Saturday, November 12, 2011

Wanted: Tango Percussionists

One example of using one's feet for percussion.

The word tangolike he word milonga, can mean several things.   Tango once meant a drum or a place where blacks would meet and dance to the drum beat.  Tango is still that.  But where are the percussionists now?  Every instrument in tango is used as a percussion instrument.  Name one that is not!

Okay, give up?  Every instrument is used at times in a tango orchestra to slap out a rhythm.  The string section tends to use the handle or back of their bow to do it.  Everyone else uses their hands except the pianist to tap on their instruments.  The piano itself is, of course, a percussion instrument because the strings are struck with hammers.  That accounts for all the percussionists, right?  No!

There are some percussionists who are often not recognized in the orchestra:

You are that percussionist in the tango orchestra!  A dancer is a percussionist, and the floor and partner is his or her instrument.  I do not mean this in a poetic way.  This is literally true.  Anyone striking any object to create or play along with music is a percussionist.

I invite you to stop dancing and join the tango orchestra as a musician!

A good place to start is to stop taking classes on musicality -- well, not quite.  How about at least thinking about these classes as musicianship classes?   Musicality classes are for people who are trying to understand music as outsiders.  How about being a musician?  Be an insider -- a musician, not a dancer hoping to understand music from the outside!

Musicianship is not for advanced dancers.  It is for everyone, because in reality you and I are not "just" dancers if we are tangueros/-as.  I think it is too easy to be a sloppy musician if we do not really join the band.  Don't leave it up to the pianist or bandoneónista to be musical!  It's your job too!  That is, it's your job to be musical if you have dedicated yourself to join the orchestra as a tango percussionist.  Maybe it is not a conscious thing, but I think the best social dancers are percussionists.

As a jazz drummer, I played many different objects with both feet and hands (see the photo above).  As a tanguero, I use only my feet and legs.  I sweep (barridas), make grace notes (toe taps), and establish clear rhythms in synchronization to the music.  Besides the floor, there is my tanguera.  She bushes me, taps the side of my foot, scadas me, ganchos me.  We are the cello and violin playing each other.  As instruments of music, I am hers and she in mine as living, breathing instruments.

When I embrace another tango percussionist on the dance floor (a tanguera), I hope our goal will be to join the orchestra as musicians and not as dancers.  Anyone can get up and move, but can we embody the music as musicians?  I imagine that she and I have joined the orchestra as percussionists in the orquesta que no es típica.  The floor is our percussion instrument.  We do not dance to the music, we play in the orchestra.  

Won't you join the orchestra?  When we all join the orchestra, we become the community tango orchestra.  All the milonga spirits -- African diaspora slave musicians, European immigrant tango musicians and composers -- will be smiling.  If you have joined the orchestra, then you have come home to what tango started as.  Tango is a drum.  Be a tango percussionist and join the orchestra.

Photo credit:

Next blog:  As tango percussionists, we will explore why "percussion" technique has nothing to do with how good you look or how awesome you play.

Also planned:  Legato percussion -- tango percussion plays with and stretches time one moment and establishes the beat at another. This is what I call "time keeping" vs "lyrical percussion." It is important to know when to make these transitions within a song. And it is easy. It is not just the woman's job to be lyrical or the man's job to be the time keeper.


  1. Your comment about "Legato percussion" reminded me of a clip of Evelyn Glennie talking, amongst other things, about listening. It's here:

    Do you knmow it?

  2. "Every instrument in tango is used as a percussion instrument. Name one that is not!"

    Clarinet, trumpet, harp and (if you count it as an instrument) voice. Though indeed bandoneon and violin are sometimes played percussively.

    "A dancer is a percussionist, and the floor and partner is his or her instrument. ... This is literally true. ... Anyone striking any object to create or play along with music is a percussionist."

    I have to say I believe striking floor or partner is not a characteristic of good tango dancing.

    But I applaud your call for dancers to stop taking so-called musicality classes and start to join the orchestra. Bravo!

  3. @Chris... you bring up a good point about a few instruments we tend not to see very much; however, have you ever sat at a harp? The frame has a wonderful resonance as a percussion instrument. I can only speak for other Latin American bands, but many woodwind or brass players do indeed enjoy being percussionists at certain percussive interludes with a very "handy" percussion instrument (clapping). However, I concede these non-essential instruments are not played upon.

    The last live tango orchestra I saw had a trumpeter as the leader and he all wind musicians clapping out a canyenge rhythm.

    Regarding vocal cords: Vocalists could not join the musicians union in my city, but many joined as percussionists (tambourine, etc.).

    Regarding "striking":
    Have you ever seen a sweet ballad being played with brushes?

    If an alien from outer space came to a milonga, it is true they would not think of dancers as percussionists because for the most part dancers are not even on the pulse let alone demonstrating musicianship. Thus my point: Be a musician and maybe you could fool an alien that you were part of the orchestra. And the woman you are holding -- more than anyone else -- will be glad that you gave up dancing and asked her to join the orchestra with you.... as a percussionist. But yes, maybe I am being more poetic than I at first thought. I should have wrote it as a poem and you might have pulled out a guitar and starting singing a tango to my poem!

  4. TT, I agree about the harp, but I haven't heard that use in tango. And I agree about clapping... though you did ask about the instruments, rather than the instrumentalists.

    The nearest thing to percussion I encounter in the dancing itself is occsaionlly a kind of staccato accent in the embrace, from musical articulation that inspires it. Though it's not literally percussive (there's no strike) it is perhaps poetically percussive :). Maybe that's the kind of inaudible and invisible transmission that attracts your musical alien...


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