The Music of Argentine Tango:
An Overview for Dancers
For the next few months I will be writing about tango music. In so doing, I hope to give you — dear developing tango dancer — an overview and understanding of the history and character of tango music. I don’t just want you to simply know about it, I also want to give you an opportunity to explore it with your body and with movement so that you continue to develop your feeling for the dance.
I will be writing about the music and also providing songs for you to listen to. They will give you a survey of the great songs that cover the range of what you would hear at a milonga (a dance hall). Listen to each song a lot. Listen anywhere from 10 times to 1,000 times. You know you’ve heard it enough when you wake up the next morning and you can’t get the tune out of your head. The songs need to become familiar to you. To dance well to tango music you have to recognize the song you are dancing to. You need to know the tune so your body knows what is coming and wants to express it.
Move to the songs. Tango is a walk. Your footfalls are like a percussive instrument. When you listen to these songs walk around. Make your footfalls fit the beats and accents of the music. In our video sessions we’ll go over an array of ways for you to move rhythmically.
Part 1: The Origins
The music of the Argentine tango forms along side of the dance. It coalesces within the dense cultural stew of immigrants and the poor in neighborhoods in and around the center of Buenos Aires. This is underway in the latter part of the 19th century.
The enforced migration of Africans into brutal slavery in the Americas in the 16th to 19th centuries had a wholly unforeseen consequence: the cross-pollination of the musical culture of America and Europe with that of Africa. This fertilization gave rise to the three great musics of the 20th century. . . . In North America, the result was blues, jazz, and swing. . . . In the Caribbean, it produced (amongst other rhythms) the son montuno, from which developed mambo and later salsa. . . . In Argentina, it was the tango. (Michael Lavocah in Tango Stories)
Just as the dance was coming together as a new and unique art form, so too was the music.
The oldest ‘creole tangos’ to have survived, all written in the 1880s, still have much of the milonga or the tango andaluz in them, and this was to remain true for many ‘tangos’ until the music acquired definitive shape and form after 1910. (Simon Collier in Tango)
The music and the dance continue to expand in popularity after 1920. Many small groups of musicians play in dance halls, clubs, and on the street. The early years of tango music was played by solo musicians, maybe a singer with a guitar; or a trio with violins, bass, and piano; or later still, quartets and sextets with with one or two bandoneons (think a small boxy buttoned, not keyed, accordion). Once the bandoneon is added, then the sound of tango is complete.
Listen 1: (Just listen once.) This is Carlos Gardel singing while playing guitar. I am not sure how many guitars there are, maybe two others. But the sound is very reminiscent of the sound of street musicians from the 20s, singing and accompanying on guitar. The song is Yira Yira (translated as “Round and Round”), written by the famous songwriter, Enrique Discépolo. The year is 1931.
Listen 2: DJs occasionally play music from the late 20s and early 30s. I do. These are songs played in the old style of quartets, quintets, and sextets. They have a very old sound. They are relatively slow and the beat is constant. This is a great song. The orchestra is Francisco Lomuto’s. The song is Soy Un Arlequín, also written by Discépolo. And the singer is Charlo. It’s from 1929.
Part 2: The Orchestras of Tango
There were reportedly hundreds of tango orchestras in the first five decades of the tango. Many of them recorded music (I am not sure how many.) But these days tango DJs play about 20 to 30 orchestras in an evening.
It is helpful to divide the orchestras into three groups. The big four: D’Arienzo, Di Sarli, Troilo, and Pugliese. And the second tier (not second best) including Biagi, Calo, Canaro, D’Agastino, D’Angelis, Demare, Donato, Fresedo, Lomuto, Laurenz, OTV (Orquesta Tipica Victor), Rodriguez, and Tanturi. (More about the big four later.) The third tier is composed by lesser known orchestras that may be great, but maybe they just did not make enough good dance music. The preference is also cultural. So as a foreigner, and a student of tango, I let the cultural tradition guide me.
Many of the orchestras had long lives. They went through different sounds and periods in their music often with different orchestra cast members and different singers. So you could easily multiply my list of 17 above by a factor of three or four and end up with fifty to a hundred different musical groups with different sounds.
