I was ready to go. My first trip to Argentina and to the Latin American continent. My purpose was to do research for a documentary project that was never finished (read more in my article published in The Root). It was just before the start of the Iraq war in 2003. I was already on pins and needles. Before taking off I had a phone conversation with filmmaker St. Claire Bourne who was an informal and jovial mentor to the project at that time. “You’re brave,” he said.

Bourne’s words gave me another anxious pause. I was already concerned about being an American citizen abroad at this time. Added to that, we were both wary of the reception a woman of color would get in a country that aside from tango (which I was learning at the time), was also the land of the “disappeared” and the Dirty War. A harbinger for Nazi war criminals and their more recent offspring. The “Europe of South America.” A country with no Black people. Dr. Sheila S. Walker, who edited a collection of essays on Afro-Latino culture, debunked that last item when she gave me contact information for an Afro-Argentine cultural group. There would be at least 100 or so members still around I thought.

What was left of the African presence in Argentina? Would I recognize it? It was a twist of fate that gave me the clue. At the end of our first full day in Buenos Aires my guide and interpreter, filmmaker Ana Zanotti, took a bus back to our hostel. I got off the bus sooner than we planned leaving Ana to ring frantically to stop the bus and find me. I stayed and waited for her and we decided to walk instead. En route we heard drumming and found ourselves on a back street where young drummers and dancers – more than likely the descendants of European immigrations — were performing. It was the end of vacation and the new school year was starting the next day. The rhythm of the drums and dancers were familiar. African. Some Caribbean. Joyful. I knew I was safe.

TANGO NEGRO, a documentary by Angolan Don Pedro brought back memories of my serendipitous moments during my visit to Argentina. TANGO NEGRO reveals tango’s “African-ness” the roots of the music and the dance that has become the heart of traditional Argentine culture.

TangoNegroCaceresFor much of the film, we follow composer and musician Juan Carlos Caceres a master performer, musicologist, and enthusiastic citizen of the world who has spent his career embracing the African roots of tango for years. Caceres was born in Buenos Aires and has been living in Paris, France since 1968. Through a combination of interviews with Caceres, musicians, musicologists, journalists, scholars with performances in the concert hall and on the streets of Argentina and Uruguay TANGO NEGRO traces the dance’s early cultural significance as a depiction of the social life of captured African slaves.

The film can be seen on screen at the DC African Diaspora International Film Festival (ADIFF) which opens in Washington, DC on Friday, August 22 at the Goethe-Institut. The festival is now in its 8th year and this year’s screening leans Afro-Latino with films (documentary and narrative) and subjects from Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Brazil. TANGO NEGRO is also screening in New York presented by ADIFF.

TANGO NEGRO isn’t a concert film, though afterwards, you may want to find a tango compilation and listen to it more intently than before to identify the rhythms that go back to Sub-Saharan Africa. The film will appeal to anyone looking for the African presence in what was assumed an unlikely place. It definitely will appeal to the musicologist and anthropologist mindset in arts and culture. Fortunately TANGO NEGRO takes a break from the talk to go back to the music and dance, just to prove the point.

Speaking of unlikely places, at the time I was in Argentina, in addition to Buenos Aires I visited two cities mentioned in the film: Rosario near the river; and Cordoba near the mountains. Both cities were significant hubs for the trans-Atlantic slave trade bringing Africans into the South American continent. Our guide was historian and scholar Maria del Carmen Ferrer. Some would know her as “Chichina” who was the girl friend of the young Ernesto Guevara (aka “Che”) before he took off on his motorcycle journey that he documented as The Motorcycle Diaries.

Dr. Ferrer took us inside the great Nuestra Señora de la Asunción cathedral, a central part of the Jesuit stronghold and college town (to this day). The cathedral had three chapels: on the right was the chapel for Europeans or whites, the large center chapel was for Indians; and the small chapel to the left was for Africans. Later I learned Ernesto Guevara’s sister was doing research on African influences in Argentina’s architecture. African-ness was becoming big among scholars in Argentina.

TANGO NEGRO provides evidence that the subject hasn’t died. Though carnival was banned and cultural expressions of Africa-ness were more or less illegal and diluted with the immigration of mass numbers of Europeans to Argentina, tango still carried the DNA.

So what were the drums really saying that night? TANGO NEGRO may be a sign that it’s time to see Argentina again with a different purpose.

TANGO NEGRO, a film by Don Pedro (France) 2013, 93 min.
DC African Diaspora International Film Festival
Festival starts Friday, August 22 in Washington, DC

GOETHE-INSTITUT- 812 Seventh Street, NW, Washington D.C., 20001