Tango DJ: What makes a good tango?

Published on by CMe



Tango DJ: What makes a good tango?


El Tango es la directa expresión de lo que comúnmente los poetas han tratado de definir en palabras como: la creencia de que la lucha puede ser un festejo

What makes a good tango from a dancer’s perspective? Appreciation of any art form is a highly subjective process and I present my personal preferences as a ‘tango dancer’ and a ‘musician who loves to play tango’ working with the form and function of both tango dance and tango music.  A tango dancer’s appreciation of music is a process complicated by a number of variable conditions, for instance, personal preference, the mood of the listener, a dancer’s ability to be ‘in the music’ rather than ‘in the body’ and the context in which the music is delivered by the DJ and the sound system. I think we can all be quite fickle about musical appreciation - an intense tango one night can be but musical wallpaper on another.

We all hear and understand spoken communication in a different way. The same statement announced to a room of 50 people can be interpretive or misinterpreted 50 different ways. Einstein once said, “the problem with communication is the illusion that it has been understood”. This illusion may be a weakness of the spoken word, but it is something to be celebrated in creative improvisation, like dancing. If 50 tango dancers listen to the same piece of music, there could be 50 different and varying creative interpretations and appreciations of the music.

I listen to tango music a lot and have a collection of over 4000 tracks of tango music. I guess that my current favorites make up a small percentage of these. Some tango composers were blessed with a gift that enabled them to write many superb songs, others, sadly, were one-hit-wonders. One reason my collection has grown so big is that I have bought albums by a composer on the strength of a tango that I really love, only to find most of his other work does not move me to the same degree.

It was tango music, not the dance that first grabbed my attention. How can a musical genre that includes pieces as rich and technically brilliant as a Beethoven sonata (i.e. A Evaristo Carriego, Osváldo Pugliese) have remained widely uncelebrated? As I learnt to dance, (I was taught using the basic eight method) I can’t remember really feeling in touch with the music. I suppose that my focus was ‘in the body’ not ‘in the music’ until I became competent enough to relax and start to listen to the music and use it as creative inspiration and contributing dynamic of the dance.

As I became more aware of the music as dancer, my curiosity homed in on why some tango songs really inspired me to dance and why others were so unintuitive and unappealing that I would want to stop dancing. So I started to collect tango music in search of an understanding of my ‘perfect’ tango.  Tango is the sound of diaspora, the music of displaced people from an incredible range of cultures and
countries who found themselves in Buenos Aires at the start of the twentieth century. Travelers and opportunists, fortune-hunters and runaways, all carrying with them folklore melodies passed down through generations. Only the most robust, intuitive, memorable and resonant melodies could possibly survive this tortuous journey.

The tunes that emerged in the early years of tango are unique in the development of music. Remember this was a period before radio or television when folklore was a real and vibrant part of storytelling and entertainment. I can imagine myself as an early immigrant, arriving in Buenos Aires without a common language and unable to converse intellectually in any way except with music. Through music I could find a way of sharing my sense of self with other musicians and start to integrate. I could find a way to celebrate life (such as it is) and make a heartfelt cry of desperation that, after spending all my savings to get to a better life in Argentina, the reality of my new life is worse than the one I left behind. Like other immigrant musicians, I would intuitively and unconsciously bring all my musical folklore memories to share at barrio gatherings. Destitute, cold, hungry, lonely and desperate, we would seek comfort and companionship in music. We would play by ear, each contributing the resonant songs from our homeland, learning from each other, giving and gaining new skills until, with one voice a new musical expression emerges. Tango was born.

As tango emerged and rapidly grew in popularity it didn’t take long before entrepreneurs started to develop and market it to a wider audience. I have mixed feelings about the ensuing commercial exploitation. There would be some superbly crafted and highly popular tango music to follow as a result but I feel a special regard for these brief years of tango at its purest and unexploited form of art. So what makes a good tango? For me, some of the factors can be attributed to the early conditions that helped create the genre.

Musical Communication

Sometimes I can hear a tango for a first time and know intuitively how the musical story will be told and where it will finish. As tango developed, musicians of different cultures and languages learnt to improvise musical storytelling. By making the music as intuitive as possible an ensemble could play together effectively. What worked intuitively for the musicians still works for dancers. Like an improvising musician, a dancer, especially a leader, needs to know where the music is going to be able to provide an effective lead. An example of this is using bass runs, like a jazz bass player. A bass run can link different parts of a tango providing a rhythmic and melodic bridge between sections. The first four descending notes of ‘La Cumparsita’ come to mind. Like any good story, a good tango will tell of many emotions, provide pauses and make contradictions through musical dialogues and rhythmic changes. The tango Por una cabeza (by a head) is a story about horse racing with a dramatic change from the lyrical opening theme to the confrontational second theme. This is the tango used in the film ‘Scent of a woman’ danced by Al Pacino and Gabrielle Anwar.

