Buenos Aires – Edmundo Rivero’s 1963 tango classic, Amablemente, tells the story of a man finding his lover in the arms of another, then recounts the woman’s brutal murder, while the rival is spared.
“With great calmness, lovingly, he stabbed her 34 times,” the lyrics say.
“The man is not guilty in these types of situations,” they also state.
The song is one of many tango pieces from the genre’s golden age that graphically speak of abusing – or even murdering – women.
But at a time when the convergence of abortion-rights campaigns and the anti-femicide #NiUnaMenos (“not one less”) protests has led to massive feminist demonstrations in the country, the misogynistic nature of these tangos songs and dances is now being evaluated and reinvented by the women who continue to perform them.
“Historically, tango came from the people, and at the time the songs were composed, in the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s, it was normal to hit women,” tango singer and composer Marisa Vazquez told Al Jazeera. “We don’t want to stop singing these songs, but we want to repurpose them, to teach audiences about where tango comes from and how it has led to the society we have today.”
Lyrics are not the only issue troublesome to the women of tango. Lower salaries, less opportunity and shorter career spans have meant that it is much harder for them to pursue tango professionally than their male counterparts.
Vazquez founded Tango Hembra, Buenos Aires’s first female-only international tango event, to create a space to discuss the discrimination of women within professional tango circles – and to seek solutions to this problem.
“Tango originated at a time when society was extremely macho,” she told Al Jazeera during the event, which took place last weekend. “But still today, in the new tango scene, women are met with a great resistance … We are not allowed to enter the art as equals.”
Women taking the lead
Tango Hembra took place in a small cultural centre in the Villa Crespo district of Buenos Aires. Women of all disciplines – dancers, singers, writers and musicians – offered debates, workshops and performances to audiences of both men and women.
“Tango is a genre of music which belongs to men who danced with anonymous women,” said musicologist and author Mercedes Liska during the opening talk of the festival.
Vazquez later added that this still remains the case today.
“In dances, men change their female partners, and keep building their name. Sometimes, the women aren’t even mentioned,” she said.
Same-sex partners are slowly becoming more prevalent in tango circles, with five female pairs competing in last year’s Mundial de Tango event, the world’s largest international tango competition, which takes place in the Argentine capital.
Despite such instances of disruption to the traditional scene, this dance form continues to be a genre dominated by men, who almost exclusively hold higher-powered positions in the industry, from festival-management to radio-production roles. Women in tango, although integral to performances, are often sidelined; accounting for fewer than 15 percent of those billed on festival lineups.
Festivals present crucial opportunities for tango musicians and performers to gain recognition and esteem among their peers while reaching wider audiences. Exclusion from such events makes it difficult for artists to establish themselves professionally.
‘Feminist movement has awoken’
Claudia Levy is a pianist and composer who has experienced this struggle first-hand. “Men help each other out, and often exclude women from festivals,” she told Al Jazeera. “It is even harder to gain recognition as a female composer – as there are many women who sing the tangos of men, but no male artists who sing tangos written by women.”
Despite the challenges, attendees of Tango Hembra remained optimistic, emboldened by the feminist movement spreading throughout their country. The International Women’s Day march that took place the day before the event, on March 8, was one of the largest women’s protests seen in Argentina.
“Twenty years ago, I wrote a tango that spoke about an abused woman,” Levy said. “I had to stop singing it, as it made people uncomfortable. That was when feminism was a bad word, and when people hushed issues of domestic violence. But now, feminism is touching everything, so I began to sing it again.”
Vazquez reflects on why she pursued the idea of a female-only tango festival, “I used to do this alone, I would call radio and festival executives and ask why they didn’t include women,” she said. “But now, the feminist movement has awoken here. It was the ideal moment to do this.
“The only thing we want to do is develop our art in the same conditions as the men.”