In Argentina, milonga is a traditional vocal genre of criollo origin, normally performed by a solo voice with a guitar accompaniment. The genre is present mainly in the provinces of Buenos Aires, La Pampa and Entre Ríos, and in the south of the provinces of Mendoza and San Luís. However, the influence of milonga extends from the Patagonia region to urban sectors thanks to the work of nationalist composers. The term may have originated in Africa (see main entry on Milonga) but the origins of milonga as a song genre appear to go back to the mid-nineteenth century. Ventura Lynch documented this type of song in 1883 (1925 , 37–40), transcribing a few examples that he collected in rural areas. He defined these songs as ‘zandungueras,’ namely for their graceful and animated character. He also distinguished between the rural milongas, which were sung, and those that were danced in the suburbs of the city of Buenos Aires. At the start of the twentieth century, the milonga was revived and disseminated by the traditionalist movement in Buenos Aires, becoming the song par excellence of the River Plate payadores who, until then, had used the cifra (a traditional melody with accompaniment based on improvised verses).
The milonga normally starts with a guitar prelude usually plucking the strings, reproducing the rhythmic formula characteristic of the genre: dotted eighth-sixteenth-eighth-eighth, over tonic and dominant chords. This serves as a base for the accompaniment once the voice is introduced. It contains the musical features proper to the songbook that Carlos Vega (1944, 230–45) denominated as ‘colonial binary’: major or minor key, sometimes bimodal (i.e., with the superimposition of F major and the melodic minor). It is in duple meter with occasional polyrhythms between the accompaniment, which is in triple meter, and the vocal line, which is usually in duple meter. Milongas are syllabic, with each sung verse separated by an interlude that repeats the theme of the prelude. Often the melody line starts on a pickup, and it also tends to start on a higher register with a gradual descent to lower registers as the song progresses.
The texts, based on octosyllabic lines, are organized in verses of four, six and eight lines and, above all, in décimas. The range of subject matter explored in these poems is wide, including patriotic, narrative, comic or burlesque, romantic and historical themes. In addition, the milonga is used to improvise on a theme proposed by the audience, and also for counterpoint payadas, literary-musical duels between two singers on a poetic theme either previously agreed upon between them, suggested by the audience, or that emerges freely in the course of the duel. In a payada, one of the singers is defeated when he is unable to respond correctly to the other contender.
In the province of La Pampa, the milonga has been registered as performed by two voices and two guitars, the singers alternating after two verses or each stanza. This milonga has also been given different names and functions according to the strumming techniques used to perform it: corralera, campera, surera or para payar. It can also be interpreted by a solo guitar in a purely instrumental mode.
Many of the art music composers affiliated to the nationalist movement of the first half of the twentieth century were inspired by the milonga to create works for piano, voice and piano, choir or orchestra. Notable among them are ‘Aires de la pampa,’ ten milongas for piano, opus 63 (1913) and opus 64 (1916) and ‘Las milongas de la orquesta,’ opus 107 (1935) by Alberto Williams; ‘Ritmos argentinos’ for piano (1933) by Cayetano Troiani; ‘Milonga’ for mixed choir by Juan Bautista Massa; and ‘Frescas sombras de sauces’ (Cool Shades of the Elm Tree) for voice and piano by Carlos López Buchardo.
Creators and interpreters of popular music have also made the milonga one of their preferred genres for their compositions. Among the most relevant are Atahualpa Yupanqui with works such as ‘El payador perseguido’ (The Hunted Payador), a tale in the form of a milonga; ‘Milonga del solitario’ (The Loner’s Milonga) and ‘Milonga del peón de campo’ (Milonga of the Country Peon); Eduardo Falú’s ‘Variaciones de milonga,’ ‘Contrapunteando’ and ‘Preludiando’; Carlos Di Fulvio’s ‘Milonga ¿cómo le va?’ ( ‘How Are You?’ Milonga), ‘De nadie y de todos’ (Nobody’s and Everybody’s) and ‘Abuelo gaucho’ (Gaucho Grandfather); Hugo Giménez Agüero’s ‘Sangre de peón’ (Peon’s Blood), ‘Por el sur de Piedra Buena’ (South of Piedra Buena), ‘Glaciar,’ ‘Solo soy un peón’ (I Am Just a Peon) and ‘Metáfora’ (Metaphor), Hilda Herrera’s ‘Al calor de mi tierra’ (In the Heat of My Land); Atilio Reynoso’s ‘Cuando llama la querencia’ (When Home Beckons) and ‘La matera de San Francisco’ (The Mate Shack of San Francisco).
Lynch, Ventura. 1925 (1883). Cancionero bonaerense . (La provincia de Buenos Aires hasta la definición de la cuestión capital de la República) [Buenos Aires Song Book. (The Province of Buenos Aires up to the Definition of the Question of the Capital of the Republic)]. Buenos Aires: Instituto de Literatura Argentina. Facultad de Filosofía y Letras de la Universidad de Buenos Aires. (Reissued as Cancionero bonaerense [Buenos Aires Songbook]. Buenos Aires: Instituto de Literatura Argentina, 1925.)