All of which spread to Uruguay as well (though it would have been helpful to explain how: proximity to the shared river Rio de la Plata is one explanation). Threading all this together is fascinating archival footage, talking-head testimonials by musicologists and historians, and when things get a bit boring, some performances by musicians as eminent as pianist Juan Carlos Cáceres, playing in a concert venue or on the street, all while narrating significant historical details.
While Cáceres may be well known to Argentinians and the musical world, it might have been helpful to have more explanation of his significance for a broader audience, especially now that the burgeoning interest in the tango can be seen worldwide in classes and evening celebrations. The same thing might be said of the slightly younger Fernando Núñez, a drummer interviewed throughout the film.
Though they are referred to as the “disappearing blacks” throughout Tango Negro, it’s not just the music which belies this, but testimonials from people like one quite dark Argentinian who points out that she has a white grandchild. The imported slaves were first housed in a section of Buenos Aires which came to be known as the “Drum Neighborhood,” though as the interviewees point out, many married into white families who make up the majority of Argentina’s population.
Yet commentary by Argentinians today explaining the significance of the tango is where the doc really catches at your heartstrings. The tango is about loss, they say—mostly the loss of the homeland of Africa, but a gaucho’s sadness, an immigrant’s sadness. Just as touching are spontaneous comments by today’s youth explaining their shared rituals of sitting, talking, and keeping their universal language alive, thereby retrieving some of the culture which has disappeared.
It’s also impossible to ignore—and who would want to?—a visual display of the highly stylized form of the back-kick—how do the women keep from banging their own butts with their stiletto heels? We also learn of the connection between the tango and the original African “belly-to-belly” dance moves from Africa: a form of fertility ritual.
Angolan director/producer Dom Pedro has over 12 documentaries to his credit. This shows up in cleverly inserted details like a slow-moving shot of a huge turtle going in another direction, just as the director is able to capture the spontaneity of a man passing on his culture to his grandson by teaching him how to play the drums.
Tango Negro really requires repeat viewing to grasp the historical significance of a cultural migration and transformation, and in some sense the film, colorful in every possible way, is destined for failure, as it’s serving two masters. The highly enjoyable musical and dancing bits don’t detract, and you can see they are designed to entertain and keep the viewer’s interest. But they can’t fully make you feel everything felt by those who are trying to live out and preserve their lost heritage.
By Marsha McCreadie