Sunday, May 15, 2011

Musicians/DJ's killing tango, part 3

Musicians/DJ's:  What is the mission -- make us sit and listen or make us move?

As a recap from part one and two of "Musicians Killing Tango" the basic thesis was:

Musicians who forget the dancer kill the very music that they love.

This thesis was not my thesis. I just borrowed the idea from two Latin American musicians. Some musicians will cringe at this added thesis (which is my own) here in part three:

DJ's are proxy musicians, and as such they can be just as effective at killing the very music they love as musicians have through time.

DJ's, whether we like it or not, have taken over the role that too many musicians have abandoned -- keeping people dancing. However, DJ's are susceptible to falling in love with the music and forgetting the dancers just as much as musicians are susceptible.

Let's assume that great musicians and their proxies do an excellent job of working the crowd--sensing what the crowd wants and taking them there and beyond:  When to go slow, when to go fast, when to play to tradition, when to be an iconoclast, when to introduce a new dimension to the dancer.   This is the Art and Science of the true performer. We have all experienced this magical evening when musicians or their proxies make this happen.

When does the magic stop and why?
  • When musicians do not practice or do not know their stuff; when DJ's just don't do the work of getting a play list together that honors the musicians and dancers.  For example, the DJ plays the same songs more than once without even knowing it.  The worst example of this was a DJ who thought fast tangos were milongas.  To be a proxy musician means learning about la música de tango from good DJ's or local musician-tangueros.
  • When musicians get tired of their own "best hits" which the crowd is waiting for; when DJ's forget the dancers' favorites and start playing scratchy old tangos or a very cool bossa nova to which it is easy to dance.  What happened to di Sarli, did he go on a vacation in Brazil?   
  • When musicians do not understand the importance of the cortina for dancers;  when DJ's come up with their own bizarre ordering of songs that is their "signature," causing chaos on the floor (milonga/vals sets together or rarely playing a milonga); when DJ's do not follow the general idea of featuring one orchestra or composer at a time.  
  • When musicians play something that will catch everyone's attention so much that they will sit down waiting for the ballet dancers to appear because no trained dancer can follow the legato wanderings of the tempo; when DJ's have learned so much about music that now they are self-deputized musicologists playing artifacts for a "dancing music appreciation class" that sounded interesting while the DJ was in the hospital with a broken foot.  (See the Music Appreciation Assumption in part two.)  For example:  Why would you play a guitar-bandoneón duet at a milonga that does not have the power to go over the din of the milonga crowd?  It worked while bed-ridden in a hospital bed, but now the dancers are all visiting the snack table, hoping the next tanda will have the dance-power of an orchestra tipica.
  • When live musicians play so loud that dancers have to wear earplugs or suffer at least a small amount of hearing loss; when DJ's set up their equipment at ear level, blasting you every time you dance by one of two speakers.  Some DJ's play louder than any musical group would.  "Musician proxy" does not suggest trying to emulate the biggest mistakes that musicians make, hurting their own art. 
  • When musicians forget or even despise the dancer by demonstrating (for example) how one can tangoize a Bach fugue  (the Serious Music Assumption, mentioned in part 2);  when DJ's play this music just because it is "serious and deeply meaningful tango." 
  • When musicians play with poor equipment and distortion; when DJ's have poor equipment or do not know how to use good equipment.  The biggest DJ mistake in this area is a different sort of "distortion":  Using recordings which have poor fidelity to the musicians' performance.  What is the opposite of fidelity?  Infidelity (adultery).  DJ's who play music with low fidelity (just because it is cool to play that old record) are committing adultery!  :-)  And of course, they are living in their own world because they have (...OMG...) forgotten the dancer!
A good business plan for musicians and their proxies:
Let's forget about the "calling" of musicians and DJ's to make dancers happy.  Let's talk about just being successful in the music business.  Let's say that musicians want to play what moves their souls, and DJ's want to play what they most like.  Do your soul work at home and leave the public out of your search for real meaning.  We all really want you to find your Holy Grail (seriously), but this search is a a personal matter.  The art of playing music in public is to NOT forget the public.  A great business plan is to nurture and develop this skill and present music as an art to the public and all the while feeding your own soul.  That is truly an art all by itself.  Picasso did this.  He did not have to die to become famous and all the while do what he wanted.

