The United Nations on Wednesday September 30 2009, declared the tango tradition of Argentina and Uruguay a world cultural treasure, adding its sultry dance steps and melancholy song lyrics to UNESCO’s heritage list.
The United Nations cultural organisation held a meeting of 400 experts in the Gulf state of Abu Dhabi to agree on a list of world arts and traditions that should be safeguarded as humanity’s “intangible cultural heritage”.
Born in the working class dance halls of Buenos Aires and Montevideo at the start of the 20th century, the sensual cheek-to-cheek stride of a tango dancer, rose clenched between the teeth, has become a global byword for Latin passion.
But in Argentina and Uruguay, tango is a proud and deep-rooted tradition of dance, poetry and song, closely bound up with the history of the region and kept alive by aficionados young and old in dozens of “milongas” or dance halls.
The two Latin American capitals jointly submitted the “symbolic universe” of tango to UNESCO’s list of cultural treasures. It was the first of 76 submissions examined and approved by the Abu Dhabi meeting.
Tango is intimately linked to the history of the Rio de la Plata, the natural border between the countries, and the melting pot of poor immigrants and former slaves who settled in the river basin late in the 19th century.
“Among this mix of European immigrants to the region, descendants of African slaves and the natives of the region known as criollos, a wide range of customs, beliefs and rituals were merged and transformed into a distinctive cultural identity,” said UNESCO on its website.
Accompanied by a small accordion known as a “bandoneon”, many tango songs were written in a distinctive slang called “lunfardo“, forged in the region’s “milongas”.
Tango’s plaintive lyrics tell of heartache and homesickness, of family ties and life in the city suburbs, known as the “arrabal”.
UNESCO said that tango “both embodies and encourages diversity and cultural dialogue.”
“This is a tribute to all those who have supported the tradition over the years, who passed the poetry and dance down through the generations, as part of their oral tradition”.
Argentina’s embassy in Abu Dhabi said UNESCO had recognised “the deepest and most vibrant expression of Rio de la Plata.” It said Argentina and Uruguay had “shared in the birth, the tradition and the passion for tango” but that tango had a long time ago reached “universal transcendence.”
According to Buenos Aires tango teacher Anita Monteagudo, tango today has a vigorous following worldwide among a new generation of dancers eager to master its sensual steps. A Japanese couple, Kyoko and Hiroshi Yamao, aged 33 and 36, last month won the tango World Championships in Buenos Aires, dethroning Argentina whose dancers have dominated the contest for years. Paris alone has more than 20 milongas, while in New York mythical tango spots such as “la Nacional” draw a packed crowd of aficionados each weekend until dawn.
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