GAUCHOS, COMPADRES & COMPADRITOS
In the Tango documentary Tango, The Obsession, historian Jose Gobello states that the origin of Tango was
written of in 1902 in the magazine "Caras y Caretas" in which an aging black woman being
interviewed says "In 1870, before the
when the Compadrito invented the Tango to our music...".
So who were the Compadritos? To understand him we must first know who his antecedents were: The Gaucho and the Compadre.
The Gaucho of Argentina and Uruguayan is greatly admired and renowned in legends, folklore and in literature. In 1856 Walt Whitman wrote:
I see the Gaucho crossing the plains, I see the incomparable rider of horses with his lasso on his arm,
Gauchos were cattle rustlers of the South American Pampas. They caught wild cattle, or in the case of outlaw gauchos,
stole them from ranchers, ate their tongues, sold the skins and left the carcass to wild dogs and other natural scavengers.
They were not highly literate but were excellent horsemen. Jorge Luis Borges says, "sometimes he had Indian blood, or Negro
blood - other times he was white."
I see over the pampas the pursuit of wild cattle for their hides
During Argentina's war of independence from Spain (1810-1818), many Gauchos were enlisted by the Argentine or Portuguese armies, as this fight for liberty represented their existing lifestyle and gave them a position in society as a conqueror of lands and freedoms.
In Martin Fierro, and epic poem completed in two parts in 1872 and 1879, the Argentine writer Jose Hernandez portrays the gaucho as a hero - a brave opposer of a corrupt establishment. In it the impoverished gaucho Martin Fierro has been drafted to serve at a border fort, defending the Argentine inner frontier against the Native Peoples. He deserts and tries to return to his home, but discovers that his house, farm, and family are gone whereupon he becomes an outlaw pursued by the police militia. This poem has contributed largely in making the gaucho a nationalistic symbol in Argentina.
Gauchos, like so many black soldiers, died in great numbers in the front lines of these battles of independence. Their widows 'las Chinas' raised the generation that remained. The sons of Gauchos, were called Compadres - in essence, according to Jose Gobello, a Gaucho without a cause to fight for.
Around 1850, the Argentine government distributed much of the country-side to aristocratic owners and European immigrants.
The pampas were "fenced, and turned into great estates, (or estancias) which could increasingly be devoted to producing the rich red beef for which Argentina would become justly renowned." [from Tango, Sex and Rhythm of the City]. Those gauchos that didn't find work on these cattle ranches, were forced to move into the poorest suburbs of Buenos Aires. The did so in great numbers. It is here that they come to be called 'Compadres', known as a hard workers.
Often they were employed in the slaughter houses that proliferated in rural areas. He might be a carter, herdsman, or butcher, but he did have a job.
The next generation, the sons of the Compadres, were called Compadritos [according to historian Jose Gobello]. The Compadrito is a likeable wise guy. He liked to dance, he was lazy, a womanizer, lover a drink; alas a degenerate. He had benefited from the work of their fathers and returned to the more leisurely lifestyle of the Gaucho.
Compadritos often found themselves at the Candombe, African-Uruguayan drum dances where they saw dance movements which,
somewhat for pleasure, somewhat as an expression of rebellion, they applied to other dances being done by existing immigrants at the time
(eg. the Polka, the Mazurka). It soon became common practice at social dances to prohibit "Cortes" and "Quebradas". "Cortes" represented stops that led to "Quebradas", bending low with ones partner, considered obscene.