Isn't it clear now?  Musicians and DJ's who truly love their music will never forget the dancer.


  1. What a breath of fresh air. Thank you for this post (and the last two as well).
    I wrote about this last month after some fellow tangueros visited a milonga where the tandas were constructed with a tango, milonga, & vals and very odd cortinas...yikes.

  2. @Kirra: I am glad you put a link to your post on this subject. I went to your blog. What a great DJ photo and well-written ideas on this subject!

  3. Hi Mark

    This series is just great.. And it needs to be said... I hope there are Musicians & DJ's reading !

    Here are some of my thoughts on this subject.

    A lot of the music DJ's present is 1920-50's tango music recorded on early poor quality recording equipment ...And some of the music is itself not that good. Not all the Classical era music was good. And now maybe such music should be put to bed. There is one particular milonga I attend sometimes. Even when it's good it take a lot of getting used to, In fact it takes the skill of 'hearing in the head what is missing from the recording'..... And many folk simply don't get that far... They drift off away & give up on what I think is the most beautiful & meaningful dance..

    And this leads tango into a cul de sac. Think Tango, Think niche! are the words in a recent tango newletter here in Oz...Could this be a self fullfilling prophecy? Helping to kill tango for many folk who would otherwise be in there dancing?

    A second aspect is that many DJ's just stick to the old orquestras and their recordings.. And completely ignore the new bands that are now emerging playing new arrangements of old music and new tango music as well.. Think Milanguando in the USA. Think GOTAN in France, or Color Tango in Argentina. Such orquestras are rare; and the rewards are low because we do not appreciate and want to pay to hear them....And we cheat musicians of a living by getting hold of computer generated copies....

    And that kills tango too.

    An Oz tanguero

  4. The relationship between the DJ and the dancers is like leading and following writ large. The DJ creates an energy then fine tunes it according to the crowd's response.

    However, at a recent Washington, DC area milonga, the DJ completely ignored the dancers' response. He played a tanda of unusual music and the dancers all sat down. Instead of reading this response and changing the next tanda, the DJ played ANOTHER tanda of odd music! People started going home.

  5. You are totally right about the importance of DJ work at a milonga today and there is lot of knowledge and skill needed for a good milonga night as you have formed it aboved.

    But there is difficulties if the rules are run too effectively. We have here got situation where DJ newcomers have nearly no chance to access the mixer board. There has also been restrictions what music can be played and the variety is lost. People with need for clear and simple music leaves the milonga with loud complaints and that DJ is not allowed/he want not to come back again.

    During my first years I noticed the importance (for me)of from which direction the DJ was coming to the mixer board. That time the most appreciated DJs could not inspire me to dance all the night; their music was too academic for me. Only the dancers without musical education choosed songs ful of life and rhythms keeping me on the floor to the end! To day it is not so important!

  6. Tangotherapist, you're spot on about the huge responsibility which sits on the shoulders of the DJ.

    I feel we must also remember the educative role of the DJ to nourish the musical tastes of the dancers, particularly in a young tango community. Sadly, when DJs feed the dancers unacceptable musical choices such as you described, the inexperienced, impressionable dancers will assume that it is normal. That they should dance to that music. So if the music hasn't turned them off dancing tango and resulted in them leaving, they will happily get up and dance with no discrimination (perhaps I should rephrase that and say "go through the motions").

    What feedback does the offending DJ get? Well, people are on the dance-floor, aren't they? So they think that their music must be good.

    And so the vicious cycle continues.

    What can be done to remedy such dysfunctional milongas? My partner and I vote with our feet, not getting up to dance, or more often nowadays, simply avoiding those milongas.


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