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Who invented the tango?

As if their eternal battles on the football field were not enough, Brazil and Argentina are now fighting over the paternity of the tango. While conventional wisdom has it that the sensual dance originated in Argentina, a recent study here says that the tango originated in Rio de Janeiro.

Marcelo Verzoni, a local painist and musicologist, insists that the first tango recorded in Latin America was not The Corn (El Choclo) in Argentina in 1890. Rather, the oldest song in the genre was Killer Eyes (Ojos Matadores) written by Henrique Alves de Mesquita in Rio de Janeiro in 1871.

Reaching this conclusion in his thesis on Brazilian tango composer Enrique Nazaret, Verzoni attempts to explain the feelings harboured by Argentina towards the tango.

"The reason is that, in the decade of 1910, Argentine tango was a big hit in Paris which was the main springboard for artistic expression. From there, the tango was disseminated as an Argentine creation," he says in an interview with IPS.

The researcher says tango is really neither from Argentina nor Brazilian. It origins are in the Habanera music - popular among prostitutes and sailors in the port of the Cuban capital. Habanera music was then supposedly taken to Europe, particularly to the Mediterranean coast. It was a big hit mainly in Spain where it was labelled the American tango. With new Mediterranean influences, it traveled back to Latin America through small opera companies that presented plays with music.

"In South America," says Verzoni, "the genre was well received and began to be cultivated by local composers, who added new influences." In Brazil, it was influenced by the lundu and the polka, giving it a quicker rhythm than the Argentine version.

"I think that the most interesting things for us to know about the tango is that it originated in Cuba, that it travelled a lot and that it became popular because it was very good music. The important thing is not really who owns the tango," he points out, "but that the quality of the music is marvelous."

But such justifications fall on deaf ears. In the Argentine consulate in Rio de Janeiro, where information providers presents the tango as an inextricable and unquestionable part of national culture, Verzoni's discovery is treated like an insult to the flag.

Alexandra Gonzalez, an Argentine who teaches tango at the consulate, prefers to leave the matter "in suspension". "All of a sudden," she complains, "it's as if the Brazilians heard that the samba was born in Buenos Aires."

But her dancing partner, Marcelo Pareja - also Argentine - does not give credence to the new theory. "There may be many hypotheses, but we all know that the tango is something which is very much ours, and that is how I teach it in Brazil - as part of our culture, as part of the way we are."

Every day, the two instructors teach a group of about 20 Brazilians, who try to trade in the samba rhythm of their feet for the measured and compassed steps of the tango.

Samba dancer Marcelino, one of the best students in the group, prefers soccer metaphors. "The tango is very porteno (from Buenos Aires). It's like Maradona," he says.

In the past few years, many tango schools and dance halls have sprung up in Rio de Janeiro. The dancers meet every Thursday night in Gurilandia. They see themselves as a kind of brotherhood who have even been able to extend the love for tango among young people.

With a photo of Carlos Gardel in the background, and blue and red street lamps illuminating the dance floor softly, Plinio Pilhio, a Mulatto, initiates the tango steps together with his partner, who is wearing a red miniskirt and the typical buckled, high-heeled shoes.

"I do the tango because it is the dance genre that balances emotions and mobilises all the human feelings," says Paulo Lima Silva, who claims his facial paralysis was cured thanks to the tango. "It is one of Argentina's greatest contributions to the world."

Yace Franco learnt Spanish naturally, by listening to the Argentine tango. Every Thursday, he goes to Gurilandia and other dance halls in Rio de Janeiro. He is preparing to take part in the grand Tango Gala, which will take place in the city's municipal theatre.

"This is the tango that was born in an Argentina without borders. We are just," he concluded, "trying to share that nationality."



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