Tango, Not-For-Export: Participatory Music-Making, Musical Activism, and Visual Ethnomusicology in the Neighborhood Tango Scenes of Buenos Aires

This dissertation examines how local neighborhood tango music movements–reacting to “for-export” tango and the neoliberal cultural trends of Argentina in the 1990s–have reclaimed and reterritorialized tango as a form of local musical social life and as an approach to musical activism in Buenos Aires over the past 15 years. To most non-Argentines, tango is thought of as a passionate and sensual form of dance. However, tango as a musical culture also has a rich history in the city of Buenos Aires, and not one that is always associated with dancing. Scholars in the late 1990s studied the processes through which tango was deterritorialized, exoticized and transformed into a transnational “for-export” dance phenomenon. More recent works have discussed the ways that, following the 2001 Argentine economic crisis, the government used “for-export” tango as an economic and cultural resource to promote tourism. Moving away from government agendas, my research explores how, parallel to these other phenomena, musicians have been revitalizing tango music as a form of everyday socialization and everyday urban activism in the contemporary neighborhoods of Buenos Aires.

Through a musical ethnography of the Almagro neighborhood, home to the city’s most thriving not “for-export” tango music scene, I explore how the advent of informal and participatory live musics scenes in small bars in the late `90s allowed for the production of local spaces for musical transmission, urban intimacy, community building, and musical activism for a new generation of tango musicians. Beyond contributing to literature on tango as a contemporary musical form of urban culture in neoliberalizing Buenos Aires, I examine how feelings of locality in contemporary tango scenes are often produced at the complex intersection of sentimentality and post-neoliberal forms of urban activism. In particular, I examine I analyze the neighborhood location of these scenes not only as a physical space where alternative tango cultures developed, but also as a powerful symbolic imaginary where new musical and social practices continue to be constructed on top of powerful historic social imaginaries of the neighborhood.

Because globalized pop music genres like tango are so entrenched in powerful visual and sonic stereotypes, I utilize filmmaking throughout my dissertation as a sensorial mode through which to construct new visual and sensory ways of knowing tango culture. Inspired by theories of observational cinema, visual anthropology, and sensory ethnography, I propose sensory filmmaking as a rich methodological approach to studying the complex social dynamics and sensory aesthetics so integral to the production of meaningful local tango cultures today.