It is well-known that tango was a dance born in the poor neighbourhoods of Buenos Aires, Argentine; it first spread to Europe after World War I and then to Istanbul via Pera (Beyoğlu), and from throughout Turkey. Like the jazz of America's black people, the rebetiko of the Anatolian Greeks and the fado of the Lisbon poor, the tango is the music of lower class. Most probably it benefited from Spanish music, the habanera of Cuba and other similar traditions. Behind every form of art there is a combination of many different traditions. But as a result, the tango was sui generis, unique.

It is thought that tango took shape in the last two or three decades of the 19th century. As mentioned above, the tango is music that blossomed in the dens of the suburban districts of Buenos Aires, and from the very beginning was accompanied by dance. Both as music and dance, with its macho style and energy, the tango reflects the main characteristics of the world into which it was born. Indeed, the word macho is itself a concept that spread to the world from Spanish?

Many musical genres have been born into the "underground" like this; after some time, such music is learned by the dominant upper class, attracting their attention as well. This, for most of the time, is a sign that such a movement might spread to the world over a period of time. Indeed, the genres I listed above, particularly jazz, have always followed such a course. Maybe, since the tango is a dance as well, it quickly became popular all over the world. Not resting on what they took from Argentina, many countries started to compose their own tangos.

Argentina's greatest tango singer was Carlos Gardel. He was born out of wedlock in Toulous in 1890. Because his mother later moved to Argentina, Carlos Gardel grew up in Buenos Aires. He was recognized and loved not only in Latin America, but also all over the world. He visited United States and many European countries (in particular, Paris) frequently. The tango became popular in Europe in the years following World War I and Gardel popularized it even more. He died in 1935 in a plane crash in Columbia. His tragic death at a young age also increased his popularity.

Reaching Europe, the tango found itself in a quite different atmosphere. It encountered not jerky movements of the apache, but romantic gentlemen and ladies. Thus, it was softened and refined. In some countries, for example in Finland, it was embraced almost as a native music genre. German, French, Russian and Spanish tangos came into being. Turkey and Greece did not fall behind. Even the Arab singers in the Maghreb and Lebanon sang Arabic tangos (like the Algerian Jew, Lili Boniche).

The first tango composer in Turkey was by Necip Celal Antel (1908-1957) This first composition was Mazi, one of the most beautiful Turkish tangos. The first recorded tango was composed by another famous Turkish tango composer, Fehmi Ege (1902-1978), and Seyyan Hanım sang: On a Moonlit Night. In fact, preceding these two, there was a Tango turque, composed by Muhlis Sabahattin, but this was composed only as an instrumental (Muhlis Sabahattin also composed Valse Istanbul).

The Westernization movement that started in the last years of the Ottoman era influenced the musical field as a matter of course. While the tango was being slowly shaped in Buenos Aires in Argentina, the people of Istanbul invented the kanto. The kanto was a genre that was sung before "dramas" in Direklerarası Theater, and was considered to address the common folk and was sung by non-Muslims, as the cantos were considered to be immoral. However, cantos were very popular.

Tango also became popular. However, it is possible to state that the level of society which the tango directly addressed was less "vulgar" as compared to that of the canto. The tango was more of a "Western product", and a music from the West; moreover, it was a dance. The dance was something that the common folk were not familiar with and were timid about learning it. Therefore, from the beginning, tango was redolent of an "elite" atmosphere.

As mentioned before, not only in Turkey, but also everywhere in Europe the tango ceased to be the tango that had been created in Argentina. This can be considered as moving up the social ladder. The dance was performed in an amorous attitude; after gazing at tangoing couples, Clemenceau asked the people: "Why are they standing?" But while this cuddling was not as tough or macho as it was in Argentina, it did not have a clear sexual implication, but rather a more romantic sexuality or amorousness. As can be expected, this was also the case in Turkey. In fact, the romantic-sexual style was tamed down even more in Turkey. In a society that had just come out of female seclusion, nothing less was imaginable. Already, the "dance" itself was already a very new phenomenon. Nevertheless, the Turkish who were accustomed to watching the dance of a professional such as köçek, çengi or rakkase, became used to one man and a woman dancing together rather easily. The profession of "dancing master" emerged. Dancing masters who were of non-Muslim minorities, mainly Armenians, opened dancing schools in almost every part of the city. Among the dances taught at these schools the most popular dance was the tango. The tango was not only most important as a partner dance, it was a dance in which skills could be demonstrated to the audience. References such as "he dances well" or "he is very good at the tango" carried great weight in high society.

Thus, the tango rapidly spread among the corresponding social classes, and it spread outside the major cities. However, during this proliferation it did not become “popular”. It barely went beyond the circle of the regulars where it was performed. However, a wedding which started without La Cumparsita in Çankırı, Samsun or Denizli could rarely be seen and it was expected that the bride and groom would start.

But of course, the greatest heroes of the tango were the singers. The most important of the chief singers was İbrahim Özgür. He had traveled to eastern countries in his youth, been to India, and even he flirted with begüm at times. He recorded a large number of songs in Turkey, and worked with Fehmi Ege quite a lot. He ran a nightclub called Özgür Bar in Galatasaray on Yeniçarşı Street. Shortly before his death from a heart attack, İbrahim Özgür wrote a letter to Fehmi Ege, saying: "You composed the tangos, but I sang, so all the love letters were written to me". He was right.

Among the women singers, Seyyan Hanım was the most popular. She was married and was a very respectable lady. Every year she would come to Istanbul for nearly a month, record ten gramophone records in the studio and return. Therefore, tango lovers never saw her, but could only listen to her records. Gülriz Sururi's mother, Suzan Lütfullah, recorded tango songs as well. Even Münir Nurettin had a tango record. Celal İnce, from a younger generation, went to America after becoming popular in Turkey; he spent most of his life there.

After the Necip Celal-Fehmi Ege generation, the most popular composer of the Turkish tango was Necdet Koyutürk (1921-1988). Şecaattin Tanyerli, who sang the most popular tango of Koyutürk, was another important soloist of the period. After the 1960s, both the Turkish tango and the tango in general lost its appeal. Novelties such as rock music emerged and a lifestyle enabling a dance like the tango disappeared. However, it is impossible for a music like the tango, which won the hearts and minds of millions of people, to be completely forgotten. All over the world, as well as in Turkey, there are people who continue to love the tango. They also form associations, and try to keep the pleasure of the tango alive as a collective effort. There are aficionados of the Argentinian tango as well as the Turkish tango. However, no matter how much an effort is made, the tango is no longer music that can be listened to without feelings of nostalgia.

This article was translated from Turkish version of History of Istanbul with some editions to be published in a digitalized form in 2019.

Related Contents