Payadores traditionally were gauchos and poets who’s art consisted in improvising verses while playing the guitar. They played a fundamental role in the gestation of tango music and poetry at the end of the 19th century when they came to the city as their life style in the country disintegrated.
The word payada is related to “palabra” in Spanish, which means “word”. So the payador speaks with improvised verses, contemplating, philosophizing, arguing and commenting the facts of everyday life. In the background a milonga, cifra, cielito, estilo or other folk rhythm flowing from their guitar.
Payadores usually performed on their own, but some of them entered into duels, defying one another with verses until one fails to keep up with the argument. This is the payanda “a contrapunto”. The confrontation could last hours or days and build great prestige for those who excelled at it.
When the gaucho’s traditional lifestyle was disrupted in the 19th century, payadores came to the city to perform in circus, bars and theatres for a living. Their verses began reflecting the reality and anecdotes of life in the city and this is where the first foundation of tango poetry came from.
The intertwining between payada and tango from 1890 to 1920 was profound and had lasting effects. Payadores began using lunfardo terms and singing tangos while early tangos had titles evoking the country such as “El choclo” (The corncob), “El estribo” (The Stirrup). The milonga became one of the fundamental musical style in the gestation of tango and Carlos Gardel himself was an extension of the last urban payadores, performing folk songs as well as tango and always accompanied by a guitar.
Great payadores who are known for their contribution to tango as signers and composers are Gabino Ezeiza, Higinio Cazón, José María Silva and Arturo A. Mathon. These are the voices we hear in the most primitive recordings of tango songs.
As recording technology continued to progress and proliferate, the art of improvising became less relevant. Tango grew into the predominant musical genre in the city and the payada definitely lost ground in the 1920’s.