A Pragmatic Guide
Tango DJing and music
This is part of a series of posts which document my opinions and approach to DJing at a milonga. In the previous post, I had described the variety of dancers one encounters in the milonga, and my belief that the diversity of Tango music¹ reflects this variety of dancers.
Tango music is hard!
Lets face it — The first introduction to Tango music can be very confusing.
Where is the beat?
This will probably be the first question that a new dancer or someone who has danced other dances will ask. Except in rare instances, Tango music orchestras did not have percussion instruments. This is part of the “snob value” of Tango — being able to dance Tango well is taken as a mark of an accomplished dancer².
This, of course, does not mean that Tango music has no beat or rhythm. The rhythm in Tango in sometimes carried by the piano, sometimes by the string section, sometimes by the iconic bandoneon — all in the same song! It is worth seeing some orchestras performing to see this for yourself. The following is a video of the “man who started it all” — Juan D’Arienzo conducting his orchestra.
Between seconds 12 to 25, you will notice the strong rhythmic piano section which backs up the bandoneons. Around 30 seconds in, you will hear the bandoneons providing a strong beat — you can see the legs of the musicians in the bandoneon section beginning to move strongly to the beat. At around 45 seconds in, no one is providing a strong beat, and all instruments focus on the melody — nightmare for the dancer!
Another video show how the violin section also contributes to the rhythm
Notice the two violinists closest to the piano — their bow does not move as smoothly as the other violinists, and moves powerfully on the beat. The piano and the bandoneon are also very clearly contributing to the beat.
Thus, the beat (and therefore the rhythm) in Tango is carried by various instruments, mostly by modulation of volume. This fluid “passing-the-parcel” of the rhythm between the various sections of the orchestra makes it challenging for dancers — it is not uncommon to see dancers stepping or moving in ways that seem to have absolutely no relationship with the music that is playing.
Of course, Tango choreography and teaching have evolved to meet this challenge. Any decent dancer would spend time learning how to identify the rhythm in the music, and certain movements like the ocho and giro can be used to accommodate sections of the music which lack any rhythm. The DJ’s duty is simply to provide the kind of music that will allow most dancers in the milonga (see previous post) to enjoy themselves.
Tango AND Vals AND Milonga? Seriously?
An evening to dancing at a milonga includes two other kinds of dances— vals and milonga — which also tend to confuse those starting their journey into Tango. I won’t say much about these since they are not played as often at a milong — vals and milonga are played once every hour. Vals is waltz, and most people understand the rhythm of the waltz. Milonga is trickier, but the sheer energy of these songs is normally sufficient to allow people to enjoy themselves. It is important to choose the right kinds of songs, of course, and I will write about my own rules of thumb subsequently.
Given how tricky it is to dance to tango music, I wonder how the dancers in the 1930s and 40s managed — they were regular (often poor) people with no formal music or dance credentials. I guess the powerful presence of a live orchestra who were themselves moving to the music and whose sole focus was to make people dance made a big difference.
Tango music in the time of the DJ
We are no longer in an era where Tango orchestras are common (or affordable). Thus, it is the duty of the DJ to produce an acoustic environment that helps dancers relate to Tango music.
I always prefer using a tiny bit more bass (not too much, else it overwhelms the music itself) and keep the volume as high as possible — it should not be painful, but the rise and fall of the music which constitutes the rhythm of Tango must flow from the speakers directly to the dancer’s feet. I find dancers steadily losing energy when the music is too soft; on the other hand, the right volume (and music) can electrify the dance floor.
Speaker placement matters too. Reading any speaker placement guide will tell you that speakers should ideally be at the ear level of the audience. Since Tango music is heavy on treble rather than bass, the tweeters of the speaker should be at around 5 feet off the ground, making it seem as if the violins and vocalist are right next to the dancers. During a sound check, I normally play 2–3 kinds of songs — more violins, more bandoneon, more vocal — and walk around the ronda to ensure that the music is immediately present wherever I am on the floor.
Kinds of Music
Like most Tango DJs, the majority of the music I play was composed between 1935–1945. This to me³ was the golden era for danceable Tango music, with a wide variety of orchestras, styles and singers to choose from.
As a DJ, it is important to know the kind of dancers on the floor (something I had talked about previously). I must emphasize that the kinds of dancers I mentioned previously are not mutually exclusive: Depending on mood and time of the evening, one type can become another. The “Technical Dancers” usually prefer music with lot of variation — early D’Arienzo and Canaro, Troilo, Calo, D’Arienzo’s instrumentals from the 50s, selected Orquesta Tipica Victor, Laurenz, De Angelis. The “Connected Dancers” prefer less energetic music — Di Sarli (post 1943), the sweet Canaros, Fresedo, Calo, D’Agostino, calmer Laurenz, Donato. I have also noticed a preference for songs with vocalists. Beginners are most comfortable with songs with a strong beat — D’Arienzo, Biagi, Canaro, Di Sarli (the stuff with Roberto Rufino), Rodriguez.
As you might have noticed, there is some overlap between different kinds of dancers, and I take advantage of this when I DJ. I’m a fan of Troilo but play very little of his music, and tend to focus on the songs with Fiorentino on vocals. I’m not a fan of Biagi, but always play a tanda or two of his music that I can tolerate. A couple of tandas of Canaro, D’Arienzo, Di Sarli, Calo, OTV, and so on, and you are already hitting the 4 hour mark, close to the end of the milonga. I rarely play Pugliese, but end up playing one tanda every 2–3 milongas that I DJ.
Like I said previously, the wide variety of orchestras that focused on danceable Tango music for 10–15 years makes the DJs life easy. Even if you have a set of 2–3 tandas that you like from each orchestra, you should have enough music to last the whole evening (and a little beyond!). This wealth of music allows the DJ to focus on keeping the floor full of dancers rather than worrying about what to play.
 By Tango music I mean only that music that was composed for dancing. Tango music, of course, is a much wider category.
 I beg to differ. It is just the mark of a very brave (or sometimes ignorant) dancer.
 And to many other people, I imagine.