Besides these 17 orchestras, I might play music from a few other orchestras in a three or four hour evening of dancing. But maybe not. This group of 17 orchestras has so much good music in their repertoire, and we dance so infrequently in Cincinnati, it is important to become familiar with the core of tango music.
A tango dancer can dance to a lot of different styles of music (called “non-tangos”), but that is not the same as dancing to this music, the music that was created for the dancers. There were so many dancers in the Golden Age of tango (1935 to 1955) that many musicians, orchestras, composers, and songwriters could make a good living by being responsive to their audience of dancers. They competed with each other for audience. It is one of the rare times in human history that music and dance and music for dance developed together (another time is the big band era of swing music here in the United States).
More importantly, the dance is improvisational and your ability to dance improvisationally depends on you being deeply familiar with the music. Tango is, they say, “a feeling that is danced.” We Non-Argentines really have to hear the music a lot to feel it and love it and respond to it with our bodies in a beautiful and emotional way.
Part 3. The Golden Age
The Golden Age of Tango, as it is most commonly designated, begins in 1935, which was the 400th year anniversary of Argentina. At that time, Argentina was one of the most prosperous nations in the world. And it ends in 1955 with the military coup that overthrew the government of Juan Perón.
The beginning of the Golden Age corresponds with the formation of Juan D’Arienzo’s orchestra in 1935. Juan D’Arienzo’s orquestra existed before 1935, but in that year the famous pianist Rudolfo Biagi joined the orchestra. Without question, Juan D’Arienzo’s orchestra was the most popular orchestra of all time. It is possibly the most rhythmical and most energetic of all tango orchestras.
Listen 3: El Flete. (Impossible to translate well.) A Juan D’Arienzo instrumental from 1936. It includes the great Rudolfo Biagi on piano (who later started his own orchestra).
Listen 4: Pensalo Bien (Think Carefully or Think it Through) from 1938. This song features D’Arienzo’s most famous singer Alberto Echaqüe.
Music from Week 1:
Carlos Di Sarli instrumentals from 1954 to 1958
Carlos Di Sarli is possibly the most famous and most loved orchestra from the Golden Age of tango. His first recordings are from 1928 and his last are from 1958. He died at the age of 57 in 1960.
When DJs play tango music, we play it in sets, called tandas, generally of three songs for vals and milonga and four songs for tango. When we design a tanda we choose music from a particular orchestra with a particular singer (or could be instrumentals) from the same period and with the same sound.
I play music from Di Sarli’s orchestra from six or seven different periods. Di Sarli’s early orchestra music has a relatively quick tempo. But even here the melody is dominant. In his later music the melody gets even more expressive as the tempo slows. The thing that remains constant throughout is the importance of the violins; they often soar above the mercado (the beat). And you can always hear Di Sarli's distinctive piano stylings.
These songs are from his latest period. They are instrumentals recorded between 1954 and 1958. His orchestra at that time had six violins and three bandoneons, the tempo is very slow, and Di Sarli sparkles on piano.
Music from Week 2:
Tango Music from the Formative Stage
Early in the 1920s the first electric sound recordings were made. They used microphones that sent amplified electric signals to recording devices. As far as I know, the first electric recordings of
tango were made in 1927.
I consider this period of tango music the formative stage of tango. It goes from 1927 to 1935. Much of the music from this period is simple, more predictable, and easier to understand than later, more complex music. The tempo is even and easy for dancers. The rhythms above the tempo are accessible. The best songs from this period — in my opinion — have beautiful and sweet melodies. They can also be surprising and innovative. This music is great for newer dancers to listen to and move to. And it is also satisfying for more advanced dancers as well.
Here are three of my favorite songs from this period. They are from three different orchestras. The first is Una Noche en la Calle by Orchestra Tipica Victor with Roberto Diaz singing, recorded in 1929. The second song is from Osvaldo Fresedo’s orchestra, Llevtelo Todo, with Ernesto Famá singing. It was recorded in 1928. And the third is Guapito recorded by Francisco Lomuto and his orchestra in 1928.
Coming — More about the music of the Golden Age