How the variations are musicaly derived from the original habanera, and where the syncopations occur in each form, is explained in Habanera Variations.
The habanera rhythm is central in tango music. The habanera, in some version or other, is used to create the pulse of the music, or as syncopated rhythmic accents in the accompaniment or melody. It is found in all tango forms: tango, milonga, and vals, but less so here and much disguised, having to do with the “3” count of the 3/4 .
A bit of historical context is in order. Milonga preceded tango, originating in the Río de la Plata area of Argentina and Uruguay in the last quarter of the 19th century. The music was heavily influenced by the Cuban Habanera dance, specifically its namesake rhythmic pattern, repeated over and over in the bass line and rhythmic accompaniment:
The habanera remained the dominant rhythm in milonga throughout the great period of tango composition during the first half of the 20th century. It is often the underlying pulse, the driving rhythm, in the accompaniment. And the first variation, the “syncopa” – the first three notes especially – is often the melodic rhythm and/or also the rhythm in the accompanying instruments, used to create moments of accented syncopation.
The habanera dominated early tango too, up to the late 1910s. In the piano sheet music from the day and the few recordings we have – from the early 1900s – it is prominently used as an accompaniment and it is the underlying rhythmic pulse. We can get a good idea how early tango sounded by looking at the music and listening to an early recording of El Choclo. The music on Tango Musicology’s site header is the start of El Choclo, with my handwritten notations. The full piano sheet music is here. Ángel Villoldo wrote the music in the late 1890s and it was premiered in 1903. The score clearly shows the habanera in the bass clef.
Here’s an early recording, by Juan Maglio “Pacho”. You can read about him at Todo Tango.
El Choclo, Maglio
Or, if you read music, here is a sync of the sheet music and Maglio’s recording. Close the “synchronized audio/video” window. The music can be adjusted to fit the frame by sliding the zoom control in the bottom right area. Select “Play From Start” under the “Play” menu item. Click anywhere on the music to stop the playback.
The recording quality isn’t great, but if you listen closely you’ll hear the habanera in the accompaniment. And the first variation of the habanera, the “syncopa”, is the prominent rhythm for the melody in section B, starting at :30. That’s bar 17 in the score. And for section C as well, around 1:00, bar 26, although here the “syncopa” is an elaborated version.
Tango’s era of the habanera as the rhythmic pulse was relatively short. By the late 1910s, although tango still used the habanera, the distinguishing rhythm became the second version, the “syncopa”, used as syncopated rhythmic accents in the accompaniment and melody. Other than tempo differences, the removal of the habanera from the underlying pulse makes tango tango and not milonga.
A third habanera version, the 3-3-2, is not as common in tango. It occurs now and then, more often in milonga. Notice how closely it resembles the original habanera, sharing the defining dotted 8th – 16th rhythm an its second 8th note. (The 3-3-2 is usually played more crisply than the habanera, hence the use of rests – silences – rather than dotted 8th – 16).
Please see Habanera Variations for an explanation of the in the habaneras and how they are rhythmically related. There are also some tango and milonga pieces using the habanera rhythms, which are pointed out.
Notes between the primary beats or emphasizing normally weak beats. In tango almost always as part of a rhythmic pattern, most frequently the habanera or its variations. Often the syncopated notes are emphasized or accented in a marcato style, but not necessarily so. more...
The two numbers, one above the other, written near the beginning of the first staff line (or whenever it changes), specifying the number of beats in a measure and the type of note that gets one beat.