Historically the Vatican has condemned rhythm: it might make people shake their hips and, god forbid, want to kiss and touch and perhaps go even further. Pope Gregory I helped create a music for monks in monasteries to serve as a soundtrack for their daily duties and prayers. This became known as Gregorian Chant. Everybody would sing the same note at the same time. The notes, written in big square blocks on vellum parchment (you can see this in the Huntington Library in San Marino (Pasadena), Calif.) are all written horizontally. The notes move up and down, but are not stacked vertically. This early music is very different than modern music scores, where the notes are stacked vertically in chords. Gregorian chant is quite primitive by comparison, and was and is a music that would never titillate the senses, no way.
In the 12th century along came Perotin and the Paris school, which introduced polyphony, or vocal harmony. Suddenly music became sensual and chordal, but this early music of Perotin was condemned as inflaming the passions. Meanwhile, in the Iberian peninsula prior to the Christian reconquista of 1492, the mixed Jewish, Christian, and Moorish culture produced music of remarkable synergy and modernity. Such dances as the sexy sarabanda, a 15th century Afro-Spanish dance coming from Congolese slaves brought to Spain by the Moors, was condemned as a lascivious dance that promoted sensuality and decadence. It was condemned in the late 16th century by the Vatican.
Next in line was the waltz—a papal bull prohibiting it was issued in the late 19th century. After that the tango. The general drift of this was that any music that engendered hip shaking was prohibited.
Is it any wonder why white men (and women) can’t dance?
The story of tango is interesting: The rhythm came from Cuba (the habanera, made famous by Bizet’s opera Carmen) then travelled to Europe, then came back with the Italians to Argentina, where it went straight to the whorehouse. The word tango, like the sarabanda, is also a Congolese word, referring to slaves’ gatherings in New Orleans’ Congo Square). As for the bandonéon, the all-button squeezebox par excellence of the tango, it was invented for poor village churches in Germany that couldn’t afford pipe organs. Get the connection? From the church straight to Buenos Aires’ whorehouses.
The tango’s condemnation is interesting. It was formally prohibited in the early 20th century by the Curate Cardinal of Rome. The Italian War Minister even wrote a by-law officially prohibiting the tango throughout Italy.
The problem enforcing this ban was that there were many tango fans in Italy. There were also many young people among the pontifical noble class who were fond of tango. So in March of 1914 they and Merry de Val, the Cardinal of Rome, arranged a performance for Pope Pius X. The dancers were very careful to be modest in their movements; no false steps would be tolerated.
Pope Pius X just laughed, making fun of a fashion trend that would force its slaves to revel in such a boring dance. The Pope said:
“I understand very well that you like to dance; we are in carnival time and you are young. So dance and enjoy it. But why adopt such ridiculous and barbaric contortions from Black and Indian people? Why not choose instead the nice dance of Venice, the furiana? (from José Gobello, Crónica General del Tango, 1986).
And so the Papal ban on tango was lifted. And with the arrival of Gardel, Piazzolla, and other great orchestras and dancers during the 1920s, 30s, through 1950s, it grew and grew into Argentina’s great musical gift to the world. The great Astor Piazzolla reinvigorated the world’s interest. He turned it into a concert music performed in the great halls of the world. In Finland and Japan it has become a social dance for shy singles wishing to come out of their shells. And for the rest of us it is one of the most compelling, intense, and passionate dances in the world. Here is a link to Yo-Yo Ma’s magnificent version of Astor Piazzolla’s
great song (one that Grace Jones covered too), Libertango. Yo-Yo’s grammy-award winning album is called “Soul of the Tango”.