A machine could do it better

I go to tango events and I’m frequently disappointed by the music offered. People go to dance events for all sorts of reasons, but for me, the music has primacy: it is the one thing that has to be good, or I won’t enjoy the event, regardless of any alternative factors.

People who are new to dancing tango and unfamiliar with its musical heritage don’t really understand why keen dancers (of a certain persuasion – it is by no means universal) so value the recorded music of what we call the Golden Age. They haven’t explored its richness, nor yet discovered why it is so very good for dancing. Many others, who have been dancing for some time, seem to be almost indifferent about the music that is played for dancing – which baffles me. Others still, actually dislike ‘traditional’ tango music, and prefer more contemporary fare. On the latter option, I have really nothing to say: if you like it, fine, but it holds no appeal for me.

Opinions vary over exactly when the Golden Age was and which are the ‘best’ orchestras. The period 1935-55 is frequently cited. It begins with the recording debut of D’Arienzo’s orchestra and ends with the political upheavals surrounding the fall of the Perón government. Of course, danceable tango was recorded both before 1935 and after 1955, but you have to be highly selective about it.

DJ David Thomas’ recently published book Getting to know: Twenty Tango Orchestras surveys twenty popular orchestras and their contribution to the traditional tango mainstream. It is easy to quibble over whether he chose the ‘right’ twenty orchestras (Malerba?), but it’s a good read and well worth seeking out. His main premise is that the featured orchestras belong to one of four main groups:

  • Simple: Canaro, Lomuto, Donato, OTV, Firpo
  • Rhythmic: D’Arienzo, Biagi, Tanturi, Rodriguez, Malerba
  • Lyrical: Fresedo, Di Sarli, Calo, Demare, D’Agostino, De Angelis
  • Complex: De Caro, Laurenz, Pugliese & Troilo

You could come up with a different list of groupings, and different member orchestras, but the principle is sound. The function of the tango DJ is to provide good dance music. Each major orchestra had a distinctive style or sound, and the orchestras changed over time too; so a key role of the tango DJ is to present the music of the great orchestras in some sort of balance between styles and periods to give dancers varied and interesting music for social dancing.

It is easy to play music that all sounds very much the same: too much rhythmic or dramatic music, tanda after tanda, can create conditions for dancing where good floorcraft falls victim to over-excitement (and the risk of fatigue). Lots of ‘early’ music may send the majority to sleep; and too much of the lyrical or romantic repertoire can sap the dancers’ energy. What works best is to have a healthy balance between the different time periods and musical styles. My preference is for a set that takes about 70% of its content from recordings made in the decade from 1935, with about 10% carefully chosen from earlier recordings, and the remaining 20% even more carefully chosen from 1945 onwards. The ‘late’ repertoire is the most difficult to select, as much of it is not really suited to social dancing.

Some event organisers and their DJs believe that the time span of a tango event should be marked by music in a certain shape (or ‘arc’). The musical selections are constructed to build to one or more climaxes in energy or emotion. The music ebbs and flows in slow waves and the dancers respond as a group. I don’t like that approach: it amounts to manipulation or control, and may not suit anyone that arrives late or leaves early. However, it’s true that certain orchestras are more suitable as people are arriving and beginning to dance for the first time, while others might be preferred much later in the event. That creates a very rudimentary ‘shape’ to a set, but not in the micro-managed form that I dislike.

Allowing for my ‘warm-up’ tandas (and that emphatically doesn’t mean playing 2nd rate music, because there are not yet enough dancers to waste 1st rate music), I’d far rather the DJ chose music that presented a series of contrasts and variety throughout. Not jarring and inappropriate juxtapositions of music that feel abrupt or wrong, but a careful progression from one orchestra to another, and through the different styles and periods. Over several consecutive tandas, I like to hear most of the main styles/periods represented, with a focus on the great recordings of the best orchestras. I like the occasional departure, or challenge. I quite like dancing to music I don’t know, either very well or at all – but only now and again, not all the time. A tanda by a relatively little-known orchestra (particularly if it is flanked by much better-known fare) can be just right, and helps me (and everyone else) to get to know a wider repertoire; but I don’t much like to hear a DJ’s ‘specials’ (and I really don’t care how much money was spent on that Japanese import CD). If the DJ has ‘discovered’ an obscure orchestra, or is playing strange repertoire unheard elsewhere, there is a very high chance that the music is not very good for dancing.

I would far rather the DJ worked with a limited repertoire, perhaps drawing on just a few hundred songs, from the major orchestras only, and for each, choosing just from that orchestra’s ‘best’ periods and ‘best’ singers. If DJs could/would give us ‘just’ 1st rate music from the top orchestras, we would have consistently better music than is too frequently offered, and the standard of dancing would improve, and over time, dancers’ discernment would increase. Yes, there is wonderful dance music to be found by doubling the size of a collection, but every time you increase your library, your experience and judgment has to grow too, or you add the wrong repertoire and dilute the quality of the music that you ultimately play.

Many radio stations use software to choose their playlists. The available library of material has been carefully classified in a specially designed database, using a whole range of parameters. Each programme has a profile, starting with a duration, and defining the intended ‘mix’ of music as a combination of the defined parameters. The software ‘chooses’ material to suit, so that a cross-section of the library is played across a series of programmes. ‘Classic FM’ is an obvious example of this type of programming. A series of announcers ‘front’ each programme, but the computer is actually running the show.

If the tango repertoire came suitably tagged with the right range of parameters, the software that schedules Classic FM’s music would probably do a better job than many of the DJs I hear. I make no exception for the ‘big name’ DJs that are supposed to be a draw (and that organisers make such a fuss over). By and large, my ears tell me that many are phoney charlatans. They choose 2nd rate repertoire to be ‘different’, rather than playing 1st rate music that delights. They rarely seem to be sufficiently on top of their soundcraft to manage the relative replay volumes from one song to the next, and they have usually spent too much time choosing intrusive and inappropriate cortinas – time which would have been better spent getting to know their tango library better. But the actual tandas that they construct are frequently poor. They haven’t given us three or four songs that sit together as a coherent group, and which draw us deeper and deeper into the music and into the dance. Instead, they are drawing attention to themselves by novelty and by juxtaposition. If they play something whacky enough, someone will start to clap. Applause at a DJs selection (except at the very end and out of appreciation) is one of the more reliable indicators of crap DJing for a gullible audience. I am the small boy in the corner who observes that the Emperor has no clothes – and I don’t much care that my views ruffle a few feathers in the rather precious tango world.

There’s ultimately no substitute for good judgment in choosing what music to play for dancing. I use clear principles in deciding what to play. I have a list of orchestras that I like to include, and look to achieve a certain balance between the different orchestras, styles and periods. I aim for a fairly consistent ratio between sung and instrumental tandas. My own selections are not driven by Thomas’ groupings of simple, rhythmical, lyrical and complex – my own groupings include more parameters – but I rarely play consecutive tandas by orchestras in the same group, and I rarely play consecutive tandas from quite the same time period (although the early 40s are very crowded, and the same time period can sometimes be just a few months long). I hope I make better selections than a machine would, but I hear many odd choices being made by others.

I frequently wonder just what a DJ is trying to achieve, when I’ve sat for an hour, and heard nothing that makes me want to dance. There’s so much good dance music, that it seems perverse to play some of the stuff I hear regularly. Perhaps DJs should need to be licensed.