The educated Tanguero

Essential Tango Knowledge

Tango DJing 1.1: El Código de Milonga


Milonga, Music and the DJ (playing music for Tango dancers)

OK, folks, you have practiced your tango steps, bought lots of tango music, know all the important orchestras and visited the important Milongas in BsAs. Now you are asked to make music for your local Milonga. Who could be more suitable than you to DJ ?
Unfortunately, there are some things to know before you enter the DJ booth. Some of them are purely technical, some things are just tango trivia and some things you will only learn by doing. So let´s start with a little series of articles that deal with Tango DJing.

For a good Milonga (this is a formal dance event for Tango dancers), providing good music is of utmost importance. Dancers should be happy and enjoy the evening and music is the element that keeps the whole thing going. So a DJ (or in some fortunate places an orchestra) is the second most important person (besides your beloved dance partner). A DJ should know about the structures of a Milonga, should use the music as an instrument to get people to the dance floor and should play songs in a well structured way, adjusted to the situation on the dance floor. So in terms of music the Milonga is highly structured and choreographed. This leads directly to the question about the structure of a Milonga.

The Milonga
A Milonga is a very traditional dance event. Most people in the world try to do that the traditional way of the original Buenos Aires Milongas. For this, the music is structured in Tandas, which are packages of 2-5 musical pieces. Tandas are separated with Cortinas, short musical pieces of NonTango music indicating the end of a Tanda. This makes perfectly sense, because dancers usually want to dance a couple of songs together and then separate to break or dance again with other partners. For this system, the DJ is responsible to choose the songs for a Tanda and the song for the Cortina. Songs for a Tanda should fit together in terms of style, speed and tension. Dancers really dislike to start f.e. with a sensual di Sarli song and end up with a Neotango. That is due to the fact that dancers sometimes choose their partners according to the music and the expected dance style. So as a DJ you have to make the music reliable and foreseeable. The Tanda should have the right length and the songs should have a decent start and end. Tandas of three to 4 Tangos are usual, alternatively we may choose 2-3 Milongas or Valses. For special musical styles this may be altered (f.i. some Neotangos are very long, so there a Tanda of 2 pieces may be justified). A Cortina is usually a sample from a song not danceable and not related to Tango. It is a matter of taste whether a DJ plays Cortinas at all and whether he changes the Cortina during a milonga. Some DJs use the Cortina to indicate the next Tanda (f.i. by announcing 3 Valses as the next Tanda), some don’t like the Cortina/Tanda system at all. I personally like to have a well known Cortina which is really not danceable and keep this for the whole Milonga.
Picking the right songs for a Tanda is an art and matter of personal taste. Generally it is advised not to change orchestras (this would be called a mixed Tanda) and stay in the same musical style (yes, traditional tango orchestras sometimes change their style when they develop) and interpretation (purely instrumental or with a singer). Some DJs just play songs from the same orchestra, the same singer and even the same recording session. We will talk about the art of Tanda creation later in this series.

Picture 1: Local Milonga in Cairns

In a Milonga there are some traditions to accept. One is that the last song is generally “La Cumparsita”, which should not be played during the Milonga. Sometimes, the last Tanda is only “La Cumparsita”, so everybody will know, that this is the last Tanda (which many people reserve for very special dance partners). In my Milongas, the last song of this tanda is always the version of Carlos Gardel, just to memorize this great tango singer. Again, everybody will know, that this is the last song. Depending on time and heat on the dancefloor, the last Tanda can be anything between 2 and more than 6 songs, which a good DJ normally adjusts to the situation on the dancefloor.
There are some other rules (Códigos) and superstitions in traditional Milongas. So it is considered bad luck to play “Adios muchachos” (the last song Gardel has played). Pieces of Gardel are generally not played during the Milonga with only one exception. In BsAs Milongas, Tandas of Rock&Roll, Swing, Salsa or other NonTango Music are usual (or sometimes requested). Some people think it is not a good idea to play Piazzolla music, because this music never was intended to be danced to. That may have changed, because the dance has changed significantly during the last 50 years. Anyway, I do not play Piazzolla in very traditional Milongas. Another rumour is that in BsAs no songs of female singers are played, which is not true to my knowledge and would absolutely ignore the contributions of many very important female singers.
The overall music style is depending on the dancers. There are lots of people who like the very traditional style of Golden Age, other people are addicted to Neotango or more contemporary Tangos like Orquesta Tipica Fernandez Fierro. Generally, it is the job of the DJ to prepare a mix for everybody. I personally try to let people know beforehand what mix they have to expect (f.i.: 50% Golden Age, 20%Contemporary, 20%Neotango, 10% NonTango). This may be adjusted to the type of Milonga or the request of the organizer. Playing NonTango music can send the people towards the dancefloor like mad or let people leave the Milonga at once and completely disappointed. So I personally am really careful with Nuevo and NonTango music (and I know, it is difficult to tell, what may be called a Tango or not). There is a certain difference between a NonTango song expecting the dancers to dance a Tango or a Tanda of hot Salsas to push up the crowd close to the end of a Milonga.

Picture 2: Milonga in Buenos Aires

People want to enjoy the dancing. So it is important for a DJ to play songs that are well known and absolutely danceable. Playing frequently “Poema”, “El Flete” or “Lagrimas y Sonrisas” is not because the DJ is lazy or because these are absolutely fabulous tunes, it is because people know them and they like to dance them. So a DJ has to find a good balance between evergreens and the ones from the 10 new CDs he just got from Buenos Aires. DJing means to serve the dancers and not to display the musical taste of the DJ.

The DJ
The job of a DJ is to get people to the dance floor. This means the DJ has to look carefully what happens. Interestingly, there is something, DJs call tension. If there are few people on the dancefloor, tension is low, if absolutely everybody is dancing, the tension is high. A good DJ can play with the tension and send the people to the floor by increasing the tension. After high tension, people want to break and recreate. That means, a milonga can´t always increase the tension to the end. Tension is created in waves and this can be controlled and constructed by the DJ and his choice of music. We will later discuss how to play with that.
Again, there are different styles of DJing. Some DJs play purely according to the situation, some DJs like to choreograph the Milonga and only adjust that to the needs of the moment. Some DJs change the style of Tandas apruptly to create surprise, some DJs want smooth transitions between different flavours.
I personally like to choreograph the Milonga. If I have to play for 3 hours, I have an organized playlist ready for exactly this timeframe, so normally, if the Milonga is scheduled to end at 11PM, the last guitar chord of Gardel´s “La Cumparsita” will sound at 11 sharp (plus/minus 1 minute).
To conclude here, the DJ not only puts CDs in the player, he is the master of the milonga and thus he has a lot of influence and responsibility. A whole Milonga can be ruined by bad music. A DJ has to be a specialist for tango music with good taste. He also has to educate tango dancers about good music just by playing purely good music. So again, the DJ is the (second)most important person at a Milonga.
So what is a DJ ? Just someone who plays the Music. This can be anything between a club member who just puts in his favourite Tango CD for the Practica or a professional DJ who plays for 100+ people and earns money. In terms of money, do not expect to make lots of money out of DJing. Generally, most of the Tango DJs play just to serve the community or for a meal and some drinks. For big events you may expect some $$ as a compensation, but generally the fee is just a few $, which may not contribute very much to make your living. Anyway, if you are a paid professional DJ, you are expected to bring a lot of professional equipment and deliver a professional show. In this situation it is absolutely unprofessional to just let the playlist run on auto cruise.

The next article will deal with hardware and software, more practical aspects of DJing.

Sincerely, your Tango DJ,

-Richard (DJ Ricardo)


Leave a Reply