I have had many conversations with people much more expert than me when it comes to playing tango music. I have had these conversations over more than 20 years. I now know a few things with confidence simply because after a lot of reading and talking about the music, the information you hear from many respected sources all seems to converge. Most everyone who knows much of anything agrees about the basics when it comes to tango music.
Most recently I had conversations with Felipe Martinez of the Bay Area, a highly respected tango teacher, dancer, and DJ. But what I say here does not begin with Felipe, he is just passing it on, modified by his understanding and sensibilities, and now mine. It is what any student of tango music and budding DJ would find to be true if he or she spoke with an expert with some small modifications between experts.
And then there are plenty of people who know little about the music and have plenty of opinions; they don’t necessarily agree and don’t necessarily play by the rules of the tradition. This to me is basically a type of pure naivety or it is arrogance. It is arrogance to imagine that ones naive creative inclinations are more valuable than the tradition. This is unfortunate. Keep in mind that tango is a meritocracy based upon expertise and the experts regarding DJing pretty much agree. I join them in this general view at least to the extent that I know it. It is as follows:
Play Music from the Golden Age of Tango
The Golden Age refers to the period between 1935 and 1955. The dance and the music grew into its full form by then. Tango was so popular then that the culture could support large orchestras, composers, and lyricists; a lot of recording; and live performances. There were intersections in Buenos Aires with dance halls on each corner, each supporting full orchestras, with hundreds of dancers in each hall. Concerts happened in stadiums too with thousands of dancers. To this day the recordings of orchestras from this period are the mainstay of dancers in Buenos Aires and around the world.
Play a 20/60/20 Proportion
The tradition of tango music played at a milonga is composed of music recorded during the Golden Age of Tango. It is played in sets of three or four songs, called tandas, separated by cortinas or curtains of about a minute in length. A cortina is decidedly not tango. 20/60/20 refers to the proportions of music played at a milonga in Felipe’s way of thinking. Sixty percent of the music is from the 40s, 20 percent from the late 30s, and 20 percent from the 50s.
Choose Music from the Music Pyramid
The big four orchestras are DiSarli, D’Arienzo, Troilo, and Pugliese, they are the greatest of the orchestras from the Golden Age. Most of the music played in the evening comes from these orchestras. It would be wrong to leave out any of these orchestras in a night of dancing. They are the base of the pyramid. Felipe said that these orchestras had so much music that is good to dance to that if you had a short milonga of two hours in length he might only pick from these orchestras.
Next comes orchestras such as D’Angelis, D’Agastino, Laurenz, Callo, Tanturi, Canaro, Fresedo; these are the second tier orchestras. Play these orchestras most after the big four.
And then there are third and fourth tiers and these orchestras are played much more rarely: like Donato, Demare, Firpo, Biagi, Lomuto, OTV, and others.
The details on DJing go on and I don’t want to get lost in them. But this is the general idea.
Emphasize Tango, Vals and Milonga are Secondary
This is a simple idea. The form of tango music is the substance of the evening. Vals and milonga are secondary music forms. In a short evening of dance the general structure is two tandas of tango followed by one tanda or vals, then two tandas of tango followed by a milonga set. In a long evening of dance you might have three or four tango tandas in a row before cutting to vals or milonga set.
Tandas generally are four songs in length when tango and three songs in length when vals or milonga.
The last thing I want to say about an evening of DJed music is that you want to create contrast. Play a slow tanda of Pugliese followed by a fast tanda of D’Arienzo. Play a heavily orchestrated tanda of D’Angelis followed by an old fashioned quarteto tanda of Canaro. Play a late set of DiSarli instrumentals from the fifties followed by an early set of D’Arienzos from the 30s.