Al Compass del Corazon

Rhythm is central to a good tango. From the earliest tribal gatherings around the campfire to contemporary cinematic composers we have known how to influence emotion by using the beat of the heart as a rhythm. We all have an inner physical/emotional rhythm which defines us in ways we hardly expect and notice. When an external rhythm synchronizes or syncopates with our inner rhythm it resonates and can move us profoundly. Listen to Miguel Calo’s rendition of Al Compas del Corazon (The beat of the heart) performed with singer Raul Beron. The music literally plays with our heartstrings.  But a good tango will offer more than a heartbeat rhythm. It will play with syncopation – a technique that utilizes the space between each beat in half, quarter or even smaller interjections which offer dancers a rhythmic structure for corte and quadrates. Have you noticed the insistence of tango music. Sometimes I feel like an invisible hand is pulling me into the next move. This is marcato, a sound normally produced by the bandoneon that musically anticipates the start of the next compass or beat. Think about a jazz band preparing to play together – the band leader will count in saying “One, two, three, four and…” The “and” is pulling the band together into the first beat of their performance and follows the same technique as the bandoneon in a tango – a device which helps the dancers to mark the next beat clearly in their interpretation of the music. Osváldo Pugliese had a name for this technique and even named one of his tangos after it – “La Yumba” (pronounced la sschuum-ba). Next time you play this tango listen for the insistent calling of the bandoneon from beat to beat.

Playing in between the notes

I recall a radio interview with Joanna McGregor who played the music of Astor Piazzolla with two of the surviving members of Piazzolla’s original quintet, guitarist Horacio Malvicino, and bass player Hector Console. She said that playing good tango was the feeling in between the notes. If she played the music as it was written did not sound authentic. She had the great good fortune to work with
Malvicino and Console who could pass on to her the feeling of tango that is call ritmo mugre (dirty rhythm).

Earlier in this article I lamented the passing of the early years of tango and the rare circumstances that gathered so many musicians from different cultures in Buenos Aires at a time when people made their own entertainment. I guess that many of these musicians would have had a gypsy heritage and a long tradition of improvising from the heart with much gusto and feeling. I am awed with the virtuosity of some of the musicians I hear in tango music, more so when I think that they are playing between the notes and improvising as they play. These musical moments make my spirit soar. Listen to A Los Amigos by the Francini Pontier orchestra, especially the violin solo that starts about 60 seconds into the piece. For bandoneon virtuosity, listen to Recuerdo by Osváldo Pugliese and his orchestra. There is a standing joke among bandoneon players about this incredibly difficult solo. When requested if they can play Recuerdo a bandoneonista replies “Depues!” (later)

A Tango DJ's Mantra?

  • Know your music, watch the floor!

  • Use a computer and MP3 all your tracks

  • Spend as much as you can on amplification

  • Make the room a special space and maintain it

  • Ensure ALL your tracks are accessible within seconds

  • Know your music, watch the floor!!!

  • Constantly refresh your musical knowledge

  • Check out the nuevo and neotango newgroup track suggestions

  • Match the energy needs with your choice of music

  • Don't ever put on a CD and leave it to play sequential tracks

  • Listen to dancers' feedback

  • Play what makes people dance NOT what you want to listen too

  • Know your music, watch the floor!!!

  • Plan flexibly and play music organically that follows a suitable energy curve

  • Spike the energy curve ocassionaly to refresh the dance palette

  • Remember this is not Argentina - UK needs are different

  • Revere music from the golden era, but don't play it in isolation

  • Use tandas and cortinas if you don't know your audience

  • Music is communication - articulate yourself effectively

  • Use lyrics as well as music to kindle creative expression

  • Interject requests i.e. 'dance with a stranger' to change energy

  • Know your music, watch the floor!!!

  • Link music changes through rhythm, arrangement and instrumentation

  • Beware of sung tango that uses too much rubato i.e. Gardel

  • Play only the best of any genre

  • Choose nuevo and neotango music carefully

  • Never play requests per se - you control the dynamics

  • Never play a piece you have not previewed and assessed

Count Beats Like a DJ

The basic skill of the music deejay is to count beats by measures and notes. Most music, whether hip hop, house or drum and bass riffs, consists of four bar measures (rarely do DJ's deal with 3/4, 6/8 or 2/2 time songs). If you DJ in a loud club, no one should be able to hear you counting aloud, and it may help keep you from being distracted by club patrons and other outside influences.
  1. Start with quarter notes. As the music plays, count to yourself on the major song downbeats like this: 1, 2, 3, 4. On most house and hip hop records, the bass drops on the one and three counts and the snare kicks in on the 2 and 4 beats.

