Music and Composers of Argentina

The South American country of Argentina is home to a variety of musical styles and traditions. Many of them are the result of a blending of indigenous and immigrant cultures. Spanish colonists arrived in the 1500s, and another big wave of immigrants (mostly Spaniards and Italians, and some people from France, Germany, Great Britain, and Poland) came from the 1870s to the 1940s. Africans were brought to Argentina by Spanish colonists to work as slaves, but their numbers were greatly diminished during a yellow fever epidemic in 1871. Descendents of immigrants make up about 85% of the population of Argentina today. As a result, art music in Argentina has followed patterns similar to those in Europe since the 1500s.

European-influenced music of Argentina includes Catholic musical traditions from Spain and Italy. This includes liturgical music as well as music for celebrating saint days and holidays. European Protestants brought their music with them to Argentina in the 1900s. Many European church musicians taught indigenous peoples to play and even construct European instruments. Some indigenous groups have always considered music and musical instruments to have supernatural powers for communicating with their own deities. This may be why they were open to learning about foreigners’ ways of making music, even if they did not accept the religious teachings that went with them.

Folk Music of Argentina
There are two main kinds of folk music heard almost everywhere in Argentina. One is music that comes from original indigenous cultures (there are many), and the other is creole music that has evolved from the culture of the Spanish colonists and their descendants, often mixing with local original traditions. European dances, popular songs, religious music, instruments, and festivals such as Carnival were brought to Argentina by immigrants, and have evolved into the creole music enjoyed today.

Argentina is divided into different regions according to geography and climate, and each of these areas has cultural characteristics of its own. Patagonia, which is in the south, has not had as many visitors or colonists over the centuries as other areas (the weather can be daunting), so much of the folk music is still basically the same indigenous music that it has been for centuries. It is grounded in a spiritual tradition involving life events: birth, childhood, puberty, healing, marriage, hunting, herding flocks to grazing land, expressing gratitude, and death.

In some areas of Argentina, folk music has been influenced by visitors from neighboring countries. For example, in the northwest province of Jujuy, some characteristics of the ancient music of the Incas have been brought into Argentina by workers from Bolivia. In other areas of Argentina, one can hear musical influences from Peru, Paraguay, and Chile.

The central Argentine province of Córdoba has little original traditional music left, because the indigenous peoples have largely disappeared. A style of dance music that is quite popular is called cuarteto. It has proven to be an extremely successful part of the dance hall scene and recording industry in Argentina.

In the plains area called La Pampa (which includes Buenos Aires), the dances are lively, but the songs are often introspective and quiet. Guitar, accordions, and harmonica are used to accompany both dances and songs. Singing duels, in which improvisational skills are compared, are common in La Pampa. An old Argentine vocal duet style, in which performers sing in parallel thirds with guitar accompaniment, is popular there and in many other areas of Argentina.

In the northeastern part of Argentina, called Mesopotamia, the indigenous peoples have accepted European dances such as the mazurka, waltz, polka (which evolved into the popular cheek-to-cheek chamamé), and schottische. However, they rejected all attempts at religious conversion and have kept their spiritual traditions unchanged. In religious settings, they use instruments like the sacred stamping tube (played by women), flutes, and drums. Singing is reserved for a male religious leader and women who echo his phrases. In this region the secular creole tradition uses European instruments such as the accordion, violin, harp, and guitar.

Dance is a natural part of most creole traditions and some indigenous traditions in much of Argentina. The zamba is the national dance of Argentina, and the gato ("cat") is the most important rural dance. These dances for couples are enjoyed on many occasions, especially at Carnival. The music for these dances is sung and accompanied by accordion and drum, or sometimes violin and harp or guitar.

One famous Argentine dance style is the intense couples’ dance called the tango. A tango orchestra might include an accordion, violin, piano, and string bass. Guitars are also sometimes used. The tango was originally a popular dance style among poor and lower middle class people of Buenos Aires, early in the twentieth century. In the 1920s and 1930s, the tango became popular in France, and other classes of society in Argentina began to enjoy dancing the tango in cabaret settings. A singer named Carlos Gardel helped bring the tango to worldwide attention in the 1920s.

A new style of tango was introduced by Astor Piazzolla, a well-known composer and performer of tangos in the 1950s. Many of his new tangos have jazz and modern art music influences. He took the music of the great tango masters, removed it from the concert hall, and took it to the streets of Buenos Aires. Many jazz musicians and listeners came to know and appreciate tango music in this format. More recently, Piazzolla took the tango back to the concert halls, composing and performing works for groups ranging from the string quartet to the symphony orchestra, and even an opera. In the 1980s, shows featuring tango dancing began touring the world, with great success.

Another kind of music and dance that became very popular in Argentina in the latter part of the twentieth century is tropical music, or music of the Caribbean. Salsa and son are two tropical dance music styles that are popular in Argentine urban dance halls.

Rock music from Great Britain and the United States has been popular in Argentina, as well. Argentine rock music, called "progressive national music," was an attempt to make Argentine rock distinct from British and American rock. Argentine rock embraced issues such as support of the working class during the military dictatorship. It is the product of Anglo rock, tango, jazz, Brazilian music, and Argentine folk song styles.

Some Musicians of Argentina
The folk singer Mercedes Sosa (born 1935) interprets folk traditions of Argentina as well as folk traditions found throughout Latin America. Sent into exile by Argentina’s military regime in 1978, she returned five years later to a heroine’s welcome.

Alberto Ginastera (1916–1983) started out composing in the nationalist style popular in Argentina in the early twentieth century. He turned to composing neoclassical pieces in the 1950s and switched to atonal and serialist compositions in the 1960s. He was recognized as a major composer in Argentina, the United States, and Europe.

Martha Argerich (born 1941) is a famous concert pianist from Buenos Aires. She won two international competitions in Europe at age 16 and went on to win many more. Argerich is known for her passionate and technically brilliant performances of the works of Chopin, Liszt, Bartók, and Prokofiev, among others.

Daniel Barenboim (born 1942) is a conductor and concert pianist from Buenos Aires. In 1952 he moved with his family to Israel. He was in demand as a concert pianist early in his career, and from 1954 on, he recorded piano concertos with some of the world’s famous conductors. He has served as conductor of the English Chamber Orchestra, Orchestre de Paris, Chicago Symphony, Berlin Philharmonic, and the Vienna Philharmonic, among others.

In the popular music realm, Los Fabulosos Cadillacs and singer-songwriter Fito Paez are prominent artists in Argentina who have gained international fame.


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