporary issues. This feminist tango is growing, and we need the public to grow, as well.”