Tango is full of legends and stories, so it's it's fascinating to have access to actual artefacts, especially old shellac discs and old photos and drawings. I've been scouring YouTube for the earliest tango material.
The oldest recording of a tango I've come across is the first recording of El Choclo, which is dated to 1908, recorded in Paris by a (probably French) band called the Orquestra Tzigan de la Restaurant du Rat Mort, the 'Gypsy Orquestra of Dead Rat Restaurant'. Great name! ('Dated 1908': but I have to rely on the information given by whoever uploaded the tracks, as the actual disc label isn't shown. I can only assume they've got it right. & the fact that this is the oldest recording on YouTube doesn't mean that it's the oldest recording -- although it's not far off!)
El Choclo, the tango, was so successful that the date and place of its first performance in Buenos Aires is known: November 1903 at the upmarket restaurant El Americano, Cangallo 966 (today Teniente General Perón 966), by the orchestra led by José Luis Roncallo. Roncallo could not announce El Choclo as a tango because the proprietor of the Americano forbad tango in his establishment, but the tune caught on and the band continued to play it because it was requested.
Not long after its Buenos Aires premiere, El Choclo was sung onstage at the Parisien Varitè Show, and subsequently recorded in Paris by the Orquestra Tzigan de la Restaurant du Rat Mort.
El Choclo was written in 1903 by Ángel Villoldo (1861 – 1919).
He's been described as part Hemingway and part Bob Dylan: curiously, he played guitar and harmonica and so invented a harness that would allow him to play both together. In 1903 Villodo also wrote El Porteñito, and in 1905 La Morocha, as well as a number of other tangos. La Morocha became very widely-known, and is said to have begun the European fascination with tango.
The April 1908 recording of El Choclo by the orquestra Tzigan de la Restaurant du Rat Mort doesn't really sound like any tango group I've heard. It sounds closer to a string quartet than a tango band: the violinist could be a classical musician moonlighting as a gypsy musician. But it's certainly very lively for its 110 years.
There are two other early recordings of Villodo tangos. This may be Villoldo himself singing and playing his song El Negro Alegre: the Victor discography lists the recording Villoldo made, 'Male vocal solo, with guitar', of the song on 12/26/1907. The laughter indeed sounds like Dylan... 1907, so it's actually a year before the recording of El Choclo, but I'm not sure if El Negro Alegre is really a tango, although it seems to be about dancing.
Finally, there's a recording of Ángel Villoldo's El esquinazo recorded in March the following year. Like the two other recordings it sounds incredibly sharp, clear and lively. A milonga from 1910. Three of the earliest tango recordings, three amazing recordings.
The Victor discography lists several recordings of El porteñito and El Choclo in 1906, and a variety of other recordings by Villoldo and by other orquestas of his music from 1906 onwards.
Since tango became so popular in Paris, Villodo travelled there, as did other Argentine musicians of the time. He was there in 1912, working with Alfredo Gobbi's parents, 'Los Gobbis', who were a hit in Paris: Flora de Gobbi had sung on some of the earlier recordings of Villoldo's music. Gobbi himself was born in Paris in 1912, and Villodo was his godfather. This was recorded by Gobbi 'père' in 1912, so presumably in Paris.
Along the way I came across another early gem, not a tango but a 'canción Proletaria', from Socrates Figoli, a 1906 recording. He's described as 'Payador Anarquista', a singer who traded verses with other singers in competition, which was widely popular in South America. Presumably Figoli and others expressed extreme political views in their verses. I like the melody with its strange move from major to minor: it sounds like a modal scale. Very melodic.
There's a slideshow of photos of tango embrace around 1900. One of the sources for this is El Tango en la sociedad porteña 1880 – 1920, the book by Hugo Lamas and Enrique Binda on early tango, which attempts a history based on contemporary sources (rather than on later embellishments), but the source of this particular photo (and its dating 'before 1900') isn't made clear in the slideshow.
It's often said that close embrace dance grew up because the confiterias and dance floors in the city centre were small and crowded, but this photo suggests close embrace much earlier, on a dance floor that isn't at all crowded, and with a prosperous-looking clientele in an elegant dance-hall, people apparently enjoying the music much as we do today, perhaps 114 years ago.
I also came across this film of a dance dating from 1902. It's called 'Tango Apache' but probably has little to do with tango and certainly nothing at all to do with Native Americans. 'Apache' was the word journalists used to describe a brawl in the Paris slums, meaning 'savage', and the name was adopted by Paris street-gangs, who celebrated the brawl with a dance. Visually and dramatically it's lively stuff, but too extreme for a social dance, so this is a performance from 1902, while the rest of society went off to dance tango. Or that's the story. This dance may be an authentic Parisian 'Apache' dance, but the film is from an an American studio, with American performers: perhaps it was a deliberate travesty of the tango of the time.
After 1910, tango recordings proliferate. Here's Vincente Greco y su Orquesta Tipica Criolla playing Hotel Victoria in 1911. Another recording artist was Juan Maglio 'Pacho', here in a recording from 1912. The photo of Maglio and his orquesta show well-dressed and well-presented musicians, an image suggesting good professional status, ready to perform for well-off patrons. & finally, here's the first disc a young singer called Carlos Gardel recorded in 1912.
Legends say that tango was marginalised, but it seems clear from the volume of surviving recordings, and from these images, that there was enough interest from people who could afford to buy a 'Victrola' and records to support the involvement of the music industry. Tango doesn't seem to have been hidden away in impoverished barrios.