  2. Break down the song into eighth notes. These notes count both the major song downbeats and the beats halfway between them. Count eighth notes like this: 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and.

  3. Dissect songs further into sixteenth notes. These extremely quick notes constitute 4 quarter notes and count off as follows: 1 e and ah, 2 e and ah, 3 e and ah, 4 e and ah.

  4. Count aloud to yourself. Beginners especially should use this technique to learn the rhythms and nuances of most song styles. Counting aloud helps with timing and beat focusing, which leads to more advanced techniques such as song mixing and record scratching.

  5. Consider taking music lessons. Most musical knowledge gleaned from playing an instrument such as the piano or guitar translates to increased skills as a DJ.

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Comment on this post

Gemel Sobers 12/01/2009 17:39

So much about democracy is little understood in Modern American culture, that it takes a community-level discussion to reveal the basic patterns. The following may seem obvious, but really, we
don't think about it or talk about it much.

Democracy happens even without voting, to varying degrees. -- when you're a DJ at a regular milonga, some 10% of the crowd is very vocal about music. But the rest vote with their feet. They're
either dancing, or they aren't. They're having a good time, or they're sulking. Sometimes that has to do with the music, and sometimes it doesn't, so you have to get to know a crowd over time. But
when you do, the crowd has essentially voted on the musical format.

Don't change my vote unless I tell you to. -- A vocal dancer recently let me know that his tastes had changed, and that certain kinds of alternative music really added spice to the evening for him.
He was changing his vote.

Given over two years of this kind of voting at The Tango Center, as we embark on using a computer tool to poll ranges of musical percentages for an evening, we have to make sure (A) that these
opinions get recorded and (B) that we don't move them around ... you vote once, until you change your vote. Oregon voters continually have to vote down a sales tax forwarded them by the State
legislature. We have the opportunity, electronically, to let someone's vote stand until known otherwise.

Why are we embarking on this exercise in electronic voting? Partly because we want to see if it's a useful tool, something that could be used for weightier matters, outside of the Tango world. But,
also, we have two major Tango extravaganzas a week, and many smaller ones ... so many people are involved, and the population is so much in flux, that there needs to be a community memory. We're
loading that community memory with pertinent community opinion.

Joris 12/01/2009 17:36


Here are some DJ basics.

At the TC, we always start out with sets of Tango that are on the slow side, for the beginners' sake, with a steady beat but interesting enough for advanced dancers. The slow Di Sarli works well,
but so do appropriate pieces by Calo, Canaro, De Angelis, Orchesta Tipica Victor, etc. Using fast tangos to start will fail, miserably.

Inside of most tandas (there are always exceptions) it's important to build up, from slow-to-fast. Think of a tanda as a story, typically with a climax. Also, it's important to put the most
familiar or interesting songs at the beginning and at the end, to draw people onto the floor. Slow familiar songs at the start of a Tanda are always a good idea. But, super-exciting songs (Donato's
El Huracan comes to mind) can also launch a tanda.

The tanda size that works best is three or four songs ... almost always of the same type of music (same band, same era, and of course, all Tango, all Vals or all Milonga) ... a consistent number
(all three or all four) is more important than the actual number itself ... because people count songs. I always use four (except for milongas when I use three) but there's nothing wrong with three
in Tango and Vals sets, if you always use three ...

The classic overall tanda structure is usually:


... then repeat ... this works really well.

To keep things interesting, it's important to avoid songs within a tanda that sound identical ... sometimes a band (Tanturi is a good example) will record two songs that essentially use the same
rhythm, same tricks, the same key, the same singer, and a very similar melody. It's important to avoid putting those back-to-back! Also, you rarely want to play two covers of the same song near
each other in an evening. There are lots of great songs ...

Good luck!"

Suzan Hinds 12/01/2009 17:34

Usually I would want to start an evening with a few sets of tango, and slow-to-medium speed, but exciting in some way. Then a Vals set, then one or two Tango sets, then a Milonga set ... then
repeat. Approximately. Milonga sets are the only thing you can have too much of ... it depends on the number and energy of the crowd ... but this meta-structure works well.

Pablo 12/01/2009 17:29

The most important thing for a Tango DJ, is to contribute original work -- it's quite possible to be an average DJ by reading the above pages and copying Tandas, and using nothing else. It's
instructive to copy, but we need to do more, or our laziness will come across to the dancers. None of the above authors would recommend just copying - so, we go back to the albums, listen to as
much as possible, and find new approaches. We test them on the crowd, and we watch them carefully. Or else we don't develop a feel for the people on the floor.