How big does a DJ’s music library need to be to provide good music for social dancing?
Assuming that we are talking about tango dance music (including tango, vals and milonga) from roughly the late 1920s to the mid-1950s, the periods known as the guardia vieja and epoca de oro (the old guard and the golden age), then which orchestras are the most important / most heard? Are some more important than others? Which singers? Which songs?
I got to thinking about how someone might start to build a personal music library with a view to acting as a tango DJ now and again (or just for personal enjoyment or study). For many years, the dominant music carrier format has been the compact disc, and the obvious thing to do used to be to buy some CDs – but which ones? Discs are typically quite broad in their range of content, but you might be wanting four well-matched songs from a particular orchestra & singer, all recorded in a narrow time period. You soon find that you have to buy quite a few discs to collect the music you want, or alternatively, that the range of music you can play is constrained by the content of your small collection.
But increasingly CDs are disappearing from the scene (I haven’t bought one for several years) and we are turning to downloading music from online music stores like iTunes or Amazon instead. Sometimes, the quality to be found is the best available, but typically, the bitrate of the files is well-below the standard of a CD, although there are specialist suppliers who supply tango music in better fidelity. The big advantage of buying music downloads is that you can select just the songs you want, and not have to buy twenty to get the eight you can use.
So, if you were starting from scratch, and wanted to build a basic library that would provide material for putting songs together in tandas (groups of three or four songs, usually by the same orchestra and sharing a style or mood), what would you buy? Think of a typical dance event: a milonga or tea dance lasting around four hours. Most DJs play tango tandas with four songs, and vals and milonga tandas with three songs, and they are combined in groups in the order TTVTTM, with each cycle lasting just over an hour. Each cycle requires sixteen tangos, three valses and three milongas. If the event has, say, four TTVTTM cycles, then the absolute minimum requirement will be for 64 tangos, 12 each of valses and milongas – 88 in all. Round things up, a bit, and you might be able to make a start with a library of as few as 100 songs, as long as they were carefully chosen.
If you were going to DJ as a one-off, that ‘starter collection’ would be fine; but what about your next event, and the one after that? So I thought about defining a starter collection that would provide opportunities to combine songs in different ways and enable a DJ to play for several (probably lots) of events without the dancers getting fed up by the frequency with which any particular song was being heard. Two hundred and fifty songs seemed like a good number. It would allow a good range of orchestras / singers / periods but still be a ‘small’ collection. Later, the library could easily be extended, but for now, what should go in it?
The answer is that there is no obvious or right answer: it is a matter of judgement or taste. Some DJs delight in playing unknown music that they have ‘discovered’ (let’s call them ‘hidden gems’), and others play ‘greatest hits’ all night. In between those two extremes is a quite large repertoire of what could be termed ‘mainstream’ music that will be at least familiar to the majority of discerning dancers. In a small collection, there really isn’t room for much lesser-known repertoire, and every song has to earn its place.
Many would agree that some orchestras are more significant or important than others. Many (not all) would recognise that the orchestras of Juan D’Arienzo, Carlos Di Sarli, Aníbal Troilo and Osvaldo Pugliese are in the top league. Each produced extensive catalogues of recordings of the very highest quality for dancing and worked with some of the finest singers of their time. After them, a second group of orchestras also produced music of very high quality, and are very frequently heard at tango dance events everywhere. Here’s a suggested list, but there is room for the odd addition or substitution – it’s a matter of judgment and taste, after all: Biagi, Caló, Canaro, D’Agostino, De Angelis, Demare, Donato, Fresedo, Laurenz, Lomuto, Orquesta Típica Victor, Rodríguez and Tanturi.
Out of 250 songs, I am looking for a balanced collection; and an obvious thing to get right is the ratio of tango, vals and milonga songs in order to be able to compile cycles of tandas. A bit of simple arithmetic (and some rounding) gives me a target of 45 tango tandas (180 songs) and 23 tandas divided between vals and milonga (69 songs). That’s 249, so there’s room for a recording of La Cumparsita.
Looking at the tango repertoire first (different orchestras had different strengths, and the vals and milonga balance might be different), I decided that the ‘Big Four’ (D’Arienzo, Di Sarli, Troilo & Pugliese) should get significant representation, even in a small collection, and I decided to allocate 45% of the total between them: 20 tandas (80 songs). It would be very easy just to allocate each orchestra 5 tandas, but I believe that D’Arienzo and Di Sarli are more important / more regularly played than the other two, so I have allocated them 6 tandas each, and then 5 to Troilo and 3 to Pugliese.
I have 25 tandas remaining, and have allocated two each to the other orchestras, except Lomuto, who gets one + La Cumparsita.
With a much smaller number of vals and milonga tandas, not every orchestra is represented in each genre, but a minority (for whom vals or milonga was a particular strength) appear more than once.
So that’s the scope of the ‘Tango 250’ collection and the next article in this series will introduce the first eight songs arranged in two tango tandas.
But here’s that 250th song: Lomuto’s 1936 La Cumparsita. A wonderful well-paced arrangement opening with pizzicato strings and followed by virtuoso playing from the bandoneons. A fitting end to any milonga.